The Rancher’s Rose
Robert N. Novey
w/a Delight Novey
Robert N. Novey
3235 Fodder Creek Rd.
Hiawassee, Ga 30546
706-896-9794 (H) Word Count: 80,000
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 1.
The lone button securing the runway model’s taut blouse tumbled to the red carpet. The
blouse sprang open, baring the model’s breasts to the crowd. Cameras flashed all around. The
audience of New York fashion-industry insiders collectively gasped.
Cassidy, with finger hovering above the shutter, watched the bare-chested model through
a zoom lens. Beside her, Laney’s camera fired rapidly.
The model strode—eyes dead ahead, chin lowered slightly, each footfall in line with the
last, hips jutting from side to side—to the end of the runway and posed as if oblivious that her
breasts were on display.
Cassidy turned to face her mom and dad in the front row. Poor Dad didn’t know where to
look. He thought these shows were to risqué even when the models managed to keep their
clothes on. Cassidy could tell that Mom was losing her battle not to laugh: her hand covered her
mouth; she wiggled side to side in her seat; and her chest jiggled uncontrollably. Cassidy hadn’t
seen her this happy since the diagnosis.
The model spun and walked away, not missing a beat of the thumping techno music
blaring from the wall of speakers at the rear of the stage.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 2.
Cassidy hadn’t taken a single shot. Laney, standing beside her at the end of the runway,
pulled the memory card from her camera and loaded another.
Cassidy didn’t mind losing to Laney in the tabloids because she never submitted her work
there anyway, but each month, she battled Laney in the fashion magazines, cover for cover, the
best photographer at Élan against the best at Empyrean. Their rivalry oozed beyond the confines
of work. (Laney once attempted to steal Trevor after Cassidy had been dating him for over a
Another waif model emerged from the black silk curtain and stomped down the runway,
wearing a blood red silk tunic over white linen palazzo pants. Cassidy framed the model’s face
and torso in a tight shot. Just before Cassidy pressed the shutter, Laney’s foot bumped her tripod
and blurred the shot.
Cassidy had enough history with Laney to know that she’d probably done it on purpose.
Cassidy and Laney were the only photographers with passes to stand at the end of the runway.
They, too, were on display to all who watched the show. Cassidy slid her tripod a few inches
away from Laney’s.
Every inch that Cassidy slid, Laney immediately usurped by sliding her tripod over.
The next model, wearing a black retro mini dress, parted the curtain. Cassidy framed a
Just before she pressed the shutter, Laney’s tripod banged into hers.
Cassidy steadied the camera and salvaged a shot, but not a great one. She knew all too
well that only great shots made it into the magazine. She took a deep breath and tried to stay
focused because she still needed a cover shot.
The show was winding down. The last model stepped off stage.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 3.
Cassidy lined up on the black silk curtain. Soon, the designer would emerge, with a
beautiful model on each arm, to bow for the audience.
Again Laney’s foot found Cassidy’s tripod, nudging it till the camera focus blurred
Cassidy braced the tripod with her leg and steadied the camera.
The black curtain parted.
“Laney,” Cassidy shouted over the music. Laney turned with a what-the-hell-do-you-
want look. Cassidy pressed the shutter, firing five hundred thousand candlepower of blinding
flash in Laney’s face. “Oops…sorry.” Cassidy spun and snapped a perfectly framed cover shot of
the designer waving.
That shot may earn me the promotion. Cassidy could already picture her name plaque on
office 29B, the large corner office vacated by the last vice-president of photography.
“Bitch,” Laney mumbled.
“I’m sorry, did you miss the shot? I’m sure Élan would be happy to sell Empyrean the
reprint rights.” Cassidy knew that Empyrean Magazine would rather print blank space than run
their rival’s reprints.
The techno music faded to background levels. It was palm-pressing time, but Cassidy had
only two VIP guests on her mind, Mom and Dad.
“I’m so glad you came. I know this isn’t your thing.”
Cassidy’s mom clutched her hand.
It scared Cassidy when Mom held her so tightly, as if holding on to keep from being
blown away by her illness. As a child, Cassidy would clutch her mom the same way during
thunderstorms, and Mom would comfort her by singing “Whistle a Happy Tune,” sometimes for
hours. Now, Cassidy wished she knew what to say or do to comfort Mom.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 4.
Cassidy hugged her.
Late that evening, Cassidy slowed as she walked along the sidewalk toward her
apartment building. She hadn’t felt like going to the after-show party, but had gone anyway. It
really was part of the job and nothing was more important to Cassidy than her career. She paused
at a circle of dirt ringed with wrought iron in the center of the sidewalk. When Cassidy had
moved in, there had been a tortured tree there. The tree had long since died and gone. All that
remained in the wrought iron ring was a few stray wrappers, a soggy piece of cardboard, and a
single mound of dog poop.
She glanced up at the twenty-story building and recalled the first time she saw it: she and
Trevor stopped right about here on the sidewalk; the agent kept walking to the door. It was one
of those rare New York spring days when the sun, usually just a hazy light bulb for the city,
became a golden beacon in a sky so blue that it appeared fake like an over saturated photo. The
agent assured her that this apartment was perfect for them.
Trevor had his game face on and so did Cassidy, but the minute she saw the apartment—
wooden floors, vaulted ceiling, stainless appliances—she struggled to hide her enthusiasm. It
even had an extra room—just in case.
Moving in together was such a big step, but she’d been so sure it would work out.
Cassidy stood in the darkness, staring upward, wondering where that giddy feeling had
It amazed her how alone she could feel in a city packed with millions of people. She
stepped into the empty foyer, walked over to the elevator, and rode up to the fifteenth floor.
When the doors parted, she paused, not wanting to walk the final few steps to the door to her
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 5.
empty apartment. The elevator doors began to close. She surged forward, pushed them apart, and
As a child, flipping the three locks on the Lower East Side apartment where she grew up
always filled her with a jolt of excitement. Home had been a sanctuary from school and from the
She turned the locks on her own apartment without feeling anything. She nudged the door
The kitchen light, on as always, so she didn’t return to darkness, hummed as if struggling
to stay lit. Its diffuse glow spilled into the family room and finally died in the foyer.
Maybe I should get a cat, she thought, something to come home to?
She knew better. What cat would survive being alone for the crazy hours that I work?
She slipped off her blazer and draped it over the counter. The answering machine
blinked—a beacon of companionship in her fog of loneliness.
Cassidy pushed the button. A mechanical voice announced, “Mes–sage one, re–ceived
Cassidy kicked off her heels.
Oh, that feels good.
“Cassidy Kincaid?” The unfamiliar man’s slow southern drawl lilted with uncertainty.
“My name is Tom Jenkins…I’m the mayor of Gumlog Georgia.” He paused. “I’m sorry to have
to tell you this, like this…but Marlene Pajak has passed away.”
The kitchen light flickered and died.
“You can’t leave me here.” A week had passed since the phone message.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 6.
The bulbous luggage porter, wearing a faded, wrinkled pea-green uniform, stopped in
mid waddle and turned back. “Don’t leave the yellow box.” He didn’t wait for a reaction before
trudging up the metal ramp, luggage cart trundling behind, to a propped open metal door labeled:
Fire Escape—Alarm Will Sound. He kicked out the doorstop. The door to terminal “E” of the
Atlanta International Airport slammed shut behind him.
Cassidy doubted he had any intention of retrieving the second of the two carts that had
been needed to bring out all of her bags. She looked down at her luggage and pointed to each bag
as she counted under her breath, “One, two, three”—the bags lay strewn around her—“four,
five”—just beyond the bags, a thick box of yellow paint, on the otherwise black tarmac,
delineated her restricted boundaries—“six, seven, eight.” At least they’re all here.
A distant rumble drew Cassidy’s eyes upward to the ashen clouds that littered the
otherwise deep blue afternoon sky. I have to get out of here before rain ruins my luggage…and
my clothes. She stood all alone on a desolate stretch of tarmac in the shadow of the towering
concrete exterior walls of the airport terminal. “Is the connecting flight going to pick me up
here?” she asked. But there was no one around to answer.
The roar of jet engines engulfed her as a Delta plane screamed by on the nearby runway
and clawed into the sky.
Probably my flight returning to New York. Wish I were on it.
She stood, jailed by her matching designer luggage and the forbidding yellow line,
trapped, like a child in timeout. It reminded her of second grade when Mrs. Peavy tried to make
her stand in the corner after she’d abandoned her seat to check on a bird that had crashed into
one of the classroom windows. She didn’t listen then and now, six years free of college, one of
the most successful fashion photographers in New York, she wasn’t about to take orders.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 7.
Cassidy hiked her navy-blue skirt just high enough to step over two bags. After a brief
pause to straighten her skirt, she stepped across the yellow line. She looked side to side, half
expecting an alarm to sound. Mrs. Peavy’s shrill voice replayed in her head, Young lady you get
back here right this instant. Hearing no alarm and ignoring the nag in her head, Cassidy ascended
the metal ramp with measured steps, taking care to avoid dropping a heel in the gaps between the
At the top of the ramp, a solid steel door, perhaps one of the many post 9-11
improvements, blocked her return to the terminal. She reached for a handle but found only a
deadbolt keyhole. Cassidy bent down and peered through the narrow inset window crisscrossed
with reinforcing wire. The porter was nowhere to be seen. She cupped her hands around her face
and pressed against the glass. Inside, a long dim hallway led back to the main artery of the
terminal where travelers flowed by like taxis on FDR Drive in front of her office building.
This is ridiculous.
Cassidy drew back her fist, preparing to unleash a thunderous pounding against the door.
A green shirt eclipsed the small window. The door cracked. She reeled backward, barely
outpacing the arc of the swinging door, until her rear bumped the concrete wall. The door
thumped against her upraised hands.
The porter lumbered down the ramp and stopped halfway. “Where the hell?” he
She pushed the door, freeing herself from behind.
The porter turned.
Cassidy drew in a deep breath and gathered herself. Summoning all the courtesy she
could and trying not to sound patronizing, she asked, “When is a plane coming to get me?” She
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 8.
stepped toward him.
“No clue.” The porter retrieved the second cart and dragged it up the ramp. He passed
Cassidy, nearly flattening the toes of her sleek designer shoes, and disappeared into the terminal
without so much as a glance in her direction.
“So this is southern hospitality.” Cassidy, a lifelong New Yorker, a kid from the corner of
East Third and First Ave, now working at one of the most prestigious addresses in the city, knew
little about the south beyond what she’d gleaned from movies and television shows: an
unavoidable glimpse of the Dukes of Hazard as she clicked past looking for the nightly stock
report, a blurb on the national news about some bug-eyed bride who faked her own kidnapping,
late night Turner Classic movies like Cool Hand Luke. She looked back toward the terminal.
“What we have here,” she said in an exaggerated southern accent, “is a failure to communicate.”
She walked back toward her luggage, stepped over the painted yellow line, and resumed
She took a deep breath. At least I’m free from that tin can with wings. Just remembering
the view through the tiny porthole window during her flight from New York made her shudder.
She couldn’t escape the dizzying thought of how long it would take to fall from the plane,
screaming and flailing, down…down…down…to the ground so far below. Cassidy’s fear wasn’t
limited to flying. She never stepped within three feet of the wall of exterior windows in her
twenty-ninth floor office, except once, when she felt certain she was alone; she crawled the last
three feet, splayed out like a human carpet, and peered down on the frenetic streets below. But
only to prove to herself that she could—and only once.
Regardless, business was business, and Cassidy wouldn’t surrender to her fear. If fly she
must, fly she would, despite the queasiness that engulfed her at the thought of the next leg of her
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 9.
journey into the backwoods of north Georgia. I just hope it’s not one of those tiny prop
commuter planes coming to get me. She’d never had the misfortune of being on one before, but
she’d seen them sitting on the tarmac at La Guardia, tiny fragile little planes that at most held
twenty daring souls. Please don’t let it be one of those.
To her left, a ten-foot chain-link fence topped with prickly wire separated Cassidy from
the big jets that sat docked to the terminal by raised gangways, ready to ingest hundreds of
travelers. To her right, a line of sleek corporate jets gleamed in the sun, each a shiny badge of
success. Beside them squatted rows of tiny single-propeller planes pinned to the tarmac like
fragile butterflies, by ropes from each wing. Behind her lay the ramp to the forbidden door back
to the terminal, back to bustling civilization. Ahead lay a taxiway, and beyond that a runway
pointed into the distance.
Cassidy stood within a few hundred yards of thousands of travelers, but steel doors, high
fences, miles of tarmac, and the realization that she was out of her element, left her marooned on
a tiny island delineated by yellow paint, and feeling acutely alone.
Thunder rumbled overhead.
I knew this would be a disaster. Cassidy had been leery of this trip ever since a search of
Google Earth had confirmed her worries: she was flying to the Deep South, not the charming
B&B’s of Charleston or the mansions of Natchez, but the banjo picking, foot stomping, toot out
a tune on a whiskey jug ’cause your celebrating the impending nuptials of your brother…to your
She reached into her blazer and pulled out a PDA. She’d already checked it twice since
landing. Across the top, in a bold italicized Verdana font, a sticker read, “Tigress.” Nick, one of
the interns at the magazine, when unleashed with the label maker and tasked with updating the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 10.
files, had tagged the PDA and given her the nickname. Although the nickname started as a joke,
it stuck because of how well it fit her hurried work pace and unyielding standards. Cassidy didn’t
mind; the nickname had a way of scaring new interns into line.
Tiny wand in hand, she reviewed the itinerary that Rachel, her secretary, had
programmed: Flight 607 from LaGuardia to Atlanta. Private shuttle from Atlanta to Gumlog GA.
Private shuttle? No time, no name?
The sky rumbled. Cassidy looked up at the clouds, which had darkened from gray to
black. Through narrow gaps between the clouds, the persistent afternoon sun threw shafts of light
like the reflections of the ever-present spotlights that painted the sky in front of Radio City
Cassidy hooked her bluetooth hands-free over her ear, pulled out her cell, and speed
“Élan magazine, Cassidy Kincaid’s office,” Rachel answered.
A bright yellow biplane, more relic than plane, zigzagged up the taxiway. Its enormous
engine coughed smoke as it thumped out an erratic tune of belches and gasps. The pilot, some
wayward Errol Flynn, wearing a leather flying helmet and goggles, swung from side to side,
sticking his head out of the cockpit with every zig and zag. The ends of the white scarf wrapped
around his neck flitted in the breeze stirred by the enormous propeller.
“Élan magazine,” Rachel repeated.
The biplane, looking as if it had just returned from a sortie during World War I, turned
off the taxiway and rolled toward Cassidy. The pilot craned his head from side to side in the
cockpit as the plane continued to zigzag.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 11.
Cassidy covered the earpiece with her hand to block out the clatter. “When is the plane
supposed to meet me?”
A sleek private jet touched down on the runway. Its engines roared as it braked.
Rachel replied, “Any minute now.”
A drop of rain landed on Cassidy’s shoulder, another hit her head. She looked down at
the luggage. “I’m about to get soaked.”
The sleek jet turned and taxied toward Cassidy.
“Here it comes.” Thank goodness. At least it’s a jet.
The biplane rolled up beside her.
Cassidy waved the pilot off to make room for the jet. “Move it,” she shouted.
“What?” Rachel asked.
“Some clown is blocking my jet.”
The biplane coughed, shook like a wet dog, then silenced.
“So your plane is there?”
Cassidy looked up at the sky, then over at the approaching jet. “Yep, gotta go, thanks.”
She slapped the phone shut, plucked out the earpiece, and shoved everything into her pockets.
The pilot of the biplane stepped from the cockpit to the lower wing and then to the
ground, as if he’d done it a million times. He unwrapped the scarf and tossed it into the cockpit.
In one motion, he pulled off his goggles and leather cap and tossed them into the cockpit as well.
Cassidy glimpsed back and forth between the approaching jet and the biplane pilot. He
stood tall but not stiff, moved deftly but not hurriedly, every motion natural and comfortable. Out
of habit, Cassidy ran her hands down her skirt, pushing out any wrinkles.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 12.
The pilot slipped off a coverall flying suit. Beneath, he wore faded jeans and a red flannel
shirt. He walked toward her with long confident strides. Toss a Stetson on his head and he’d look
the perfect cowboy.
Cassidy glanced at the approaching jet, then back to the pilot. “You’re going to have to
move that,” she said as he approached.
The pilot didn’t register a response.
Cassidy pointed to the nearing jet. “They need to get close enough to pick up this
The pilot surveyed her luggage before stepping over the yellow line and crossing into her
box and onto her island. “This luggage?” he asked in a deep, calm voice. His piercing blue eyes
questioned her further.
Cassidy stared at his tanned face to avoid looking him up and down. She’d already
glimpsed enough to be intrigued. “Sorry Tex, I’ve got a plane to catch.” She raised her arm and
flagged the jet.
The biplane pilot shook his head, turned, and walked back to his plane.
Cassidy’s eyes traced from his broad shoulders down to his narrow waist and then
lingered teasingly on the tight seat of his pants, watching the ripple of muscle that accompanied
each step. Sorry to see you go, Tex.
The jet rolled straight toward Cassidy. She stood on her tiptoes, smiling and waving,
happy to be rescued before the impending rain, but a hint of queasiness tightened her stomach.
She steeled herself against the cloud of fear that crept into her head. At least it’s not one of those
Before her fear could reply, she stole another peek at the handsome biplane pilot. Maybe
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 13.
in another lifetime, Tex. He stood beside his cockpit, writing on a sheet of paper. She couldn’t
help admiring the view.
Back to the real world. Cassidy leaned over, picked up her laptop bag, and readied to
greet the flight attendants who would descend from the jet as soon as it stopped…stop…stop…
The jet turned sharply to Cassidy’s right. “Stop!”
A blast of jet wash, the worlds largest hairdryer set on incinerate, assaulted her. She
clutched the placket of her silk shirt to keep the scorching gale from ripping it open. Her blazer
flapped in the wind. Her eyes squinted into slits. She hunched over. “Stop.”
As the jet rolled away, the blast slowly diminished from a hurricane to a breeze and then
to total calm.
When Cassidy opened her eyes, she saw the biplane pilot protectively holding his plane
by a strut between the wings. In his free hand, he held up a single white sheet of paper with two
words written on it in bold: Cassidy Kincaid.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 14.
“You must be joking.” Cassidy turned a full circle. “Where are the cameras?”
The pilot stepped forward. “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but my plane doesn’t usually disappoint.
At the Spring Ladybug Festival people even line up for rides.”
No way…No freakin’ way am I going up in that…that…tinker toy, and who the heck are
you calling ma’am?
The pilot looked up at the darkening sky. “Ma’am, if we’re going, we need to giddyup.”
Ma’am, the word stung coming from a man who was obviously her age, if not a couple of
“I haven’t crashed yet,” the pilot offered.
“Yet?” The word ricocheted inside her head.
I can’t do this. She fiddled with the bottom hem of her blazer and stared at the pilot, who
seemed oblivious to her struggle, as if a fear of flying were beyond his comprehension.
Cassidy took a brief inventory of the outfits in her vulnerable luggage and considered
what they’d look like after a downpour. Okay Cass, she thought, you have three choices: stand
here and wait for the rain, beat down that steel door, or get into this rattletrap of an airplane.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 15.
She grasped at every stray thought that might help conquer her rising fear, but none did
until she remembered a terrifying evening when she’d mistakenly taken Donatella Grivaldi, a
prized client, to Mikado’s sushi restaurant, unaware that it was karaoke night. The drunken and
insistent client dragged her onstage for a horrifically embarrassing rendition of Sonny and Cher’s
“I’ve got you Babe” in front of an audience that included coworkers and, worst of all, her rival
from Empyrean, Elaine Trump (no relation to The Donald, but you’d never know it by her
inflated ego.) Cassidy hated the way Elaine’s coworkers called her Laney. A flight, no matter
how scary, couldn’t be worse than playing Sonny to the Donatella’s strangely affectionate Cher
in front of colleagues and Laney. Just thinking about Laney raised the hair on the back of her
neck, and with it, her determination.
“Let’s go,” she said.
The pilot stepped forward and offered his hand. Cassidy, unsure whether he was offering
a handshake or offering to help her step from the luggage bunker, handed him her carryon. “My
laptop’s in there,” she cautioned.
It hung awkwardly from his hand as if possibly dangerous, and definitely unwanted, like
a purse on a husband waiting outside the dressing rooms at Saks Fifth Avenue.
He offered his other hand over the luggage barrier. This time, he held it higher in what
appeared to be a demonstrative appeal for her to take hold.
Cassidy’s hand felt small when embraced by his fingers, which grasped her firmly but
effortlessly. Unlike the overcompensating death-grip handshakes she commonly received from
the attorneys and investment bankers that tried to pick her up, the pilot’s handshake had nothing
Steadied by his unwavering arm, Cassidy stepped over her bags. She stood face to
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 16.
collarbone and chest to stomach with the pilot. If she were meeting someone “in the industry”
back home, she would be expecting a pat on the back business hug, complete with cheek kisses
that never actually touched skin, but this wasn’t home and this guy didn’t look like the dainty
back patting type. With each breath, Cassidy drew in the scent of summer tan, that sweet smell of
a body flavored by the sun’s rays. She’d smelled it before, on vacations to the coast, but this was
different, no hint of oil, no aftertaste of gym.
“We have one small problem.” The pilot strode over to the plane and popped open a
hatch behind the rear cockpit, revealing a storage area about the size of a big hamper. “All
that”—he pointed to her luggage—“isn’t going to fit.”
Leaving without her luggage was simply unacceptable. Cassidy walked over to the plane
to troubleshoot the problem. “What about tossing some of it in here?” She pointed to the rear
“I kinda need that spot. You know, to fly the plane.”
Although Cassidy considered his words to be at least slightly condescending, his tone
remained unassuming. He spoke with an almost childlike earnestness.
She pointed to the forward cockpit. “Can’t we shove some up here?”
“If you want to sit in my lap.”
Ridiculous. What kind of a charter company doesn’t have a plane with luggage room? “I
have important business to attend to in Gumlog, Georgia, today.” This was a half-truth: she
needed to be in Gumlog to go through Marlene’s house and then put it up for sale. Not exactly
business, but Cassidy treated everything as if it were a work. She even made nightly task lists
that included everything from meetings to Pilates class. “I need my luggage.”
The pilot didn’t seem persuaded by her declaration.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 17.
Cassidy thought for a moment. “Can’t we shove it back here?” She pointed to the long
fuselage section between the luggage compartment and the tail.
“That would throw off the CG.”
Cassidy didn’t understand.
The pilot must have seen her confusion, because he explained, “The center of gravity
needs to be around here”—he pointed near the front of the bottom wing—“or we’re going to end
my streak of no crashes.”
Cassidy crossed her arms over her chest. “Then your company will have to send another
plane.” This would solve all her problems: a bigger plane would hold more luggage and be far
less terrifying to fly in than this antique biplane.
The pilot looked bemused. “Company?” He raised a hand to his chin, stroked, then
shrugged his shoulders. “There isn’t really a company.” He pointed absentmindedly toward the
biplane. “I’m just a guy with a plane.”
“Well, surely for what I’m paying, you can find a way to get my luggage to Gumlog.”
She had no idea what this flight cost because Rachel had booked her itinerary, as always, but
Cassidy was confident that it wasn’t cheap. These things never were.
“Ma’am, I’ve done many things with this old girl”—he nodded toward the plane—“crop
dusting, barn storming, and I even pulled a banner when old Frank Kelly finally worked up the
grit to propose to widow Mulberry, but I’ve never accepted a dime for any of it.”
“How can you expect to have a successful business like that?”
“Like I said ma’am, I’m just a guy with a plane.” He glanced up at the darkening sky.
“The only guy with a plane willing to fly you to Gumlog before this storm.”
Apparently the vagabond pilot was not without connections. He flipped open a cell phone
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 18.
and made a call. Within minutes, the forbidden door swung open and the portly baggage handler
galumphed out dragging a cart. A second porter, shorter and thinner, followed behind.
The pilot pointed at Cassidy’s luggage and said to her, “Pick the two you need today. I’ll
have the rest sent after you.”
The porters sidled up beside the ring of luggage. They didn’t look keen to wait long.
Cassidy suspected that the pudgy one was miffed that she’d escaped the yellow box.
She grabbed one handle, then another, then another. “I need more than two.”
“Okay, how ’bout we compromise on two, plus this.” He held up the laptop bag. “But not
one of those monsters.” He pointed to the two large bags that towered above the other luggage.
Cassidy asked, “The rest will be locked away somewhere safe?”
The porter nodded.
Cassidy looked to the pilot. He too nodded. For some reason, she found his nod more
trustworthy and more comforting.
Oh hell. Cassidy grabbed two bags, one that contained her makeup and hair-care products
and another that contained a couple of conservative business suits that would surely be
appropriate for any occasion.
The pilot stowed the two bags in the plane. The porters rolled away the rest. The
forbidden door slammed shut, once again leaving Cassidy stranded and scared. She wasn’t sure
that she would be able to climb into the biplane without her legs failing, reducing her to a blob of
quivering gelatin on the tarmac.
The pilot offered a pair of orange coveralls. “Gets pretty cold up there—with the wind
She looked over the clothing with a critical eye, noticing every smudge. She dismissed
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 19.
the garment with a wave. “No thanks.”
He shook the coveralls encouragingly. “Temperature drops three degrees per thousand
feet...and we’re headed into the mountains.”
Cassidy huffed, then grabbed the coveralls and stepped into them. The pant legs extended
inches beyond her feet.
The pilot bent down and, with subtle firmness, grasped her heel. In this unspoken
exchange, Cassidy knew to raise her leg. He moved his hand up her calf until it pressed against
the sensitive skin at the back of her knee. Cassidy almost bleated an uncharacteristic giggle. With
his other hand, the pilot slid the pant leg up her calf. When her foot emerged, he again grasped
her heel briefly before sliding on her shoe. Inexplicably, Cassidy had to stifle another giggle. She
couldn’t help thinking of her Ferragamo as more of a glass slipper and herself as Cinderella, but
surely her country prince would prove more pumpkin than royalty; after all, relationships, sooner
or later, always conflicted with her career. At times like this, the sting of the breakup with Trevor
was never far from her mind.
For a fleeting moment, she wished she were a bit more like her New York friends, a bit
more Sex and the City, notching up one-night stands and talking about the latest and greatest
positions. If she were, this nameless pilot would certainly become a notch, but that just wasn’t
Cassidy, wasn’t the woman she wanted to be; so as old fashioned as it sounded, Cassidy
preferred a life of serial monogamy—although this term annoyed her. She never thought of her
love life as “serial” anything. She simply chose to put love before sex. And if her breakup with
Trevor had taught her anything, it was to never put any relationship before her career. The real
order of things was—career, love, then sex. Therefore, in the year since the breakup, she’s kept
her eye on her promotion and off hot men like this pilot. But a little look never hurt…and maybe
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 20.
She didn’t dare indulge the daydream further for fear that the pilot might reach climax
and scream out, “Oh ma’am, oh ma’am.”
