Hope Schrock had never met a bull she liked. This three-year-old Jersey eyeing her husband was no exception.
“Is he not a beauty?” Titus stood on the bottom rung of their board fence and admired the sleek, fawn-colored animal that the Englisch dairy farmer had delivered in his livestock truck. “He’ll make many strong calves. Dairy farmers from all over the county will be lining up to pay me for his stud services. His granddam sold for eighty-five thousand dollars at public auction.”
“Very impressive.” Hope wished Titus had chosen a different way to add to their income. “How much did he cost?”
Titus ignored her question. “His granddam was judged All-American Grand Champion. Owning this bull assures us of a prosperous future.”
The animal snorted, pawed the earth, and stared at Titus.
“I think he wants to eat you first.” Hope gripped the hands of five-year-old Carrie and four-year-old Adam to keep them far away from the fence. “How much did he cost?”
Titus laughed and jumped backward off the fence. He was as agile as a young buck. Then he picked up Carrie, grabbed Hope about the waist, and whirled her around in a forbidden
dance, giving her a quick kiss before he released her. Little Adam looked on, grinning at his father’s foolish behavior. Titus could act quite naddish sometimes.
“This bull will help us buy a real farm instead of these two acres we’re renting. We will build a wonderful herd of cows. In a few years we’ll have one of the most prosperous dairy farms in Holmes County.”
“Lord willing,” Hope amended.
“True,” Titus said. “Lord willing.”
She adjusted her prayer Kapp, which had gone awry from Titus whirling her around. He had always been more openly affectionate than most Old Order Amish and she was not sure what to do about it. She enjoyed being loved by her husband, but his delight in her was sometimes embarrassing.
Now, however, they were in their backyard, a private place, assuming their Englisch neighbor, Mr. Lemon, wasn’t looking out his window. The man did seem to spend an inordinate amount of time watching their comings and goings. She supposed it was because they were his first Amish neighbors. People did seem to stare.
Or Mr. Lemon might simply be lonely. They’d only just recently rented this place and hadn’t gotten settled in with neighbors yet. It had belonged to an Englisch couple who had gotten too old to be left on their own. Their son, who lived in Cleveland, was renting it to them. He’d already sold off all the land except for the two acres that included the house and the small barn.
She and Titus had disconnected the electricity and brought in a generator. All this was apparently fascinating to Mr. Lemon, who watched from his back porch—much like her people bird-watched.
“Be careful!” She glanced over her shoulder, worried. “Mr. Lemon might be watching.”
Titus smiled and laid a hand on her barely swelling stomach.
“With another babe on the way, Mr. Lemon might guess that your husband finds you irresistible.” He nuzzled Carrie’s creamy neck with his beard, making the little girl giggle.
“I am a blessed man,” he said. “It is no small thing to have a fine wife, two healthy children, another on the way, and a strong new bull in my pasture.”
Hope once again glanced at the animal. It had been shorn of its horns, but its massive neck and shoulders rippled with power. It was large for a Jersey. She guessed it to be nearing eighteen hundred pounds. Only a board fence separated them from all that simmering power.
“I do not like the looks of that animal,” she said. “He has a wildness in his eyes that worries me.”
“All bulls have wildness in their eyes,” he scoffed. “You can’t expect a bull to have eyes like a kitten.”
“I suppose not.” She hesitated, then asked, “How much did it cost?”
Yet again, her husband ignored her question. Whatever it had cost, she wished he had not purchased it. The feeling she got from the bull was malevolent in the extreme. She could almost feel its black thoughts focusing on Titus, and that frightened her. It was clear to her that the animal hated him.
“He’s turning his side to you,” she warned.
“And what does that matter?”
“My father taught me that bulls do that right before they attack.”
“To let you admire how big and powerful they are.”
“Oh, Hope.” He laughed. “I respect your father’s knowledge of livestock, but how could he possibly know—”
The bull charged.
Titus turned pale, and stood rooted to the spot with Carrie
in his arms. Hope screamed as the bull hit the top board with its massive head and bounced back, then shook the pain away and charged again.
“Oak.” Titus was visibly shaken. “Good, solid oak. It’ll hold.”
