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 Seven of the book right here on the blog. This will be the last chapter, as the book releases on TUESDAY! You’ll really want to get the book as soon as possible, because there are a bunch of fun things INSIDE the book file, but only until January 14! Preorder now, while you’re thinking about it, with this link!
Missed Chapter One? Go here to read it!
Chapter Three is up too!
Read Chapter Four here.
Chapter Five is out too!
And so is Chapter Six!
Ben let Darren ride without speaking for about a half an hour. Only the sound of their horses moving through the forest grass and Rambo’s panting as he darted through the trees and them came back to them met Darren’s ears.
Then Ben asked, “When are you going to move past Farrah?”
Darren growled, though the question had real merit.
“Sam said you saw her at the cemetery weeks ago,” Ben said, peering over at Darren in an annoying way. “You’re not dating her again, are you?”
“I wish.” Darren could sum up everything he felt with those two words. If they were dating, they’d at least be talking. Sharing important things. Working through problems. This constant struggle with what to say, how to say it, should he even say it? was exhausting.
He sighed, unsure if he really wanted to date Farrah again. He just wanted to stop this emotional cycle of turmoil. Wanted to stop dreaming about her. Wanted to find someone else to occupy his mind and time.
But that would take a very, very long time, and Darren knew it. But if the pain throbbing from his heart throughout his whole body dimmed a little bit each day, he’d take it. Eventually, it would have to stop, Darren knew that. He’d felt the same way after learning his parents had both died in the same plane crash.
And now, twelve years later, he could look at pictures of them, think of them, without the same level of heartache.
Ben whistled a tune their father used to, and Darren let his frustration and annoyance float away, up into the brilliant blue Vermont sky.
“I don’t know how to move past her,” he finally admitted.
“Because you don’t want to move past her.”
Darren nodded, his chest heaving with the effort it took for him to contain his emotion. No, he didn’t want to move past her.
“I’m in love with her.” His voice sounded like he’d gargled with nails. “I never told her, but I still love her.” He scoffed at his own stupidity. “And I hate that I can’t figure out how to stop, and now she’s working out at the Bybees, and—”
He sucked in a breath to get himself to stop babbling. He wasn’t prepared to tell Ben about his time out at Jim and Corey’s farm, not right now. He nudged Paintbrush away from the ferns he loved and kept the horse moving through the forest away from the farm. He whistled for Rambo, who’d wandered off again, and the dog came bounding through the bushes.
Ben glanced at him and looked away, an unreadable look on his face. Darren hoped he wouldn’t ask about the Bybees right now, and relief poured through him when Ben didn’t.
“So I guess it’s probably not a good time to tell you our news,” Ben said.
Darren had noticed how Ben had started talking in the plural “we” and “our” since getting married. It was as annoying as it was cute, and Darren longed for the day when he was part of a “we” and an “our.”
“Sure it is,” Darren said. Then they wouldn’t have to talk about him. He wouldn’t have to take advice from his younger brother. He wouldn’t have to try to figure out a way to live his life without Farrah in it.
“Rae’s pregnant,” he said, joy bubbling through his throat. “She’s due in January.”
An explosion ripped through Darren, mostly made of happiness for Ben and Rae. Some jealousy coated his insides, but thankfully, none of that bled into his hearty, “Congratulations, Ben. That is great news.”
Ben laughed, the boisterous sound pushing through the trees around them. “For a while there, she wasn’t sure she could have a baby, so we’re relieved. She’s been pretty sick, but she’s starting to feel better now, and the doctor said the baby looks healthy and is growing properly.”
“That’s great,” Darren said, his mind catching on the bit of information that his brother and his wife might not have been able to have a baby. Darren hadn’t known that. Ben had never said anything. Darren swallowed back the thought that if he hadn’t been so wrapped up in his own problems, he might have been able to be a better support for Ben.
“Well, I better get back,” Ben said. “I told Rae I’d pick up dinner on the way home.” He swung his horse around, and Darren hesitated. He’d brought out his overnight pack, and he was prepared to stay out in the woods with his horse and his dog.
But did he really want to?
“You stayin’ out here?” Ben looked over his shoulder. “I don’t think you should. Come on back to the house and come to dinner with me and Rae.”
Darren didn’t know how to tell his brother that eating dinner as the third wheel wasn’t exactly appealing. He shook his head. “I’ll come back, but I’m not going to dinner with you two.”
Ben gave him a knowing smile and nodded, waiting until Darren swung his horse around too. “Let’s go, Rambo.”
“You and that dog.” Ben chuckled.
“Hey, he’s all I have.” Darren managed to smile to take some of the sting out of the words. “We both miss Logan, so we’ve bonded. That’s all.”
“Or you’ve gone soft for a paw pal.”
Darren laughed with his brother, because he didn’t dare admit that he simply needed a companion, and if all he could get was a furry, four-legged friend, he’d take it.
* * *
Darren knew something was amiss as soon as he broke through the trees on the edge of the farthest field from the farmhouse. Something sweet and savory filled the air, and it only took him three deep breaths to identify it.
“Farrah,” he whispered.
“What?” Ben asked.
“Farrah’s here.” He swung wildly toward his brother. “Why would she be here?”
Confusion furrowed Ben’s brow. “How do you know it’s her?”
“She has this pork chop recipe she makes for me.” His voice broke on the last two words, but he’d be able to identify the salty, tangy scent of the onion gravy from the grave.
Before Ben could answer, his phone chimed several times. He bent over it, the lines between his eyebrows disappearing as he read. “You’re right. Farrah’s here.”
“Who was that?”