The pilot retrieved her second foot from the other pant leg. He then turned her around and
gently guided her arms into the sleeves. After burrowing his fingers up each sleeve and rescuing
her hands, he wrapped his arms around her from behind and zipped up the front. When the zipper
reached the top, his fingers lingered at her neck as if perhaps they had more business in the area.
Her girlish giddiness evaporated when she stood beside the plane preparing to board.
“Leave your shoes here. I’ll hand them in to you,” he said.
Cassidy extended an index finger and slowly, as if testing the temperature of warm water,
poked the glossy wing. To her dismay, the thin covering deflected against the pressure. “Fabric?”
“Painted silk,” he replied.
Silk. Cassidy remembered the runway model’s silk shirt bursting open. A quiver ran
down her spine and settle into her right leg, which began to tremor. “How old is this thing?”
The pilot seemed reluctant to answer, but finally said, “Her first job was training pilots
for the war.”
Cassidy could feel her brow arch as she looked over the plane. “Desert Storm?” she asked
“World War II.”
The tremor in Cassidy’s right leg spread to her left. Not waiting for more information that
would only scare her worse, she took three deep breaths and forced herself to step onto the
nonskid patch that delineated the solid area of the wing. From there she climbed into the front
cockpit, under the pilot’s watchful guidance.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 21.
After getting her situated, he handed her shoes over, swaddled her with six tight seatbelts,
slid a leather cap on her head, and positioned goggles over her eyes and a headset over her ears.
This was starting to feel more like a moon launch than a flight. Clearly, there would be no in-
flight beverage service.
Something about the tight belts, holding her submissively, unable to move if she wanted
to, gave her comfort, like a hug, until she heard the whine, sputter, and cough; and felt the
shimmy, shudder, and shake of the engine grumbling to life like a hacking, wheezing old man
waking to his final day.
“Can you hear me?” asked a voice in the headset.
She tried to shift in her seat, but couldn’t. The belts had ceased hugging and had turned
into a straightjacket. “Yes…yes,” she answered.
“Normally I’d take a little time and talk you through what’s about to happen, but we’re
racing this storm, so we’ll have to skip that.”
Cassidy struggled to take it all in: the plane started rolling; the tower blurted instructions;
the propeller blasted her with wind; the control stick in her lap swung from side to side. She
spread her legs, making room for the stick to do whatever it wanted, because she was fairly
certain that it was critical. The plane zigzagged down the taxiway. At each zag, Cassidy caught a
glimpse ahead before the nose of the plane again blocked her view. Cassidy’s legs shook so
wildly that she feared her shoes might fly from the cockpit.
The plane turned almost completely around. Cassidy glimpsed large numbers on the
runway. The engine revved. In a blur of motion, the plane sped forward. Its tail lifted, tilting the
plane till she could see the runway—white lines flashing by. The tail dropped and the plane rose
from the ground.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 22.
Everything happened so fast that Cassidy didn’t have time to scream.
The plane climbed and climbed. Eventually, the nose leveled and the thunderous engine
slowed to merely clamorous.
“You still with me?”
The pilot’s voice shook Cassidy from her terror-induced stupor. She paused to make sure
her voice wouldn’t betray her fear, before answering, “Yes.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Cassidy said out of reflex. She wondered what he knew. “I didn’t catch
“Levi,” replied the pilot, “Levi Cody.”
“I guess we’re headed straight for the shiny buckle of the Bible Belt?”
“I don’t follow.”
The more Cassidy talked, the less she thought about the terrifying flight. “You know,
Levi, such a good biblical name.”
“Well ma’am, in my desk drawer I have a hundred-and-twenty-year-old Bible with the
births and deaths of my kin written in the back, and I believe, if there was a fire, it’d probably the
first thing I’d grab, but I sincerely doubt I was named after someone from the Bible.”
“You doubt? You don’t know?” Cassidy could almost hear the banjo music in her head.
Shame, he’s cute, but not too smart.
“No ma’am. Never had a chance to ask.”
Cassidy could tell by his tone, even through the muffled headset, that she should back off,
but she couldn’t resist one last comment, “Well then, I bet you were.”
“I’d probably agree with you except for my baby brother.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 23.
“He told you otherwise?”
“No, he didn’t know any more than I do, but his name was a clue.”
“Let me guess, Methuselah?” Cassidy stifled a chuckle.
“No ma’am, Wrangler.”
Levi leaned to the side and looked down over Atlanta’s sprawl. His chest tightened. He
hated the city—always would. It had taken too much from him. He could never forgive and
He flew here only when absolutely necessary, like today, to do one last favor for
Marlene. He still couldn’t believe she was gone, and that when they arrived at her place, she
wouldn’t greet him with a wave and a smile. So sudden.
Cassidy didn’t seem anything like Marlene. He never would have guessed they’d been
close friends; Marlene had never mentioned Cassidy. The first he heard of her was in the will.
Now he had to find a way to trust her or she could take away the last person he loved.
He didn’t know if he could take one more loss, and flying over Atlanta sure didn’t help.
All the memories came storming back.
He flew over an endless terrain of buildings connected by arteries of concrete. City, city,
city, the word bordered on vulgarity—took my brother and now this city girl arrives. Nothing
good will come from this.
Levi banked the plane gently and detoured over Emory College: Wrangler’s old dorm,
the clock tower, the hospital. He always did, despite the pain it conjured. After Wrangler devoted
his life to studying to be a doctor, learning to save lives in that very hospital, when he needed
help, it was ten minutes too far away. At least that’s what the paramedics told Levi—ten
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 24.
In high school, both Levi and Wrangler had aspirations of going to medical school, but
after what happened to their parents, Levi set aside his ambitions and tried to become a father to
Wrangler, even though he was only two years older. Levi pushed Wrangler to pursue his dream.
The day he flew Wrangler to Emory college was one of the proudest moments of his life. But
now, remembering how he’d pushed Wrangler, made him sick. If not for Levi’s encouragement,
Wrangler might not have been in Atlanta and might still be alive today.
Leaving the Emory campus behind, the Stearman biplane flew over claustrophobic
suburbs, houses stacked like cordwood. Levi wondered how anyone could live like that—and
Now they want to extend this mess into my town? The city that took his brother, now
threatened to sprawl over the mountain into his town, bringing its grime and traffic and crime.
No way. He would do anything within his power to stop J. K. Kellerman and his “Grand Plan” to
build an interstate corridor straight from Atlanta through Gumlog to, as he advertised, “open up
the north” to “spread financial wealth.” Spread wealth into his pockets is more like it. Get the
federal government to pay for a highway that just happens to run right by his new proposed
development in Gumlog, the “greatest theme park.” Nothing but a damn city conman looking to
rape my town to line his pockets with a few more greasy millions.
Levi often flew to forget his problems, but today, because of his passenger, he was
limited. Normally he would free his mind from the grip of everyday life by rolling the plane or
looping it, to remind him what a joy it was to be alive, but that was out of the question with
Cassidy up front—although the idea did bring a smile to his face.
But even with his passenger limiting him, Levi couldn’t stay riled for long up where the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 25.
angels dance among the clouds. The sky had always been his sanctuary, his joy, ever since his
first flight in this very biplane. Levi, barely eight years old, had needed to sit on pillows for the
seatbelts to hold him securely. He remembered whooping at the top of his lungs as his father
firewalled the throttle and the plane bounded across their north pasture. He would never forget
the thrill the first time the tires left the ground or how proud he was that his father was a pilot or
the broad grin on his dad’s face after the flight. The sky became their secret playground, just his
Long after Levi took over the pilot’s seat, he still felt his dad’s presence in the plane, still
heard his voice in the headset. Sometimes Levi would turn off the microphone and talk to his
father, tell him the things that he never had a chance to. Flying was an odd slurry of joy and pain.
Atlanta faded away, houses spreading, trees filling in, until Levi was over more
comfortable terrain: the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, which were emblazoned in their
spring dress of lime green leaves and budding white flowers. He began to relax.
His passenger hadn’t uttered a peep.
“You doing okay up there?” he asked.
He noticed that she didn’t look over the side like most passengers. Instead, she remained
frozen, head pointed straight forward. Her rigidity reminded him of the knife-thrower’s assistant
at the fair: she never moved an inch as knives thumped into the wood all around her.
Thin wisps of auburn hair peeked from under Cassidy’s flying cap and danced on the
wind. Levi wondered what they smelled like. He felt silly even thinking about it, but something
about this mummified passenger grabbed him in the gut, causing an inexplicable pain, or was it a
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 26.
Cassidy had never seen anything quite like the endless woods that carpeted the foothills
ahead. Not even Central Park came close to this. The treetops blended into a solid mass. She
wondered if anyone would ever find her if they crash landed. Then she looked out at the wings—
the delicate yellow silk—and decided that she’d never survive a crash anyway.
She listened to the rackety engine with newfound appreciation. The only thing worse than
the noise, would be silence.
Compared to flying in an airliner, the biplane seemed low, too low, and every few
minutes it descended a little lower. “Aren’t we supposed to be higher than this?”
“We’re kinda in a crunch,” Levi responded. “Those black clouds sinking down on us
would toss us around something terrible, but the mountains rising up in front aren’t exactly soft
either. I think we’ll make it.”
Airline pilots never say anything like, “I think we’ll make it.”
A vibration rattled her hip. Cassidy pulled out her bluetooth and buried it in her ear under
the headset. “This is Cassidy,” she screamed.
“Huh?” Levi questioned.
“What?” shouted a feminine voice on the phone.
“I’m on the phone,” Cassidy explained.
“I know. I called you,” said the feminine voice.
The plane banked sharply and began to fall from the sky.
“Oh shit, we’re going to die,” Cassidy shouted.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 27.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shiiiiit.”
Cassidy finally recognized the voice on the phone, Ginny Carmichael, her boss. Cassidy
spoke in one continuous scream as the ground rushed toward the plane, “H-a-n-g-o-n-G-i-n-n-y.”
“We’re okay, we’re okay,” Levi shouted over her scream.
The plane leveled off scant feet above the trees and entered a banked turn.
“What the hell is going on?” Ginny asked.
“Sorry Ginny, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scream at you, but my crazy pilot is trying to
crash the plane.”
“Cell tower,” Levi said through the headset. “They project horizontally. Not really made
for talking from the sky, but down here you should have better signal.”
“You okay?” Ginny shouted.
“I’m…fine…I think.” As soon as I get out of this decrepit plane.
The plane circled the cell tower while Cassidy spoke on the phone. Ginny had called to
give her good news: Cassidy had beaten out Laney for the Old Navy outdoorwear shoot. It would
be the feature in Élan’s July issue. Nothing felt better than beating Laney, but it did come at a
price. The shoot was scheduled in one week.
“Can you cut your trip short?” Ginny asked. “If not, I can put someone else on this one.”
Cassidy knew a trap question when she heard it. She also knew that she was up for
promotion to VP of photography for Élan. She’d been working toward this promotion for years.
Nothing would stand in her way. “Not a problem,” she replied. Rain started to splatter on the
windscreen and rap on her leather cap. “I’ll be there,” she confirmed, before ringing off and
wondering what she’d gotten herself into.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 28.
“Done?” Levi asked.
The engine revved. The plane pointed toward a small gap formed by a dip in the
mountain ridgeline ahead. Greedy clouds lorded over the gap, pressing downward and leaking
“You getting wet?” Levi asked.
The engine revved even faster and the plane accelerated until the rain blew up and over
Cassidy’s head without a drop touching her.
The plane raced up the mountain and squeezed between the clouds and the ridge. On the
other side, the sky opened revealing a cloudless sanctuary of blue. The plane dove into a valley
and followed a narrow road.
Houses, pastures, and crops dotted the valley. The plane flew so low that Cassidy could
read the occasional stop sign, could see the name on a white box truck driving below, “Barnaby’s
Meats,” and could probably read its license plate if she tried hard enough, but she was too busy
clutching the edge of the seat and trying not to scream.
The plane banked sharply. A cluster of buildings appeared on the left. A water tower,
with cell tower atop, whizzed by on the right. Cassidy barely had time to read the name written
across it: GUMLOG. Shockingly, there wasn’t a speck of graffiti.
“I need to check in,” Levi said.
The plane banked to the right, departed the road, and descended to just above the
treetops. The trees ended at an abrupt line and a field started. A red tractor, directly ahead,
plowed deep groves into the dark soil.
The plane lined up on the tractor as if preparing to strafe it. The tractor operator waved
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 29.
when the plane buzzed by.
To the left, a modest house with a metal roof was surrounded by flowers on all sides—
splashes of red, pink, white, and gold. Behind it sat a much grander modern home with an
expansive wraparound porch.
“Where’s the airport?” Cassidy asked.
“Back in Atlanta.” The plane followed the contours of a foothill. It flew so low that
Cassidy wanted to scream, but nothing came out. She couldn’t do anything but stare ahead at a
narrow dirt road that cleaved a gap in the trees.
The engine idled. The plane sank. Trees reached out to grab the wing tips.
Cassidy closed her eyes until she felt the plane gently touch the ground. It rolled to a
stop, coughing and farting all the way.
When the engine silenced, Cassidy didn’t move, couldn’t move. As fear drained from her
body, it was briefly replaced by giddiness, which quickly gave way to a strange feeling of total
satisfaction. She was spent. If Levi weren’t there, she would probably stay in the cockpit, snug in
the hug of the seatbelts, and bask in the afterglow of the terrifying and oddly titillating flight.
Levi unsnapped his belts, slipped off his headset, and climbed from the rear cockpit onto
the wing. After pulling off his goggles and flying cap, he leaned into the front cockpit to help
Cassidy with hers.
She sat motionless, still looking straight ahead, waiting for the knife thrower to unleash
Levi felt bad. Maybe I should have eased up. He hadn’t flown that way to show off. He
always did that. Most passengers loved it.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 30.
He pulled off Cassidy’s headset, revealing bright red ears alive with excitement and
passion. His flights didn’t usually have this effect. Only one thing he knew of ever had this effect
on a woman.
He gently slid off her goggles. Her deep green eyes looked out at him as if he’d just
rescued her from the bony grip of death. She didn’t speak; she only watched.
When he slid off the leather flying cap, Cassidy’s feathery brown hair slipped from the
barrettes holding it up and cascaded, relaxed and free, to her shoulders. Levi unsnapped her
seatbelt, then reached up and slid the belts from her shoulders, brushing his hand through her
All the while, she didn’t move. She just stared into his eyes.
Levi put his hand over hers. He could feel each tendon, tight as a guitar string. Slowly the
strings loosened and her grip eased. He took her hand and helped her from the cockpit, onto the
wing, and then to the ground. She stood before him, a petite damsel buried under rumpled orange
coveralls. He wanted to set her body free.
She stood motionless, following his moves with her eyes as he unzipped her coveralls. He
slid them off her shoulders and down her torso. Her conservative blue blazer parted revealing a
white silk shirt that showed a hint of lace underneath. Her alert breasts pressed against the silk.
When he slid the coveralls down, he couldn’t resist following the contours of her hips with his
hands, slowing as he brushed over the tips of her hipbone.
The coveralls fell to her ankles.
Levi’s eyes longed to explore her further; his hands desired the feel of her skin.
The slam of a screen door jolted Cassidy from her bliss. She shook her head back to
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 31.
alertness. When she did, Levi took a step back, still staring at her, but his eyes darkened as if he,
too, were shaken back to reality.
A young girl, two or maybe three years old by Cassidy’s guesstimate, an angel of
innocence with pudgy pink cheeks and bouncing blond hair, ran toward them shouting,
“Airpwane, airpwane, airpwane.”
Cassidy didn’t know how to react. She plastered a smile on her face, all the while hoping
that the child didn’t run to her, because she had no idea what to do. She’d never spent time
around babies…or, I guess this one would be called a toddler—she wasn’t even sure what to call
the kid. And she’d certainly never held one for more than an obligatory second or two. Among
Cassidy’s career friends, getting pregnant was viewed with the same enthusiasm as catching the
flu, and luckily for them, there was a pretty effective “vaccine” available. So although Cassidy
actually liked the idea of having a baby one day, she certainly didn’t feel qualified yet. There
were many books to be read and classes to be taken first. With a gaping fool’s grin, she stood
like a statue.
The child ran the entire fifty feet from the house—arms pumping furiously, legs waddling
at hyper speed—straight into Levi’s awaiting arms. “Airpwane, airpwane.”
After a brief hug, she held up her hands and wiggled her pudgy little fingers.
Levi lifted her from the ground and flew her overhead while burbling airplane sounds.
Cassidy noticed Levi’s unusual ease and comfort with the young girl and the shimmer of
joy in his eyes. “Yours?” she asked.
Levi landed the young girl on the ground and pointed to Cassidy. The toddler wrapped
her arms around Cassidy’s thigh and hugged.
Levi’s brow narrowed; wrinkles etched his forehead. “More yours than mine.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 32.
The toddler ran back to Levi, who picked her up and flew her around again, making the
buzzing sound of a proper plane engine, not the coughing and sputtering of the plane they’d
flown in on.
Cassidy looked back at the biplane. Since they’d survived the trip, she found a new
appreciation for the antique plane, maybe even a fondness. It could have been Stockholm
syndrome or maybe adrenalin, but she actually missed the feeling of being in the air, that giddy
endorphin induced high. For its age, the plane did look exquisite: the brilliant yellow paint
radiated a glow in the sun; rich lustrous leather edged the cockpits; even the cylinders of the
suspect engine, which protruded from underneath the cowl, shined like new. Could it be that this
engine was supposed to sound flatulent?
Levi set the girl gently to the ground, spun her around, and patted her diapered bottom,
launching her into a waddled run toward the house. She stopped after ten feet and turned back,
grinning and giggling. Levi waved a baby wave, making his hand look like a duck quacking.
Cassidy couldn’t help smiling at how fast this tough country pilot melted in the presence
of this adorable little girl.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 33.
Levi stepped up beside Cassidy. For a minute, she thought he might spin her around and
pat her on the bottom to say goodbye, but he didn’t. He shook her hand, took one last look at the
toddler, and walked back to his plane.
Cassidy straightened her blazer and tried to push the wrinkles from her skirt. After that
crazy flight, perfection wasn’t possible.
She took the toddler by the hand and walked toward the house. On either side, rotund
trees speckled with white buds defined the edge of the dirt roadway. Behind the trees on the
right, woods extended up a steep bank. To the left, the trees parted, revealing an expansive
grassy front yard interrupted by what must have been a twenty-foot-long bed dense with low
shrubs strewn with white and pink and red flowers gaping toward the sun. Cassidy stared as she
walked by. To the right, a venerable oak shaded that entire side of the yard. Ahead, a two-story
house, large by New York standards, probably every bit of two thousand square feet, sat at the
end of the clearing. The style of the house could only be described as country in the simplest
sense of the word: white paint peeled from the walls revealing spots of gray wood; the roof over
the porch sagged in the middle; the screen door hung crooked. The house wasn’t derelict, but it
wasn’t the country estate that Cassidy had envisioned based on her phone conversation with
Cassidy slowed, studying the house as she walked. The toddler tugged on her arm. The
more the girl tugged, the more Cassidy slowed. Her revised plan of flying in, finding a good
real-estate agent, signing some papers, and then relaxing for a few days before flying back to
work in time for the Old Navy shoot, evanesced with each reluctant step. How am I going to sell
this? The more she thought, the more concerned she became. She had less than one week to sell a
house that needed months of work—and that was just the outside.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 34.
Cassidy almost stopped, almost ran back to the plane, almost left the entire mess behind
and returned to New York, but the gentle tug of the toddler pulled her toward the porch.
She choked off her emotions and lapsed into business mode. Every problem is just an
opportunity in disguise, she told herself, even though she didn’t believe it for a minute. She
could hear Tony Robbins in her head, You love a challenge. This didn’t stick either. Just once,
couldn’t life be a little less challenging?
A greeting party of sorts stood on the porch: a middle-aged man and two elderly woman.
It was all Cassidy could do to raise a smile. She wanted to be alone, to unwind, to call work, and
to figure out what to do with this house. The man stepped forward. When he did, his belly parted
his brown plaid sport coat. Although bald on top, he made up for it on his face with a bushy,
brown beard and moustache. He smiled a broad welcoming smile that seemed a bit too broad.
“Azaleas,” he said.
Cassidy didn’t know how to respond to such a greeting.
“The flower bed. They’re azaleas. Saw you looking. I’m Tom Jenkins.” He thrust
forward a hand. “I’m the mayor of this fine town.”
That explains the politician’s smile. Cassidy shook his hand briefly, but the mayor didn’t
let go. He put his other hand over hers and, as if he’d practiced all morning, said, “Welcome to
Gumlog. We’re sorry for your loss.” There was something kindly about this man, standing in
what Cassidy guessed was his Sunday best: khakis that without the aid of his belt would surely
have given out, a wide striped tie that in her circles would be called retro, brown shoes that had
seen more miles than they were ever designed for, and a shirt that despite obvious effort,
evidenced by the ironing marks, still wrinkled everywhere that his belly didn’t pull taut. His eyes
conveyed jolly warmth. He probably played Santa at Christmas time. She thanked him for his
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 35.
“Tragedy, tragedy,” said the woman to the mayor’s right. She was the kind of old that
defied numbers—could have been eighty, could have been ninety, could have been a hundred
and ten. Her face wrinkled into a warm grandmotherly smile. She held up a wicker basket
decorated with red ribbon. “Would you like a muffin dear?” Her white cotton frock hung loosely,
its fabric maintaining the memory of when she was fuller, before age shrank her in every way,
except her smile.
The woman beside her, who appeared at least as old, but not nearly as welcoming, cut in,
“Muffins don’t fix everything.” She offered no smile. Instead, her face remained in a persistent
scowl. She didn’t seem angry or sad; her face just had a certain sourness, but her eyes looked
clear and sharp. “I didn’t bring any food. Can’t cook worth a crap.”
The woman with the muffins scolded her, “Clara!”
Clara corrected herself, “I can’t cook worth a crud. Is that better Mabel?”
“Ladies, ladies, this isn’t the time or the place.” The mayor continued the introductions,
“Cassidy Kincaid, this is Mabel Farmer and Clara Bell.”
Cassidy offered her hand but, instead of a handshake, received a curtsey from Mabel and
a nod from Clara. Cassidy bent her knees and bobbed her head in an attempt to match their
While they talked, the toddler wandered the porch following ladybugs and, with a
gentleness contrary to her young age, righting any that had fallen over onto their backs.
Levi set Cassidy’s luggage inside the door and patted the young girl on the head before
walking back to the plane.
Cassidy watched him walk away. He had, in the span of one terrifying flight, become a
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 36.
security blanket. She hated to see him go.
Cassidy stood straight and stiff. She wondered what to say or do next. It was strange to be
standing on Marlene’s porch, and even stranger to digest that Marlene wouldn’t come strolling
out the door. Until now Cassidy’s trip had been business: come to Gumlog to sell a house that
someone had left her, but now, who that someone was, started to sink in.
Cassidy hadn’t yet cried over Marlene’s death, partly because busy people don’t grieve
and partly because she felt selfish. During the week since the phone message from Mayor
Jenkins, whenever Cassidy thought about Marlene, she couldn’t put a clear face on her grief. She
hadn’t seen Marlene in six years. They hadn’t spoken in five.
For the first time, standing on Marlene’s porch, Cassidy began to realize a loss. Although
the house wasn’t what she’d expected, she could envision Marlene living here, could picture
Marlene rocking on the venerable chair in the corner, watching the sunrise and plotting some
grand scheme to free chinchillas from a lab or picket some conglomerate for vivisection. That
was the Marlene she knew from college.
Cassidy chuckled at the thought. A tear leaked down her cheek.
Kachug-Kachug-kaclakety-chug-cough-weeze-fart-kablam. The engine of the biplane
roared to life. The mayor and his lady friends waved to Levi.
Cassidy turned in time to see Levi waving back.
She waved, but he’d already turned his head.
The plane spun and accelerated down the dirt road. Cassidy held her breath when the
plane disappeared from sight and didn’t breathe again until she saw its bright yellow wings clear
the treetops. She wondered if she would ever see the pilot again.
The mayor opened the screen door and held it for the ladies. “Shall we go inside?”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 37.
Cassidy waited for everyone, including the child, to walk inside before she stepped into
the doorway and stopped, reluctant to enter Marlene’s world. A twinge of regret. Why did we
The same reason she’d lost touch with most of her friends: it’s tough to maintain
friendships when you do nothing but work. Cassidy girded herself against sentimental thoughts.
All success requires sacrifice.
The mayor motioned for her to enter. “I assume you’re familiar with the place.”
“Never been here.”
The ladies appeared shocked, but the mayor pressed on undeterred. “Do come in. I’ll be
happy to show you around. We want to be sure you’re comfortable.”
“Yes dear, comfortable,” Mabel parroted.
Cassidy walked slowly, struggling under the weight of the moment. The house was warm
inside, almost stale. Other than the scuffling of feet, she couldn’t hear a sound: not a television,
not a radio, nothing but eerie silence. The foyer opened directly into a wide family room. A
horseshoe shaped sectional sofa pointed toward a fireplace. Magazines and books covered a
coffee table. No television. That’s so like Marlene. She never watched television back in
college—thought it was all “rot.”
A somewhat random collage of framed black-and-white photos of varying sizes adorned
the walls—Marlene’s photos.
They reminded Cassidy of the first time she met Marlene. It was a Saturday night and
Cassidy’s friends had gone to a party at Kappa Alpha. She’d chosen to sneak away to the
darkroom to develop a roll she’d shot earlier in the day. Cassidy was surprised to find Marlene
hard at work developing some shots of her own. They’d each quietly gone about there business,
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 38.
neither choosing to be talkative, until they started hanging prints to dry and realized that they’d
both shot the same oak tree, often from the same angle. They compared shots, giggling at
mistakes and congratulating each other for well-framed shots. That evening, over the smelly
chemical bins in the darkroom, they forged bond of friendship, and the following semester, they
Now, Cassidy stood, a stranger in Marlene’s house, wondering what had happened,
wondering how Marlene could be gone. Cassidy had always assumed that after she became a
success, after she met her goals, that she would have time to reconnect with friends lost along the
way, maybe visit Marlene and go on a photo safari like they had in college, in search of
something ridiculous for no other reason than to get out into the world with camera in hand,
seeking adventure and beauty. But time came and went; goals were met and replaced by new
goals…and Marlene died.
“Muffin dear,” Mabel held out the basket. “My famous carrot muffins.”
Clara rolled her eyes, “Famous my—”
“Clara!” Mabel pointed a bony finger in reprimand.
“Well they’re not,” Clara protested.
The mayor stepped between them, “Ladies, please.”
Clara continued. “But your bran muffins, they sure are famous.”
Clara made a gesture describing an eruption, “Famous for unplugging Marlene’s
Mabel’s jowls shook disapprovingly.
“That’s no small feat,” the mayor said earnestly. “Doc thought that pig was going to
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 39.
“He exploded,” Clara explained.
The mayor corrected, “Freed himself. Mabel’s muffins save lives.”