“Hold or not”—Hope grabbed Carrie out of his arms and strode toward the house, pulling Adam behind her—“I want you to call the man you bought him from and sell him back.”
“He won’t let me sell him back,” Titus called. “He gave me too good of a deal.”
“How good of a deal? What did you pay for that animal, Titus?” Once she’d deposited the children inside the house, she came back onto the porch and stood her ground. She was not going to stop asking until he told her.
Titus’s eyes did not quite meet hers. “Ten thousand dollars.”
The amount took her breath away. It was every dime they had to their name! It had taken her six frugal years to save that much.
“Then sell at a loss.” Hope’s teeth were practically chattering from fear. Jersey cows were known for their gentleness, but Jersey bulls could be crazy mean, and this one was off the charts. She would never have agreed to the purchase if Titus had told her what he was intending.
“Please, Titus. Get rid of that animal. I’m begging you.”
“He’ll settle down. Eventually. You’ll see.”
“Titus . . .”
“I will not try to sell him back to the man I bargained with. I looked that animal over good before I bought him. For me to say that I want to change my mind because my wife told me to . . . well, I’d be a laughingstock.”
“Better a laughingstock than injured or killed.”
“Silence!” His voice grew stern. “I do not want to hear another word.”
Titus was an easygoing, loving man, but he was a man and the head of their home. Therefore the final decision about the bull was his. He’d heard her protests, and chose to ignore them. There would be no more protests allowed. She swallowed her fear and her anger and went inside.
It was time to be
an obedient wife, no matter how loudly her mind screamed that Titus had made a terrible mistake.
It was so frustrating. For as long as she could remember, she had enjoyed outdoor farmwork more than the domestic chores inside. Oh, she was competent enough in housework, sewing, and cooking. Her mother, Rose, had seen to it,
but it was the running of a farm that fascinated her. It always had.
There was an age gap between her, the eldest, and her two younger brothers and two sisters. Because of that, she’d gotten to spend more time than most with her father as he worked his land and cared for their animals. He had often commented about what a wonderful farmer she would make . . . if she were a man.
If she were a man, Titus would have listened to her. Because she was a woman, her kind and loving husband frequently dismissed her advice. It was not fair, but she had learned to accept it. Like so much that her people did and believed, it simply was the way things were and always would be.
It was difficult to do her housework, though, knowing that Titus was outside going about his chores with that animal watching him. She kept glancing out the window, nervous as a cat, checking, wishing Titus would come inside where it was safe.
The window over the sink overlooked the farmyard. From there she could see the barn, the pasture, the chicken coop, and even the lean-to in which they kept the family buggy.
She could also see the bull, and he was still upset. At the moment, he was on his front knees pounding his head into the ground in anger. She’d seen other bulls do that and it always
frightened her. One local farmer had been crippled when he tried to run away from a charging bull. He tripped, fell, and was nearly pounded to death.
She gave Carrie and Adam their Saturday-night baths, tucked them into bed, and had just set the supper dishes in the sink when she saw Titus entering the small pasture with a rope in his hand. She did not know why he felt the need to go in there, especially while the bull was still riled up, but she knew it was a mistake. A fatal mistake.
From her kitchen window, she screamed a useless warning as that thundering, flesh-and-blood locomotive tore across their small pasture, straight at Titus.
She went running out the back door just as it knocked him over and began to pummel him with its massive head. Titus was not a large man. He looked like a rag doll to her as she leaped off the porch. Then she heard a gunshot.
Mr. Lemon shot the bull again and again, trying to keep it from further savaging her husband’s crumpled body.
• • •
“Cardboard characters. Predictable plot. Drivel disguised as dialogue. I expected better from a Nate Scott novel.”
Logan Parker, aka “Nate Scott,” gulped down his shock and dropped the New York Times onto the floor. The review felt like a sucker punch. He had gotten a handful of bad reviews in the past, but like most authors, he had trained himself to ignore them. The enjoyment of books was a subjective thing. People had different tastes. What one enjoyed, another person might hate.
Ignoring reviews was part of his job. If his self-esteem rose and fell on the basis of a good or bad review, he would never have been able to write the past twenty-three novels, nine of which had risen to New York Times bestseller status.
