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If I have to bounce one more quarter off of one more set of abs — " I hefted two four-liter jugs of homogenized milk onto the conveyor belt of the grocery store with a grunt " — punch one more stomach — " I followed it with two jumbo-sized boxes of breakfast cereal " — trip over one more saddle — " punctuating each word with bags of chips, peanuts and sunflower seeds " — I am going to throw an old-fashioned, fully feminine hissy fit." I glared at Tracy, who stood behind me in the line at the cash register, daring her to deny me my well-earned pique.
"Just make sure you hit high C on the scream," was all Tracy said.
As my best friend, Tracy would feign sympathy with my rants against my brothers, but I knew her heart was never fully engaged. From the first day she had come to stay overnight at the ranch and had been bombarded with my brother's spitballs as she came into the kitchen, my dad's booming voice yelling at her to come on in and join us for dinner and my mom's yelling at him to stop yelling, Tracy had fallen head over heels in love with my family.
"I still can't figure out why thirty-one-, twenty-nine-and twenty-five-year-old guys would still want to live at home," I continued, still venting. It was Tuesday morning, the second day in a week that had started badly yesterday. Today wasn't looking so good, either.
The flat tire I'd had on the way to work didn't help, nor did the fact that I'd had to change it wearing high heels and a narrow skirt on the side of a quiet gravel road.
"You still live at home and you're twenty-seven," Tracy pointed out.
"At least I, at one time, had plans to move out." I allowed a flicker of self-pity to creep into my voice.
"How is your dad?"
"The doctor said that it will be a few weeks before he's back to normal and that often people suffer deep depression after a heart attack. So I'm still hoping and praying."
Four weeks ago, my dad, Arnold Hemstead, had collapsed at the auction mart and had been rushed to the hospital. He was diagnosed with a cardiac infarction, spent ten days in the hospital and came home to three very worried sons. And me.
Neil, Chip and Jace hovered, helped and catered to my dad for thirty-six minutes, knowing that the overresponsible Danielle Hemstead — aka me — would take over, then they went back to their welding, fixing and farming.
"I caught a glimmer of my old dad the other day," I continued. "He's getting more interested in what's happening at the farm. He asked me if I was going to unload bales for Jace next week."
I dismissed her comment with an exasperated eye-roll.
"Okay, I'm guessing that's no." Tracy picked up one of the magazines lined up by the counter. "Hey, here's something just for you. Is the male in your life a man or a guy? Take the quiz and find out."
"Guy, guy, guy and absolutely guy."
"Okay, I sense we're not done with the sisterly pique yet." Tracy straightened the magazine and tilted me a grin. "So, of your dad and brothers, who rates the last outburst."
Growing up with three brothers who reveled in their "guyness" gave me lots of ranting fodder, but Tracy often took their side. Other than a frequently absent mother, Tracy had grown up on her own. The noise and busyness in our house was a welcome change for her and she enjoyed it. She had come back to Preston out of choice. I came back because it was one of the only decent places I could get a job in my chosen field of social work. There had been government cutbacks, and while I would have preferred to work in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer or any of the larger Canadian cities, Preston was a good option. Besides, I could live at home cheaply, which helped me pay off my student loans and get a decent savings account, aka "escape" account, started.
"Chip. Hands down or up in the air while he's flexing his lateral deltoids." I sighed. "And don't I sound like I know too much about that."
I handed the cashier my debit card and gave the groceries a once-over, making sure I didn't miss any vital items such as chocolate-covered peanuts, pop or something equally nutritious.
"So what did Chip do to earn this attack?" Where to start, where to start?
"Let me set the stage," I said, watching the cashier bag the trans-fat-loaded food. "It's Monday, which means a cranky supervisor, cranky foster parents and cranky foster kids who've had two more days worth of complaints to heap on my head. On top of that I had one deranged biological father threatening me with a lawsuit if I didn't return his children to him the minute he steps out of jail. I come home tired and ready for a cup of tea and a smidgen of sympathy. I step onto the porch and stumble over Chip's roping saddle parked square in front of the door. As I dance around it, I end up tangled up in a set of reins and fall in a most ungraceful heap on Chip's greasy coveralls. End result — a cleaning bill, bruised hip and a broken heel on the new boots that you and I spent an hour and a half looking for in West Edmonton Mall. So you have a stake in my misery, as well, considering all the grumbling you did on the two-hour drive back from said mall."