“No thank you.” Cassidy, staring at the photos on the wall, crossed the family room with
meandering distracted steps. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d shot anything for
pleasure—probably shortly after college. Photography had quickly turned from a passion to a job
after graduation. Shots of sunsets, trees swaying in the breeze, dogs playing in fall leaves, were
supplanted by product placement shots and shots of sunken faced models attitude stomping down
runways. The quiet satisfaction she once felt watching a squirrel in central park through the
viewfinder was replaced by shouts of “Work it girl” at models emblazoned with neon eye
The mayor followed Cassidy into the kitchen. “Perhaps you’d like something more
“What, a fig?” Clara asked sarcastically. “Marlene was a vegetarian. You’d be lucky to
find much beyond broccoli.”
Cassidy admired the way Marlene could stick with a good cause. She, too, had tried to
convert to vegetarianism in college when Marlene did, but Cassidy ended up compromising. She
ate meat, but if an animal had to die so that she could eat, then she didn’t waste anything, not a
scrap, not a drop. Even now, she often took leftovers home from some of the trendiest restaurants
in New York, to the embarrassment of her friends, but Cassidy never cared what they thought. If
she couldn’t finish it at the table, then she’d take it home—simple as that.
Cassidy was proud of this. As she stood looking around Marlene’s kitchen, she wished
that she had thanked Marlene for her influence.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 40.
“I’m sure we can find—”
A scratch at the back door interrupted the mayor.
Cassidy leaned to open the door. “Marlene had a dog?”
“Nope,” Clara said.
The door swung open, pushed by the flattened snout of a pig larger than Cassidy thought
possible. Its head came up to her waist. Its bulbous belly scraped the floor.
The pig let out a scream—not the oink that Cassidy was familiar with from television, but
a rip roaring, I’m pissed, pig scream—before running into the kitchen.
The mayor leapt for the pig.
“Oh my,” Mabel said.
The pig ran through the mayor’s arms, leaving a trail of mud behind.
Cassidy flung two chars aside and jumped onto the kitchen table.
Clara swung the door to the family room shut.
The pig, with nowhere to go, circled the table, dodging the squatting mayor on each lap.
“Give me a damn muffin,” Clara shouted.
Mabel retreated from Clara’s grasping hands and she too began circling the table.
Cassidy watched in shock as the pig, Mabel, and Clara all raced around the table—the pig
squealing, Mabel mumbling, “Oh my, oh my,” and Clara screaming, “Give me a damn muffin.”
Once again, the mayor took up his defensive position: feet spread, knees bent, arms wide
and ready. He wore a determined expression of mayoral resolve to save his constituency from
this rampaging pig.
The pig ran straight into him, slipped through his hands, and bolted between his legs.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 41.
Close behind, Mabel collided with the mayor.
Muffins flew into the air.
Mabel, not as slippery as the muddy pig, succumbed to the mayor’s grip. Her momentum
knocked him backward. He crashed to the floor. She landed sprawled on top of him with her
white frock over both their heads.
The pig skidded to a stop and inhaled a stray muffin.
With the dexterity of someone half her age, Clara grabbed two muffins out of midair.
“Here Gus,” she called.
The pig grunted happily as it scarfed down another muffin.
“Get over here Gus.” Clara waved the two muffins enticingly. “I promise these aren’t her
The pig padded over to Clara, took a muffin from her hand, and ate it, wrapper and all.
Sniffing the second muffin, he followed her over to the back door. “Outside.” Clara tossed the
muffin into the backyard. Gus followed. Clara slammed the door.
Marlene’s kitchen was a wreck. Slippery black mud ringed the table and splattered every
The mayor, his Sunday best now splotched with mud, stood and offered a hand to Mabel
who, with great care and in no hurry, rose to her feet still holding tightly to her basket. Only one
muffin remained inside.
The door to the family room swung open. The little girl clapped her hands and cheered,
Cassidy stepped down from the table and pushed the wrinkles from her skirt. What’s the
use? Mud speckled her outfit.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 42.
Clara walked over to the sink, wet a cloth, and with the care and concern of a doting
mother, tried to clean specks of mud from Mabel’s face. The grumpy old gal wasn’t all bad.
Cassidy noticed that the sourness had left Clara’s face, replaced by a thinly disguised smile; she
enjoyed this. Clara spoke while she patted and rubbed, “Your muffins are getting more famous
by the day.”
The mayor swiped a hand down his sport coat and restored his ubiquitous smile and
unflappable decorum. Despite the mud caked to his sleeves, splattered on his coat, and dripping
from his beard, he acted as if nothing unusual had happened—just another day in the country.
Cassidy asked, “Any more animals I need to be worried about?”
The mayor rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “I believe there’s a goat and a cow.”
“Kelly and Betsy,” Clara said.
“Would you like the last muffin?” Mabel asked.
Apparently, the pig wasn’t covered only in mud. A stench overpowered Cassidy, one so
foul that it left a nauseous taste in her mouth.
Clara said, “Maybe we should step out onto the porch.”
Before Cassidy could shout a warning, Clara opened the back door.
Cassidy pressed both hands on the table, ready to spring atop if the pig ran in.
Clara bent down, picked up another stray muffin, and led the pig back to his pen. “You
know better,” she scolded. She braced the gate that the pig had knocked open to escape.
To Cassidy’s surprise, the back porch was even bigger than the front. A weathered table
with four chairs sat at one end and a rocker at the other.
Beyond the porch, a path cut between the pig’s pen on the right, the goat’s pen on the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 43.
left, and led to a fenced in pasture. Two oaks—Cassidy had never seen such amazing trees—
each as large or larger than the one in the front yard, provided shade for a mottled brown and
white cow that stood with her head wedged through the rails of a gate, yanking grass from the
ground and chewing with it protruding from either side of her mouth. Her udder hung engorged
“She’s looking pretty full,” the mayor said.
To the immediate right of the porch, a barn, an abandoned relic of history, leaned
precariously close to collapse. Only a few specks of red paint remained on the wooden planks.
To the immediate left of the porch, a bright green tractor, looking shiny and new, sat under a
metal-roofed carport. Attached to the tractor, a wide yellow rolling deck, perhaps some sort of
mower, stuck out behind the shed.
Cassidy could see hints of Marlene in everything: could picture her sidled up beside the
cow filling a jug with milk, could imagine her jet black hair blowing free in the breeze as she
rode the tractor.
Funny how different we were, thought Cassidy. We really didn’t have anything in
common. Marlene had grown up in Chicago with dreams of escaping the city to raise a family in
some bucolic utopia. Shame, she had half the equation, just never had the family. In college,
their differing ambitions weren’t a barrier to friendship. In the strange commune that is campus
life, little things like photography or going for a morning jog or singing along to songs from old
movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang mattered more than big issues like career and future.
The mayor pointed to a foothill that loomed behind the pasture. “Marlene owns all the
way to the top.” He corrected himself, “You own everything up to the top.” He pulled out a
wrinkled peace of ruled paper torn from a spiral binding.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 44.
Cassidy recognized the page immediately, despite having not seen it in six years. She
remembered tearing it from her chemistry notebook. Somewhere, probably deep in a box of
forgotten memorabilia in her parents’ attic, she had a page just like it.
“Are you sure she doesn’t have any family?” Cassidy asked. It wasn’t fair for Cassidy to
inherit a house based on a will scribbled, half as a joke, late one night in their dorm room.
“No one.” He handed her the sheet. “You’re the closest thing to family she had.”
It would have hurt less if he’d just punched her in the stomach. Cassidy wished she’d
visited Marlene, or called, or at least written.
“Don’t get me wrong,” the mayor said. “She had plenty of friends.”
“Oh yes,” Mabel said.
“Wouldn’t one of them have a claim?”
The mayor shook his head. “Not a legal claim. That torn sheet is the only thing outlining
her wishes that Marlene left behind.”
Cassidy felt her face tense as she read the letter:
I, Marlene G. Pajak do hereby and herewith…
Cassidy puffed a chuckle and swiped a tear from her eye. Neither of them had known
what “hereby” or “herewith” really meant. It just sounded very official at the time. Cassidy
folded the page and slipped it into her pocket. She knew the gist of it: Marlene had left all of her
worldly possessions to Cassidy, even named her godmother to future children…children that
now, she would never have. Reading it would only lead to more tears, which Cassidy didn’t want
to shed in front of total strangers. She looked up.
He handed her another page. “This is the last land survey.”
Cassidy slipped the page into her blazer pocket.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 45.
The mayor slid his arm from the sleeve of his sport coat. “We’ll help you get the kitchen
Cassidy steadied herself against the porch rail. “No, no. Thanks. I’ll take care of it.” More
than anything else, Cassidy needed to be alone with her thoughts. She would clean the kitchen
“We must, we really must,” Mabel said.
Cassidy thanked them, but insisted that she would be able to clean it herself later.
After a brief discussion, the mayor reluctantly bowed to her wishes. “Well then, we’ll
leave you to get settled in to your new home.”
“House,” Cassidy corrected. “I’m not staying.” She pushed away from the rail and stood
straighter. “Do you know a good real-estate agent in town?”
Mabel’s friendly smile contorted into a look of shock. “We thought you’d live here.”
“My life is in New York. I need to get back as soon as possible.”
The mayor said, “There aren’t any agents in town. Not much call for one.”
“How do I sell this place?”
“Word of mouth is usually how these things are handled.”
“You’re not staying,” Mabel said as if it finally registered.
Cassidy placed her hands on her hips. “That could take forever. There must be someone
interested in this property.”
The mayor stroked his chin contemplatively. “No…not that I know of…but you could try
Clara elbowed him in the ribs.
He lowered his hand and said, “Besides, you can’t leave yet. You have to give us a
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 46.
chance to show you the beauty of Gumlog. You may just change your mind about selling.”
Mabel looked distressed. “But you can’t take Rose.”
“I’m not taking any plants, roses or otherwise. I just want to sell the place.”
The two ladies shared astonished glances. The mayor cleared his throat. The young girl in
the doorway cheered, “Gussy, Gussy.”
The mayor nodded toward the girl. “Marlene’s daughter…your daughter…Rose.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a muffin dear?”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 47.
“Poopy.” Rose’s pudgy little face screwed into a look of confusion, then of strain, then a
giggling smile. “Poopy.”
Cassidy ran to the front door to see if she could catch the mayor. The screen door banged.
She leaned off the porch.
They were gone.
Cassidy didn’t have any friends with children, had never changed a diaper, and had never
even watched someone change a diaper.
I can’t do this…I can’t do this…
Cassidy slumped against the porch railing. The adrenalin from the flight, the loss of
Marlene, the shock of inheriting a baby, all melded into a blur of overwhelming emotion.
Sadness, loneliness, loss, fear—crushed in upon her and she began to cry. I can’t take care of a
child, I don’t even know how to change a diaper.
But the diaper was the least of her problems. What am I going to do with a child? I can’t
take her back to New York. Be a single mom? I work twelve hours a day. That’s no life for her.
Cassidy swiped tears from her cheeks, but they kept flowing.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 48.
She had considered having a child and had even talked it over with Trevor, before the
breakup. He reminded her of the damage a child would do to her career. Her success had come as
a result of working late nights and weekends. As wrong as it felt, Cassidy knew that Trevor was
right: having a child would limit her career. Although she agreed with his argument, she still felt
a pang of loss when they converted the extra room in the apartment into a home office.
Cassidy cried harder, gasping through the tears. Two months after their conversation
about children, Trevor came home with great news—a promotion: in one week, he was going to
be the new head of Nikkei trading for Goldman Sachs in Tokyo.
Another of life’s fairy tales died that night. Cassidy was ashamed how seriously she
considered leaving her job to follow him to Tokyo, but in the end, logic prevailed. She stayed in
New York to pursue her career and he left for Tokyo two days later. It was the only choice that
made business sense. They managed to keep a phone relationship going for almost six months,
but eventually that fizzled. Their relationship just wasn’t “geographically viable” as Trevor put it
during their final call. Cassidy vowed never to let any relationship stand in the way of her
career—that included children.
Behind her, Rose, standing inside the screen door, began to sputter the first gasps of a
“Oh baby, don’t cry.” Cassidy’s tears ceased. All her attention focused on Rose. “Don’t
Cassidy stepped inside and swept the toddler up into her arms. At first, she held Rose out
like a hatbox, but that didn’t feel right. She tried placing Rose on a hip, but that hurt more than
she’d expected. She settled on cradling Rose to her chest. “Don’t cry baby.” She patted Rose on
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 49.
Cassidy couldn’t keep her nose from wrinkling at the noxious smell emanating from
“Poopy,” Rose said.
“Yes, I know.” Where would Marlene keep diapers?
She rummaged through drawers in the downstairs bath. They have to be here somewhere.
Under the sink, she found a pink rectangular bag filled with a confusing assortment of
baby accessories. She pulled it out by its strap.
The smell seemed to be getting worse by the second.
Cassidy threw the strap over her shoulder and searched for a place to set Rose before
something leaked onto her blazer.
Finding no obvious place to change Rose, Cassidy pushed the magazines and books from
the coffee table and laid Rose down.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Cassidy said, “I don’t really have the proper skill set
for taking care of you…I’ve never done this before.”
Rose looked up and giggled. “Poopy.”
“I know, I know, big poopy.” Cassidy leaned back and took a few deep breaths before
pulling up Rose’s shirt and undoing the adhesive strips on the side of the diaper. It fell open.
Never before had Cassidy been confronted with anything so foul. She leaned back,
forcibly repelled by the stench.
Cassidy gasped a few short breaths before leaning in and sliding the old diaper off. She
held it at arms lengths, clamped between her thumb and forefinger. Her eyes squinted into slits.
Her free hand covered her nose and mouth protectively. What do I do with this? She carried the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 50.
soiled diaper, held out like toxic waste, around the family room…and into the bathroom…and
into the kitchen…and back into the family room. Where do I put it? She leaned out the front door
and tossed it into the yard. I’ll deal with that later.
Back inside, Rose, naked from the waist down, squirmed and kicked her legs in the air.
“No, that was poopy.” Cassidy corrected.
A stream of urine ran down the table and onto the wooden plank floor.
Cassidy dug into the pink bag and ripped out a diaper, simultaneously tossing the rest of
the pack into the air. She managed to catch some of the urine before it soaked the floor, but the
table was awash.
“Wee-wee,” Rose said.
“Yep.” Cassidy tried to mop up the urine with the diaper. Some of it soaked in, but the
rest just swished around the table.
She tossed that diaper into the front yard before running into the bath and yanking a towel
off the rack. “I’m coming…I’m coming.” I never had any idea diaper changes involved so much
running. Thank goodness for Pilates.
Cassidy lifted Rose, spread the towel over the table, and set her back down. “I work long
hours,” Cassidy explained while she pulled out a baby wipe. “I have a very hard job.”
Rose batted her long blond eyelashes. She appeared to be listening intently to every word.
Cassidy wiped Rose’s rear, and wiped, and wiped again, until a stack of used wipes
formed a mound on the floor beside her. Rose’s bottom glowed red.
“I’m sure you’re a wonderful baby.” Cassidy dug into the pink bag. “I just don’t have
time in my life for a child.” She pulled out a bottle of talc. “Someday maybe, but not now.” She
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 51.
squeezed the bottle, but nothing came out. “I’m just not ready for a baby.”
“Baby,” Rose said.
Cassidy turned the cap.
Poof. A cloud of talc engulfed them. Rose coughed.
Cassidy picked Rose up and pulled her clear of the wafting talc. She sat on the couch,
cradling Rose in her lap. “I just don’t want you to get too attached because I can’t keep you.”
“Uh-huh,” Rose said, watching Cassidy with an intensity she’d never seen before, as if
everything Cassidy did and said were pivotally important.
“Do we have an understanding?”
“So you understand that I can’t be your mommy.”
Rose’s smile faded into thoughtfulness, then stretched into a frown. She started to sputter.
“Mommy.” She burst into tears. “I want Mommy.”
Cassidy pulled Rose tight to her bosom. “Oh baby, oh baby…I’m so sorry.” Cassidy
rocked gently from side to side. “I’m so sorry.”
A flood of emotion swept over Cassidy—why did Marlene have to die? What am I going
to do? “I’m so sorry baby.” She paced the room clutching Rose. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Mommy,” Rose called. “I want Mommy.”
Cassidy paced faster. “Please don’t cry,” she said through her own tears. “Please.”
Cassidy didn’t know how to calm Rose. She tried rocking, bouncing, jiggling, hugging.
“Please stop crying.” The more Rose wailed the more Cassidy cried. “Please stop.” Cassidy
wasn’t just talking to Rose. She couldn’t stop her own tears, couldn’t block how heartsick she
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 52.
felt for Rose. Such a sweet little baby. She deserves better than this.
Cassidy imagined the lifetime of sorrow that Rose would experience over the loss of her
mother. All the missed moments: Marlene won’t be there to walk her to the first day of school,
won’t be able to teach her how to put her hair up in a ponytail or tie her shoes or put on makeup,
won’t be there to hear all about Rose’s first date, won’t be there to pick up the pieces of her first
Cassidy had spent many sleepless nights worrying about her mom’s illness. She could
only imagine what poor Rose thought. The child couldn’t understand what happened, couldn’t
realize that her mom was gone forever.
Cassidy wanted more than anything to comfort Rose, but didn’t know how or if it was
even possible. She collapsed onto the couch, cradling Rose in her arms. “It’s okay Rose. It’s
okay to cry.” She didn’t know what else to say or do.
Over their tears, Cassidy heard a rumble. It sounded oddly familiar, a bit like a coughing,
Cassidy ran through the front doorway with Rose clutched to her chest. The screen door
slapped against the wall.
Levi’s bright yellow biplane shook to a stop.
She ran toward the plane.
Levi looked up from the instrument panel to see Cassidy running toward him holding
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 53.
Rose, who was naked from the waist down. He yanked off the headset, leapt from the cockpit,
and broke into a sprint, tearing off his goggles and helmet as he ran. What’s wrong?
Both Cassidy and Rose were sobbing. Levi didn’t know what to do, but he didn’t pause to
debate. He took Rose from Cassidy, wrapped her in his arms, and held her tight. “It’s okay
Rosie. Shhhh, don’t cry.” He rocked gently.
At that moment, nothing mattered except Rose. He kissed the top of her head. “You’re
okay baby. Everything’s all right.” He looked at Cassidy. “What happened?”
Cassidy couldn’t stop crying long enough to tell him.
He rocked Rose until her crying eased, then stopped. “Airpwane,” she said in a quiet
Once he heard her sweet little voice say that, he knew everything would be okay, but his
heart still beat a little faster and his face felt a little hotter than normal. Rose batted her sky blue
eyes. Everything is okay, he told himself. She’s okay.
“Airpwane,” she repeated softly. Her cheeks and nose still glowed red from crying.
Levi took the scarf from his neck, wrapped it around Rose’s bottom, and tied it, making a
fleece diaper. “There.” He lifted her and flew her overhead while making the same buzzing noise
that he once made as a child while daydreaming about flying with Dad. Rose always felt so good
in his hands. Making her happy was the only thing he’d ever found that exceeded the joy of
flying. He could hardly wait for her to be old enough to go up in the Stearman, and then old
enough for her first flying lesson. He would teach her to fly, as his father had taught him.
While he held her overhead, he wondered whether he was doing the right thing letting
Cassidy take care of her. Should I take Rose back to the ranch? Can I? What would Marlene
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 54.
Rose giggled. Levi pulled her close and held her to his chest.
Cassidy stood before him, splattered with mud and dusted white with talc, wiping tears
from her eyes. Gone was the tough city girl he’d picked up at the Atlanta airport. Before him
stood a vulnerable woman. He watched her adjust her outfit and run her fingers through her hair.
No amount of straightening could change what he recognized in her eyes—she watched Rose
with a mother’s compassion.
Cassidy swiped her tears and looked away.
Levi put a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”
She nodded but didn’t speak. She pulled away from him and walked toward the house.
Levi followed, bouncing Rose in his arms with each step. He paused when he came to two dirty
diapers in the yard. Cassidy offered no explanations, but Levi was beginning to put the pieces
together. “You’ve never cared for a child before have you?”
Cassidy swung open the door and stepped inside with Levi and Rose close behind.
The family room was a mess: magazines strewn across the floor, wet talcum powder
caked on the coffee table, the contents of the diaper bag scattered all around.
“No,” Cassidy responded. She looked so defeated that he wanted to give her a hug and
tell her that it would be all right, but he didn’t. She was, after all, the one who was going to take
Rose away, to New York, a city even more dangerous than the one that took Wrangler from him.
Cassidy didn’t want Levi to see the house like this, to see her like this, but she couldn’t
bear the thought of being alone with Rose; besides, Levi was so good with Rose. He seemed to
know just what to do.
Levi set Rose on the towel draped over the coffee table. He untied the scarf diaper. Rose
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 55.
giggled and playfully grabbed at it. With the confident motions of a practiced hand, he slipped on
a new diaper and snugged the side tape.
Cassidy had never met a man so naturally paternal. Levi seemed focused only on Rose’s
needs, setting aside all of his own. He was utterly selfless. By contrast, Trevor had never thought
about anyone but himself, but not in a bad way. Cassidy had actually been attracted to his
type-A, conquer at all costs, personality. He was going places in life and nothing would stop him.
Their relationship had been more than just two people in love; it had been a detente between two
powerhouses, a merger of two corporations. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the merger
was not without problems. Someone needed to sacrifice for them to stay together. Neither did,
and neither could in good conscience expect the other to.
Cassidy wondered if she would ever find what she was looking for: a successful man like
Trevor, but one who fit into her life without any career sacrifices and who could one day look at
their child the way Levi looked at Rose. In her heart, she wanted even more. She wanted a man
to look at her the way Levi looked at Rose.
Cassidy knew she was daydreaming, that nobody like that existed. She had taken enough
business classes to understand that a business entity has finite resources and can’t afford to
squander them on unprofitable ventures. She was, at her core, a business entity; so love was,
after all, an unprofitable venture.
Sure she could find a Levi, with nothing better to do than look at a baby with moon pie
eyes, but then what? Spend the rest of her life supporting him financially. She’d seen enough of
her friends botch this all important decision and end up hitched to a man-baby who never
managed to pull his weight financially. These men were all so similar it was ridiculous. To hear
them talk, they were on the verge of such great things, but the reality was that they hadn’t
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 56.
worked in years and would never be financially functional. No, Cassidy didn’t need that kind of
dead weight holding her back. She needed to get out of Gumlog and return to New York as soon
as possible. “The mayor said you may be interested in buying this place?”
Levi set Rose on the ground and bopped her diapered bottom. “No ma’am. I don’t believe
I am. There’s someone here I’m not ready to say goodbye to yet.”
What a cheesy line. Cassidy had heard some pretty bad ones before, but that was weak.
“Sorry cowboy, but you’re not bedding me down,” she said with an affected southern drawl.
“No ma’am, I don’t believe so, but thanks for clearing that up.” He misted the coffee
table with disinfectant from the diaper bag, then wiped it dry before setting the magazines back
“You didn’t mean me did you?”
“No ma’am. I just hate the thought of you taking Rose away.”
Cassidy had never heard such honesty from a man. He seemed completely devoid of
artifice. This guy wouldn’t last a minute in New York. She thought about the white lies
necessary to make it through a normal day at work. “Are you always this honest?”
Levi appeared to be giving her flip question sincere thought. “I don’t see much point in
lying, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“That Bible again?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the Bible, but I don’t need a book to teach me that lying is a
weakness.” Levi dampened a towel and wiped talc off the couch.
Cassidy couldn’t believe how naïve he was. He’s obviously never read Sun Tzu’s “Art of
War.” She considered herself an ethical and honest person, but there were always situations that
required a bit of creative fashioning. You can’t go through life like some Andy Griffith wannabe.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 57.
Levi continued, “I’m a simple man. I try to be someone that I’m proud of. No excuses.
That doesn’t leave me much to lie about.”
“Well then, why don’t you want me to take Rose away?”
“Just because I don’t lie doesn’t mean I answer every question. Some things are
Levi continued straightening the room. Rose followed, watching him. Every time their
eyes met, Levi smiled. “Why don’t I fix her some dinner before I unload your luggage from the
Cassidy wasn’t expecting her luggage until tomorrow. She’d assumed it was coming by
ground. She didn’t know what to say. “Thank you.”
Levi stepped into the kitchen. He held his hand out and halted Rose in the doorway.
“What happened here?”
“Gussy, Gussy.” Rose clapped and giggled.
Levi knelt down to Rose’s eye level. “I need you to stay right here. Be a good girl and
Rose nodded, “Uh-huh.” She wiggled from side to side, but didn’t lift a foot. She seemed
content watching his every move.
Levi stood. “You want to do the floors or the walls and counters?”
Cassidy didn’t want to do either, but she wasn’t about to be outdone. “Walls and
counters.” Cassidy took off her blazer and tossed it onto the couch. She debated trying to find
something in Marlene’s closet to put on, but decided against it. Her clothes were already ruined.
Levi half expected Cassidy to refuse to help. She didn’t seem like the mud scrubbing
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 58.
type. To his surprise, she stepped into the kitchen, having removed her blazer, and looked ready
to work. “There are some clean rags in that drawer”—Levi pointed—“and buckets under the
sink. The bleach is back here.”
Levi stepped into the laundry room and filled a mop bucket with steaming water.
“You know your way around this place.”
“I’ve helped out around here.”
Cassidy walked into the laundry room. She rolled up her sleeves revealing the most
delicate arms Levi had ever seen. The tiniest of blond hairs shimmered in the light.
“Done with that bleach yet?” she asked.
Levi poured some into a bucket. “Am now.” He spun the bottle around and offered it
The clean smell of bleach battled the stench of pig slop. Levi mopped section by section
and wrung out the mop every few swipes. When the water became too dark, he dumped it into
the backyard and refilled the bucket.
“Gussy was a bad pig,” Levi said.
“Gussy good, Gussy good.”
Levi couldn’t argue with Rose. Gussy was just doing what pigs do.
Out of the corner of his eye, Levi couldn’t help sneaking peeks at Cassidy while she
worked. Her silk shirt clung to her breasts, highlighting their fullness as they gently swayed with
each swipe of the wall. Her delicate arms scrubbed the wall with such vigor and intensity. He
could see her muscles flex as she pressed hard, scrubbing the stuck on bits. Maybe you’re not so
prissy after all.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 59.
“Know anyone else who may want to buy this place?” she asked while refilling the
Levi hesitated. Sometimes his honesty trapped him in corners. He knew that J. K.
Kellerman would love to get his hands on Marlene’s land. Kellerman had made Marlene three
offers already. It would be more than enough land for his theme park. Then the road would
come, and then tourists from Atlanta would arrive like a wave of sewage from a floodgate. No,
Levi couldn’t tell this city girl that the answer she was looking for was a phone call away,
couldn’t let her wheel and deal Marlene’s land away…Rose’s land away. He would rather mop
the floor with his tongue. But he wasn’t going to lie, either. “I’m sure you’ll find someone to buy
it. Just takes time is all.”
