“You know, Dad, you might want to take a break and—”
The rest of Jack’s words were cut off by his father’s scoffing. “Boy, I told you I don’t need any help. Why don’t you go find out if your mother needs help tying her apron strings?”
Jack held his tongue. He was used to his father’s temper. Bill MacAllen had forgotten that patience was a virtue after his cancer diagnosis a few years ago. He’d managed to beat back the illness, but it had taken a lot out of him. Jack had been by his side, helping him to manage his activities through it all, but now that his father considered himself fully healed, he was starting to feel as useful as tits on a bull.
His father gripped the handles of the large rolling bin filled with feed. With a grunt, he started to push it toward the break in the fence. Jack walked slowly behind him, thinking not for the first time that he was in the wrong line of work. It wasn’t ranching that he considered his “job,” but tending to his father. Clearly, the old man thought he no longer needed a keeper, and Jack was coming around to the same opinion.
His father pushed the feed bin toward the troughs, a line of sweat on his brow but no other signs of distress. Two years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to cross this field, let alone push 150 pounds. He’s better. At last.
And now I’m obsolete.
At a shout from behind him, Jack turned and shaded his eyes, making out a familiar figure headed in their direction. “You sure Dad should be doing that by himself?” his older brother Jameson asked as he reached Jack’s side.
“You can ask him,” Jack said, jerking his chin in their father’s direction.
Jameson made his way through the break in the fence, calling out to their father. “Let me give you a hand, Dad.”
Jack watched as his father’s face screwed up. He proceeded to tear Jameson a new one, spitting out the curse words he’d never let fly if Mama May were in earshot. Jack held back his laughter as his older brother turned and headed away from the old man, a scowl on his face. “You deal with him,” Jameson grumbled as he passed. “We should have put him in a home when we had the chance.”
This time, Jack did laugh. The idea of putting their father into some kind of assisted living had never come up, and he knew his brother wasn’t serious. Still, the writing was on the wall—Bill MacAllen was done being coddled.
Jack made his way through the fence and over to the troughs. Grabbing a pitchfork from the bin, he joined his father as he filled the troughs in silence. In the distance, the herd had noticed their efforts. The steers started making their way toward an easy meal.
When they’d finished feeding, Jack and his father returned to the feed barn. Neither said a word until they hung up their forks and dusted off their jeans.
“It ain’t that I don’t appreciate you,” his father said suddenly. “I do. It’s just, a man don’t like to feel as if he can’t carry his own weight.”
Jack nodded, settling his own weight onto a hay bale and taking the hat off his head. The heat in the barn wasn’t yet stifling. April had just barely become May, so it wasn’t the inferno that summer would be, but the humidity was such that he felt like he could wring out the air to fill up a water glass. “No one likes to feel helpless.”
“I’m not helpless, not anymore. “His father let out a sigh and hooked his thumbs into his belt. “And I need you and your siblings to accept that.”
“You scared us,” Jack admitted. “You’ve always been the strongest of us all, and we worried you might be taken from us. All we want is to make sure you’re all healed up. There’s no shame in slowing down.”
His father barked out a laugh that was tinged in frustration. “I’ve been going slow for too dang long. I need to be out here working. You’ve been helping me out for the past couple years, so help me now. Tell your siblings to lay off. And find some other way of spending your time besides following me around, offering to tie my shoes and wipe my bottom for me.”
Jack frowned. He knew his father was irritated, but the words hurt nonetheless. “I was never that bad,” he grumbled. “I’ve always tried to be respectful.”
Bill sighed and sat down on the bale beside his son. Putting his hand on Jack’s shoulder, he squeezed. “I’m sorry, son. I’m just being cranky. I shouldn’t have been short with you.” His hand moved as he adjusted the black Stetson on his head. “You’ve sacrificed for me, and I’m mighty grateful.”
Jack looked up into his father’s lined face. “It didn’t feel like a sacrifice.” His words were thoughtful. “It’s just what family does.” He looked down at his hands. “Besides, it isn’t as if I’ve got much else to do. Even Evan has a sense of purpose now, but me?”
Evan was his younger brother. Once the family’s black sheep, he used to spend more effort getting out of work than he would have if he’d just done the job he’d been assigned. But he was now happily married, and like his twin brother, Elijah, he relished working the ranch day after day.
I love the ranch, Jack thought. Just not like they do. I love the way it looks in the light. The colors and textures of its fields, of its beasts, and its changing seasons. I enjoy working the ranch, but I don’t have much of a talent for it. And sooner or later, my paints distract me.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Bill advised. “You’re a MacAllen, just as tied to this land as any of your brothers, as me and your mother. You will always have a place here.”
“Thank you,” he said, nodding at his father and trying on a smile. He knew his father was attempting to comfort him, but Jack had been inconsolable for long enough now that words weren’t much of a comfort at all. He stood, looking at his watch. “We better wash up for lunch, or Mark will finish off all the sandwiches before we get to the table.”
Mark was nowhere to be seen when they entered the farmhouse’s kitchen. Mama May was there, peeling potatoes for dinner and tossing them into a pot on the stove. “Sandwiches and pasta salad is on the table. Jack, take the pitcher of milk in the fridge along with you.”
Jack kissed his mother on her cheek and did as she said. Lunches were a “catch as catch can” affair. The running of the MacAllen ranch made it so that lunchtime wasn’t hard and fast, not like dinner, and often, Jack’s siblings and the ranch hands would eat when they had a free moment in between tending to the fields and the animals. It seemed Jack and his father were the first to arrive this afternoon. The usual spread filled the table, thanks to his mother’s tireless efforts, but none of it looked appetizing to Jack.
