Okay, it’s getting really close to the release of COMING HOME TO STEEPLE RIDGE! I hope you’re as excited as I am. 🙂
Today, I’m sharing Chapter Four of the book right here on the blog. Come back to get more chapters from now until release on January 9!
Missed Chapter One? Go here to read it!
Chapter Three is up too!
Farrah had always enjoyed eating dinner with Darren. He’d never said a lot, which made what he did choose to utter ultra-important. She’d gotten his message about the farm: It’s mine.
She supposed he deserved something that was his, though a sting kept pricking her that he hadn’t told her about his relationship with the Bybees or about his time out on this beautiful land.
Meagan took over the conversation, talking about two miles a minute about how Farrah was going to come work at the farm the same way Meagan did. “She’ll cultivate the new fingerlings, and she’s already excited about the third row mushrooms we have growing.”
Jim, her father, narrowed his eyes and chewed. He swallowed and said, “Why do we need another person doing what you’re doing?”
Meagan’s whole face turned red, and she suddenly didn’t have anything to say. Farrah hadn’t realized she’d be taking over for Meagan. She shifted uncomfortably as she waited for Meagan to say something.
She had loved the two hours she’d spent in the aquaponics shed. She loved the symbiotic relationship between fish and plant. She’d heard of soilless growing, but she’d never seen it. And all those strawberry plants growing in water had taken her breath away. For the first time in years, she felt like she was where she was supposed to be.
That comfortable feeling evaporated as Corey said, “Meagan?”
“Luke and I are expecting.” Meagan’s smile grew and grew until Farrah thought it would crack her face.
Corey squealed and leapt from the table, nearly sending a plate full of butter into Darren’s lap. Audra gasped and then started laughing. “That’s why I had to wait for twenty minutes in your driveway today while you were ‘getting ready.’”
“I was sick,” Meagan insisted, standing to accept her mother’s hug.
Farrah felt like an intruder on this private family moment, but she supposed there were as many non-Bybees present as there were Bybees. Darren smiled, but he continued eating while the hugging and exclamations continued. While Corey asked Meagan when she was due. While Audra gushed about the baby shower she’d throw.
A writhing feeling started down in Farrah’s stomach. A writhing that spoke of lost opportunities and a life without children. Just another reason to find something she could fill her life with. Something she could feel fulfilled doing.
And she knew it wasn’t at Pinned, but right here at Bybee’s Botanicals.
“So I’ll train Farrah to do everything I do, so when the baby comes, the farm will carry on as normal.” Meagan spoke like she made the decisions for the farm. Maybe she did.
“So it’s just you and Audra that run the aquaponics shed?” Farrah asked.
“Darren volunteers,” Jim said.
Farrah whipped her head to him, noticing out of the corner of her eye that Darren did too. Oh, and the choking coming from his mouth was a dead giveaway that he was surprised to hear he volunteered in the aquaponics shed.
“Darren does all kinds of things around the farm,” Corey said.
He volleyed his gaze to her, but Farrah watched Meagan, who didn’t seem surprised or worried about what her parents had said.
“Yeah, Darren sometimes chops wood from the farm to keep the tilapia ponds the right temperature in the winter. He’s sapped trees. Cleared a road once. And he likes to hang out near the strawberries, same as you.” She grinned that mega-watt smile Farrah had been jealous of earlier.
“He likes his dipped in chocolate,” Farrah said, not quite sure when the words had entered her mind or why she’d decided to speak them.
Darren’s gaze flew to her now, and she almost laughed at the poor, whiplashed look of him.
“White chocolate,” Corey amended. “With graham cracker crumbs on top of that.”
“Like a shortcake,” Meagan said, glancing around the table for confirmation.
Farrah leaned back in her chair and folded her arms as an agonized look paraded across Darren’s face. She knew what he was thinking: Stop talking about me.
“So is the aquaponics job full time?” she asked, giving him what he wanted most. She knew, because obscurity in a crowd was what she craved too. And yet, somehow, they’d found each other.
“Definitely,” Meagan said. “And then some.”
Corey sat back down and nudged the lasagna pan closer to Darren, who took another piece and kept eating. “We’d love to have you, Farrah. Meagan mentioned something about an agribusiness degree?”
Farrah shot a sharp look at Meagan. “Not a degree. I went to two years of college. I’d barely started in the agribusiness…business.”
“She’s a thinker,” Meagan said. “I’m telling you, she’ll triple our vegetation production, and she’s already mentioned bringing in trout during the colder winter months.”
“Trout take twice as long to rear,” Jim said. “We can do two tilapia harvests in the time it takes to raise one batch of trout.”
“I know, Dad,” Meagan said like they’d have this discussion before. “The point is, she thinks. She doesn’t just look at what we’re already doing and go, ‘Oh, okay. Sure, just let me show up and keep this lettuce alive.’”
Well, that was sort of how Farrah had been thinking. Actually, she’d been so overwhelmed with the sheer size of the shed, the number of plants growing, and the wonder of the system that she hadn’t given much thought to anything else.
Fine, Darren. She’d thought a lot about Darren.
Seeing him sitting on the porch like he belonged there had sent a heated shock right through her. She hadn’t been able to tell what he’d been doing, and Meagan had whisked her away so quickly she hadn’t been able to say a word to him.
She found herself wanting to be alone with him, just for a few minutes. Just to explain that she wasn’t here to take anything from him. Wasn’t here to torture him.
The conversation continued, and Farrah fell silent. Darren finished eating long before everyone else, but he had an easy way of being so no one seemed to notice that he was done when they weren’t.