Time was one thing Cassidy didn’t have. She needed to be back in New York in seven
days for the Old Navy shoot. She would find a way—no excuses.
“Maybe you would be interested in helping me fix up the place?”
Levi chuckled. “I’ve already seen how you treat your employees. I think I’ll pass.”
Cassidy stopped scrubbing and turned to face him. “I’m sorry about what I said back at
the airport. I assumed you were being paid.”
Levi nodded an acknowledgement.
“Why did you pick me up?”
“You’re a friend of Marlene’s. Besides, the only other way here is a two-hour drive
through the mountains. It’s one fourth that by air.”
Cassidy scrubbed the cabinets. “So you and Marlene were close?”
Levi pushed the mop bucket a few feet and started on the last dirty section of floor. “She
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 60.
was a wonderful woman.”
Cassidy felt a twinge of jealousy. The pieces of the puzzle floated around in her head: he
was very close to Marlene; knows where everything is in her house; Rose loves him; he’s
wonderful with Rose…like a bolt, an idea hit her—Rose is his baby. “So you guys spent a lot of
Levi nodded. “She loved line dancing down at The Barn Door.”
“You two went there often?” Her voice lilted with insinuation.
“Just about every Friday night.” He leaned the mop handle against the wall. “You really
didn’t know her well did you?”
Cassidy didn’t like being put on the spot. “Why?”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re asking if she and I were an item.”
Cassidy faced Levi and put her free hand on her hip. “So what if I am?”
Levi grabbed the mop, swished it once, then stopped and rested his chin on the handle. “It
really isn’t my place to be telling you Marlene’s business, but no, we weren’t an item.” He
paused. “No man was an item with Marlene.”
Cassidy dropped her rag, and her questioning. Was he saying that Marlene was gay? It
had never occurred to her. Thinking back, Marlene hadn’t dated much in college, but that was
just Marlene. She was always busy with some project or another.
In Cassidy’s industry, there were plenty of gay people, so the thought of Marlene being
gay didn’t bother her, but it did raise questions, the biggest one being Rose. She didn’t dare ask.
She’d already pried too far.
Levi finished the floor and started on the walls. They worked side by side in silence. As
hard as she tried, Cassidy couldn’t keep pace with him.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 61.
When they finished the last wall, Cassidy stepped back and admired the clean kitchen.
“Not bad.” She inhaled deeply. “Even smells good.”
Levi took the two buckets to the back porch and dumped them out onto the grass. Cassidy
took Rose by the hand and followed.
The sun sat on the ridge, preparing to duck away for the night.
“I’ll unload your luggage, then I’ve gotta get before dark, unless you need me to stay and
help with Rose.”
Cassidy wouldn’t admit defeat that easily. “We’ll be fine.”
Levi nodded toward the pasture. “Cow’s looking pretty full.”
Cassidy looked at the cow’s udder, which hung low. “What am I supposed to do about
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 62.
Mabel cleared her throat. “Hear ye, hear ye—”
Clara rolled her eyes. “Oh for crap sake, get on with it.”
Mabel glared at Clara. “I hereby open this session of the Gumlog Historical Society.” She
banged the gavel and looked up at Levi, Clara, Mayor Jenkins, and his daughter Laura Lynn.
“Before we get started, I want to point out that there are refreshments and snacks on the
back table. Feel free to help yourself.” Mabel motioned toward the back of the room. “I brought
three varieties of muffins, and Clara was good enough to bring refreshments.”
“Just some sodas from my cellar,” Clara said. “They’re not real cold, ’cause my fridge is
full of bugs.”
Levi shifted in his seat. Historical society? Can five people be a society? Maybe we
should be the historical group. He still couldn’t believe he’d let Mabel con him into coming by
nominating his parents’ old place to be a House of Historical Significance. Sure it was significant
to him, but it wasn’t the kind of house you give tours of. No president slept there, not even a
congressman, only Momma, Daddy, Wrangler, and him. Heck, Marlene’s rickety old barn was
more historically significant than his parents’ house: President Carter waited out a storm there
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 63.
during a fishing trip.
Mabel clearly enjoyed wielding the gavel. She banged it again. “The first order of
business is the nomination and declaration of the house located at three two nine five Sodder
Creek Road as a House of Historical Significance.”
Levi wondered if she was stealing some of this formality from her monthly Eastern Star
She continued, “The house was built by Richard John Cody in nineteen thirty-two with
the help of his wife Carolyn.”
Levi had never heard Papaw called anything but RJ, and the whole town, other than he
and Wrangler, had called Mamaw, Granny. Thinking about them conjured old feelings of loss
“It’s wonderful example of the simple country architecture of the time and has been
Architecture? Levi almost laughed. RJ and Mamaw simply built it from the logs they
cleared from the pasture and in the only way they knew how.
Clara uncrossed her legs. “Hurry up. You’re preachin’ to the choir and the choir is
Mabel banged the gavel. “I thought you hated my muffins.”
Clara mumbled, “I’m getting’ hungry enough to eat my chair.”
Mabel banged the gavel again. She seemed to derive great pleasure from doing so. “We
have to do this right or it doesn’t count.”
Doesn’t count, wondered Levi. How does any of this ridiculousness matter anyway?
Clara said, “I second the nomination.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 64.
Mabel shook her head. “It hasn’t been formally nominated yet.”
“Then I nominate it,” Clara said.
“Do we have a second?” Mabel looked from face to face.
“I second,” the mayor said.
“All in favor?”
The gavel slammed. Mabel read, “The house will this day forward be registered as a
House of Historical Significance and be protected from modification or destruction without
written consent from the Historical Society.” She slammed the gavel again.
“Can we eat yet?” Clara asked.
Mabel shook her head. “Not yet, we have more business.”
“It’s rare that I actually want one of your damn muffins. You should be pleased.”
“You can have all the muffins you want, after the business.”
Clara crossed her arms and harumphed.
Levi’s stomach groaned.
Mabel pounded the gavel. “The second order of business is the Ladybug Festival. Laura
Lynn, would you like to give us an update?”
Laura Lynn shuffled the pages in her lap before standing. She kissed her father on the
cheek and walked to the front of the room where she stood behind the podium borrowed from the
She looked the picture of youthfulness. Her delicate features hadn’t aged a day in the
three years since Levi attended her high school graduation. He would always think of her as a
little sister. It was hard to believe that Beau, her son, had just turned three. Despite all the
whispers and glances, Laura Lynn made being a single teenage mom look easy. She loved Beau
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 65.
and the glow of pregnancy never really left her.
Still clutching the gavel, Mabel walked back to her seat.
Levi smiled. Clara won’t dare make fun of Mabel’s muffins now.
Laura Lynn set her notes on the podium. She looked out and smiled nervously.
“Hi daddy.” She wiggled from side to side. “As y’all know, there are only four days left
before the festival.”
She ran down the itinerary. It was basically the same as last year and the year before—
parade to the square around lunchtime, music, dancing, games for the kids, and rides in the
biplane in the afternoon, followed by the ceremonial speech and release of the bugs.
“But this year, my first year as coordinator, I’d like to add a few things.”
Mabel leaned forward, still gripping the gavel, “But dear, we always do it this way.”
Clara put a hand on Mabel’s shoulder, “Hear her out. Change isn’t always a bad thing.”
Levi’s stomach grumbled.
Laura Lynn waited for Mabel to sit back. “A fun run.” Laura Lynn paused as if waiting
for a cheer. Instead, an awkward silence filled the room.
Fun run? Levi didn’t know for sure what a fun run was. Working the land was all the
exercise he ever needed, and he didn’t know any neighbors who ran. Most of them either worked
hard for a living and had no need for jogging or sat around all day eating home cookin’ until
their bellies made running impractical and possibly dangerous. This fun run idea is going to go
over about as well as Kellerman’s theme park from hell, but Levi admired her youthful
enthusiasm. “Sounds great,” he said, breaking the silence. “Sign me up.” What the heck, if it
makes her happy, it won’t hurt to run a couple of miles.
Laura Lynn clapped and smiled in her usual bubbly manner. “And that’s not all. I think
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 66.
we should elect a king and queen for the festival, maybe even a prince and princess too, you
know, like at a prom, but for the whole town instead.”
Levi’s stomach grumbled again, but this time it wasn’t hunger. His stomach clenched into
a painful lump.
The mayor stood. “Laura Lynn, let’s talk about this later.”
Levi stared straight ahead, through the podium and back to his senior prom. His date,
looking radiant in a glittering white dress, stood beside him on the small stage in the gym. The
principal placed a silly paper crown on her head. “Queen of Gumlog High.” The principal placed
a crown on Levi’s head. “King of Gumlog High.” The tiny graduating class of fourteen kids
cheered. Levi’s favorite power ballad played:
Heaven isn’t too far away
Levi rubbed his palms against his pants in case they were damp with nervous sweat. “I
guess we’re supposed to dance now.”
Closer to it everyday
He took her in his arms. They swayed from side to side.
No matter what your friends may say
Levi pulled her a little closer. She felt warm against his body.
How I love the way you move
She settled deeper into his arms.
And the sparkle in your eyes
He leaned his head against hers and closed his eyes.
There’s a color deep insi—
A hand tapped his shoulder.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 67.
Startled, Levi turned and released his date.
Mayor Jenkins stood in front of him. The mayor whispered something to Levi, but the
music blotted it out. “What?”
The mayor drew in a breath. The music stopped. He said, “Your parents have been in an
“But daddy,” Laura Lynn protested.
“Yes dear, let’s deal with this later,” Mabel said.
Clara’s chair screeched against the floor when she abruptly stood. “Oh hell, let’s go have
some damn muffins.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 68.
Cassidy checked items off her list: Rose bathed and dressed—check. Rose couldn’t look
cuter. It had taken Cassidy over an hour, but she found just the right outfit in Rose’s closet, a
green and white checked skirt and a white blouse. Cassidy even combed Rose’s hair back and
tied it with a matching green ribbon from Marlene’s sewing room.
After the embarrassment of yesterday, Cassidy wanted to be sure everything was perfect.
Caring for a baby couldn’t be tougher than a day at work. Just stay ahead of the wave.
Rose fed—check. Cassidy didn’t have any idea what a child Rose’s age should eat or
even what they eat with, but she took a guess and fed her pancakes without utensils. Cassidy
surmised that it was better to be safe rather than risk giving the young girl a fork. Cassidy wanted
to check with her mother, but a cursory look didn’t reveal Marlene’s phone and Cassidy’s cell
phone didn’t have any signal.
Rose dug right into the pancakes with her hands.
Cassidy looked down at the rest of her list: call work, call Child Protective Services in
Atlanta, fix up house. She wondered what she could possible accomplish in the six days before
she needed to return to New York.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 69.
She still had no idea what to do with the house. It didn’t have much curb appeal with the
paint chipping off and the porch roof sagging, but who would drive by anyway? The house sat at
the end of a desolate dirt road. She needed to come up with a marketing strategy, some way to
advertise the place.
First things first, Cassidy had to check in with work. Even when on vacation, she always
called in every morning. Inevitably, something came up that required her attention. She relished
being a critical cog. With her promotion so close at hand, it was even more important to stay on
top of things at work: the models needed to be booked for the Old Navy shoot; a location needed
to be secured; props needed to be ordered.
Where’s a damn phone?
Rose sat at the kitchen table playing with her last pancake. She scrunched it in her little
fist until it oozed between her fingers. Cassidy circled the kitchen looking for a phone. She
checked the family room, then picked Rose up and went into the bedroom—nothing, not even an
outlet. “Where’s your phone?” She asked Rose playfully, “Where did you hide it?”
Rose batted her eyelashes, giggled, and ran her sticky pancake smeared flingers through
Cassidy’s hair. “No, no baby.” Cassidy pulled Rose’s hand back and brushed off what she could.
A more thorough cleaning would have to wait until after she found the phone and made a call.
This is ridiculous, Cassidy thought. Back home I have a phone in every room, even the
bathroom. She couldn’t believe that Marlene didn’t have a phone. How do you survive without
one? She repeated her search, this time opening cupboards and tossing pillows off the couch.
Okay Cass, deep breath. I’m not going to be defeated this easily. I just need a cell signal.
She remembered the cell tower perched atop the water tower, which she’d seen on the flight
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 70.
“We’re going to town.” Cassidy picked Rose up and carried her out onto the porch. When
she turned to lock the door, she realized that she didn’t have a key. Cassidy never left her
apartment without throwing both deadbolts. There wasn’t even one deadbolt on Marlene’s door.
“Welcome to the country.” Cassidy carried Rose into the front yard. She peered down the dirt
road. It looked longer than it had when they landed on it. Cassidy tried to remember how far
away the town was, but the plane ride was a blur. Farther than I want to walk.
How did Marlene survive without a phone or car?
Cassidy’s organized day was slipping away, but the Tigress didn’t give up that easily.
She looked at the shiny green tractor sitting under the carport. “When in Rome.”
She set Rose on the corner of the porch. “Stay here sweetie.” Cassidy rolled up her
sleeves. If these country yahoos can do this, so can I. She climbed atop the tractor and plopped
into the seat.
“Oh my.” From the seat, the ground looked far away. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.
Cassidy didn’t have a great track record with cars. If her father hadn’t been so insistent
when she’d turned sixteen, she wouldn’t even have bothered to get a license. When do you need
a license in New York? Her license had come in handy occasionally on vacations, but more often
than not it led to awkward moments like last year in St. Bart’s when she stalled a rented Mini
Moke at the top of Carenage Hill, just past the sign cautioning: No Stopping, Low Flying Planes.
A commuter plane, descending to the runway on the shore below, almost bounced off the hood
as Cassidy frantically ground gears in search of one that worked. Unfortunately, the one she
found was reverse, sending the car careening into and over the sign.
Cassidy reached out and touched the edge of the lanky tractor tires. The V-tread looked
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 71.
as if it could climb a mountain. The steering wheel was bigger and flatter than a car wheel. It felt
awkward in her hands. Cassidy found the starter button just below the wheel. She put her right
hand on the gearshift and hunted the pedals with her feet—one pedal on the left and three on the
Rose sat on the porch watching with visible curiosity.
Cassidy stepped down, took Rose by the hand, and walked her to the far side of the
porch. “This could get ugly. I want you well clear of trouble.”
Back atop the green beast, Cassidy wiggled the gearshift. “How tough can this be?” She
depressed each of the foot pedals: the one on the left felt springy; the two on the inside right felt
stiff; the outside right pedal felt soft and light.
Cassidy drew in a defiant deep breath and pressed the button.
She exhaled one long tense sigh.
She looked at the gauges and found a key dangling between the gas gauge and a black
knob. She turned the key to what looked like the on position. She wiggled the shift handle,
depressed the pedal on the left, and pushed the starter button.
The tractor belched a puff of black smoke out its chrome stack. The roar of the engine
She lifted her foot.
The tractor jerked forward.
Cassidy grabbed for the wheel as the tractor leapt from the carport. A loud whirring noise
chased close behind. The wheel didn’t react like a car steering wheel—it was spastic, swinging
the nose of the tractor from side to side.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 72.
Before Cassidy could gain control, the tractor rolled into the azalea garden. Cassidy
watched in horror as the front tires tore two parallel grooves, followed by the rears, then the
whirring noise behind changed to a guttural crunching sound, a bit like her margarita mixer
choking on an ice cube, but louder and meaner. Cassidy spun around in time to watch the
mowing deck clear a ten-foot swath of total destruction through the flowerbed. “Oh shit.”
Cassidy stomped on the left pedal. The tractor stopped dead and grumbled a deep diesel
Cassidy didn’t dare move. Her heart pounded.
She’d stopped the beast.
She looked back to make sure that Rose still sat on the porch and out of harms way.
Rose waved. Cassidy nodded and smiled, too afraid to risk taking a hand off the wheel.
How did Marlene do it? All this and a baby too. Cassidy couldn’t imagine adding a baby to her
life in New York. There simply wasn’t any time. That reminded her of item four on her list—call
Child Protective Services. She didn’t want to give up Rose, but what else could she do? They can
probably find her a better home, with a mom and a dad.
Cassidy caught her breath enough for another attempt to tame the tractor. She eased out
the pedal, which she’d decided must be the clutch. The three on the right still made no sense.
The tractor jerked forward. She idled along, mowing the front yard, until she got the hang
of steering—not too much, not too fast, steady as you go. She gently pressed the outside right
pedal—the tractor sped up, then the inside right pedal—the tractor slowed and jerked to the left,
then the middle right pedal—the tractor jerked to the right.
The tractor swerved around the yard.
By the time Cassidy felt confident enough to point it toward town, the front yard was
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 73.
covered with drunken crop circles.
What about Rose? She couldn’t leave her behind.
Cassidy jiggled the gearshift until she found neutral. The mowing attachment still
whirred and the engine grumbled, but at least the tractor stayed put. Cassidy searched the
instrument panel for a knob or button that would turn off the mower blade, but found nothing.
She leaned back over the rear deck and looked for a way to disconnect it, but again found
nothing. The mower would have to stay on.
Cassidy stepped from the tractor. She looked back to make sure it wasn’t running away.
It didn’t move. She picked up Rose and walked inside. “Safety first.”
Cassidy plunked Rose on the couch and then dug through Marlene’s closets looking for
anything that might help protect the young girl from any bumps along the way. She wrapped
Rose’s legs with ace bandages. Then, she draped Marlene’s down ski jacket over her and zipped
it up. The bottom hem fell all the way to the floor. Cassidy topped Rose off with a black riding
helmet, which covered her head like a bucket.
“There, that should protect you.”
Rose mumbled an unintelligible response from under the helmet.
“Right, let’s go.” Cassidy picked her up and carried her out to the grumbling tractor. To
Cassidy’s surprise, Rose didn’t seem the least bit afraid. Maybe Marlene had taken her for rides
Cassidy set Rose in her lap and wrapped a motherly arm around Rose’s waist. “If this
were a car I’d get a ticket for this.”
“But since we’re not going over five miles an hour, I think we’ll get away with it.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 74.
Cassidy wondered if Gumlog even had police.
She pushed the clutch, shoved the gear shift, and then eased out the clutch. This time,
instead of circling the yard, she pointed for the dirt road.
“Shitty Shit Bag Bag,” Rose said from under the helmet.
Cassidy tilted the helmet back so she could see Rose’s face.
“Shit Shitty Bag Bag.” Rose’s eyes sparkled in the morning sun. She put both hands on
the edge of the steering wheel. “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
Cassidy couldn’t believe her ears. There was no way that Rose had learned such language
from Marlene. “Rose.” She tried to speak in a corrective tone, but she couldn’t scold that smile
and those pudgy red cheeks.
Rose jiggled happily in Cassidy’s lap. “We wuv you,” she sang.
Cassidy laughed. “You mean Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?”
Rose giggled. “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
Cassidy breathed deeply, filling her lungs with something odd, a sweet full smell, like a
flower shop, but without the aftertaste of perfume. It was the air version of Perrier bottled water.
Despite the grumbling diesel, bumbling down the dirt road felt peaceful and natural like a
walk in central part, but noisier. The diesel had a funny cyclical moan that beat out a rhythm, one
which Rose seemed to know well. She sang, “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
Cassidy tickled her belly and said, “But that’s the sound it makes—listen.”
Rose giggled and sang, “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
Cassidy joined in, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Rose sang louder, “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
A plume of dust wafted into the air behind the tractor as it mowed the dirt road at barely
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 75.
faster than a walking pace.
“Oh you pretty—” Cassidy tickled Rose.
“Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
Together they sang, “Chitty Shitty Bang Bag we love you.”
Yellow flowers carpeted the roadside ditch dappling it with color like the Monets at the
“And, our, pretty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Fiery red shrubs filled the gap between the ditch and the tree line. Cassidy wished she
knew what the shrubs were; she’d never seen anything like them.
“Shitty Shitty Bag Bag wuvs us too.”
Cassidy eased her right foot down on the gas pedal. The tractor sped up, engine revving
louder, mower cutting faster.
“High, low, anywhere we go.”
Cassidy couldn’t see a single neighboring house yet. She wondered how Marlene had
managed out here all alone.
“On Chitty Chitty we depend.”
Rose bounced to the rhythm as she sang, “Bag Bag Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
“Oh look.” Cassidy tilted Rose’s helmet so she could see a deer standing in the road a
hundred yards ahead. Cassidy had never seen a deer before. It looked like Bambi’s mom, but a
little more gray than brown and a bit bigger.
The deer broke its stare and turned, revealing a snowy white tail pointed alertly toward
the sky, before bounding into the woods. A gangly spotted fawn shot from the trees on the far
side of the road and bounced after her.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 76.
“Our fine four fendered friend.”
Cassidy flipped open her cell and checked for a signal—nothing.
“You’re sleek as a thoroughbred.”
Ahead, a mailbox marked the beginning of a gravel drive that led up a hill to a green
“Your seats are a featherbed.”
The louder Cassidy sang, the more they swayed to the rhythm.
“You’ll turn everybody’s head.”
The sun warmed Cassidy’s shoulders.
“We’ll glide on our motor trip.”
She followed the ridges with her eyes, marveling at the budding green trees against the
“With pride in our ownership.”
Cassidy wondered if Marlene enjoyed tractor rides this much. I bet she did.
“The envy of all we survey.”
They passed a bright red barn with two giant white doors.
“Oh Chitty, you Chitty.”
A small clutch of cows stood absentmindedly chewing grass behind a fence running
alongside the road.
Cassidy sang to them, “Pretty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Rose joined in, “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag we wuv you.”
Cassidy laughed through the next line, “Pretty Chitty Bang Bang.”
“Shitty Shitty Bag Bag wuvs us too.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 77.
Cassidy pointed up at a lone white puffy cloud, “Hi Chitty.” She pointed to the ground,
“Low Chitty.” She drew a circle all around. “Anywhere we go.” She patted the wheel. “On
Chitty Chitty we depend.”
Rose pawed playfully at the wheel. “Bag Bag Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
Cassidy hugged her. “Our fine four fendered friend.”
On the right, the split rail fence bordering the cow pasture ended and a new jet-black
five-rail fence began.
“Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Ahead, a cowboy hat sat atop the final post of the new fence. Rails lay stacked in a gap
between the end of the new fence and the remnants of an old one. A lone shirtless man
hammered a fence board to a recently set post.
“Our fine four fendered friend.”
Cassidy flipped open her cell phone. One bar! One bar!
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Cassidy clutched Rose with her left hand, dialed with her right, and steered with her knee.
The man ahead turned and wiped his brow. Her eyes were riveted to his bare chest. What a body!
“Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
“Élan, Cassidy Kincaid’s office.”
“Rachel?” Cassidy shouted.
The man waved his hat vigorously.
“Shitty Shit Bag Bag.”
Cassidy could barely hear the phone.
“Cassidy is that you?”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 78.
“Shit Shitty Bag Bag.”
The tractor veered toward the fence. “Shit,” Cassidy screamed.
Rose sang, “Shit Shitty Bag Bag.”
Cassidy wrapped her arms protectively around Rose.
The tractor rolled down the sloped shoulder of the road and, like a battering ram, crashed
through the new fence. Boards cracked, splintered, and flew through the air.
The tractor rumbled to a stop.
Before Cassidy could react, a man stood on the rail of the tractor holding Rose with one
hand and flipping the key off with the other.
Rachel screamed into the phone, “Cassidy?”
Cassidy looked up into Levi’s intense blue eyes.
“Cassidy?” he said.
“Shitty Shitty Bag Bag we wuv you.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 79.
Levi pulled Rose from Cassidy’s lap and into his arms. “You okay big girl?” He tried to
sound calm and soothing, but inside he quivered like elm leaves in a stiff breeze. He pulled off
Rose’s riding helmet, slipped off the down jacket, unwrapped the elastic bandage, and held her
close. She nestled her head against his chest. He felt something that he hadn’t felt since Wrangler
left home—fear. Not the hint of giddy excitement that sometimes pulsed through his veins when
he wrestled the biplane through a loop or a roll, this fear came from deep in his core.
He thought about what life would be like without Rose. A line of what if’s marched
through his head. He couldn’t bear to think about any of them.
He had felt the same way after dropping Wrangler at college. At the time, he convinced
himself that he was being silly, but even his worst fears didn’t match the feeling of total
emptiness when the police called with the news. He couldn’t imagine going through that with
Rose…losing Rose, but what could he do? He had no legal right to her.
“Bag Bag yeah,” Rose sang.
Levi reached out to help Cassidy down.
A muffled voice shouted, “Cassidy, Cassidy.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 80.
Cassidy ignored his outstretched hand. “Put me through to Ginny,” she said into the cell
Levi could hear authority in her tone. She had lapsed into business mode. He could even
see it in her facial expression: her brow sharpened; her forehead wrinkled. Even her posture
modified to suit: she hunched forward as if coiled to leap.
As Cassidy spoke, her expression darkened from purposeful to angry. Levi didn’t like
eves dropping, but he couldn’t help overhearing. “You hired Laney?” She sounded stunned
beyond anger. “Laney?” Her face reddened. “I know…I know, eye on the prize.”
Levi had never seen a faster transition of mood. Seconds before the crash she’d been
singing at the top of her lungs, now she looked as if the blood vessels bulging from her temples
Cassidy slapped the phone shut and stuffed it into her pocket.
“You okay?” Levi asked.
“Just a minor issue at work.”
“I meant you, are you physically okay? You just crashed through my fence.”
Cassidy spun in her seat and looked at the gap in the new fence. “I’m sorry. I’ll pay to fix
“Who?” Levi asked. Money doesn’t solve many problems out here, he thought. People
and work do.
“Who would you pay?” The only person in town who would attempt to fix this fence for
money was Rinker, but as soon as you handed him cash, he would find a new bottle and forget
about work completely.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 81.
Cassidy stepped down from the tractor. “There must be someone.”
Levi shook his head. “At least you and Rose are okay.”
“But your fence is ruined. Let me pay you something.”
She seemed genuinely concerned, but Levi declined.
“Then I’ll fix it myself,” Cassidy declared.
Levi didn’t mean to laugh quite so hard or loud, but the thought of Miss City Priss fixing
his fence—no way. She might actually break a sweat. Sure she’d helped clean the kitchen, but
bucking fence boards?
Cassidy rolled up her sleeves, pulled a board off the tractor, and dragged it to the side.
The joke had gone far enough. “I’ll get it.” Levi tossed two boards aside. “Let me back
this out and I’ll take you two home.”
“After we fix your fence.”
Levi handed Rose to Cassidy before climbing onto the tractor. He’d helped Marlene pick
out this John Deere tractor after her old faithful Model H died a smoky death in the south
pasture. He fired the engine. The large diesel grumbled. Every time he started a tractor, he
thought of planting time at the ranch when he was a boy—before video games, before anyone up
here had satellite television, back when riding on the back of Daddy’s tractor was the best
After disconnecting the power takeoff to the mower and lifting the deck, Levi backed the
tractor out the same way it had come in. “Hop on. I’ll take you home.”
Cassidy set Rose down in the spring grass and patted her on the head. She walked over to
the gaping hole in the fence. “After I fix this.”
