Sometimes you have to go big to go home.
Rhett Gallagher’s adventurous life is imploding. Just as she turns the big 4-0, her long-term relationship collapses and her gran’s death draws her back to the family farm. The only silver lining is that Rhett’s inspirational book, The Modern Pioneer Girl’s Guide to Life—written under a pseudonym—has become a wild success, so much so that when her big publicity moment comes, self-doubting Rhett panics and persuades her best friend, Jasmine, to step into the limelight in her stead.
But their prank turns into something more when the controlling mother Rhett hasn’t seen in two decades announces her intent to sell the farm Rhett loves and expected to make her own. To save her inheritance—and her identity—Rhett must concoct a scheme that will protect her home and finally prove to her mother, and to herself, that she can stand on her own two feet.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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I tried everything possible to avoid my own thoughts on the flight home, and none of it worked. The movie selection reminded me of nights with my grandmother, who loved her basic cable and would happily settle in for any romance Lifetime had to offer. The voice in the meditation app lulled me into a doze, until I jerked myself awake from a dream of my father reading me to sleep with The Essential Whole Earth Catalog. The book I'd chosen for the flight was the worst of all, a memoir by an English sheep farmer about his attachment to the place where he was raised. I thought it would help me wrap my brain around what lay ahead. Instead, the author landed a solid punch to my gut within the first few pages. People who went away ceased to belong, he wrote; they changed and could never really come back.
I shut my reading app and determinedly launched a game of Candy Crush. I'd gone away wanting to change, and I had, or at least part of me had. But I'd always meant to come back before it was too late.
The flight attendant handed me a package of Oreo alfajores and I leaned down to tuck it into the pocket of my backpack for Grandma Bee before I remembered there was no one to save it for. Instead, I ate them myself and barely tasted them, staring out over the clouds, concentrating on feeling nothing, not when the Manhattan skyline came into view, not when my fellow passengers broke into applause as the wheels touched down on the runway. I was good at pretending to be tougher and stronger than I was. Not just good. I was a pro.
I was playing my part perfectly when the border control agent unexpectedly broke through my determination to pretend this was just any trip.
"Welcome home," he said, handing me my well-worn blue passport along with my nothing-to-declare paperwork.
Home. I turned away quickly, wiping a stinging from the corner of my eyes that could have been from anything. Dust. Pollen. The sharp itch of my new tattoo, a tiny bumblebee on my upper arm in honor of the grandmother who raised me but wouldn't be waiting to greet me when I finally made my way to our farm in New Hampshire. The farm where I learned that animals were more reliable than people. The farm that gave me the skills I needed to make it in the real world, like focusing on the job even when it's raining so hard you can barely see the fence you're fixing or shaking it off when a cow's just knocked you flat on your butt, then getting up and showing that cow who's in charge. My farm, now. I'd be there within twenty-four hours. Then I could cry.
With no luggage to claim, I was outside JFK within minutes, shaking off unwanted emotion and opening my eyes wide to absorb the light and set my internal clock for another season. I'd left behind a mild fall in Argentina. Here, the sharp greens of spring had already mellowed into a glorious May. In a minute I'd plunge back into the crazy and head for the AirTrain and then the subway to Brooklyn and my best friend Jasmine's fancy brownstone, but first I needed a little air, even the exhaust-filled version offered by the ocean of concrete and tarmac that surrounded me. At least there were no mosquitoes.
But there were plenty of distractions, and I welcomed them, even the two men yelling at each other over a stalled sedan parked on the side of the access road.
"Why won't it start?" The shorter of the two, and, based on his Wall Street casual uniform of khakis and button-down, the obvious passenger, sounded to me as if he might have asked that same question more than once already.
The other, long and sideburned in the manner of the hipster part-time driver, part-time whatever-else-New York-had-to-offer, stared down into the open hood as though he hoped the answer might be written there.
"I don't know, man. It was fine on the way here." Hipster driver glanced up nervously at the approaching security guard. "This isn't where I was supposed to pick you up either. I'm going to get a ticket."
"You can't stop here," the officer said, taking out her radio. "I'm going to have to have you towed."
Oof. That tow fee would be no joke. I hesitated-this might be my chance at a far cushier ride into town than that offered by public transport. If I had the cojones to pull it off.
"Why don't you help him start it?" the would-be passenger demanded angrily. He looked the officer up and down. "That's what a real cop would do. I don't know why they let you even have this job if all you can do is call for help."
That's it, I'd heard enough. You see a sexist jerk, said the voice of the Modern Pioneer Girl in my mind. I see a teaching opportunity. The mechanical part would be easy. It was the human element that always made me anxious. But almost twenty years of travel and job-hopping overseas had taught me tricks-like what I thought of as my alter ego, the Modern Pioneer Girl-for overcoming those fears. I'd done it for so long it was almost second nature.
Channeling my alter ego's confidence, I strolled up to the open hood and slid my backpack off my shoulders. "What seems to be the problem here, gentlemen?"