Farrah had always marveled at his physical strength. His stamina for working long hours on a horse farm. She knew what that took, and it wasn’t easy. She hadn’t been quite as prepared for his spiritual power, or that he was simply a nice guy. In her experience, a man never came with the whole package. Concessions always had to be made.
But it seemed like Darren Buttars had broken that mold. No, he didn’t talk much. He was pushy. And sometimes impatient, especially when he didn’t understand the reasons for something. But simply sitting around a dinner table with him was easy, casual, fun.
Everything Farrah wanted in her life.
She questioned herself for the tenth time that day. Questioned why she’d broken up with him and cut off all contact.
He stood first, long before usual if the panicked look on Corey’s face was any indication. “I should go.”
“Let me get you a plate for tomorrow.”
“It’s—” He watched Corey rush into the kitchen before he could protest. Fondness entered his eyes, and Farrah’s chest clenched tight. He’d confessed to her that he really missed his parents, and it was obvious he viewed Jim and Corey Bybee as the mother and father figures in he didn’t have in his life.
“I’ll get that basket for Sam and Bonnie.” Jim tossed down his napkin and stood, ambling off in the same direction his wife had gone.
Audra whispered something to Meagan and the two of them stood. Farrah caught the words, “…not my boyfriend,” from Audra, but the blush riding in her cheeks indicated that whoever she and Meagan were talking about was definitely more than just a friend.
Farrah inhaled, and she was alone with Darren. He gripped the back of his chair with both hands and kept his head down. She couldn’t see his handsome face through his cowboy hat.
“How long have you been coming out the Bybee’s farm?” she asked.
“A while,” he said.
“While we were dating?”
He lifted his eyes to hers, and she sucked in a breath at the beauty of him. “Yes.”
Farrah nodded while a knotted weight settled in behind her lungs. She hated this feeling, and it wasn’t fair to blame him for finding a place of safety, a place to have the relationship he craved. It wasn’t his fault she hadn’t told him about her family.
“Are you really going to work here?” he asked.
Farrah nodded, employing his method of saying less.
“You do realize they have a whole stable full of horses, right?”
She couldn’t tell if he was trying to make her mad, just letting her know, or something else entirely. Darren held everything so close, shuttered off behind closed doors, and she’d had to get him alone, hold his hand, and smile at him before he’d open up. Once she got him talking, though, the man could spill a lot of secrets.
Farrah missed the sound of his voice. Missed the tenderness in his touch. Missed the warmth of his embrace, and the taste of his mouth.
She held him behind such a tall wall, and it was exhausting.
“How many horses?” she asked.
Darren blinked and chuckled. “Guess you’ll find out.” He turned his back on her and walked into the kitchen. She heard the low murmurs of his voice mingling with the Bybees, and she couldn’t bear to stay in the dining room alone.
She slipped out the front of the house, wondering where everyone else had parked. The chair where Darren had been sitting when she arrived looked inconspicuous now, but she examined it. A few fine shavings of wood dusted the ground, and she wondered if he’d been carving.
She hadn’t even known he knew how to carve wood. Her emotions tangled until she couldn’t separate them to identify them, and she practically leapt down the stairs in her need to get away from this farm.
* * *
“Two weeks notice?” Guy frowned like he didn’t understand the words. “You’re quitting?”
Farrah tried to smile, but it came off wrong. “I found another job.”
Guy sighed and pulled out a package of frozen pretzels. “You’re the best manager I’ve had.”
She wasn’t sure if she should feel proud of that or not. And she really wanted something in her life she could be proud of. “A great opportunity came up with this aquaponics farm.”
“Aqua-what?” Guy arranged four pretzels on a tray and slid it into the oven.
“It’s soilless farming,” she said. “I went to two years of college in agribusiness, and this is something that actually interests me.” She realized how that sounded as the words left her mouth. “I mean, this is great and all, and I’ve been so grateful to have this job, but—”
Guy waved her into silence. “I understand, Farrah. He moved toward the exit of the concessions kitchen. “I’ll get the word out that I need someone during the day.”
“I’ll help train whoever you get,” she called after him, adding, “Sorry, Guy,” in a much softer voice he couldn’t hear. But she couldn’t make her life decisions based on how someone else would feel. Not again.
So she worked her hours at the bowling alley, and she went out to the farm after that. She learned to park her car past the house, down the road around the bend, and next to the aquaponics shed. She’d learned about the ten varieties of lettuce the Bybees grew. She read articles on raising tilapia at night. She dreamed of monitoring water temperatures and segregating the huge, twenty-thousand gallon fish tank into the warmer climate the tilapia needed and the cooler water temps that trout would like.
She never saw Darren again, but she recognized the old truck she’d ridden in more times than she could count. She’d kissed him in that truck, and when she pulled into the farm after finishing her last day at the bowling alley, that truck taunted her with memories she wished weren’t quite so close to the surface. Or maybe she kept them there, the way her weaker tilapia lingered near the surface, so she could relive them at a moment’s notice.
She hadn’t once seen Darren in the botanical boutique, as she’d learned everyone called the aquaponics portion of the farm, but as she pushed her way into the greenhouse, she found him on a ladder, fixing a panel on the far end of the shed.
Her heart lurched and started tap dancing in her chest. Annoyance that the simple sight of him made her react like she could still kiss him if she wanted to.
No, she realized as she wandered down the aisle toward the mushrooms she’d been tending, her nerves and body reacted the way it did because they were anticipating kissing him again.