“GET OUT,” he insists, and I know it’s hopeless.
The crabby old man kicks me to the curb—or rather, the edge of the dirt road. His tires stir up dust as he turns back for the main road. A sign back there claimed Blue Stone Ranch was only a few miles in this direction. A few miles…shit.
For the first time all morning, I’m grateful I don’t have much with me, just my purse. Inside, hilariously, I have what used to be my life’s essentials: a dead cell phone, a makeup bag for touchups, a bottle of perfume, my wallet, breath mints, a tub of La Mer moisturizer, and the wrapper of a protein bar I failed to ration properly.
No tennis shoes. No GPS tracking system. Hell, a compass would be much appreciated at this point.
As it is, I’m on my own, for real this time. I even left the last of my precious peanuts in the seat pocket of the taxi.
It’s fine. I’ll be fine. Everything is fine.
I hoist my purse higher on my shoulder and set off down the road. The soles of my loafers have such little padding that I feel every pebble. I’d walk in the grass beside the road, but it’s thick and overgrown, and I fear snakes more than I fear pebbles digging into the soles of my feet. I have nothing but time as I trudge along in the dirt. I try to convince myself I only have a little bit longer, but truthfully, I have no way to gauge how far I’ve gone. I left the fancy watch that tracks my steps back in California.
I distract myself by trying to see the positive details of my current situation: I am alive and well, I’ve taken back control of my life, and I am on my way to building something new. I am at the start of a grand adventure. Sure, there will be bumps along the way, but anything is better than the direction I was headed with Andrew.
I think I hear the rumble of a car behind me. I whip around, half convinced I’m hallucinating from dehydration (should’ve opted for low sodium peanuts), and spot an old truck rumbling down the road. It’s coming straight for me, and two things run through my mind at once. First: Hallelujah! My salvation has arrived! Second: In what part of Texas did that chainsaw massacre take place?
Honestly, I’m just happy to see another human being, even if he turns out to be a cannibal with power tools. The truck barrels closer and it’s too late to escape detection, so I settle for a cheerful wave and one of my big, enchanting smiles. The gesture should say, Hi there! Look at me, I’m too pleasant to murder!
The truck pulls to a stop beside me and two older, tanned men with beat-up cowboy hats take up the entire bench seat. The one closer to me rolls down the window and props his elbow on the sill. I scan the front seat for killing implements but instead spot a tub of chewing tobacco and two matching Big Gulps.
DARLIN! I swoon and forget I’m supposed to be fearing for my life.
“As a matter of fact, I am.” I smile and explain confidently, “I’m looking for Blue Stone Ranch.”
The man near me frowns and tips his head, confused. “You mean Blue Stone Farm?”
I’m pretty sure Helen said Blue Stone Ranch in her email.
“Umm, now I’m not sure. Is there a difference?”
“Blue Stone Farm is the fancy restaurant a few miles that way.” He points back in the direction I’ve been walking and my heart sinks. No. NO. I am not turning back. “Blue Stone Ranch is…well, a ranch.”
“Where would I find Jack McNight?”
He nods. “Jack’ll be at the ranch.”
“Okay then that’s where I’m going.”
They exchange a glance, and then the one closer to me nods toward the bed of the truck. “We’re going that way too. It ain’t the smoothest ride, but you’re welcome to hop in there if ya want.”
The driver thumps his friend on the head. “Karl, don’t be an idiot—you get in the back and let the nice lady sit up here. Didn’t your mama teach you jack shit?”
I leap into action before Karl can move. “No! No. It’s all right. I insist on riding in the back. It’ll remind me of hayrides when I was a kid. I’m very nostalgic.”
My survival instincts have kicked in again: at least if I’m sitting back there, I can toss myself out of the truck if I get the feeling they’ve decided to kidnap me.
It takes me a few tries before I’m able to hoist myself into the bed of the truck using one of the back tires. I am a picture of grace and elegance as I take a seat near the tailgate, situate my purse on my lap, and then smack the bed twice to signal that I’m ready. The truck shifts into drive and away we go.
I spend the next ten minutes in hell as we trudge along the neglected country road. It’s a bumpy ride, to say the least. I spit dirt out of my mouth and squeeze my eyes closed to keep dust out of them. Pebbles ping off the tires and somehow fling themselves at my head. I’m getting assaulted on all fronts, and that doesn’t even include what the wind is doing to my hair. It takes me too long to realize it’s much more pleasant to sit with my back against the cab of the truck rather than the tailgate. As we pull up to a tall, arched wrought iron gate that boldly announces that we’ve arrived at Blue Stone Ranch, I am convinced I look as if I’ve just stepped off the front line of a war. I think I even have some blood on my forehead from a particularly beefy bug.
My current physical condition aside, I’m shocked by the sight before me. I’ve never set foot on a ranch before, but I had concocted a pretty dismal picture in my head, preparing for the worst so I wouldn’t be disappointed. Instead, it seems I’ve stumbled upon what can only be described as an adorable movie set. The main road we’re on dead-ends into a circular gravel drive, smack-dab in the center of it all. On one side of the circle, there’s a two-story white farmhouse with a metal roof and an inviting porch swing swaying in the wind. There are potted plants and flowers soaking up the sun on the rim of the porch. Beyond that, cows amble in a pasture beneath the shade of massive oak trees. I scan past a large chicken coop and a field with a few glistening horses, and beside that, a massive red barn divides the animals from the largest garden I’ve ever seen.
There are people at work everywhere—scratch that, not people, men. There isn’t a single female in sight, which is probably why I garner quite a few sideways stares as I ride up in the back of the truck like I’m the grand marshal of the saddest one-car parade in history.
The truck pulls up and parks beside the other ranch vehicles. I hop down from the bed and try my best to restore my battered appearance, dabbing tentatively at the blood on my forehead, patting my hair down, and then heaving a sigh of defeat. At this point, it is what it is, and it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.
“He’ll probably be up in the house,” Karl says, pointing in the direction of the farmhouse I was just admiring. “Jack.”
I tip my head in thanks and offer a limp wave before I set off to meet my new boss. All eyes are on me as I walk the few yards between the truck and the front porch. I stick out like a sore thumb in this setting, but instead of giving in to the sudden flood of nerves, I try to recall any details Helen might have mentioned about her job over the years.
Let’s see, I know she’s an executive assistant, and in that role she…assists. Damn. I know nothing. Has she ever said anything about her boss? I can’t remember. I mean, she must enjoy her job if she’s been here for almost six years…or maybe she’s stayed so long because it’s her only option? It’s probably hard to find work in such a rural area—and I mean RURAL. The journey from San Antonio to Cedar Creek felt like I was going through some kind of time warp. With each passing mile, the countryside became less and less populated, the roads transitioned from concrete to asphalt to dirt, and I’m not sure they even get cell service out here. That’s what I’m thinking about when I knock on the front door of the farmhouse and it’s whipped open a second later.
A tall, thin woman stands on the threshold wearing jeans and a pearl snap shirt. Her white-gray hair is cropped short in a pixie style and her steel eyes seem to cut right through me. She’s not wearing a stitch of makeup. Still, she’s beautiful, regal almost, with a few wrinkles rimming the corners of her eyes.