Business guy snorted with distaste as he took me in. Too tall, with my lanky body clad in the nondescript jeans-and-T-shirt uniform of backpackers everywhere, long, faded red braids stringing out from under my baseball cap. Too old, at forty, too wrinkly from the sun. Too not-New York for the likes of him.
I met his eyes with an intentionally blank face. I knew I didn't look like much. I didn't look like someone who could rig a sail in a storm, round up a thousand cattle from the back of a horse, or, of more interest to him in this moment, hot-wire a truck when my boss dropped the keys somewhere along the trail of a six-mile mushroom-foraging hike. I certainly didn't look like someone who would write a book about those things and find myself newly beloved by an entire generation of would-be feminist adventurers-just in time for the life I'd built to crumble quietly into the dirt of the Patagonian ranch I'd had to leave behind.
That last thought made it hard to face him down, this anonymous dude who was probably compensating for some insecurities of his own. But that was no excuse for his behavior. I stood my ground, refusing to drop my eyes. More people know my name than he'll ever meet, I reminded myself.
Well, sort of.
He rolled his eyes and stepped aside, taking out his phone, probably to call another ride and leave the driver to his fate.
There was nothing the Modern Pioneer Girl loved more than being underestimated. I joined the driver in looking under the hood. "How old's your battery?"
"Pretty new," he said, clasping his pale hands together nervously. "Plus, I just drove here and turned off the engine."
"Yeah, it's probably not that." Second-most likely thing, then. I leaned in, avoiding the hot engine, and opened the fuse box. Got it in one. Driver guy didn't look likely to have a spare fuse, though, and this was a pretty old car, so there were none in the fuse box.
My eye fell on the security officer, radio in hand, her hair pulled tightly into a bun at the back of her neck, and I knew I had this. I turned to the driver. "If I fix it, will you give me a ride into Brooklyn? I don't care what you do with this guy."
"Deal," the driver said. "But I can't leave him here. He'll screw my star rating."
"Whatever," I said, and turned to the officer. "Can I have three minutes?"
She nodded, and I pointed to her bun. "And one of the pins in your hair?"
That made the officer grin. She reached back and handed me exactly what I was hoping for, an open-ended hairpin. "Set a timer," I said, feeling more cheerful than I had in days. I slid the burnt fuse out, then rigged up the hairpin to complete the circuit, bending it to anchor it tightly. "Okay, try to start it."
The driver slid into the car, turned the key, and gave it a little gas, and after the faintest hesitation-just enough to allow the business guy to give me a triumphant look-the engine turned over.
The driver cheered, and the officer held up her hand to offer me a high five. "Two minutes, sister," she said.
I grabbed my backpack. "Can I put this in the trunk?" The driver nodded and opened it as the businessman, avoiding eye contact, hurriedly climbed into the back. "I'll sit up front with you, okay? I don't think Smiley here likes me very much."
Less than an hour later, the driver sternly instructed to get a real fuse as soon as possible if he didn't want a much more expensive repair, I was standing on Jasmine's stoop in Brooklyn, fist poised to knock. The door opened before my knuckles even grazed the gleaming red wood. Jasmine burst out onto the stoop, still in the chef's pants and tank top she must have worn to her job at the Empty Donut and insanely skinny for someone who made a living baking desserts. She threw her arms around me. "Rhett! You're here!"
Jas pulled me in tight, and all the thoughts I'd been holding in washed over me. She held me, hugging and patting as I gulped and hiccuped in a way I would do with no one but her, saying the words no one else had said to me since I'd heard about my grandmother's death.
"I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," she said, and I nodded into her shoulder and didn't even try to talk. I'd been alone every minute since I got the news. More than alone. Alone in a crowd, alone in a country I thought I'd made my own, alone and hiking hard and fast and steep and trying not to beat myself up for breaking my own rule and letting another guy get close enough to crush me when he turned out to be as bad as the rest.
It took a minute, but after a couple of deep breaths I straightened up.
"I know," I said. "I'm okay, I really am. I'll be okay."
Jas gave me a questioning look but I managed a smile. She'd know I wasn't ready to talk about it, now or maybe ever. She grinned back, and suddenly I really did feel happier. She held out her phone with one arm and wrapped the other around my shoulder. "Record this moment?"
I nodded, and she took a selfie of our faces squished together, our eyes a little red but both of us looking delighted to be reunited. That was about all our faces had in common. As much as I resisted comparing my hat hair, wrinkles, and dark spots with her blond topknot and glowing, dermatologically enhanced perfection, I was. I always did, for our first ten minutes together-and then it would pass and she'd just be my old friend again, though this version of her demanded far more maintenance on her part.
Personally I missed the old burger-and-fries Jas, but I tried not to say so too often.
"That's for the MPG's Instagram," she said in a teasing tone, surveying the image. "We have to mark your arrival. The MPG is in the house."