Levi admired her determination, but come on, there was no way she’d be able to fix the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 82.
Cassidy picked up a broken board and tossed it aside. She leaned for another.
“Okay, okay, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but why don’t you let me take you
both home. I’ll fix the fence later.”
Ignoring him, she walked toward the stack of lumber. He shut off the tractor. After
scooping up Rose, he jogged to catch Cassidy. “Look, I appreciate this, but really, I’ll fix it.”
She shook her head.
What a mule, Levi thought, what a beautiful mule. He hoisted Rose onto his shoulders.
Cassidy picked up one end of a fence board, Levi the other. He had been lugging fence boards on
his shoulders for two days. He could do it himself and always did, despite the fact that Ramon,
the ranch foreman, was rarely more than a yell away. Levi never relied on Ramon for jobs like
this. He preferred to do them alone. Something about needing help didn’t settle well with him.
He’d been on his own since Wrangler died. He could handle things himself and usually did, but
he had to admit, it felt good walking with Rose on his shoulders instead of planks of wood, and it
was nice having Cassidy lift half the load, and she sure looked good doing it. She had some
muscle under all that city camouflage, or maybe it was determination.
They lugged replacement boards, first one at a time, then two, until they’d stacked all the
boards they would need by the gap in the fence. “Why don’t you watch Rose while I nail these
up,” Levi said.
Cassidy shot a glance that made him wonder if he’d stepped on her toes.
She held the boards in place while he pounded in galvanized nails. By the third board, he
could tell she was struggling. Her cheeks turned pink and the tip of her nose turned red. Levi
pushed a knee against the board to help. “Where were you going anyway?”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 83.
Cassidy spoke in short puffs while she strained to hold the board in place. “Needed to
make a few calls.”
“Any reason you didn’t take the car?”
Cassidy faltered and dropped the board, narrowly missing Levi’s foot. “What car?”
Levi lifted the board, held it with his knee, and drove in three nails. “In the barn.”
“You mean that falling down old barn beside the house?”
“It’s leaning, but it won’t fall anytime soon. I braced it with four by fours last year. I
wanted to either tear it down or jack it back to straight, but Marlene insisted that I preserve it just
the way it was. She thought there was something beautiful about its struggle. Mentioned
something about it being like a bonsai tree?”
Cassidy picked up the next board without responding.
“You really didn’t know it was in there?” Levi laughed. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to
laugh.” He laughed even harder.
“I needed to make an important call and Marlene didn’t have a phone—she didn’t right?”
Cassidy looked at him with vulnerable sincerity.
“No.” Levi shook his head. “Alltel never ran wires up that far.” He aligned the last board
and drove in a three nails. “How ’bout letting me drive you home now.”
Cassidy hesitated. She slipped the cell phone from her pocket, but didn’t flip it open.
“Let’s go.” She shoved it back into her pocket.
Levi wondered what call she was avoiding making in front of him. He pulled out his cell.
As much as he hated them, they made great walkie-talkies on the ranch. “Ramon.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 84.
Cassidy was surprised to hear Levi speaking fluent Spanish. When he put his phone
away, she asked, “So this country boy persona is just an act?”
Levi wiped his brow. “No ma’am. I’m local born and raised, right there.” He pointed to a
modest farmhouse beside the pasture. She recognized it from their flight.
The little house made Marlene’s look like a mansion. It couldn’t have been more than
three rooms. The roof was made from the same panels of metal that covered Marlene’s shed.
How could he have lived his entire life in that house?
At least he kept it up. The exterior looked new. A fresh coat of soft-yellow paint covered
the walls. The trim gleamed white in the morning sun. Even the hunter green roof panels shone
glossy. And Brilliant pink roses bordered the front and rear porches. The flowerbeds rivaled the
nicest rooftop gardens in the city.
“But you speak fluent Spanish?” Cassidy had barely limped through Spanish in high
school and, luckily, hadn’t had to take it in college.
“Country doesn’t mean ignorant any more than being from New York means you’re
stuck up.” Levi grabbed his flannel shirt off the post. He slipped it on and plunked the hat on his
Cassidy wondered what he really thought of her. It seemed that whenever she opened her
mouth around him, something stupid flew out. She wasn’t intimidated—that couldn’t be it. She
spent plenty of time in the company of hunky male models, but still, something about this guy,
this town, threw her off her usually polished game. “Do you live there alone?” She wondered if
there was a Mrs. Cowboy or maybe some little cowboys at home. He was so natural around Rose
that it wouldn’t surprise Cassidy if he had a child of his own.
“I don’t live there. That place has been empty for years.” Levi picked Rose up and
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 85.
climbed into the seat of the tractor. He placed Rose in his lap. “Ready when you are.”
Oh how Cassidy wanted to pry, to dig deeper and find out what made this guy tick.
Nothing about him added up: country hick who speaks fluent Spanish, loner who is great with
Rose, knows everything about Marlene but wasn’t her boyfriend, owns a beautifully maintained
house but no one lives in it. Cassidy stepped onto the tractor. “Where do you want me?” Back
home that would have elicited a vulgarity guised as humor from most of her male coworkers.
Selling sex was their business and sometimes that permeated their humor.
Levi showed her where to stand, just behind the seat.
Cassidy didn’t like the feel of this. Behind her, the bright yellow mower looked ready to
The diesel belched and then settled into a cyclical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang idle. Cassidy
reached up and grabbed Levi’s shoulders.
He didn’t flinch.
His shoulder muscles flexed as he held Rose tightly and eased the shifter into gear. He
pulled onto the road and began the slow trek back to Marlene’s.
The mower was silent and its blades, still. Cassidy no longer feared falling off, but she
kept her hands on Levi’s shoulders. She was thankful for the excuse. Trevor had had many assets
as a boyfriend, but muscles like these weren’t on the list. Cassidy adjusted her grip higher and
closer to Levi’s neck. She wondered what it would be like to massage his neck, his back—better
yet, to have his strong fingers working all the tension from her neck.
Levi pointed to a narrow break in the trees on the left. “Marlene loved to photograph
ducks on the pond back there.”
Cassidy’s shoulders began to fatigue. She slipped her hands off Levi’s shoulders and held
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 86.
onto his waist.
He pointed to the end of the split rail fence. “This is where my property ends and
Marlene’s property begins.”
Cassidy flipped open her cell phone and checked one last time for a cell signal—none.
She wished she’d had time to call Child Protective Services about Rose, but there was no way
she’d have done that in front of Levi. It would have to wait until tomorrow.
Levi pulled up in front of Marlene’s house, dropped off Cassidy and Rose, and then
backed the tractor under the carport.
He stepped from the tractor. “Next time, take the car. She always left the keys in it. I’ll
show you how to start it.”
Cassidy held Rose’s hand. Rose looked up at her with tired eyes. Cassidy wondered if a
child this age needed naps or not. She wished she could call Mom to ask and to make sure Mom
was doing okay.
Cassidy picked up Rose. “I think I can figure out how to start a car. I did all right with the
Levi chuckled. “Depends what you consider all right. The car’s tricky.”
Levi swung open the doors to the barn. The inside looked far better than the outside. She
could see the heavy timbers that Levi had put in as reinforcements. She stepped inside, carrying
Cassidy expected to find an electric car or something exotic that ran on some special gas
which didn’t create any pollution. Instead, she found a decrepit gray El Camino that looked like
Marlene had painted it herself with a brush and house paint.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 87.
Levi popped the hood. “If you know her tricks, she’ll purr.” He pulled an aerosol can
from the glove box. He held up the can for Cassidy to see. “Starting fluid.” He motioned her
Cassidy didn’t consider herself mechanically gifted. Other than cameras, she generally
avoided delving into things like this. She leaned over the front bumper.
He pointed to two holes in the center of the engine. “A shot in each.” He walked over and
sat in the driver’s seat. “Pump the gas pedal four times, shift into neutral, then take your foot off
the gas and turn the key.” The engine coughed and sputtered. “When that happens, give it some
gas.” The engine revved, then settled into a bumbling idle. “Once you’ve warmed her up, she’ll
start easy for the rest of the day.”
“Is that all?”
Levi laughed. “And you have to hold your tongue just right.” The tip of his tongue
protruded from the side of his mouth.
He turned off the car. “Want to try?”
“No, no, I’ve got it.”
A red pickup pulled up out front.
“That’s Ramon. Do you need anything before I go?”
Cassidy shook her head.
Levi lifted Rose from Cassidy’s arms and hugged her. “Bye-bye Rosie.”
She giggled. “Bye-bye.”
He carried her out the double doors before handing her back. He pointed toward Betsy.
“Cow’s lookin’ full.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 88.
Frumpy, that was the word that came to mind when Cassidy looked at herself in the
mirror before heading out to tackle the morning chores that she’d listed on her yellow pad the
night before. Cassidy had given up on Etienne Aigner’s and vonFurstenberg’s in favor of
sneakers, jeans, and a Haines Beefy-T borrowed from Marlene’s closet. Her New York outfits
were no match for country muck. Cassidy had already ruined more than she cared to think about.
“Cow’s looking full.” Cassidy repeated Levi’s words. He doesn’t think I can handle it
here. I’d like to see him in New York. I bet he wouldn’t last a day. She didn’t know why it made
her mad that he didn’t think she was capable, that maybe he thought in some way she was
lacking, but it did. She would show him. The next time he comes by, that will be one empty cow!
For the first time in years, Cassidy skipped her morning makeup routine, even skipped
blow-drying her hair. None of that mattered. She wouldn’t see anyone this morning except Rose,
a cow, a pig, and a goat.
“Today’s the day Betsy.”
After the morning chores, she planned to clean up and head into town. She still needed to
call Child Protective Services and she was desperate to talk to Mom and Dad. Cassidy wasn’t
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 89.
comfortable being unreachable. So many things could go wrong or could need her attention.
Just a few more days, she told herself, then I can go home.
Home? She’d lived in three different apartments in three years and was planning to move
again as soon as her promotion came through. None of them ever really felt like home. The last
home she’d lived in was her father’s. Every place since had just been somewhere to stay. None
felt permanent like parents’ house had, like Marlene’s house did. If she pulled down the
Kandinsky and her framed magazine covers, Cassidy’s apartment could really be anyone’s
She read the first item on her to-do list—Milk the cow.
Cassidy stood at the gate to Betsy’s pasture.
Rose watched from the porch. “Betsy, Betsy.”
Cassidy had seen enough movies set on farms to know that you care for the animals first.
Today, she’d start with Betsy. If that went well, she’d try to figure out what Gus the pig ate,
because he’d licked his trough bare. And if that went well, she’d check on the goat, even though
he, or maybe she, seemed content eating anything and everything that ended up within reach.
Cassidy had given cow milking some serious thought the night before. Without a
television, she had plenty of time to mull over all sorts of oddities after Rose had gone to bed.
She had drawn up a list of steps that seemed appropriate. She even had an equipment list: bowl
to catch milk, towel for miscellaneous spillage.
She held a clean stainless bowl from the kitchen cabinet in one hand and a towel in the
other. “Good cow,” she called to Betsy. She left the pad beside the gate; she knew the steps by
heart. Step one: approach cow and make friends.
Betsy ate grass along the fence, apparently oblivious to Cassidy.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 90.
“Good cow.” Cassidy unlatched the gate and slowly swung it open.
Betsy raised her head.
Cassidy froze. “Good cow.” Cassidy took one tentative step inside. Her heart raced. This
took more courage than she’d expected. Her eyes never left Betsy. What do I do if she charges?
Betsy’s head dropped and she returned her attention to the dew covered spring shoots.
She tore mouthful after mouthful from the ground.
Cassidy walked into the pasture and closed the gate behind her. She didn’t latch it. There
was a good chance she’d be running back out any second.
Nothing she’d done before had prepared her for this. Up close, Betsy looked so large. By
comparison, Cassidy felt tiny and fragile and more than a bit silly. “Good cow.” Step after
hesitant step, she narrowed the gap to Betsy until she was close enough to reach out and touch
the cow, if she dared.
Betsy raised her head.
“Betsy, Betsy,” Rose shouted.
Cassidy yelped and ran squealing. She pushed the gate open, bolted through, latched it,
and fell to the ground.
Betsy hadn’t taken a step. She stood grinding a wad of grass between her teeth, with
green shoots sticking out both sides of her mouth.
Cassidy swore that Betsy was looking at her with mild amusement.
“All right cow, I’ve butted heads with some of the toughest agents, negotiated with
impossible talent, I’ve even wrestled an annoying hotel heiress who fancied herself a model into
a cold shower to sober up before a photo shoot. You’re not going to defeat me.” Cassidy reached
over to roll up her sleeves, but realized the T-shirt didn’t have any. She needed a couple of
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 91.
minutes to summon courage. She checked her list. Step one hadn’t changed: approach cow and
The gate swung open. Cassidy declared, “I’m coming to milk you.”
Betsy chewed. Her vapid expression never changed.
Cassidy strode up to Betsy and introduced herself, “I’m Cassidy and I’ll be milking you
Betsy stared at her blankly.
“Good. Now that we’re on the same page—”
Betsy snorted a glob of black goo onto Cassidy’s leg.
Cassidy willed herself not to run, even though every synapse screamed—run! She stood
firm and negotiated. Cassidy pointed at Betsy’s nipples. “Those have got to hurt and I’m here to
help.” She reached out and touched the cow’s back. The fur wasn’t nearly as soft as it looked. It
felt stiff and bristly. She really could use a good conditioner. Can you wash a cow?
“Good girl.” Cassidy patted Betsy. “See, we’re friends.”
Cassidy bent down to check out what she was getting into. “Well aren’t you the lucky
girl. You get four nipples.” The udder looked full and heavy. The nipples too looked engorged.
Mud clung to them and hung from her udder. “You need to work on your hygiene, Betsy. These
things are a mess. Have you been hanging around with the pig?” Perhaps the pig sensed she was
talking about him, because he waddled over to the edge of his pen, which shared a fence with
Betsy’s pasture, and sprawled on the ground a few feet away from Cassidy. His eyes followed
her every move.
Clearly, something had to be done to clean this mess. Cassidy set down her bowl and
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 92.
towel and backed away slowly.
“Just me,” she said when she returned with a bucket of warm water, a rag, and sink soap.
Betsy stood chewing grass.
Maybe this won’t be so tough after all.
Cassidy knelt in the dirt. Her knees sank. At least this time she was dressed for it. “We’re
going to clean you up.” She dunked the rag in the bucket and squirted on a blob of soap. “I’ll be
gentle.” She reached out and placed the rag against the cow’s udder.
Betsy stepped aside and just out of reach.
Cassidy followed, crawling on her knees. Each time Cassidy touched the udder, the cow
stepped away. They did this repeatedly until Cassidy had crawled in a complete circle.
“Betsy, Betsy,” Rose cheered.
Betsy didn’t need a cheering section. She was winning on her own.
Cassidy stood. She didn’t wipe the mud from her knees because she wanted her hands to
be clean and sterile. She hadn’t considered this difficulty when she wrote up her list. Thinking
back, the hotel heiress had put up a similar struggle to avoid being tossed into the shower. The
trick then was to cut off her escape until the shower was the only route. No way is this cow
smarter than the hotel heiress, at least not book smarter?
Cassidy found that wherever she patted Betsy, the cow moved the opposite direction.
With a series of pats, Cassidy worked Betsy up alongside the fence that the pig reclined against.
When Cassidy reached up to rub the udder, Betsy jostled back and forth, but didn’t try to
escape. Cassidy rubbed gently at first, but seeing that the caked on mud wasn’t coming off, she
rubbed more vigorously. Betsy didn’t seem to mind at all. Maybe this is like a massage at the spa
for a cow.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 93.
Cassidy rubbed and rubbed, then bent down and checked. “Not good enough.” She never
knew milk came from such a dirty place. Do dairy farmers really clean the cows each time?
She dunked the rag in the bucket, squirted on soap, and rubbed some more.
Finally, the udder looked clean. Time to…well…milk it?
Cassidy placed the stainless bowl on the ground under the cow. She reached up and
wrapped her hand around the closest nipple. It felt much harder than she’d expected. She
Nothing came out.
“Maybe that one’s broken.” Cassidy squeezed and tugged on another nipple—
Cassidy huffed and puffed, pulled and squeezed, grunted and groaned, tugged and
yanked, until a single stream of milk shot from a nipple and soaked her shirt.
Rose cheered. “Betsy, Betsy.”
The pig also looked mildly amused. He shifted a little closer.
Cassidy gripped the nipple with both hands and squeezed and yanked. A stream of milk
splattered the pig’s back.
Milk splattered Cassidy’s hair, shirt, and pants. The pig eagerly contorted to lick the
warm milk that landed on his body.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 94.
Milk flew in every direction, except into the stainless bowl.
Levi knocked harder on the door. Where could they be?
Laura Lynn stood beside him holding the hand of her three-year-old son, Beau, who
rocked from side to side excitedly. “Hang on Bo-baby. We’ll find your girlfriend.”
The screen door slapped shut as Levi walked to the edge of the porch. “Let’s check
Levi rounded the corner of the house and stopped. Beau bumped into his leg.
Not many things snuck up on Levi and surprised him; the last he could think of was the
time the left tire blew on the Stearman during takeoff, making it veer straight for the scrub oak in
the north pasture, but not even that compared to the shock of seeing Cassidy, butt in the mud,
hands whirling away on poor Betsy’s teats, squirting down everything in sight including one
very happy pig. A wry smile snuck to his lips. City girl’s got spunk, I’ll give her that.
He took Beau and Laura Lynn by the hand and walked into the backyard.
“Bo-Bo,” Rose shouted.
Levi wished he had a camera to capture the look on Cassidy’s face when she saw them.
White droplets of milk speckled her hair. Her T-shirt had enough milk soaked into it to make it
see-through in a girls gone wild cowgirl edition sort of a way. He tried not to look, but couldn’t
help stealing a few glances.
Rose padded over to the edge of the porch where they stood.
Levi leaned down and spread his arms wide to give her a hug, but she turned toward Beau
instead. “Bo-Bo,” she said. She stopped in front of Beau and suddenly became shy. She wobbled
from side to side and glanced away, batting her long blond eyelashes.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 95.
Laura Lynn released Beau’s hand. “Looks like there’s a new man in Rose’s life.”
Levi laughed, but only because it seemed to fit the moment. He really felt a pang of
jealousy—ridiculous, overprotective—jealousy. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were
Beau reached deep into his pocket and pulled out a plastic frog. He patted it as if saying
goodbye, then held it out to Rose.
Laura Lynn smiled. “They are. That’s his favorite toy.” She poked Levi in the ribs.
“When’s the last time you offered a lady your favorite toy?”
Levi laughed. He pointed toward Cassidy. “I gave that crazy woman a ride in my favorite
toy,” he said, referring to the Stearman.
Levi left Rose, Beau, and Laura Lynn at the porch and walked over to the fence.
Cassidy wore the same dismayed expression he’d seen when he first met her at the
airport. She stood and looked down at the mud on her pants.
Levi was ready with a joke, but it died in his throat. He took off his hat and held it to his
chest. “I brought a babysitter for Rose.” While he spoke, he explored her with his eyes. He was
careful not to stare too long, but he risked enough to see all of her, without makeup, without
some fancy city outfit, without damn high heels—just her.
He knew he should say something else, but nothing came to him, nothing he could say
out loud that is. He stood, holding his hat to his chest until the silence became awkward. “I
thought maybe you could use a little help with Rose.”
Just like plunking a foot down in a cow patty in the pasture, he knew, as soon as the
words came out, that he’d stepped in it.
“We’re doing just fine,” Cassidy said.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 96.
“I’m sure you are ma’am. I just know Beau would love to spend time with Rosie and I
thought maybe I could spend a little time with you…helping out around here…not that you need
it.” It had been a long time since Levi had danced around a woman like this. He was rusty.
Cassidy resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest. Just like the runway model
with the wardrobe malfunction, she proceeded as if nothing were wrong, even though she was
fairly certain that her breasts were about as visible as Betsy’s. She just hoped they weren’t as
Doesn’t he know to call first? Give a girl time to prepare? Oh yeah, no phone.
Cassidy exchanged pleasantries with Laura Lynn and Beau from a distance and then
invited them to make themselves at home. Rose waved and said, “Bye-bye,” before they went
Levi looked unsure what to do next. “You know, Betsy and I have an understanding. I
could show you how to milk her…not that you need any help.” He cracked a smile.
Cassidy gave up and gave in—to hell with my hair, to hell with my clothes. “I guess I
could use some help.”
Levi approached Betsy with the same quiet firmness with which he seemed to approach
life. He patted her on the side. “How ya doin’ old girl?” He scratched her, kicking up dust and
debris. “Feels good, huh girl?”
He turned toward Cassidy. “Cows are creatures of habit. They like things to be the same
every time. It makes them comfortable. A stress free cow is a happy cow.”
Levi patted Betsy. “So we’re going to do this just like Marlene did.” He walked over to
the barn and pulled a rope from the line of pegs on the outside wall. He tied a loop in the rope as
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 97.
he walked back. He showed it to Betsy. She looked uncertain, but trusting. He placed it gently
over her head. “We’re going to the barn.” Cassidy followed as Levi walked Betsy out of her
pasture and over to the back of the barn. He walked her into a narrow gap between the barn and a
hitching rail and tied the rope to the rail.
Levi untucked his flannel shirt revealing a gray T-shirt underneath. He took off the
flannel shirt and offered it to Cassidy.
“No thanks, I’m fine,” she said.
“Please, do it for me.”
She took the shirt. The supple fabric felt good in her hands. She slipped her arms in and
buttoned up the front. She rolled the sleeves until her hands emerged. The tail of the shirt hung
halfway to her knees. It reminded her of running around the house in Dr. Denton footy pajamas
as a child, but her footy pajamas never smelled this good.
Levi motioned her to move closer to Betsy. “You don’t milk a cow by force.”
Betsy watched his every move.
He scratched her back. “She wants to be milked. That udder is uncomfortable.” He patted
her neck. “The trick is getting her to want to be milked by you.”
He massaged Betsy’s neck. “Just inside the barn, there should be some covered buckets.”
He nodded toward the barn door. “Fill one of the buckets with warm water from the white sink
and bring the soap and a cloth from the cabinet under the sink.”
Cassidy returned with one bucket full of water and one empty except for a towel and a
bottle of soap.
“You take over,” Levi said. “Rub her right here.” He pulled Cassidy close and guided her
hand to the valley between Betsy’s shoulders. “She loves that.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 98.
He stepped away. “Just keep scratching.”
He returned with two stools and two more buckets. He spoke softly. “See how calm she
is.” He guided Cassidy’s hand down Betsy’s side to her belly. “She loves a good belly rub.”
Betsy broke her stare and looked ahead.
“She’s not afraid anymore.” He leaned down and rubbed her udder. “I don’t think I’ve
ever seen one quite this clean.” He laughed. “Put your hand here.” He moved Cassidy’s hand to
Betsy’s udder. “Feel how relaxed. This old girls good to go.” He sat down on a stool and patted
the one in front of him.
Cassidy sat. This was better than squatting in the dirt and Betsy did seem more
“Good girl,” Levi said to Betsy. “Good girl.” He slid a bucket under her and then reached
out and, with a motion best described as a rhythmic massage, began milking. “Once she’s ready,
it’s easy. You try.”
Cassidy slid her stool closer.
“Put your hand around the teat, but don’t squeeze yet.”
Cassidy felt Levi’s stool thump into the back of hers. His arms wrapped around her body.
His hand wrapped around hers. When he spoke, his breath tickled her ear and his voice vibrated
through her body.
“First you squeeze up here.” He pressed her index finger and thumb until they squeezed
She could feel the heat of his body near her back.
“Then you squeeze here.” He pressed against her middle finger.
Her hand closed around the cow’s warm nipple. A trickle of milk began to dribble into
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 99.
Levi squeezed her ring finger.
Cassidy closed her eyes as his hand enveloped hers. His fingers pressed her hand into a
fist, but never squeezed too hard, just enough to make her willing hand comply with his wishes.
He opened his hand and hers followed. Again she squeezed rhythmically from top to
A shot of milk landed in the bucket.
Over and over, Levi pumped Cassidy’s hand, faster and faster. She could feel him
breathing harder. Warm waves washed over her ear. He slid closer until his chest pressed against
her shoulder blades.
Squirt, squirt, squirt…
Levi reached over with his left hand and guided Cassidy’s free hand to another teat.
Cassidy’s hands began to fatigue, but Levi’s didn’t. As her strength flagged, his hands
worked harder, pushing and coaxing hers not to quit.
Squirt, squirt, squirt…
Cassidy succumbed to the rhythm. Her body relaxed and settled into his.
She no longer felt self-conscious and frumpy. Instead, she felt electrified, yet soothed,
wide awake, yet blissfully calm. She felt strangely…sexy: hair mussed, shirt soaked, beside a
smelly cow—sexy. Her hands kept working, but her mind drifted far away into a montage of
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 100.
sounds and sensations. She could feel Levi’s cheek close to hers, could smell the full scent of his
cologne, could feel his chest pressing against her back, his arms brushing against her shoulders,
his hair tickling her temple…
Her name sounded distant, as if days away.
Startled, Cassidy opened her eyes. Milk overflowed the bucket and ran down the sides.
Levi released her. “I’ll just—” He paused in mid sentence.
Is the big strong flyboy flustered?
He eased himself off her. “I’ll just swap that out.”
Cassidy’s fingers ached. “Isn’t she about empty?”
Levi smiled. “She’s just begun.” He pulled out the full bucket and replaced it with an
empty. “If you’re tired, I don’t mind finishing.”
Cassidy wasn’t about to be shown up. Regardless of aching hands, she wouldn’t quit until
he did. They milked and milked and milked, until gallons of milk sat in a line of buckets.
Levi helped her bottle and cap it.
“One, two, three, four…” Cassidy counted. “Eighteen bottles, nine gallons.” What the
heck am I going to do with eighteen bottles of milk?” She wiped her brow. “At least that takes
care of Betsy for a while.”
Levi shook his head. “She needs to be milked every morning.”
Cassidy stared at the bottles in disbelief.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 101.
The twelve milk bottles, on the floorboard and in the seat beside Cassidy, clanged and
banged as the El Camino shimmied down the dirt road toward town. Cassidy couldn’t drive the
car any faster than she had the tractor, for fear of shattering the bottles she sought to give away.
She pulled into the first driveway on the left and drove up a small hill to a forest green
two-story house with white trim. Mabel, wearing a floral print dress and a wide brimmed hat,
rode up beside the car on a red mower. The mower slowed to an idle, then silenced. “Afternoon
dear,” Mabel said. “First cut of the year. How does it look?”
Mabel inched to the side of the mower and carefully stepped to the ground.
Cassidy couldn’t believe that this fragile woman was mowing her own yard.
“Do come in.” Mabel motioned toward the house.
Cassidy picked up two bottles and followed Mabel as she shuffled to the front steps.
Mabel held the rail with both hands and lifted first one leg, then the other, up each step.
Cassidy wanted to offer a hand, but both of hers were full. “I brought you some milk.”