This last one had netted him an advance that was more than some people made in a lifetime. “Nate Scott” was a name publishers were willing to bet big money on, so why did this one review hit him so hard?
Perhaps it was because this particular reviewer was a friend and someone whose opinion he respected. More likely, it was because it verified what he already suspected. The characters of his latest novel were cardboard. The plot was predictable. The dialogue was drivel.
He rose from his chair and paced the floor. He wanted a drink. After that review, he needed a drink. Unfortunately, it was only eight o’clock in the morning and his personal discipline involved having nothing stronger than coffee until noon. As long as he could wait until noon, he felt like he was still in control of his need for alcohol.
He sat back down, picked up the newspaper, and read the review again. It still stung. Deep down, he’d known his writing was tanking and this confirmed it. Somewhere along the way, he’d lost something critical to his writing and he did not know how to get it back.
There was a bit of magic involved in writing well, a sort of self-hypnosis that a good fiction writer fell into when the “movie” began to play in his head—that moment when his fingers could hardly keep up with the plot and dialogue. There was an addictive being-in-the-zone feeling that beckoned him to his home office every morning.
Or at least it used to. These past two books were dogs. He had hated the process of writing them. Which was lethal to a career.
He rose again and opened the door to his personal liquor cabinet. A small shot of whiskey might help take some of the edge off the gnawing feeling that at the ripe old age of thirty-four, he was a has-been.
Noon, he told himself firmly and shut the cabinet door. In his mind, if he could just wait until noon to take his first drink, he would continue to prove to himself that he wasn’t a drunk. He locked the cabinet against himself, put the key in his pocket, and tried to forget that the key was there. In his earlier days as a writer, after his young wife, Ariela, died, he had not needed alcohol to deaden the pain. Instead, he quit his job as a journalist, and holed up in their small apartment, writing obsessively out of the darkness of his soul in order to hang on to his sanity. He was as shocked as anyone when his bleak, psychological thrillers began to sell . . . and sell well.
Now he was locked into a genre he was sick of, but he was making entirely too much money to quit. He continued to limp along, putting words on paper, hoping no one would notice that he had lost interest in something that had once been his passion.
It was then that he had fallen back upon the hack writer’s crutch. He was drinking heavily and his fiancée, Marla, kept riding him about it.
“What are you still doing back here, Logan?” Marla entered his office sanctuary and proceeded to open the wooden blinds, allowing sunlight to stream in. She was always doing that, and Logan hated it. He squinted, a little hungover from the night before, shielding his eyes from the bright light with his hand.
“You have that meeting this morning,” she said. “And I have to get to work.”
Brunch with his agent. He’d forgotten. What a jolly meeting that was going to be after this morning’s review! His agent tended to be a little on the morose side even when things were going well. He was also a teetotaler, which Logan had recently begun to find annoying.
“You’re going in on a Saturday?”
“Saturday is the only time this client can meet with me,” she said. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back early.”
The open blinds revealed a view of Central Park that would make even the most jaded Realtor salivate. He had worked hard for this view. It now occurred to him how little he enjoyed it.
“Did you take your meds this morning?” Marla stopped fussing with the blinds and studied him, her head tilted to one side.
The question bothered him. Marla was very big on medication. She had a doctor who, from what Logan could see, happily prescribed a pill for anything—real or imagined. She had recently talked him into taking an antidepressant because she said he had been acting more “down” lately than usual.
Well, she was right. He was down. Very down.
Perhaps that was why there were a lot of bad people in his novels. He had found the act of thinking up new ways to kill them quite therapeutic.
“Yes,” he grumped, “I took my meds.”
“Good,” Marla said, brightly. “So did I.”
That would be the weight loss pills that Dr. Have-Prescription-Pad-Will-Travel had given her recently. He really didn’t think weight loss pills were healthy for Marla. Sometimes he secretly compared her to one of those plants that thrive on air alone. Marla did not cook, nor did she eat more than a few bites of food a day.
On the other hand, she managed to hold up her end of the interior design firm where she was angling to become a partner. She believed that she needed to be thin to be taken seriously in her field.