He sat down and dutifully filled his plate, forcing his mouth to bite and chew as he had been for the past few months. He knew the malaise he felt had nothing to do with his mother’s cooking because it tasted as good as always. But even her blue ribbon cooking skills didn’t help him shrug off the depression that lurked inside him.
Jack heard the front door open and footsteps came down the hall. “What is it today? Not baloney I hope?” He looked up at the sound of his sister’s voice as she inspected the noontime spread. “Oooh, turkey!”
Brenne leaned over the table and started piling a plate high with sandwich corners, green salad, and a couple apple wedges. “Just need a drink. Don’t mess with my plate now!” she told him, shaking a finger in warning.
Jack ignored his sister. There was plenty of food on the table, meaning there was no need to steal from his sister’s plate, but he couldn’t blame Brenne for her caution. He wasn’t above pranking his siblings, even though he was over thirty and likely too old for such shenanigans. That hadn’t stopped him from replacing the mayonnaise with marshmallow fluff or switching out her glass for a joke dribble glass in the past.
His current mood didn’t lend itself to the practical joker lifestyle, mainly because there wasn’t much he felt like laughing about lately. Brenne returned, and Jack was surprised to see she wasn’t holding a bottle of her favorite strawberry soda. Her eyes were wide as she slowly pulled out a chair and took a seat at the dining-room table.
“What happened?” he asked when he noticed the flush in her cheeks.
“Dad and Mama May were…” She shook her head, her nose wrinkling. “Jack, they were kissing—no, they were full-on making out in the kitchen!” Her voice was low, but the shock it held was evident.
“You’re joking,” he said, his tone flat as he set half his uneaten sandwich on his plate.
“Hand to God,” Brenne said, lifting one hand toward the ceiling. “Dad even had her dipped back. I swear I don’t think they even knew I was in there.”
“I guess Dad really is all better,” he said. Part of him was happy to know his father had finally recovered fully from his bout with cancer. The rest of him was done thinking about that aspect of his parents’ lives.
There was a sudden commotion down the hall, then the sound of footsteps hurrying up the back stairs and heading down the hall. Jack heard a door close on the floor above him, and a muffled giggle. Brenne dropped her sandwich and shook her head. “I can’t even… a nooner?”
The front door shut and footsteps headed down the hall. Evan appeared, wasting no time grabbing a plate and loading it up. Jameson was a few steps behind him, having veered toward the kitchen. “Where’s Dad?” he asked when he appeared in the dining-room doorway.
“Don’t ask,” Brenne said, picking at her salad.
Evan read his sister’s tone and dug deeper. “Why not? Did he tell you to muck out the stables all by yourself?”
“Don’t even try it, Evan MacAllen,” Brenne fired back. “You’re on stable duty this week with me and you know it.”
Jameson turned to Jack in hopes of getting an answer to his question.
“He’s upstairs in his room,” Jack said, feeling a hint of that old playfulness. “You should go on up. I’m sure you won’t be interrupting anything.”
“I knew it,” Jameson said, taking a seat and leaning back, his face full of frustration. “I should have stopped him. He’s been doing too much lately. It’s bound to make him exhausted. When he wakes up from his nap, I’ll—”
“He’s not taking a nap,” Jack corrected. “He’s up there with Mama May.”
Jameson sat forward, his face confused. “With Mama May? Is she making sure he’s okay?”
Jack shrugged. “I mean, that’s one way to put it.”
Jameson stared at him as Evan’s mouth dropped open, a bite of sandwich falling out. “No way.”
“Yes way,” Brenne said, frowning. “I saw them kissing in the kitchen. Then they ran up the stairs like a pair of teenagers and shut their bedroom door.”
“I’ll be damned,” Evan said, grinning. “Good for you, Dad!”
Jameson rubbed his hands over his face. “Why couldn’t you just let me believe it was a nap?”
“The point is, he’s getting better,” Jack said. “We don’t need to hold his hand anymore. Although I don’t expect him to take over the whole operation from you, we can expect to see him out in the fields with us every day now, I reckon.”
While the rest of his siblings focused on lunch, Jack stood, no longer hungry. He cleaned up his plate in the kitchen, then let himself out the back door. After a quick stop by the cottage to grab his supplies, Jack made it to the south field, brush in hand, his attention trained on the stalks of corn that were just starting to burst through the ground and stretch their green leaves toward the sun.
Although he’d started by painting hyper-realistic landscapes, his latest paintings had been more abstract, featuring the play of light and texture to give a more impressionistic feeling. Jack figured it meant he was maturing, at least in terms of his art. In other aspects of his life, he felt decidedly less mature.
He managed to get down a base of light blue before pulling his phone out of his pocket. Jack had struggled lately to ignore his phone long enough to finish a painting. It had started when he’d been bored, cruising social media one night after a day of his father griping at him for trying to help with his daily tasks. That was when he’d hit upon her profile.
He scrolled to her profile now, wondering if she’d uploaded anything new in the two hours since he’d last checked. She had, posting a photo of her decked out in black, standing in the middle of an empty art gallery. Her slim form and expressive dark eyes held his attention until he saw the caption: Marston Gallery, home of the next Olivo exhibit.
Jack had heard of the Marston. It was one of the trendiest galleries in SoHo—and one of the most exclusive. To have a show there meant Selena had reached the pinnacle of fame. She’d managed to do what she always talked about when they were in art school together. And all she’d had to do to accomplish it was leave him behind.
Jack sighed, shoving the phone back in his pocket and staring out over the fields of corn. Whiskey River was about as far away as one could get from New York City and still speak the same language. Whatever life Selena was living now, it looked nothing like his.
That life has passed me by. And now even the life I’ve made for myself has done the same.
Jack let out a sigh, the cornstalks no longer holding his interest. He wondered if they ever would again.
Can’t wait to read the rest of this book!
Thank you, Judy. I hope you enjoy Vodka Virgin.