Mabel stopped at the top of the steps. She looked straight into Cassidy’s eyes. “Marlene
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 102.
used to bring me milk.” Mabel’s eyes became wet and red around the edges. She looked away.
Cassidy wanted to reach out and comfort Mabel in some way, but she didn’t know how.
Instead, she stood there, feeling inadequate and out of place, holding a cold jug of fresh milk in
Mabel gathered herself. “Come in dear.” She held the door for Cassidy. “Come in.”
“I have more bottles in the car.”
“Oh no, this is plenty for me.”
The foyer opened into a family room. A counter separated the family room from the
kitchen. An odd ogre of a young man sat on the floor, hunched forward, staring at a video game
he was playing on the television.
Mabel took the two bottles from Cassidy and set them on the counter. “Thank you so
much dear. There’s nothing better than fresh milk from Betsy.” Mabel shuffled toward the
television. “Ricky, I want you to meet Cassidy Kincaid.”
Ricky ran has fingers through his greasy hair. He turned for a moment, “Hi,” then turned
back to the television. He tapped, twisted, and contorted the game controller so violently that
Cassidy wouldn’t have been surprised if it snapped in half.
“Hello,” she said. Before the brief glimpse of his face, Cassidy would have guessed him
to be in his late teens, but his face looked older. Something was amiss with him, but Cassidy
didn’t know what. She spoke slowly as if addressing a child, “That looks like a fun game.”
“High score,” he blurted.
“Do sit down dear,” Mabel said.
“I can’t stay long. The car is full of milk.”
Mabel looked hesitant to say what was on her mind. “You know, we all wish you would
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 103.
Cassidy couldn’t fathom why any of them cared. No amount of coaxing would convince
her to stay. She shook her head. “My life is back in New York.”
Mabel moved in close and whispered. “You know dear, my grandson Ricky is a good
“I’m sure he is.”
“Damn,” Ricky shouted. He pounded the controller. “Last guy.”
Mabel whispered, “Maybe you would like to go on a date?”
“With him?” The words escaped her mouth before she could consciously soften the tone.
She tried to smooth it over. “I don’t date younger men.”
“Ricky is two years older than Marlene was.”
Cassidy looked at the boy…man…in disbelief. “Older?”
Mabel whispered, “He really is a good boy. If you stay, who knows, maybe he’ll take a
shine to you.”
“Damn,” Ricky shouted.
From his pocket, J. K. Kellerman pulled a roll of bills thicker than a fist. He slapped it
down onto Mayor Jenkins’s worn out Mahogany desk.
Mayor Jenkins never looked at the wad of cash. Instead, he followed Kellerman’s eyes as
Kellerman paced the floor. Again, the mayor motioned for him to sit.
Kellerman shook his head sharply and continued pacing. “I don’t need the City Council’s
The mayor nodded.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 104.
Kellerman pounded both fists, knuckles down, on either side of the money. “The greatest
theme park in the east outside of Orlando. Millions of dollars flowing into your little town. A
new super highway connecting you straight to Atlanta. It’s a no-brainer.”
The mayor leaned back in his chair. His belly parted his brown plaid sport coat. “You
know my daughter has the cutest three year old boy—”
Kellerman cut him off. “Wouldn’t you like him to grow up in a town full of economic
“He’s a little pistol.”
Kellerman thumped the wad of money. “Maybe we could help out with a college fund.”
The mayor ignored him. “You know where he is right now?”
“Do you know where he is right now?” the mayor asked again.
Kellerman’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “No.”
“Neither do I.” The mayor leaned forward. “As long as he’s in my town, I never have to
worry about him or my daughter. Your money, your theme park, your highway, can’t buy me the
piece of mind that I already have, that everyone in this town already has. I don’t even have a lock
on my front door.”
“You could sure buy a lot of protection for the money I’m offering.”
The mayor stood. “Thank you for stopping by.”
Kellerman picked up the wad of cash. “This is thirty thousand dollars.” He held it out for
the mayor’s inspection.
The mayor never looked down.
“This is probably more than you make in a year.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 105.
“It’s not about me. It’s about this town. It’s about right and wrong.”
Kellerman jerked the money back and stuffed it into his coat pocket. “Big mistake. With
or without your support, I’ll have bulldozers clearing as soon as I secure enough land. Somebody
in your town will be happy to take my money.”
Cassidy drove along Levi’s fence line. She followed the new fence, looking for him, shirt
off, body glistening with sweat, but he wasn’t out working.
A wrought iron insignia over his drive spelled out: CR. She debated turning up the drive,
but didn’t. He had already taken four bottles home, so she couldn’t use milk delivery as an
excuse. After she passed his parents’ vacant house, she noticed that a second drive branched off
the first and faded into the distance. At its end, a two-story storm-cloud-gray house with white
trim sat in a cove shaped by surrounding trees. Red brick chimneys anchored the house on either
side; a cupola marked the center of the roof; dormered windows lined the second floor; and a
porch girdled the entire first floor. She half expected to see Scarlett O’Hara step out the front
The car shimmied along, bottles clanking, for what seemed like a mile, before the next
house appeared. Cassidy followed a gravel drive to a modest white house on a hill.
A bed of dying shrubs and thriving weeds spanned the width of the front yard. Clara, bent
over, tended to one of the derelict plants. She straightened and waved to Cassidy.
“Milkman,” Cassidy shouted as she stepped from the truck. She carried two bottles over
to Clara. “I have more in the car.” Cassidy wasn’t much of a gardener, but even she could tell
that something was terribly wrong with Clara’s plants. They looked more wizened than Clara
herself. The garden had to be a full quarter acre, a giant undertaking, especially for someone of
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 106.
Clara’s age, but not a single plant looked healthy: stems were speckled with black dots; leaves
looked shriveled and eaten.
Clara turned toward her plants and spoke while she worked. “How’s Gus doing?”
“He’s fine…I guess.” An idea struck Cassidy. “You seem to have a way with him.”
“Oh, he’s not such a bad pig.”
“Would you like him…them…when I leave?”
“Let’s not worry about all this leaving stuff yet, but if you do, I’ll take Gus and the goat.”
Clara doused one of the less distressed plants with squirts from a spray bottle.
“Oh no, never. That might kill the bugs.”
Cassidy wondered if age was getting the better of Clara. She had heard the same sort of
upside down logic from Mom on her bad days.
“This is wheast. It’s food for them.”
Cassidy held up the milk bottles. “So…would you like some?”
Clara shuffled over to another scraggly plant. “This is a Lincoln Rose.” She squirted it
until soaked. “And these”—she pointed at tall weeds growing between the deformed rose
bushes—“are dandelions. Aphids love them.”
“So…we probably should put these in the fridge.” Cassidy took a step toward the front
Clara pulled out a pair of clippers and lopped a large branch off the rose bush, then
another, then another, until the bush looked scalped to death. “I don’t have much room in my
fridges this time of year.”
Clara carried the clippings from the garden. For someone who barely lifted her feet when
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 107.
she walked, she moved swiftly, almost hurriedly. She scooted past the front door and into a
covered carport on the far side of the house. Two refrigerators stood on either side of a door to
the house. Shelves along the back wall of the otherwise open carport were lined with what
looked like whiskey jugs from old westerns.
“In here?” Cassidy pointed one of the milk bottles toward the nearest fridge.
“If there’s room.”
Cassidy opened the door. The light flickered, then brightly illuminated the macabre
interior. The fridge was packed with glass jugs full of leaves and bugs, thousands and thousands
Cassidy took a slow step back. A bottle slipped from her hand and shattered on the floor.
The refrigerator door swung shut.
“Don’t worry. You know what they say.” Mabel tossed a towel over the glass shards and
the milk puddle. “Spilt milk and crying and such.” She pointed toward the other fridge. “Better
try that one.”
Cassidy didn’t dare open the second fridge. She didn’t want to ask, but the question
snuck out, “What…what’s in those jugs?”
“Oh honey, those are ladybugs, for the festival, over ten thousand of them.” Mabel
clipped leaves off the branches she’d carried in. She opened the lid to one of the jugs along the
back wall and tossed the leaves in. “Aphids, they eat aphids, thousands of aphids. I collect the
ladybugs myself, raise them, then chill them into hibernation until the festival.”
Cassidy set the remaining bottle of milk down in front of the second fridge. “I’ll get you
When Cassidy returned, Clara put both jugs in the door of the second fridge. “You know
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 108.
they’re actually beetles,” Clara said.
A stray ladybug landed on Cassidy’s shirt.
“That’s better luck than catching a wedding bouquet. You need to make a wish.”
Cassidy watched the little bug crawl across her shirt. Wishes are for children, she
thought. The last wish she’d made was in a doctor’s office moments before she learned that her
mother had Alzheimer’s.
Clara gently picked the bug from her shirt. “Maybe you wished for a handsome young
Cassidy shook her head. “Doesn’t seem to be in the cards for me.”
Clara rotated her hand slowly as the bug hiked endlessly over the wrinkled terrain. “You
know why I refrigerate them?”
Because you’re a crazy old lady?
“Below fifty-five degrees, they hibernate and are content. If I keep them captive in
temperatures above that for more than a few days, they stop flying.” Her voice took on a
purposeful tone. “They’re still physically capable, but they just don’t seem to want to fly within
the confines of the jugs. After a few flightless days, they seem to lose their desire to live, and
they roll over onto their backs. If they stay upside down for more than a day, they die. The odd
thing is—” she carefully picked the ladybug off her hand and placed it upside down on the table;
it stretched its wings, flipped over, and flew off “—they can right themselves anytime they want,
but in captivity, once they stop spreading their wings and flying, they just don’t want to.”
The bug landed on Cassidy’s arm. She resisted the urge to swat it.
“See.” Clara smiled. “Good luck.” She took another from the jug and placed it upside
down on the table. It wiggled its legs and spun in a slow circle. “Sometimes they just forget what
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 109.
it’s like to fly—” she flipped it over “—and need a nudge.” She poked its rear. The bug spread
its wings and tentatively took off. “But once they fly, it all comes back to them. They are free to
be what they are, beautiful ladies.”
She looked Cassidy in the eyes. “Just need a nudge is all.”
“You know he actually tried to bribe me.” The mayor pointed to his desk. “Tossed a roll
of cash right there.”
Nothing Kellerman did could shock Levi anymore. He shook his head. “That jerk won’t
stop at anything.”
“That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
The mayor had become Levi’s close friend since that miserable prom night. Levi leaned
forward. “I know what you’re going to ask, but I can’t.”
“There aren’t too many other people in town who can afford to buy Marlene’s land. The
minute Kellerman finds out it’s up, he’ll snatch it away and you’ll have a theme park in your
Levi shook his head. “She hasn’t even put it up for sale yet, probably won’t for at least a
“Word travels fast.”
“Nobody up here will tell Kellerman.”
The mayor put a hand on Levi’s shoulder. “Just don’t wait too long.”
Levi shifted uneasily. “I know. I know.”
“It’s a good stretch. You could farm it. Heck, some of that bottom land is the best in the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 110.
Levi shook his head. “It’s not about the land.”
The mayor’s tone softened. “She’s not going to stay forever.”
Levi knew the mayor was right, but he also knew that as soon as Marlene’s house sold,
Cassidy would leave—and take Rose with her. Maybe another few days would be enough to
figure something out.
“Why don’t you just tell her?” the mayor asked.
“I signed away all my rights. I don’t have a legal leg to stand on.”
The mayor shook his head. “Sometimes legal and right aren’t the same thing.”
What could Levi do? Cassidy held all the cards. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing
Rose, but what would Cassidy do if he asked for custody, if he admitted that Rose was his blood,
Cassidy returned to the empty car after giving away the last bottle of milk. What a relief.
She pulled out the legal pad and placed a check beside—milk delivery. It had taken the entire
afternoon, but was worth it. Marlene would have approved.
Cassidy wondered how Laura Lynn was doing babysitting Rose. Does she know to rock
her on the porch if she gets upset? This was the longest Cassidy had been away from Rose. She
felt a pull toward home, like horizontal gravity, but she ignored it for the moment. There were
too many things left on the list. Yet, she couldn’t help wishing she’d brought Rose. Maybe they
could have sung “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag” again. Cassidy laughed, but then felt oddly lonely—not
the loneliness a person feels when simply alone, but the loneliness of being separated from the
person you most want to be with.
Cassidy shoved the thought from her mind.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 111.
The first sign of town was a brick church with a towering steeple that held a white cross
against the blue spring sky. On the other side of the road, a covered fruit stand stretched the
width of an abandoned Gulf gas station parking lot. A rusty sign offered regular unleaded for
$.88 a gallon. Cassidy wondered how many years ago gas had been that cheap. She pulled into
the parking lot.
A grizzled man in overalls sat on a stool behind boxes of fruit. He glanced at Cassidy and
then looked away, seemingly disinterested.
Cassidy walked up and down the rows of boxes. The stand reminded her of the Essex
Street Market back home, but without the honking, the shoving, and the odd stench of old gym
shoes. She picked up an apple. “Good looking fruit.”
“Suppose,” he said without looking up.
Cassidy wondered what fruit Rose would like. “Do you take credit cards?”
“Nope.” He leaned over and spat into a rusty drum overflowing with trash.
Cassidy dug into her purse. She had twenty-three dollars left. She never carried cash in
the city. “Is there a bank in town?”
Cassidy waited, expecting him to elaborate.
He leaned back and spat.
He slowly shook his head and sighed as if exhausted by the ridiculousness of her
question. “At the red light.” He shot a stream of brown saliva into the rusty drum.
What a jerk. Cassidy kept a smile plastered on her face. What would Tsun Tzu say about
this? “At the red light,” she repeated, “and which red light would that be?”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 112.
Another brown stream flew through the air.
She could feel her plastic smile thinning. She resisted the urge to walk away. “So…the
red light…at the corner of?”
“Yep, the red light.”
“Which red light?”
A sly smile crossed his lips, lifting his bulbous cheeks. “The only red light in town. So
like I said, the bank is at the red light.” He spat.
Cassidy noticed a hand written flier offering lawn mowing tacked to the outside support
of the fruit stand. “Do you mind if I put up a sign?” Never hurts to ask.
“Ain’t gonna atop ya.”
Guessing that was a “yes,” Cassidy scribbled a note on her legal pad. She tore the page
out and pinned it to the pole with a tack stolen from the corner of the other flier.
House for Sale
3475 Sodder Creek Rd
3 Bedroom, 2 Bath
200 acres +/-
No Reasonable Offer Refused
Cow FREE to good home
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 113.
Cassidy turned onto the main road to town, the only road to town, and headed toward,
according to the laconic vendor, the only red light in town. A black stretch limo greased past her
going the other way. She swung her head to peek inside, but saw only opaque black tint. Clearly
not a local. Maybe some celebrity uses Gumlog as a hideaway. It would be the perfect place for a
detox center—Serenity in the Hills or maybe Whispering Hills Rehab. Cassidy chuckled.
In the rearview mirror, she watched the limo slide by the fruit stand. She noticed that the
vendor had dismounted his stool and was reading her sign. At least word should get around fast,
she thought, until she saw him tear it from the post, crinkle it up, and toss it into the rusty drum.
The town of Gumlog huddled around a central square of grass: Kelly’s Malt Shop,
Barnaby’s meats, the Hide Y’ur Dog Diner, the generic Hardware Store. A wooden sidewalk,
more of a deck really, connected the porches of the businesses. Weeds poked between the planks.
Cassidy doubted that anything new had been built in forty years except maybe the water
tower. If it weren’t for the modern pickups parked in front of the businesses, Cassidy would have
thought that she had been transported back in time. She parked in front of Booger’s General
Store. The porch creaked under her steps. The door, when opened, jarred a bell. “Morning,”
called a perky feminine voice from across the room.
Cassidy shouted back a greeting. She wandered aisles full of a flea market selection of
oddities and foods, before asking the woman at the counter, “I noticed you have some fliers in
your window. Do you mind if I put one up?”
Cassidy purchased a role of tape. She scribbled another flier and taped it to the window.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 114.
As she walked away, she noticed the woman leave the store and walk over to the window to read
Cassidy taped two fliers to telephone poles and three more in shop windows: Murphy’s
furniture, Hoblett’s Five and Dime, and Country Kickin’ (which was closed, but she added a flier
to the many taped to its windows).
Sure enough, the bank was at the red light.
After withdrawing money from the ATM, Cassidy sat on a bench out front. A cool breeze
blew straight up the street and rustled the budding leaves of the trees lining the walkway, freeing
delicate white petals to flutter to the ground where they lay like snowflakes. She dialed
Information, leaned back, and sighed. “Child Protective Services in Atlanta please.”
She wrote down the number.
She underlined it once, then again, then circled it, but didn’t dial. Instead, she speed
dialed her parents.
When Dad answered, he sounded deflated. Cassidy hated to hear this all too familiar tone
of defeat in his voice. She knew it was tough dealing with Mom’s swings—normal one day,
leaving the burners on high and wandering off to watch television the next—and that the
mounting medical bills were never far from his thoughts.
He always put on a strong front for Cassidy. “We’re doing fine here Cassy.” Only Dad
ever called her Cassy. “We miss you.”
“Just a few more days.” Usually, Cassidy couldn’t talk to Dad for long without Mom
taking over the phone, but not today. Finally Cassidy asked, “Can I speak to Mom?”
The phone fell silent.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 115.
“Cassy, she’s not here right now.”
Mom couldn’t leave home alone; her illness had progressed too far. She occasionally
became disoriented and even forgot her own name. She had to be home.
“She’s staying at Park Manor…but only during the days. I’ve gone back to work.”
Cassidy’s dad had worked the same job his entire life up until his early retirement when
her mom became sick. He was the supervisor of a sweeper team: the people who clean, inspect,
and maintain the underground subway tracks. Cassidy had watched her parents leave the house
dressed in black three times during her childhood—three funerals, three coworkers killed on the
job. “Dad, as soon as I get my promotion, I can pitch in more.”
“You’ve done too much already. I can do this Cassy.”
“But Mom needs to be home, not in some institution.”
“I know, but sometimes life tosses you a curve and you have to do what you have to do.”
“Dad, once I sell this house—”
“Honey, that’s your money. Live your life. Make your mark. Find what makes you
A hand gripped Cassidy’s shoulder. She looked up, straight into Levi’s concerned eyes.
He mouthed, “You okay?”
“Cassy, you there?”
Cassidy realized she was crying. She swiped tears from her face. “I’m here. I’m fine,”
she said simultaneously to both Dad and Levi.
Levi’s eyes studied her face. He slowly straightened from his crouched position beside
her and turned away.
Cassidy’s phone beeped. Someone from work was calling. “Dad, I have to take this. I
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 116.
love you. Hug mom. I love you.” She switched to the incoming call. “Cassidy Kincaid.”
Levi stopped a few steps away and turned back.
Cassidy wanted to call to him, ask him to sit with her; she didn’t want to be alone.
“Cassidy, there’s a change of plans on the Old Navy shoot.” Her boss, Ginny, sounded
odd, distant. She didn’t call her “Cass” like usual.
“What’s the problem.”
Levi walked away.
Ginny delivered the bad news: Laney, Cassidy’s quondam rival, now coworker, was
taking over the Old Navy shoot. “Take whatever time you need down there,” Ginny said.
What happened to Ginny’s “achieve at all costs” pep talks? What happened to “get your
priorities straight, business, business, business, then God or husband or whatever”?
Cassidy needed time to deal with Marlene’s house and Rose, but she didn’t want it at the
expense of everything she’d worked so hard for. This promotion meant more than money: it
meant getting Dad out of the tunnels, meant an apartment large enough for both her and her
parents, and meant a live in nurse to help care for Mom as her condition deteriorated. “What’s
my next project?”
“We’ll sort that out when you get back.”
“There must be something I can work on?”
“J. Crew is looking for a retro shoot for their summer catalog, but I think Laney can take
care of it. We’ve already started concept work on the sets.”
A tractor rumbled by and turned in to McGuffin’s Feed Store. A woman waved to the
driver from her rocker on the porch of Mother’s Cupboard. “Forget about building sets, I have
the perfect location.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 117.
Rose wrapped her arms around Cassidy’s neck and snuggled her head onto Cassidy’s
Laura Lynn patted Rose on the back. “It’s so good to see how fast she’s taken to you.”
Cassidy looked down at Rose’s wispy blond hair, then looked away. The parting words of
the call she’d made before driving home still lingered, “We’ll pick her up on Monday, and don’t
worry, as young as she is, she probably won’t be in foster care too long.” The woman from Child
Services had sounded so cold, as if talking about an old jacket dropped off at the Salvation
After that call, Cassidy had booked a flight to New York for the afternoon following the
morning that Child Services was scheduled to pick up Rose. She also scheduled, the same day, a
meeting with a real-estate agent in Atlanta to list the house. It wasn’t going to be easy for the
agent to sell the house from two hours away, and in the condition it was in, but Cassidy didn’t
have any other options. She couldn’t risk her promotion to stay and fix up the house. This trip
had already set her career back too far.
In four days, this would all be a distant memory of the loss of a friend, the warmth of a
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 118.
child’s embrace, and the fire she’d felt when Levi wrapped his arms around her, pressed against
her back, and guided her hands through milking Betsy.
A distant roll of thunder roused Rose from her slumberous hug.
Laura Lynn gathered Beau’s raggedy teddy bear and his favorite blanket. “We better get
home. Sounds like a boomer is headed our way.”
Cassidy paid Laura Lynn twenty dollars more than they’d agreed on. She handed the
money to her in a wad so Laura Lynn wouldn’t count it until later. Cassidy had a feeling she
Laura Lynn scooped up Beau. He looked so natural in her arms. He fit to her body like a
jigsaw piece. She wouldn’t seem complete without him.
Cassidy adjusted her grip on Rose. She wondered if a child would ever look and feel as
natural in her arms as Beau did in Laura Lynn’s.
Laura Lynn leaned in and whispered, “He felt like a sack of dirt for the first four
months.” She reached out and rubbed Cassidy’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, you’ll build your
mommy muscles. We all go through it.”
Another roll of thunder rumbled through the house, rattling picture frames.
“The road gets pretty rough during storms. I better leave while I still can.” Laura Lynn
waved to Rose.
As Laura Lynn walked to the door, Beau lifted his head and stared at Rose. He waved.
Rose waved back.
“Thanks again,” Cassidy said.
“Anytime.” The door closed.
“Well little one,” Cassidy said, “what do we do now?” Cassidy wasn’t sure how much or
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 119.
how little of what she said, Rose understood.
Rose squirmed in Cassidy’s arms. Cassidy set her gently to the ground. Rose padded off
into her playroom. Cassidy followed, but stopped in the doorway. Rose dug and dug through her
toy chest, grunting with determined effort. The grunting stopped. Out came Rose holding a
purple book. She handed it to Cassidy.
Cassidy sat in the rocking chair on the front porch and pulled Rose into her lap.
She read the worn cover, “Harold and the Purple Crayon.”
The sun, low in the evening sky, stretched long shadows across the front yard and painted
the mountain golden. Somewhere on the other side of those mountains, a storm roiled. Cassidy
hated storms. Her thoughts drifted back to her mother.
Cassidy read aloud, “One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to
go for a walk in the moonlight.”
Rose pointed to the picture of Harold.
This must be one of her favorites. Cassidy wondered how many times Marlene had sat in
this very spot and read it to her. “There wasn’t any moon and Harold needed a moon for a walk
in the moonlight and he needed something to walk on.” Rose patted her hands together in a
nearly silent gleeful clap. “He made a long straight path so he wouldn’t get lost and he set off,
taking his big purple crayon with him.”
“Urple Crayon,” Rose repeated. She giggled.
At the top of the otherwise golden mountains, appeared a black fringe that didn’t look
like clouds in the sky as much as black tar oozing over the ridgeline.
Cassidy flipped the page and read on. Rose sat riveted by the tale of Harold, creating the
world around him simply by drawing it with a purple crayon. Harold drew a shortcut to a forest,
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 120.
but afraid of getting lost in the forest, he drew only one tree, an apple tree.
“Apple,” Rose said.
Harold drew a dragon to protect the apple tree, but when he backed away, an ocean swept
Rose covered her eyes as if afraid of what might be on the next page.
Instead of drowning, Harold drew a trim little boat and set sail.
The black clouds that had lingered along the ridge began to slide down the slope. Instead
of floating above the mountain, they clung to it, following every contour.
After a picnic, Harold became sleepy. He drew a mountain to stand upon to try to find his
house and his bedroom window, but he only drew one side of the mountain. The other side didn’t
exist and Harold fell off.
The clouds crawled down the slope, a slow motion avalanche of black, blotting out the
trees in their path.
Harold drew a balloon and a basket and floated through the air.
Streaks of light danced along the top of the clouds—not lightning, more of an eerie
diaphanous glow, like angry northern lights.
Harold, unable to find his bedroom window, drew houses and buildings and hundreds of
windows until he’d created a city.
Rose looked into Cassidy’s eyes and then back to the book.
Harold climbed into his bedroom window, drew covers over his head, and dropped the
crayon as he fell asleep.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 121.
Rose put her hand up and prevented Cassidy from closing the book. Rose’s finger traced
the picture of Harold.
“When you get bigger, you can draw your world to be everything you dream about.”
Cassidy kissed the top of Rose’s head.
Cassidy thought back to her childhood. She could remember Mom reading Where the
Wild Things Roam and Frog and Toad Together.
What it must be like to be so young and have all your dreams ahead.
As a child, Cassidy had wanted to be many things: a princess, a pop star, a marine
biologist, and even for a little while, a fireman, but she called it “fire-girl,” and Mom always
corrected her and said, “fireperson.” Those were the dreams of a child, unrealistic.
The dream that had carried her through school was becoming a photographer. She could
spend hours waiting for the correct light to paint a landscape with a glow, could walk miles
looking for one honest shot: a dog kissing a homeless man, a child waving goodbye to Dad, a
woman crying in the rain. Where’s the money in that? The dreams of a child.
Cassidy hugged Rose. “Hold on tight to your dreams.” She closed the book.
Rose spun around and nestled against Cassidy’s bosom.
Trees bent under the stiff wind being sucked up the mountain by the storm front.
Cassidy stood, holding Rose, and walked inside. Nudged by the wind, the rocker
continued rocking without her.
A wall of clouds engulfed the house. Instead of being under the storm clouds, the house
was in them. Cassidy stared out the window into infinite gray.
The windows rattled. The screen door banged.
Cassidy walked through the downstairs flipping on lights. The warm glow of each bulb
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 122.
comforted her. As a child, she never liked big storms, but none that she had experienced looked
half as ominous as this one. Cassidy held Rose for her own comfort more than for Rose’s.
Without a phone to call out and hear a friendly voice, Cassidy felt marooned and
vulnerable. “At least I’m not alone,” she said to Rose.
A thunderclap shook the walls, then another, and another.
A gust blew a sheet of rain against the south windows.
Where are Mom and Dad when you need them? Cassidy paced the family room, holding
Rose, but she would have preferred not to be the adult, would have preferred to be in her mom’s
She walked into the bathroom, the kitchen, the back bedroom, Rose’s playroom—no
place seemed more secure than any other.