I could see from the faint twitch of Tracy's lips that while as a friend and fellow woman she felt sorry for me, as a normal human being with a dose of guy genes herself she could picture my ungainly fall and see the humor in it. I don't think she cared about the boots.
"But you're okay, right?"
My too-deep-for-words sigh told her that she had taken the wrong tack. So she did what any wise friend would do. Change the subject.
"So moving on to the more mundane things in your life. What are you doing the rest of this afternoon?" Tracy asked as she put her own groceries on the conveyor belt. I glanced at the fresh lettuce, cucumbers, green peppers and fruit and suffered a moment of grocery envy. Tracy's husband, a "man" in my estimation, didn't think that eating salad would diminish his manhood and gladly ate the occasional meatless meal without thinking that he would faint when he left the table.
"After bringing you to the garage, picking up my dry cleaning, getting my shoe repaired and dropping my flat tire off at my brother's shop?" I asked, trying for one last bid of sympathy.
Well that was dead in the water. "I have to head back to the office to give the other 'guy' in my life, my beloved supervisor, Casey Braeshears, a few moments of my time." I gathered up the super-size-me groceries and swung the last bag into the cart, taking my frustrations out on Neil's nacho chips. Hardly the gourmet food I preferred, but my culinary tastes were vastly outnumbered.
"Forget to paper clip your invoices again?" Tracy asked, in mock horror.
"I'm thinking it's something worse, like letting that teenager I had to drag home from a party borrow a government-issued pen without making him return it." I gave her a resigned look. "The budget, you know, doesn't cover these major, unforeseen expenses."
"You need a new job." Tracy shook her head in sympathy as she waited for her groceries to get bagged.
"Don't I know it. If I could trust my brothers to take care of Dad, I would be heading to the city so fast you wouldn't even see the blink of my taillights."
"I can't believe you would do that. Besides me, what is in the big city that isn't in Preston?" Tracy asked pretending innocence.
"Men. Lots of men and no Casey Braeshears."
"C'mon. I think you could find a few 'men' scattered through Preston if you looked hard enough."
My eye was drawn to the neon yellow of a reflector strip glinting back at me from a hard hat on a man behind Tracy.
His grease-stained plaid jacket, torn blue jeans and work boots showed clearly that this was a working man. He wore sunglasses that hid his eyes, and in spite of his full beard and mustache, I easily caught the smirk on his mouth, the arrogant tilt of his head that showed this working man was also a full-fledged guy.
That and the rolled up motorcycle magazine that he tapped impatiently against his thigh.
Then he lowered his sunglasses enough so I caught a glimpse of bloodshot eyes, and incredibly, he gave me a slow wink.
I gave him my best so-not-interested look, then turned my attention back to Tracy.
"Preston is guy-haven," I grumbled, raising my voice for the benefit of the guy dropping his magazine in front of the cashier. "There's not a decent single man to be found anywhere in this town. I've lost faith in the whole 'seek and ye shall find' concept," I said as Tracy loaded her groceries into my cart.
"You haven't had much of a chance to exercise that faith with the hours you've been working the past year," Tracy protested as she started pushing the cart toward the exit.
In spite of my momentary pique with the guy now at the till, I couldn't help a glance his way, surprised to see him looking directly at me. Or so it seemed from the direction of his sunglasses.
What was worse, he was smirking, as if he had expected me to give him a second look.
I turned away, flustered, then angry at myself. The electric doors of the supermarket swooshed open ahead of us. "Since Rodney, when was the last time you were on a date?" Tracy was asking.
I pulled my attention back to her. "Does sitting beside Dr. Hardy in church count?"
Tracy ran her fingers through her short dark hair and angled me an exasperated look. "Danielle, the man is sixty."
"He's single," I offered. "Of course, I don't know why I'm fussing about not having a man in my life. I wouldn't have the time for the proper care and maintenance of a relationship if I did."
"You need to let Casey know that you're not a machine," Tracy continued, ignoring my feeble attempt at humor. "That you can't keep working these obscene hours. None of the other social workers in the department do.