She had recently set a wedding date for next October. He did not remember proposing to her, but for all he knew, he might have done so one drunken evening. He’d been losing his memory recently, which was a worry.
He was grateful for Marla. She was beautiful, competent, and cheerfully took care of the details of their life, freeing him
to concentrate on his books. She had also been his wife’s roommate and closest friend when they were all in college together. Ariela had majored in political science. He was set, at that time, on becoming an investigative journalist. Marla had been the artistic one of the three. She had redone her and Ariela’s dorm room to the point that other students began to rely on her style and creativity. The three of them had joked about how Ariela was going to change the world, he was going to write about it, and Marla was going to make everything pretty.
Marla had mourned with him during the darkest days of his grief. Becoming a couple and living as a couple had evolved slowly over a period of several years. It might not be a grand passion, but Marla was a comforting presence in his life and he appreciated her.
What he did not understand was why she bothered with him at all. Living with a writer was no fun, especially during deadlines. He felt lucky that someone as attractive and intelligent as Marla cared enough about him even to stick around, let alone be willing to marry him.
He wished they could spend more time together, but Marla was climbing the very slippery slope of becoming a well-known interior designer in New York City, and he was trying to hang on to his slot as a bestselling author.
Hanging on that slot was assuredly not easy. There were many hungry young writers snapping at his heels. It was frightening to wonder if he would have to retire before he was forty because he was already used up. What on earth would he do with himself if he could never write well again?
He sat, sunk in his own misery, while he watched Marla flit around his office, straightening up and moving decorative items a fraction of an inch here or there. Ever since she started taking those weight loss pills she seldom sat still. Of course, she also had a big hand in decorating his office, and she did not want the effect
spoiled by his tendency to scatter notecards, pens, and piles of research books about.
He ran a hand over his unshaven face. Being around Marla always made him feel a little grungy. An early Saturday morning and she was already in full makeup and heels. Her hair was done in an elaborately disheveled bun. Her skirt was so tight it looked uncomfortable, but he knew she didn’t think twice about comfort if it meant looking good. For lunch, she would purchase a bagel with cream cheese from a street vendor, take two bites, and drop the rest in the nearest trash can. He’d seen her do it dozens of times. It worked well for her. Marla was a head-turner. Every man he knew envied him.
Speaking of food, he needed coffee.
He wandered into the kitchen and grabbed a jar of instant Nescafé. The shiny, new latte machine was too complicated for him to manage this early in the morning. He tended to need a cup of coffee before he was alert enough to make coffee.
“By the way . . .” Marla’s high heels clicked smartly on the tile floor as she walked into the kitchen, where she plucked the instant coffee out of his hand and put it back in the cupboard. “I have to go to Ohio this week.”
“Ohio?” This got his attention. The Midwest wasn’t exactly Marla’s cup of tea . . . or his. “Why on earth would you want to go there?”
With relief, he saw that she had switched on the coffee machine monster and was preparing to make him a cup of high-test. He sat down at the table and waited expectantly.
“A client is insisting on Amish-made goods only. Apparently she’s addicted to those Amish romance novels everyone is reading these days. My boss decided one of us should go to the source. Apparently there are Amish furniture factories in Ohio. She thinks it might save us several thousand to deal directly with them.”
“And you drew the short straw?”
“Yes, I did. Do you want to come with me?”
“To Ohio?” He grimaced. “Not particularly.”
“By the way, I was up early this morning and I read the review.” She sprayed something on a cloth and started polishing the counter. “I know why you are in such a foul mood. It might do you good to get away for a few days.”
He took a sip of black ambrosia. Ohio was the last place on earth he wanted to go.
“But I don’t want to go alone,” Marla said. “My birthday is coming up next week. You could consider it an early present. You won’t have to get me another thing.”
“Promise?” he asked.
“I promise. Just come with me. That will be present enough.”
He considered the offer. Driving her to Ohio seemed like a small price to pay to avoid having to shop for a gift. He hated wandering around department stores trying to find something she’d like. “Sure,” he said, staring into his coffee cup. “Why not? When do you want to leave?”