The lights dimmed—then died.
Cassidy froze. Her heart pounded so hard that she heard it above her breathing. Her eyes
scanned the darkness, but found nothing. “It’s okay,” she said to Rose. “It’s okay.” A flash of
lightning lit the house for a moment, before plunging the room back into total darkness. Cassidy
nervously hummed the intro to “Whistle a Happy Tune.”
In a quivering voice Cassidy sang, “Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect, and
whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect, I’m afraid.”
If she only had Harold’s purple crayon, she’d draw a clear sky with a bright sun in one
corner, with not a cloud in sight.
“While shivering in my shoes, I strike a careless pose, and whistle a happy tune, and no
one ever knows, I’m afraid.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 123.
She pawed the darkness with her free hand.
“The result of this deception, is very strange to tell, for when I fool the people I fear, I
fool myself as well.”
In the darkness, she could see the whites of Rose’s eyes glowing as if lit from within by
“I whistle a happy tune, and every single time, the happiness in the tune, convinces me
that I’m not afraid.”
Cassidy tried to whistle, but only managed a puffing sound. She hummed the tune
“Try it.” She hummed the tune again.
Rose hummed the first couple of bars.
“Make believe you’re brave, and the trick will take you far. You may be as brave, as you
make believe you are.” Cassidy hummed. Rose joined in.
A rumble of thunder grabbed the house and shook and shook. Cassidy wondered if it
would ever stop. She hummed louder; so did Rose.
The lights flashed on, driving away the pressing darkness.
The lights flickered and died, plummeting the house into a darkness that felt even deeper
and hollower than before.
“The result of this deception, is very strange to tell, for when I fool the storms I fear, I
fool myself as well.”
Rose hummed along.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 124.
A flash of lighting lit the house like a flashbulb. Cassidy’s eyes blinked. She heard a
sound that could only compare to an explosion, as if a bomb had gone of in the backyard,
followed by a shrill primal scream.
“Betsy,” Cassidy shouted.
Rose kept humming.
Cassidy reached out into the emptiness—the couch, the lamp, a doorframe. She found the
kitchen—a chair, the table, the counter, the back door. She stared out the window into darkness.
“Betsy?” she whispered.
A cry came from the backyard.
A flash of lightning lit the scene just long enough for Cassidy to grab a mental snapshot.
She studied the image in her memory: a deluge of rain, a fallen oak, and Betsy…Betsy, somehow
trapped by the tree or maybe tangled in its branches. Cassidy couldn’t figure the fuzzy image out
except that Betsy was in trouble.
“I whistle a happy tune, and every single time, the happiness in the tune, convinces me
that I’m not afraid.”
Rose hummed along.
Cassidy set her gently on the floor. “Rosie, are you okay?”
The fear hadn’t left the whites of Rose’s eyes.
“Mommy will be right back, okay?”
Cassidy sang, “Make believe you’re brave, that’s the trick to take you far. You may be as
brave, as you make believe you are...You may be as brave, as you think you are…”
She pulled the door open just enough to slip through to the porch. Outside, Cassidy spun
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 125.
and pressed her face to the glass to see if Rose had moved. She couldn’t see her. She listened for
crying, but heard only the faintest hum.
A web of lightning shattered the sky.
Cassidy saw Betsy, with her head hung low, somehow ensnared in the branches of the
Cassidy leapt from the porch into rain so heavy that it felt like an ocean had swallowed
her. She held out her hands, feeling for the fence as she slogged forward. “Betsy, Betsy.”
She stumbled and fell. The rain pushed so hard that she considered not getting up, but not
for long. In her head, she heard Rose humming, heard Betsy crying. Cassidy had to be strong for
them. She pressed to her hands and knees, then to her feet. “I’m coming Betsy,” she shouted into
Her hand hit something metal—the gate. She felt for the latch and flipped it. Wind
yanked the gate from her hands and slung it against the fence.
Cassidy wiped water from her eyes, but it was no use. The driving rain forced her to
squint so tightly that she couldn’t see anything. “Betsy?”
The cow groaned such a defeated moan that Cassidy feared the worst.
She stumbled toward the groan. With every step, it took all of her strength to rip her foot
from the grip of the greedy mud that clutched her shoes.
A flash of lightning carved through the sky and plunged into the nearby hillside. Cassidy
dove to the ground.
She pushed herself up and sprang toward the moaning cow.
Tree limbs scraped her hands and slapped her face. “Betsy?”
She felt along a thick branch until she smacked into a wall of wet hide, Betsy. “I’m here
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 126.
baby. I’m here.”
Cassidy felt along Betsy’s side, down her neck, to her head. “Come on girl, let’s go,” she
Betsy didn’t move.
Arms weighed down with water, Cassidy felt three times heavier. She groped around
Betsy’s head and along her other side. The branches of the fallen tree surrounded the cow.
“Come on girl.” Cassidy grabbed a clump of fur and pulled.
Betsy didn’t move.
Cassidy pushed, shoved, coaxed, and cajoled, but Betsy refused to budge. The cow
moaned so forlornly that Cassidy started to cry with her.
A streak of lightning hit a tree beyond the fence, and another hit the hillside, and yet
another struck a tree behind Cassidy. The roar of the wind out-screamed even the blustering
sheets of rain.
Cassidy leaned against Betsy’s rump and pushed. “Go girl.”
A jagged shriek of lightning split the sky directly above and struck the other oak in the
pasture. Not satisfied by its initial attack, the lightning appeared to pulse through the tree, with
wave after wave of energy.
For a moment, the storm paused as if surprised by the violence of its own lightning strike.
The trunk of the towering oak ripped open from within, firing out shards of wood. The tree
teetered, hanging by the memory of its sturdy trunk, before listing toward Cassidy. Silhouetted
by yet another flash of lightning, Cassidy watched in horror as the tree fell toward her.
She raised her hands above her head and collapsed to her knees.
Something…someone, grabbed her.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 127.
She felt her body rise into the air. Her ribs ached. She went limp. The external darkness
became internal darkness…
A bright light blinded her. “Cassidy,” a voice called. “Cassy.” The light moved from her
eyes and scribed a circle around the kitchen, before falling briefly on Rose, then pointing to the
ceiling and bathing the room in a gentle glow. Inches from her face, two determined blue eyes,
ablaze with concern, stared into hers.
“Cassy, are you all right?” Levi asked.
From the recesses of her mind came a response, “I whistle a happy tune, and every single
time, the happiness in the tune convinces me that I’m not afraid.”
Rose hummed along.
Soaked head to toe, Levi set the last candle on the coffee table in the family room. He
stood, rocking on his heels, beside the couch where Cassidy lay.
“Thanks so much for getting Betsy to the barn. Are you sure she’s okay?”
Levi smiled. “She’s fine. Soggy, but fine.” He forced himself to look Cassidy straight in
the eyes, to avoid staring at her body. He snuck a glimpse anyway. She looked so warm,
wrapped in Marlene’s oversized thick white robe, which seemed to hug every curve, almost
taunting him. Levi wondered what she was wearing underneath. “Rose asleep?”
“Out cold. Poor baby is exhausted.” Cassidy shifted. The bottom of the robe slid off her
calf and above her knee revealing a sleek smooth thigh. Levi’s eyes drifted uncontrollably.
The storm still raged outside, occasionally shaking the house and rattling pictures.
Cassidy gathered the robe back around her. “You can’t go home in this.”
“I made it up here, I’ll make it back.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 128.
Cassidy looked over her shoulder at the window. When she turned, her robe parted at the
top, revealing graceful cleavage.
Levi was drawn to her, wanted to take her in his arms, to indulge the desire growing
She turned back. “At least wait until the storm lifts.”
Levi watched rain pound the south windows, then looked back at Cassidy—no makeup,
no frilly dresses, just her in a robe. It reminded him of milking the cow, of the feeling of her
hands in his, her body against his. His soaked jeans began to feel tight, limiting, and cold. “I
gotta get home and get out of these.” He squeezed the corner of his shirt until drops of water
plinked to the wooden floor.
Cassidy fell silent for a moment, then said, “Why don’t you take a hot shower and I’ll
find something for you to wear.”
That was the best idea Levi had heard all day. The only improvement would be if she’d
He walked, stiff and awkward like a soggy scarecrow, to the downstairs bath.
Marlene’s Nikon camera case stared down at Cassidy from the top shelf as she rifled
through the bedroom closet. She held up a pair of sweatpants—way too small, held up a
T-shirt—nope. Although Marlene was a size bigger than Cassidy, there was no way any of her
clothes would fit Levi’s broad frame.
She stepped quietly to the bathroom door. She could hear the swish of water inside.
Really awkward, she thought. She hesitated, with her hand ready to knock.
She turned the handle. It unlatched. She knocked lightly on the partially open door.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 129.
Levi hummed an unfamiliar tune.
She opened the door a crack and peered inside. She could vaguely see his shape through
the shower curtain. His wet clothes lay draped over the edge of the counter.
Do I just take them? Do I knock again? Cassidy eased the door open and stepped inside.
A wave of steamy air rushed past her. She rolled Levi’s clothes into a ball and picked them up.
The humming stopped.
Levi’s head poked from the side of the shower curtain. “You’re not going to do anything
weird like auction those off on Ebay are you?”
Cassidy could feel the blood rushing to her face. She glanced in the mirror. Her cheeks
glowed red with embarrassment. “Just going to dry them.”
“That’ll be a trick without any electricity.”
Cassidy stood, for awkward seconds, wondering what she had been thinking, before
stepping from the room and swinging the door shut.
He hummed louder.
After laying his clothes across the washer and dryer, she poured a glass of red wine and
stretched out on the couch. She sipped wine and listened to the rain.
Levi strode into the family room as if nothing were amiss even though he wore only a
bright pink towel wrapped around his waist. “How’s that dryer doing with my clothes?”
She laughed. “It’ll buzz when they’re done.”
Levi carried himself with quiet confidence. He looked as natural and comfortable in a
towel as he did in jeans and flannel.
Cassidy had photographed models who appeared like lions, kings of their domain, in
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 130.
front of the camera, but it was always a facade. When the camera stopped clicking, most of them
hid away under caps and sunglasses with their broad chests deflated and their backs slumped.
Levi never faltered, never wavered. He was always a lion.
Candlelight painted his abs, drawing lines at each cut between his muscles; his shadow
drew a broad V on the wall behind him; his eyes flickered with their own internal flame. Unlike
the fleeting candles, the fire in Levi’s eyes would burn forever. She wondered if tonight, it
burned for her. Did she want it to burn for her? “Wine?”
Levi disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a bottle of beer. He sat in the corner
of the sectional. His hand landed beside her toes.
A conversation began slowly and awkwardly. They spoke about the rain, the cow, the
tractor, the town.
Levi settled back and stretched his legs across the far side of the sectional. He set his
hand on Cassidy’s foot.
Cassidy stared at his hand, wondering when he would move it, but hoping that he
The candles kept time, burning down to half their original height.
Cassidy felt Levi’s warmth enter her body through her toes. After an unusually long
pause she asked, “What did Marlene see in this place?”
Levi’s face tightened. He stared at the table as he spoke. “Probably the same thing I do.”
They both watched the candle on the coffee table flicker.
Levi spoke softly, “Fresh air, hard work, people who care, really care.”
Cassidy chimed in, “Muddy pigs, muddy cows, no telephone.”
Levi moved his hand from her foot. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 131.
“I’m sorry,” Cassidy poked his side with her toe.
“Muddy pigs are part of it too.” He set his hand back on her foot. It felt warm; it
belonged there. A tingle of excitement crept up her leg. She wished his hand would follow.
“More than anything, this is a community. Everyone knows everyone else, for better or
for worse. I owe everything to this place. After Mom and Dad died, this town took care of me,
helped me keep the farm alive, so I could take care of Wrangler. When he was killed, this town
was here for me again. It’s the only family I have.”
He stared into the candle flame.
In a soft voice, Cassidy asked something she’d been wondering since the first flight.
As the candle burned to a stub, Levi told her about the night Wrangler died. “The police
didn’t know how many people there were. They guessed two or three.”
Water glassed Levi’s eyes, but not a single tear fell. “He never had a chance.” Levi stared
into space as if reliving the scene. “The medical examiner determined that the first blow came
from behind, probably a crow bar.” Levi’s hand quivered, but didn’t leave Cassidy’s foot. “They
killed him…and for what, a few stray dollars from his wallet…or his watch…or his coat…that’s
all they took…a life taken for what, a hundred dollars worth of stuff?”
A tear rolled down Cassidy’s cheek.
In the two years since her mom’s diagnosis, Cassidy had often thought about losing her.
Cassidy sat up, leaned over, and kissed Levi on the temple.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 132.
Cassidy woke to the sound of a rooster crowing to summon the morning sun from behind
the mountains. She rolled over and looked out the window—no lightning, no thunder, no rain.
She reached over and turned on the lamp. And lights!
Cassidy lay in bed hugging her pillow. I should get up and check on Levi, she thought,
but I’m not going to. She rubbed her feet together and nestled back under the covers. She hadn’t
had a night like last night since…since…ever.
They’d talked until two in the morning, just talked, but it was more romantic, more
sensual, more satisfying, than even the best night with Trevor.
She felt giddy and excited, like a teenager.
A knock on the door startled her.
Oh shit, I must look like hell.
The door eased open.
Cassidy buried herself under the covers. She flipped the comforter back just enough to
reveal her eyes.
Rose padded into the room carrying Boo-bear, her lime green teddy bear. A rolled up
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 133.
piece of paper hung from a string tied to his arm.
Cassidy hoisted Rose into bed.
Rose burrowed under the covers and crawled onto Cassidy’s stomach.
Cassidy read the note: Diapered and fed Rose. Eggs and toast waiting for you downstairs.
I put Betsy back to pasture. Fences are intact. I’m off to work.
Cassidy heard gravel crunch under Levi’s tires. He was gone. Her excitement deflated.
She knew that it couldn’t be any other way. Levi belonged here in the country and she had to
return to the city. As much as she would love to get closer to him, she knew it was better to stop
this before it even got started.
She had never before felt such an attraction. Something about him grabbed her in a place
that had previously never been touched. She couldn’t let it go further. There was no way to
ignore the logistics, the reality, that they could never be a couple. She didn’t need the hurt and
didn’t want the heartache.
But she couldn’t help daydreaming—if I had Harold’s crazy purple crayon, I’d draw an
Armani suit on Levi and put him in a Wall Street office.
She patted Rose on the head. “Just you and me kiddo.”
After eating, showering, and dressing, Cassidy stepped onto the porch with Rose. Leaves
and branches littered the yard. The heavy scent of wet jasmine filled the air. “What a morning.”
Cassidy wished she had brought her Nikon. She wanted to capture the way the mountain
looked renewed by the thrashing rain the night before. In the struggle, trees had shed the weak
branches and only the truly strong prevailed, and now they basked in their success.
She thought about borrowing Marlene’s camera from the closet. Borrowing? Of course,
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 134.
Marlene wouldn’t have minded her using it, but it still felt awkward…personal.
Cassidy tried not to think about it. “I bet your mommy would have loved this.”
“Mommy.” Rose hugged Cassidy’s neck.
A black pickup towing a cattle trailer drove up the gravel drive.
Cassidy hadn’t put on any makeup. She panicked, almost retreated inside, but then
realized that she didn’t care. She smiled and waved.
A kindly looking man, maybe in his late forties, wearing a ball cap, denim overalls, and
yellow rubber boots, stepped from the cab. “You still lookin’ to get rid of a cow?”
Cassidy’s first thought was: no—she’d risked her life for Betsy—but you don’t see cows
walking down the FDR. “Sure.” Besides, this guy looked like he really knew how to take care of
“Russ Barnaby.” He held out a meaty hand.
She shook it. “Cassidy Kincaid.”
Rose said, “Barnaby.”
They all shared a laugh.
“That’s right little one, Barnaby,” he said.
Cassidy carried Rose to the side of the house and pointed. “Her name is Betsy.”
“Mind if I back the trailer down the side yard?”
Cassidy shook her head.
Russ walked his intended route to be sure the ground was solid.
When he backed the trailer, Cassidy started to walk to say goodbye to Betsy, but she
stopped at the side of the house. Her stomach ached. She didn’t want to admit it, but she was sad
to see the annoyingly over-productive cow go. She sat back in the rocker, with Rose in her lap.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 135.
Rose squirmed to the ground, ran inside, and returned with a familiar book, Harold and
the Purple Crayon.
Cassidy read aloud.
Russ waved as he pulled out.
Betsy looked so lonely and scared sitting in the trailer. Her big brown eyes pleaded.
Cassidy’s voice quivered as she read aloud.
The truck disappeared down the road. Betsy was gone. It’s just a cow. She’ll be better off
with someone who knows how to care for her. Despite the rationalizations, Cassidy couldn’t
shake a feeling of loss. She read the next page, trying not to let Rose see how upset she was.
“Betsy?” Rose questioned when Cassidy turned a page.
“She went to a good home, just like you will.” Cassidy tried to sound upbeat. She read
on, with occasional tears plinking to the page.
A long black limousine pulled up in front of the house. Dark tint blocked any view inside.
The rear window opened. An arm held out one of her fliers.
“The cow’s already found a home,” Cassidy said.
The door opened and a man in a slick gray suit stepped out. “Good, because I’m here
about the land.”
Cassidy sat there, unable to respond.
“J. K. Kellerman.”
Cassidy shut the book. After a handshake, she introduced herself. “I’ll be happy to show
you the house.”
Kellerman shook his head. “Don’t need to see it, don’t care. I’m only interested in the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 136.
“You don’t look like a farmer Mr. Kellerman.” Cassidy could tell that Kellerman was
from a big city, like her. Oddly, it wasn’t comforting. Instead, she was suspicious. This place is
starting to rub off on me. I have to get out of here. “The most recent survey is inside. I’m afraid
it’s a bit old.”
Cassidy set Rose on the porch and took her by the hand. Kellerman followed them inside.
Rose climbed into the sectional sofa, still clutching the book. Cassidy led Kellerman into
the kitchen. She unfolded the survey and set it on the table.
Kellerman looked over the survey for no more than a couple of seconds. “What are you
He moved a little too fast and spoke a little too loudly. Cassidy tried to take the measure
of her opponent. She decided, because of the shine of his shoes and the cut of his suit, that he
was a hot prospect with deep pockets. She pretended to be more interested in what Rose was
doing in the other room than in speaking to him. “Well,” she said, “the agent thinks I’ll have no
trouble getting three hundred sixty thousand.” She wondered if she’d blown it by inflating the
price over the three hundred ten thousand that the agent had really said.
“Have you already signed?”
“Well that gives us seven percent to play with, so take off twenty-five thousand two
hundred and you net the same amount. If you sell before you sign.”
Cassidy was impressed by the speed of his mental calculations. This guy knows his
business, but I’m no country bumpkin. “I’m sorry Mr. Kellerman, I may have misspoken. I
meant that the agent said I would net three hundred and sixty.”
Kellerman smiled a wry grin as if he were only toying with her. “Done”—he reached out
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 137.
a hand to shake hers—“three hundred and sixty thousand.” His other hand dove into his pocket
and pulled out a checkbook. “I’ll leave you with ten thousand to bind it.”
Cassidy didn’t move.
Kellerman’s hand hung, over the table, awaiting hers.
After a moment of pure silence, he leaned and waved through the doorway.
His driver, who must have been watching intently from the porch, opened the screen
door, crossed the family room, and handed Kellerman a piece of paper. Kellerman slapped it on
the table and scribbled down the date and amount. He slid the page over to Cassidy with a check
atop from Kellerman Industries for ten thousand dollars. He held up the pen.
The full property description was already typed onto the sales contract.
Cassidy hesitated. Too much was happening too fast. Yes, this was exactly what she
wanted. Yes, selling the house would free her to return to New York. Yes, she could finally
afford to help Dad with Mom’s medical bills and find a place big enough for all of them to live.
Yet, she stood, unable to take the pen.
Her stomach clenched. Her eyes darted around the page.
Kellerman remained frozen; the pen didn’t move.
Cassidy had enough experience to know a good sales tactic when it was being used on
her: once you have a prospect at the precipice, don’t talk, don’t distract, don’t fear the awkward
silence. She’d recently used this tactic herself when landing Donatella Grivaldi after the
embarrassing karaoke incident.
Cassidy reread the offer agreement, taking her time, searching the document as well as
searching herself for the source of her reluctance. Everything looks fine…no, no…it is fine. Still,
she couldn’t sign.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 138.
She looked in the family room at Rose and realized why she couldn’t do it: this was more
Rose’s land than hers. A simple solution struck her: I’ll put half the money in a college fund for
Rose. She did some quick calculations in her head. That still left enough to get a place with Mom
and Dad. She took the pen, squared her shoulders, then signed and dated the page.
She sold Marlene’s land, sold Rose’s home.
Kellerman took his pen back, then shook her hand. “We’ll close in fifteen days.”
“But I’ll be in New York.”
“No problem, I’ll overnight the paperwork and wire the funds.”
When the screen door slammed shut behind him, Cassidy sat on the couch and pulled
Rose into her lap. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Cassidy was free to return to New York. The cow had a good home, the house was sold,
the furniture would go to the church, Clara had already said that she’d take the goat and pig, and
Child Protective Services would arrive Monday morning to take Rose. Between now and then,
all Cassidy had to do was go through Marlene’s things and save whatever she wanted, put
together a care package for Rose, and pull off the J. Crew retro shoot.
Cassidy didn’t feel as excited as she thought she would. Maybe it all happened a little too
fast. Maybe she needed time to digest. She shrugged it off. “We have a whole day to play.”
Cassidy thought for a moment. “Want to be a superstar?”
“Stay right here.” Cassidy climbed the stairs to Marlene’s bedroom. She pulled the Nikon
case from the top shelf. She realized that it was the same Nikon case Marlene had used in
Cassidy stroked her hand across the top. She could almost feel Marlene’s spirit,
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 139.
enthusiasm, and passion. She could hear Marlene’s guffawing laughter and could see the giddy
excitement in her eyes when she captured a perfect shot, the same giddy excitement that glowed
in Rose’s eyes. Cassidy wondered if passion was just youthfulness extended into adulthood.
Maybe it was silly and, in some ways, immature—after all, what does a picture of a tree really do
for you? It can’t pay the bills. But it could feel good. Cassidy hadn’t felt a spark of passion, of
true childlike enthusiasm, in years.
She pulled out the camera. Cassidy had the newest model back home, but she also had
one identical to this somewhere in her closet, or did she give it away during her last move? She
Cassidy flipped open the camera and pulled out a spent roll. She wondered what Marlene
had shot. She slid it into her pocket. She would get it developed when she returned to New York.
Cassidy’s last shots, of the fashion show, were slated to appear in the June issue. Her next
shots were supposed to have been of Old Navy outdoorwear, but Laney stole that from her. At
least she still had the J. Crew shoot. But, right now, she wanted to take a photo just for the
pleasure of it, and she knew exactly what to shoot.
Cassidy dug into the front of the case and pulled out a fresh roll of Velvia 100. My
favorite too, she thought, as she loaded the camera. Most of her co-workers had long since
crossed over to digital, but Cassidy still preferred slide film.
“Come on superstar.” Cassidy walked Rose through the front doorway. “We’re going to
take your picture.”
Cassidy looked for a cute background, but before she found just the right spot, Rose
scampered across the yard to the large oak tree in the north corner. Its branches bent all the way
to the ground and then turned back skyward.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 140.
Must be over a hundred years old, Cassidy speculated.
Rose climbed into the saddle of one of the branches.
“Perfect.” Cassidy dropped to one knee and framed a shot.
Rose threw up her hands up and giggled.
“Work it girl.” Cassidy laughed. She fired shot after shot until interrupted when Laura
Lynn pulled up with Beau.
“Ready for a break?” Laura Lynn asked.
Cassidy framed a tight shot of Rose’s face. She held the camera steady and zoomed
closer. Her finger hovered above the shutter but never pressed. She studied Rose’s features: her
button nose, the way her eyelashes turned almost straight up, the way her lips parted revealing
tiny baby teeth with little gaps between.
Rose slid from the branch and ran to Beau. “Bo-Bo.”
Cassidy stared through the lens at the empty branch where, moments ago, she had framed
an image of youth, promise, and passion. She clicked a final shot of the branch that crooked to
form a perfect seat on which no one sat. She felt the tree’s emptiness.
After Laura Lynn escorted Rose and Beau inside, Cassidy stood on the front porch and
stared up into the mountains. She had no errands to run, no commitments, no meetings. She
couldn’t remember the last time she had a day to herself. It felt strange, almost scary. What do
people do with free time?
A bright yellow biplane appeared over the ridgeline.
She cupped her hands around her eyes and watched the plane arc upward and roll over. A
hand waved from the inverted plane.
She smiled. Levi sure knew what to do with his free time.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 141.
Cassidy felt silly at first, rumbling down the road on the green tractor. At least this time,
she wasn’t mowing her way to town. Sure, she could have driven the El Camino, just as Levi
could have flown right side up, but maybe the easy way, the normal way, wasn’t always the best
way. Cassidy sang the first couple of lines of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” but stopped in mid
chorus. It just wasn’t the same without Rose singing along.
Ahead, Cassidy recognized Mabel stooped over the bed of flowers that surrounded her
mailbox. Mabel placed both hands on her lower back and straightened up slowly.
Cassidy eased the tractor to a stop beside her.
“Another milk run?” Mabel asked.
“Not today.” Cassidy lifted the camera. “Do you mind if I take your picture?”
Mabel fluffed her hair. “Oh dear, oh dear. I’m not really dressed.”
“You look beautiful.” Cassidy raised the camera. Mabel smiled. Cassidy snapped the
shutter. “Thanks. Have a great day.”
Cassidy revved the tractor.
Mabel waved and shouted, “If you need any help with Betsy, I could always come up.”
Cassidy idled the tractor. “Thanks, but I gave her away this morning.”
Mabel’s face sagged. “To who?”
Mabel raised a hand to the side of her face. “You gave her to him?”
“You didn’t charge him?”
Cassidy shook her head.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 142.
Mabel looked confused. “Dear, Russ doesn’t need any favors and doesn’t give any. He
runs the most successful shop in town. He’s been there for years.”
Cassidy shrugged. She wouldn’t have felt right charging for Betsy, as if she were some
piece of meat. She was as much a pet as any dog in the city. It was more important to find
someone willing to take good care of her. After all, she’s a lot of work.
Beyond Mabel’s house, Cassidy turned right, down the narrow dirt road that Levi had
pointed out on their way back after repairing his fence. Sure enough, when she rounded a bend,
the trees parted and ahead, three white ducks paddled on an otherwise still pond. A weary old
barn sat beside the pond in a small clearing.
