Ellery's Choice by Robin Stock
Illustration by: Julie Notarianni
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Ellery's Choice

This is a joke, I think as I carry the metal basket out toward the chicken coop. I think it every day while I slop through the mud to fill the cows’ water trough or while I pull weeds from the garden. I’m so not a farm girl.

A year ago I was covering accounts as a public relations manager for an up-and-coming firm.

That was before the call that changed my life.

I’d just gotten home from a wild day opening a new store at Columbus’s hottest outdoor shopping center. I pulled off my shoes and scurried to the computer for my nightly “date” via Skype with my fiancé, Matt.

Matt was in Afghanistan with the Army Reserves. As a civilian, he was a brilliant financial analyst. We’d met at one of my PR events and it was all sparks. We barely made it inside the door of my apartment before we were naked. And people say it never works out when you sleep together on the first date …

A little late getting to the computer, I expected to find a missed call or two, but when I fired it up, there were no missed calls and Matt was not online. My phone had died midday, the wretched thing, so I plugged it in; as soon as I did, six messages flashed, all from Matt’s mom. My stomach lurched as I listened. The first five were tearful pleas for me to call. The sixth was the message: Matt had died in a mortar attack on the base.

I made it through the next week somehow, covering my accounts just barely. My boss told me I should take some time off to grieve. I balked, thinking that work was helping me keep it together. But when he showed me three mistakes I’d made on client accounts, I agreed to take a leave of absence. The door was open, he said, whenever I was ready to come back.

So how did I get here, working a farm in the middle of the Appalachian foothills? Well, I attended Matt’s funeral.

Matt was buried in his hometown, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, blue-collar town of 5,000. The small “downtown” was lined with shops that had been run generation-to-generation with no updates — a barbershop, a hardware store, a grocery store, and a small eatery with an ice cream shop attached. Farmland stretched for miles beyond, one of the smaller farms belonging to Matt’s parents.

Married thirty years, Matt’s parents had raised three kids on that farm. I stayed with them in the days leading up to the funeral. During that time, Gene and Rebecca Allen told me that Matt’s death was not the only thing with which they were struggling. Gene was about to battle bone cancer.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision when I offered to stay indefinitely to help around the farm while Gene focused on getting better. I’m sure the Allens were dubious that I’d actually be any real help to them, and I suspect they accepted my offer more to help me.

So here I am, nearly a year later, still laughing at myself for thinking I could milk a cow, or keep baby chicks alive, or mow twelve acres of grass.

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Thankfully, I’m not alone. Rebecca takes care of the chores and Gene helps when he’s up to it. This week, though, they’re in the city for radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

After I gather the eggs, I wipe the sweat from my forehead and pull my long, blond hair into a ponytail, fastening it with the black hair tie I always wear around my wrist. It’s damn humid already; I feel like I’ve taken a shower in sweat and it’s not even noon.

I steel myself to do what I’ve been dreading all morning. I have to try to encourage a calf away from his mother so I can have him ready for the rancher who’s buying him. I’m not afraid of Little Blue; I’m more afraid of his mother, Big Red. She’s hell on wheels and honks and howls like she’s insane when he gets more than a hundred feet away from her.

Now, this is not normally the type of thing the Allens would expect me to do. But the neighbor who was handling it for them called last night to tell me he’d fallen from a ladder and broken his arm. I’d assured him I could handle it.

And I can. I just need to rope him and lead him out before his mom catches wind of my intentions. If she figures it out, she’ll charge, and I do not want fifteen hundred pounds of mad mama cow coming at me. I don’t own shoes that make me that fast.

Little Blue trusts me, so it’s only a moment before he responds to the light shaking I’m doing with a bit of his feed in a metal bucket. He practically trots my way, thinking he’s getting a special treat.

I let him stick his head in, wrapping the rope around his neck as he eats. Then I hear it — the horrible, loud howling of a red cow looking for her baby.