"Don't you dare," I said, following her through the doorway and past the staircase and kitchen out to the light-filled living room. "The Modern Pioneer Girl is a woman of mystery." I stopped short as I realized that Jasmine's husband, Zale, was stretched out on one of the white couches, the shoulders and biceps he worked so hard on set off as always by a black muscle tee emblazoned with the logo of the chain of gyms he'd named after himself, Zale's Powerhouse Fitness.
Zale stood up slowly and we exchanged the awkward hug of two people who would never have spent more than thirty seconds in each other's presence without Jasmine to connect us. He was a few inches shorter than I was, and I could feel him, as always, stretching up just a little in an attempt to deny it. "Hey," I said in greeting. "How's business? Still thriving?"
He responded with his usual intensity as he released me. "All good. Clients are loving the new food, telling me they wish we'd do all their meals. The only problem has been sourcing enough ingredients. Everybody wants plant-based meats right now, and the supplement powders I like are having supply-chain issues."
I laughed. "Wouldn't it be easier to just use real food?" It was a familiar dispute, one that went back to the very first time I found him in Jasmine's kitchen five years ago, packing powders and liquids with a list of ingredients as long as my arm into a blender. I threatened to put a banana in it, and I swear he got pale at the thought. Bananas, it seemed, were the devil's fruit. Or something like that.
It started out as just an annoying quirk, along with his multihour-a-day workout habit, but he'd turned his obsession into an empire and he'd done it incredibly fast. I could have respected that, except for the way he rebuilt Jasmine from the ground up after tearing her down first. He constantly demanded "improvements" but I saw nothing to improve. The old Jas was funny. Happy. Gorgeous, but gorgeous in a regular person's body leading a regular person's life instead of spending every minute trying to make herself smaller in the name of "wellness." Every time I saw them together, it got harder to watch her trying and failing to live up to his expectations. Now he had the best baker I'd ever known jumping through hoops trying to create recipes that met the loopy dietary requirements of his acolytes and also tasted of something besides processed sawdust. I'd been hearing about it for a year via WhatsApp, and I had a terrible feeling I was about to have to taste it. If I'd thought of that, I might have gone straight to New Hampshire.
"They like to know their food is produced in an ethical, sustainable way," Zale replied.
The industrial food complex that comes up with this stuff isn’t something I’d describe as ethical or sustainable. I started to say so, but Zale, probably knowing what was coming, interrupted me with the faintest of smiles, as if he’d been readying this next sally in our ongoing skirmish. "They also love your book," he said. "We sell it in the gear shops. Last month you sold more copies than Gwyneth’s cookbook."
I paused, startled. No one other than Jasmine and me had ever known the real identity of the Modern Pioneer Girl.
"Don’t worry," he said. "I know all about it. Jas kept pushing it on people, so I made her tell me what was up. Nice work. People love that armchair adventure stuff, especially when you mix it with some self-love. They eat it up."
I would have glared at Jasmine but she’d ducked back into the kitchen. I could hear her clattering plates.
I shifted from one foot to the other. I loved my book almost as much as I hated talking about it, and I’d carefully arranged my life so that I never had to, using a pseudonym and refusing any and all appearances or interviews. "Oh, the book. Yeah. It’s not that big a deal," I said, brushing off years of journaling, connecting with people on social media, and then learning to navigate the social media fame that led to being discovered by my enthusiastic editor and the months of writing and revising that followed.
"I know, right? That whole category, aspirational lit or whatever—practically writes itself. I should do one. Hell, your mom even has. Have you seen it? First, You Jump Through the Hoops or something? Everyone I know with a graduating senior bought it, hoping their kids would go get a real job and not do the whole barista-with-a-screenplay thing."
Oh, I’d seen it. An hour ago on a display at the airport bookstore. My college president mother’s scolding handbook sat right next to The Modern Pioneer Girl’s Guide to Life, written not by plain old Margaret “Rhett” Smith, but by “Maggie Strong”, aka the popular Instagrammer known as The Modern Pioneer Girl, aka the superhero alter-ego Jasmine helped me create when I was a terrified fourteen-year-old, dumped at a fancy boarding school by the same absentee mother who now, unbelievably, believed herself capable of giving other people advice on raising successful kids. It had been an incredibly satisfying moment, and I’d taken a picture. My mother would never know it, but the book some people actually bought—as opposed to having their parents force it on them—was mine.
Jasmine had been the only person besides me who knew who the MPG, as I called her, really was. I would have preferred to keep it that way, but at least Zale wasn’t a threat. He never talked about anything except himself.
"Yeah, I bet parents love it," I said, knowing he’d miss my scathing tone.
"What’s not to love?" Zale turned to pick up the fitness magazine he’d been reading and return the pillows of his couch to pristine perfection. "She touched a nerve. Sells books, amiright? You, too. Like mother, like daughter."
Nothing could have horrified me more.