“Cody. Apparently she wanted to give you a cooking lesson at four-thirty.”
Darren cursed himself for leaving his phone in the kitchen, but he supposed it wouldn’t have mattered. He wouldn’t have gotten any calls or texts from her out in the forest, just like Ben hadn’t gotten Cody’s messages until they were back on the farm.
“What time is it?”
“Just after five.” Ben swung down off his horse. “I’ll put Paintbrush away if you want to go in.”
Darren faced the farmhouse, at war with himself once again. He finally shook his head. “No, I’ll take care of Willow for you. You have a pregnant wife to get home to.”
Ben practically wore the pregnant glow on his face, and he handed his mare’s reins to Darren. “Don’t take too long,” he said. “And go talk to Farrah. Tell her how you feel. You might be surprised how well that works.”
Darren nodded and grunted his consent, but he would absolutely not be telling Farrah that he loved her. After all, some secrets should be taken to the grave.
He methodically worked through Willow and Paintbrush’s care, taking an extra moment to run his hand down his horse’s nose before facing the back of the farmhouse. Every cell in his body vibrated, and he took several deep breaths.
Be nice to her.
He appreciated that his oldest brother’s words were there in his head. He’d have preferred his father, but Sam had done everything in his power to make sure the other boys hadn’t wanted for anything.
Darren walked toward the house deliberately, his footsteps slow and sure. When the night ended, he wanted someone to tell about the forthcoming encounter with Farrah. All at once, Darren realized that some of the responsibility of maintaining a relationship with his brothers fell on him.
He couldn’t expect them to plan everything, always call or text first, ask questions about his life. It was a two-way street—and the very reason he’d been so frustrated with Farrah these past few weeks.
He felt like he was trying. Saying all the right things, and giving her space, and letting her come to him.
And she hadn’t come to him.
He pulled open the back door and got hit square in the face with the scent of browning pork and starchy potatoes and butter. “Hello?” he called. He couldn’t quite believe that Farrah had come to Steeple Ridge. She never had before. Insisted she wouldn’t.
Scraping from the kitchen sounded and then Cody peered around the corner. “Oh, hey, Darren.” He spoke too loud to be casual, and he wore a panicked look on his face. Before he could say anything else, Farrah joined him.
Hope shone in her teal eyes, sucker-punching Darren again. “You’re late,” she said like it was no big deal that she’d come to this farm where she’d claimed she’d never step foot again.
Darren didn’t know how to respond, so he simply stepped past the pair of them and moved into the kitchen.
“I’ve just started peeling the potatoes.” Farrah edged around him without actually touching him, but the electricity from her nearness practically shocked him. “So let me show you that.” Her nervousness was a palpable being in the air, and Darren didn’t know what to do with it. How to erase it.
“Is this part of the lesson?” he asked.
“Yes. You missed the onion chopping, but I showed Cody so he can teach you.”
Darren exchanged a glance with Cody, who now wore a grin the size of the Mississippi River. He made a shooing motion as if Darren wasn’t already standing in the kitchen with Farrah and made a show of stomping downstairs.
“Wash your hands first.”
Darren followed her directions and stood beside her as she peeled a potato. “You try it.” She handed the peeler to him, and he picked up a potato with the skin still on. It felt small in his large hand, but he managed to get the blades of the peeler across it.
“I have water here.” She indicated the steaming pot already on the stove. “It has quite a bit of salt in it, because potatoes taste like nothing, so you have to flavor them.”
He nodded, not quite trusting his voice to work properly.
“We caramelized the onions and married them with beef stock. Then I browned the chops and stuck them in the oven while the gravy reduces. Four hundred degrees.”
Darren went along with her though words like caramelized and browned and reduces were quite advanced culinary vocabulary for him.
He did manage to pick up a knife and get the potatoes in similar-sized cubes. Farrah put them all into the now-boiling water at the same time and stepped back. “Now we usually do a vegetable, but you rarely eat anything green, so I didn’t bring anything tonight.”
“I think we have frozen peas.” They were probably left from when Sam used to make dinner a year ago, and Darren had no idea how to take them from rock hard to edible, but he stepped toward the refrigerator anyway.
“It’s fine,” Farrah said.
“Oh, I forgot.” Darren froze, now only a foot from her. “You don’t like peas.” He gazed down on her, her peachy-pink skin a bit sun-kissed from her work on the farm these past few weeks. His natural instinct to take her in his arms, lean down, and kiss her reared so high he flinched toward her.
Instead of touching her, he whispered, “I miss you.”
He expected her to jump back, grab her keys, and disappear out the front door.
She closed her eyes and nodded slightly. “I miss you too.”
He took both of her hands in his, a rush of adrenaline shooting through him at the skin-to-skin contact. “Why’d you come to the farm tonight?”
She lifted her chin. “To apologize. Something I should’ve done a long time ago.”
“I haven’t been exactly forthcoming with things,” she said, her voice low and barely audible.
Darren held very still, as he’d known she hadn’t told him everything about her past, her life, herself. He’d been fine with the pieces she had given him, because he believed that was why they’d been dating—they’d been getting to know each other one little bit at a time.
A tremor of fear shook his voice when he said, “Like what?”
She pressed her lips together, and they burst with a dark shade of pink when she stopped. “Let’s eat first, and then I’ll tell you.”
He wasn’t sure he’d be able to swallow a single bite with her right there in the farmhouse. Right there in the farmhouse, holding his hand. Talking to him. Gazing up at him like she wanted him to kiss her the way he used to.
He fell back a step, then two, and dropped her hands. “All right. How long until dinner’s ready?”