Slowly I back toward the gate, quietly encouraging Little Blue to follow me. He doesn’t move fast enough for my taste, so I tug the rope. Big Red is coming toward us. She howls again. I tug, but Little Blue hears her call and digs into the mud, unsure if he should follow me or listen to her.

I tug again, pleading this time, and he budges a little just as Big Red picks up the pace. She lets out a long howl and comes at me. I tug and Little Blue stands firm. He’s probably seven hundred pounds on his own; he won’t go an inch unless he wants to, and right now, he’s just not that into me.

As she charges, I give up and go for the gate, slamming it shut just as Big Red rams into the metal, the clanging sound ringing through the hills. Stupidly, I reach out to check the catch just as she rams again.

Into a pit of mud I go, ass first.

I get up, letting out a stream of swear words that would make most people blush. Just as I finish my tirade about how stupid cows are, and how much I hate this farm, and a few other nonsensical complaints, I hear a full-on belly laugh rising up behind me.

I turn, cheeks flaming, and find myself face-to-chest with a white T-shirt.

“Whoa there,” says the mouth that’s presumably located somewhere above the chest, “You okay?” A muscled arm reaches out and encircles my waist as I try to back away, nearly taking another spill after tripping over my own, stupid, rubber mud boots.

“I’m. Fine.” I insist, pushing the chest away so I can look at this monster that’s just accosted me.

Well, damn.

This guy is way over six-feet tall, muscled, bronze-skinned, dark-haired, and blue-eyed. He’s still smiling, and his teeth are bright white and braces-straight. I practically trip over myself again and I’m not even moving.

“You’re not ... Mr. Gaffney ... are you?” I squeak. I’m selling the calf to a rancher from two towns over. I got the impression the guy would be some old, leathery cowboy. This guy’s a cowboy, all right, but he might be thirty on the high side.

“Well, a junior Gaffney, anyway,” he says, sticking out his hand for me to shake. “Mack Gaffney, at your service.”

I stare at his hand with my mouth hanging open. After an awkward moment he pulls it away and rubs it on the front of his shirt.

“I’m sorry!” I spit out, holding my hand out. He takes it and doesn’t let go. “I’m just in shock, I guess. From the thing with the cows. I’m Ellery Adams.”

He grins and I blush what must be the shade of a Technicolor-pink Post-it note.

“Ellery,” he says, still shaking my hand. The sound of my name on his lips makes me gasp out loud. “I’ve never seen anyone rope a calf quite like that.”

And ... the spell is broken. “Well, excuse me for not taking Cow Roping 101 in college,” I mutter, embarrassed.

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He holds up his hands in mock-surrender. “I didn’t mean any offense. Take it easy.” He walks toward the gate. “Go take a break. I’m happy to take care of this for you.”

I’m not proud of myself, but the noise I make in response to the dismissal would rival any pre-teen girl’s. He chuckles, which boils my blood.

I’m covered in mud, angry, and mortified at my extreme farming fail. I decide to take a quick shower and I can see him wrestling with the calf from the upstairs bathroom window. Big Red is charging at him, too, and he backs out quickly as he slams the gate on her. He doesn’t fall, though it would serve him right.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m in a clean pair of shorts and a tank top, my hair wet and falling down my back. I pour myself a glass of lemonade and watch out the back door as Mack Gaffney Jr. loads Little Blue into the trailer hitched to the back of a huge Ford truck.

Well, that’s that, then. I won’t have to see that guy again, I think as I wander toward the refrigerator to pull out some food for breakfast.

“I’ve got him.”

I jump at the sudden voice behind me and dump a whole carton of eggs on the linoleum tile.

Oh great, the giant cowboy is in my kitchen. I’m still embarrassed by our encounter outside, and I can’t really pinpoint why this guy sets me on edge. Even as he apologizes for making me drop my eggs, I’m ready to bite his head off. Luckily the phone rings, and I grab it from the counter. It’s Jason, an old friend from the agency.