Cassidy stopped the tractor and climbed down, carrying the camera. The gray planks
forming the exterior of the barn had worn to reveal gaps that allowed the wind to blow straight
through. A prickly rope hung from a pulley above the opening to a hayloft. Cassidy walked to
the far end of the clearing and framed the barn and the corner of the pond in the eyepiece. She
pressed the shutter before stepping closer and taking more shots. The ducks, too, proved
irresistible. She snapped a couple of pictures of them even though she didn’t have a long enough
zoom lens for a great shot. She didn’t care about perfection. The pictures didn’t matter. She was
contentedly lost in the simple pleasure of studying the world through a lens—one spot, one
angle, one perspective at a time, and really seeing it.
Cassidy stopped with one shot left. She didn’t want the morning to end. She wondered if
anyone in town sold film. Surely they must, but surely not Velvia 100.
She sat in the grass beside the pond. The sun danced along the tiny ripples made by the
paddling ducks. She leaned back, stretched out, raised her face to the sky, and took a deep breath.
The sweet heavy scent of jasmine filled her nose. Harold couldn’t have drawn it better with his
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 143.
A bluebird sang from the edge of the hayloft, until silenced by the flatulent drone of
Levi’s yellow biplane. Cassidy opened her eyes as the plane buzzed the barn and descended
toward a field on the other side of the trees.
Back atop the tractor, she rounded the corner just in time to see Levi taxi to a stop in front
of a barn that doubled as an airplane hanger.
Levi couldn’t push Cassidy from his thoughts. Even flying, even rolling the plane
through the sky, even pulling three G’s on the downside of a loop, he couldn’t stop thinking
about last night: the way Cassidy’s robe kept slipping off her knee, the feel of her toes wiggling
in his hand, the silky touch of her lips against his temple.
I’m an idiot, he thought. How did I miss such obvious signals, such an obvious
opportunity for sex with such a beauty? But he hadn’t missed the signals; he’d noticed each and
every hint that he should lean in for a kiss or run his hand up her calf, over her knee…
Worse than missing the signals, Levi realized that he’d read them all perfectly, yet, still
had done nothing.
He flipped off the magnetos. The plane shook to a stop. He didn’t tear off his goggles and
headset. Instead, he sat staring straight ahead, across his empty pasture.
He replayed the evening in his head, searching for a reason for his lack of action. He had
never had a shortage of courage before.
He usually found incredible clarity in the minutes after a flight, in the calm after the
storm of noise and thrills, but today, the calm raised only questions instead of answers.
Rose. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize my relationship with Rose. He settled on
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 144.
that for an answer, but even as he thought it, he knew it was only part of the story.
He didn’t want to lose Rose…or Cassidy and didn’t want a one-nighter. Somehow the
spunky city girl had crawled under his skin and she felt good there, belonged there, but wouldn’t
stay there. He knew that within a few short days she’d be gone. He was stuck in limbo, torn
between, pushing their relationship to the limits within the time left or settling into damage
control and keeping a safe distance. Too many people had left him already.
He slipped off the headset and heard the familiar rumble of a John Deere. He turned and
saw Cassidy jouncing up the road on Marlene’s tractor. At least this time, the mower was off.
She looked so different from the woman he’d met, standing in the middle of a pile of
fancy luggage, wearing heels and a business suit that matched her attitude. The woman bounding
toward him wore normal cloths, jeans and a T-shirt, but that was the only normal thing about her.
Everything else, her broad grin, her hair blowing in the wind, her eye’s so awake, her body so
alive with motion, was extraordinary.
Levi pulled off his goggles for a closer look.
He stepped from the cockpit to the ground as she pulled up beside the plane. She eased
the tractor to a stop with total mastery. The city girl has developed some country skills.
Levi reached up to unwind his scarf.
He wanted to ask her to go line dancing tonight. What if she says no? What if she says
yes and we have a blast…and she leaves and takes Rose out of my life? Neither option worked,
but still, he wanted to ask.
“Don’t,” she shouted as she stepped from the tractor with a camera around her neck. She
raised her hands and formed a box, which she looked through like a director on a movie set.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 145.
Cassidy smiled. “Don’t take off the scarf. It’s perfect.”
Levi wrapped the tail of the weathered scarf back around his neck. He would need to
retire the old scarf one day. The fringe had grown from one inch to five inches of scraggly
threads since the first time he wore it on Christmas day three months before the accident that
took his parents. He still kept it in the original box that his mom had given it to him in.
Cassidy raised the camera. Perfect…perfect: the leather flying cap, the tattered scarf, the
crease in Levi’s face where the goggles had been—she stepped closer—his rugged face, sharp
brow, and deep intense eyes. Years of training had taught her to look around the periphery of a
shot for anything incongruous. Behind Levi, she could see part of the upper wing, the edge of the
barn, and a field with one lone cow in the distance. The scene looked straight from a World War
I movie. She wished she’d put in black and white film with a sepia filter. It would look “period.”
But no, that wouldn’t do; a sepia filter would also wash out Levi’s eyes, the best part of the
image: the courage and valor shining from the heart of the ace. In a different time and a different
place, she could picture him returning after a raid over enemy lines, with smoke stains on his
scarf, oil peppered on his face, and wearing the solemn countenance of a man who had avenged
the deaths of too many comrades to count: his unfaltering expression masking the passion and
fire of emotion that could be seen only through his eyes.
She snapped the shot.
Levi buried his hands in his pockets. It was the first time she’d seen him look
uncomfortable. “Tough flight?”
“Never had a bad one yet, even the time I ditched.”
Cassidy watched the camera counter reverse back to zero. No more shots. “You said
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 146.
you’ve never crashed.”
Levi smiled the coy smile of a boy with a secret. “It’s not a crash if you don’t scratch the
bird. Engine quite. I set her down between two southbound semis on Interstate Seventy-five in
the heart of Atlanta. Even made the news. That damn place has never been good luck.”
Cassidy set the camera in the seat of the tractor.
Levi unwrapped the scarf and tossed it into the cockpit. “Wanna go up?”
Cassidy shook her head. “I forgot to tell you, I’m afraid of heights.”
Levi laughed. “You didn’t forget anything.”
“Fear of heights is for ladders and rooftops, not up there.” He looked up. “Nothing to fear
Cassidy could tell that Levi meant what he said. “I promise, before I leave, I’ll let you
take me up one more time.”
Levi looked down at the ground and then glanced away as if something she said had just
slashed him. “What are you doing tonight?”
Levi rocked back and forth on his heels.
Cassidy wondered what he was dancing around. “Sometime before I leave. I promise.”
Levi yanked off his leather cap and tossed it into the cockpit. “Need anything? I’m
headed into town later.”
Cassidy had a long list of things necessary to fix up the house, but thankfully, now that it
was sold, she didn’t need anything. “Nope.”
“I’m going to Barnaby’s to get some steaks. You sure you don’t want me to pick one up
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 147.
Cassidy felt sickly warm. “Barnaby’s?”
“If you want, I could grill some for us, then maybe we could go—”
“Best butcher in the county.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 148.
Cassidy held the gas pedal to the floor and pushed harder just in case it could go a tiny bit
farther, but it couldn’t. After finding her way through the gears, Cassidy managed to coax the
tractor up to maybe twenty miles an hour, but that was all it had, despite her leaning forward out
of the seat like a jockey on the home stretch, and yelling, “Faster, faster.”
I knew that name was familiar. “Damn it!” I knew it. The minute Levi mentioned that
Barnaby’s was the butcher shop, like a flash, she’d realized that the man who picked up Betsy
had sounded familiar because she’d seen the sign for his butcher shop when she phoned home
from in front of the bank…at the red light…the only damn red light. “How could I be so stupid.”
And me from New York. I’ve seen every street con out there. I can’t believe I gave Betsy to the
butcher. The butcher!
She whizzed past the fruit stand—“Betsy…poor sweet Betsy…”—and the church.
Cassidy faintly heard the jingle of her cell phone over the rumble of the diesel tractor.
She kept her foot flat to the floor as she shoved in the earpiece. “Hello,” she screamed over the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 149.
Cassidy could barely hear the voice. “Ginny?” She could see the roof of the bank ahead
in the distance.
“It’s me, Ginny?”
Cassidy looked down at the caller ID: Élan magazine.
“Cassidy,” Ginny shouted, “the models are scheduled to arrive there tomorrow at noon.
Are you ready for them?”
Barnaby’s Meats dead ahead. “Models, tomorrow,” Cassidy repeated, ecstatic that she’d
stolen the retro shoot from Laney.
“Yes, are you ready for them?”
“Hang on.” Cassidy swung the wheel hard over and pegged both brakes. The tractor
screeched, bucked, and stalled, stopping with both front wheels against the window of Barnaby’s
As Cassidy leapt from the tractor, she juggled the phone briefly and then regained her
grip. She pushed open the front door with such force that the little bell, which normally tinkled
upon entry, flew from its perch and jangled across the floor. When Cassidy spoke, her voice
sounded so deep with rage that she startled herself, “Where’s my cow?!”
Russ Barnaby paused, cleaver in midair, ready to descend on a slab of bloody meat. His
eyes traced a slow arc from Cassidy, to the doorbell rolling to a stop in the corner, back to
Cassidy. “You broke my bell.”
“You stole my cow!”
Barnaby didn’t look mad, confused, or surprised. His face betrayed no emotion. The
cleaver hung frozen in mid swing.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 150.
“I want my cow back.”
Barnaby looked down at the slab of meat. “I’d be happy to give you some prime cuts.”
Cassidy could feel her face reddening. Betsy. I killed Betsy. She could feel tears pressing
to rush out. “You killed her.”
“It’s not exactly murder you know.” Barnaby looked from the cleaver to the slab of meat.
“Where did you think she was going, a cow retirement home?”
Cassidy stared at the meat. “But my sign…good home…free.”
“Yeah, yeah, and the family dog went to live on a farm.”
Cassidy couldn’t escape the memory of Betsy—big brown eyes, bristly fur.
“There ain’t no farms full of dogs and there ain’t no cow retirement homes.”
Words failed her. She felt only loss—the overwhelming absence of something loved.
“Just lots of dead dogs and burgers.” His eyes eased slightly, betraying the first hint of
emotion. “Besides, it’s what’s best for everyone. She won’t feel a thing.”
Cassidy took a single tentative step toward the counter and pointed at the slab of meat.
“That’s not Betsy?”
Russ’s stoic face broke into the mocking smile of a man holding back laughter. “This
isn’t even beef.” The cleaver slammed through the slab of meat with a dull thwack. “Betsy
should be ready this afternoon. It takes the processing plant about half a day.”
Cassidy leaned over the counter and spoke slowly and with such force that Russ took a
step back, “Where is she?”
“The processing plant.” He pointed toward the back wall. “About half a mile down the
Russ said something else, but Cassidy, in full sprint, couldn’t make it out. She started the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 151.
tractor, flew a few feet in reverse, ground the gears, and then plowed up and over the walkway,
through a bed of budding yellow flowers, and onto the dirt road.
“Cassidy, what’s going on?” Ginny asked.
Although there wasn’t a sign out front, Cassidy found the processing plant by smell
alone. It didn’t smell like meat, or death exactly, but more like buckets of warm blood.
“Where’s Betsy,” she shouted when she barged into the front office.
The man behind the counter looked startled. He wore what at one point was probably a
white apron before years of bloodstains tie-dyed it shades of brown.
“My cow, Betsy.” Cassidy craned her head to see down the hallway behind him. She held
up a hand. “About this tall, brown and white, big brown eyes, four nipples…” She could tell she
wasn’t getting through to him. “The butcher brought in a cow today, my cow, Betsy.”
“We don’t really know ’em by name here, but Russ did drop one off this morning. Could
be a Betsy.”
“I need her back.”
“She’s not supposed to be ready for pickup till late this afternoon, but I gotta be honest
with you, she was an old girl. The meat’s gonna be kinda tough.”
“I don’t want pieces of her. I want the whole damn cow…Betsy…alive.”
The man winced. “That could be tough.”
Cassidy heard a familiar moan. “That’s her. Stop! Stop!”
She ran around the edge of the counter toward the hallway.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 152.
The hallway was dim compared to the bright lights up front. She looked in each open
doorway: left—empty, right—office, right—bathroom. “Betsy?”
She reached out for the handle of the door at the end of the hallway. She turned the knob.
She banged on the door. “Betsy!”
She kicked the door.
A hand grabbed her shoulder.
She spun, ready for a fight. Unsure what to actually do, she slipped off her shoe and held
it prepared to deliver a blow.
“Miss, she’s fine. Come up front and I’ll call back to the shop. You don’t want to go
through that door.”
Panting, Cassidy stood holding her shoe. “She’s alive?”
“Cassidy are you all right?” asked Ginny’s voice from the phone.
Cassidy spoke between heavy breaths. “Cow…alive…I’m fine…”
“I wanted to tell you before you hear it from someone else.” Ginny paused. “Laney is in
That’s supposed to be my new office…the Vice Presidents office. Cassidy hunched over,
still trying to catch her breath from the run down the hall and from the sucker punch that her boss
delivered. “Twenty-nine B,” was all she could manage to say.
“We had to make some concessions to win her over. You understand. It’s just business.”
“And the V. P. position?”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 153.
“Nothing has been decided yet.” There was a businesslike distance to her tone.
Yet? The word tumbled around in Cassidy’s head. She managed to gather herself enough
to go over the plans for the J. Crew photo shoot despite the brewing storm of uncertainty
regarding her promotion.
For a cow rescued from the clutches of death, Betsy didn’t have as much pep in her step
as Cassidy would have expected.
The old cow lumbered along behind the idling tractor. Cassidy reached back and tugged
on the rope to encourage her.
Laney is in New York on the fast track and I’m in no-where-ville driving a tractor two
miles an hour.
Maybe it was the absurdity of it all or the warm spring sun or the bluebirds chirping in
the trees, but Cassidy couldn’t stay angry about losing the office she’d been working toward for
over a year. Looking back at Betsy, plodding along, Cassidy could only feel relieved that she’d
rescued the cow.
“I can’t believe I just paid four hundred dollars for my own cow.” Cassidy smiled. She
didn’t really care about the cost. She had saved Betsy from the gallows.
Only two full days remained before Child Protective Services would come for Rose, only
two short days to find a good home for Betsy. “This time I’ll ask more questions,” she shouted
back to Betsy. Then I’ll go back to New York and beat out Laney for the promotion.
She turned onto the main street, whatever it was called; she never did find a sign. She
rode along the far edge of the road, keeping the right rear tire just outside the narrow drainage
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 154.
As she approached the traffic light at slower than a walk, it turned yellow. Cassidy
pushed in the clutch and the tractor rolled to a stop.
“We don’t usually walk ’em.”
Cassidy turned to see the mayor waving from the far side of the street.
He walked over. “That’s a mighty fine cow Ms. Kincaid, a real fine cow.”
“Oh yes, Marlene’s milk cow. If she gets good at following the tractor, you could walk
her in the parade.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You are coming to the Ladybug Festival.” He clapped his hands together. “Can’t miss
“Don’t think so.”
“How can we get you to fall in love with our little town if you don’t come to the
The light turned green. Cassidy eased out the clutch and tugged on Betsy’s rope.
“We’re having a fun run this year.”
Cassidy’s getaway wasn’t quite getting away. The mayor walked alongside the tractor.
“Last year, Marlene pulled a float with this tractor.”
Cassidy wished that Betsy had a second gear.
“You have to come.” The mayor stopped in the middle of the road. The tractor pulled
Cassidy waved. “I’ll think about it.”
Cassidy had plenty of time to look around during her ride through town. She still needed
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 155.
to nail down the location for the J. Crew shoot, but she couldn’t go wrong: the whole town was a
perfect set. She framed shots in her head as she chugged along.
Just past the fruit stand, a red truck approached on the road ahead. Cassidy’s heart
jumped. She sat up in the seat. Before she could stop herself, she waved a broad sweeping wave.
It seemed that whenever she really needed somebody, Levi appeared.
He pulled a cattle hauler behind the pickup. “Mayor says you’re out walking Betsy.” He
smiled the same boyish grin that she’d seen at the airport and last night during the storm, a grin
that flashed with confidence and enjoyed her predicaments a little bit, or maybe just enjoyed
rescuing her from them.
While Levi coaxed Betsy into the trailer, Cassidy explained what had happened. Poor
Betsy was clearly spooked, but Levi moved calmly and reassured her every step of the way.
“Good girl…good girl.” Soon Betsy was secure in the front of the trailer gnashing on hay.
“Are you sure I can leave the tractor on the side of the road?” Cassidy asked.
“No one’s going to bother it. I’ll have Ramon run me down to pick it up after I get you
Levi opened the door for Cassidy. He wondered what she thought of his old pickup truck,
wondered what she thought of him, but most of all, wondered why he cared. She would leave
soon, return to New York, and he would lose Rose, but not only Rose; he was beginning to dread
losing Cassidy. Something about her spunk, her smile, her grit, her grace…
He wanted to ask her to go line dancing tonight. He’d been about to, when she ran off
earlier. “I guess after all this, it wouldn’t be right to invite you over for steaks.” He couldn’t
resist taking a poke at her.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 156.
“Very funny mister.” Cassidy jabbed him in the side. “How was I supposed to know he
was the butcher?”
When they joked like that, Levi felt as if he’d known her for years, but a concerned voice
in the back of his head always reminded him that she was leaving. Maybe she had the same
voice, because they both rode in silence.
Levi drove slowly. He frequently glanced into the rearview mirror to check on Betsy.
Cassidy stared intently ahead as if something was on her mind.
He wanted to pry, but that little voice warned him not to. “Betsy will be glad to be
Cassidy didn’t answer.
“You know Marlene used to love dancing.”
Still no response.
“We used to go almost every Friday night.”
Cassidy looked back toward Betsy.
Levi could see the concern etched on her face. “She’ll be all right.”
Cassidy didn’t turn back; she watched Betsy fixedly.
“Once we get her home and settled, she’ll forget all about her field trip.” He paused.
“Then maybe we could go out tonight, to the Barn Door, dancing?”
“I can’t do it.”
The voice in the back of his head screamed, I told you.
“I can’t do it…I can’t keep her.”
Levi couldn’t read Cassidy’s expression. She watched the cow with a look of concern, or
maybe sadness. He touched her knee. “I can help you milk her. It’s really not that hard once you
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 157.
get the hang of it, and fresh milk is good for Rose.”
Cassidy’s eyes met his briefly before she turned and stared out the windshield.
“So how ’bout tonight?” Levi asked.
Cassidy seemed preoccupied. At first she didn’t respond to his question, and then she
said, “I’m leaving Monday morning. I have to find a good home for her.”
One weekend, only one more weekend with Rose. His stomach clenched. He could feel
his face tighten. Levi, usually a man of decisive action, was uncomfortable with his inability to
decide what to do. Do I tell her? What good does that do? Do I fight for custody of Rose?
“I’ll take her,” he said.
“You don’t need a cow.”
He wasn’t talking about Betsy, but this wasn’t the time or place. “No, I don’t need
another cow, but I can give her a good home.”
“I already owe you too much.”
“So give me a cow and we’ll call it even.”
Levi could see the stress ease from her face as if washed away by the cool breeze
blowing through the window.
He wondered what Cassidy was planning to do with Marlene’s house. One weekend
wasn’t enough to fix it up.
Cassidy turned toward Levi. “I’d love to go dancing.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 158.
Cassidy pulled the blanket up to Rose’s neck and tucked the sides in tight around her the
way she liked. “Laura Lynn will stay until I get back.” Cassidy could tell Rose was thinking
about protesting, but she didn’t. Her droopy eyes confessed how tired she was after playing with
Beau all afternoon.
After stroking Rose’s cheek, Cassidy leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Sweet
dreams little one.”
Unable to leave yet, Cassidy repeated in a gentle whisper, “Sweet dreams.” Rose looked
so innocent, so vulnerable, protected from the world by only a fuzzy pink blanket. Cassidy
forced herself to turn away before the water gathering along her lower lids could turn into
flowing tears. She plugged in the nightlight and then switched off the overhead light. Still, she
didn’t want to leave. Cassidy stood in the doorway, watching Rose, waiting for her to slip of to
sleep, and wondering how life could be so unfair to such a delicate little girl. After Rose shifted a
couple of times, she settled into the rhythmic breathing that Cassidy knew meant she was sound
asleep, dreaming whatever little girls dream—riding unicorns, sliding on glass slippers, or maybe
grand adventures with pirates. When asleep, Rose wielded the purple crayon and created
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 159.
whatever world she wished. As a young child, Cassidy had dreamed often, usually fanciful
dreams, about flying in the air by thought alone or sitting beside a stream talking to what she
called the fairy princesses; but sometimes, usually when Dad was away overnight for training or
the time he had pneumonia and had to stay in the hospital for a week, she dreamed dark
nightmares. Cassidy wondered if Rose ever had nightmares.
Rose didn’t twitch or wriggle. She just rhythmically drew in baby breaths from the great
big world and rested her tiny body so she could play with Beau again another day.
So innocent, so trusting. Cassidy hoped that life never took that away from Rose.
She left Rose’s door open a couple of inches and walked away.
In the master bathroom, Cassidy held a red dress in one hand and a blue dress in the
“Go with the red, always red,” Laura Lynn said from the doorway.
“Sound asleep. This is going to be the easiest baby-sitting job ever.”
Cassidy didn’t have any idea what people wore dancing in the Georgia mountains. “You
really think the red?” She slipped on the silk dress. The front of the dress dipped low enough to
show her cleavage, but it was tame by New York club standards. Cassidy spun around and
looked at the back of the dress in the mirror. She regretted that she didn’t have a better tan,
because the dress plunged to just above her rear, revealing her entire back.
“You’ll knock ’em over.”
“Not too much?”
Laura Lynn laughed. “Way too much. That’s exactly what this place needs.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 160.
Levi stood on the porch feeling like an awkward teenager. He lifted his Stetson and ran
his fingers through his hair. I wasn’t this anxious at prom for gosh sakes. He plunked the hat
back on his head, shifted it, and then knocked on the door. He took two steps back.
Levi wondered if Rose was already in bed or if he’d get to see her.
After a couple of minutes passed, he stepped forward to knock again. Before his hand
could descend to the doorframe, the door swung open, drawing away every breath he had. The
light from inside shimmered around the edges of Cassidy’s silhouette.
He knew he should say something.
His eyes took a long slow journey from her red heels, up her taught calves, over the curve
of her hips, past her full breasts, and climbed up her gentle neck, past her silken lips, around her
button nose, and finally landed on her eyes, sparkling green and alive. “Wonderful.” He cleared
his throat. He slipped the hat from his head and held it in front of his heart. “You look
“Thank you.” Cassidy seemed reluctant to step through the doorway.
Levi dug into his pocket, pulled out a wrinkled wad of cash, and held it out. “For Betsy.”
Cassidy shook her head. “I’m not taking your money.”
“It’s yours. I had a talk with Russ and he thought giving you your money back was the
right thing to do.”
Cassidy accepted the money. “Oh did he. And you didn’t have anything to do with
Levi settled the Stetson on his head and anchored his thumbs in the corners of his front
pockets. “I just reminded him what a fair and honest man he is.”
Cassidy laughed. “Honest my butt. He has two black eyes now doesn’t he?”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 161.
Levi laughed. “No ma’am. He’s a good ol’ boy. He knows right from wrong. Just needed
a little nudge.”
“If we’re dating, you need to quit calling me ma’am.”
“Is that what we’re doing?”
“I guess that depends on what you think.” Cassidy turned and walked back to a red purse
sitting on the coffee table. Her heels counted every step on the hardwood floor and tapped on
Levi’s heart. His eyes followed the sway of her hips, the curve of her firm rear. Oh we’re dating
all right, and I can’t wait to get you into my arms.
Cassidy bent down and tucked the money into her purse. Her dress clung to her body,
accentuating every curve. Levi’s eyes were riveted. He felt a strange but familiar tingle creep
over his body. His heart beat faster and stronger; a charge of excitement skittered along his spine.
Oddly, he’d never felt this way about a woman, or even on the ground; this was how he felt high
in the air, tumbling the Stearman through aerobatics: pulling the stick back for a loop or kicking
the rudder for a hammerhead or burying the stick into his thigh for a roll.
Cassidy straightened slowly. Her back arched and then relaxed. When she turned toward
him, her hair bounced with the freedom of a cloud.
Levi didn’t just watch her, he swallowed her whole.
“Ready?” Cassidy asked.
Levi could barely find words for how ready he was. “Yes ma’am.” The moment the word
escaped his lips, he wished he could steal it back. “I mean yes,” he corrected. “Heck yeah.”
Cassidy could feel his eyes exploring her body. She reveled in his warm gaze.
Levi couldn’t have looked more different from the other men she’d dated. His dark blue
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 162.
jeans clung to his hips in a way that made her jealous. Below that, his powerful thighs filled the
jeans before freeing them, just above his knees, to drop down over his rich leather boots. They
weren’t the urban cowboy type of boots, with shiny silver trim and bright colored leather, these
were sharp and somehow classy. Four days ago, she would have laughed at the thought of a man
in boots wearing an oversized silver buckle and a cowboy hat, but not now, not him. The buckle
wasn’t an affectation bought in a mall. She recognized the “CR” from the gate to his property.
The wannabe cowboys in New York always appeared to be in pain when they walked, as if their
boots never quite fit right and they couldn’t wait to get home to take them off. Levi’s boots, by
contrast, looked custom molded to his feet and more comfortable than a pair of sneakers and
more natural than the tennis shoes on the players at her club.
His entire look worked, right down to his piercing blue eyes and slightly mussed hair. If
he were one of her models, she would be complementing wardrobe and hair and jotting down
their numbers to use them on the next shoot. Better still, Levi was real, not some narcissistic
walking affectation playing dress up, like most of the models she worked with. He was the real
Cassidy stepped toward the door. Her high heels pinched the top of her feet, but she knew
that they looked good and hoped that she looked good in them. Most fashion required a little
pain: a pinch here, the end of a pin there, a bit of tape here, some spray tack there. This was the
price to be among the New York elite.
Levi held open the screen door. She thanked him. He walked her across the porch to his
Cassidy looked at the nearly new cobalt blue pickup truck. “This isn’t yours.”
“I don’t drive it often, but the red one is getting tired and won’t last forever, so I use this
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 163.
one if I go out of town…or have a beautiful date.”
During the ride to town, Cassidy noticed that the easy conversation which usually flowed
between them had dried up and been replaced by short sentences and long silences. A new
tension seemed to crackle between them, an electrified nervousness, or maybe it was the static
electricity that builds before a lightning strike. “What’s this place called again?”
“The Barn Door.”
Cassidy rode along, listening to the crunch of gravel under the tires.
“How’s Rose?” Levi asked.
Cassidy felt like someone had just flipped her on switch. She told Levi about reading to
Rose. “She follows right along. She’s such a bright girl.” She told him about going for a short
walk. “Rose seems to attract ladybugs. Every time I looked over, she was watching one crawl
across her hand or up her arm. She’s so gentle with them.”
Levi’s eyes sparkled while he listened.
Cassidy could tell he really cared what she had to say. It felt great to be heard, really
heard. “Her giggle makes me happy down deep, as if somewhere hidden inside me, a child is
giggling along with her.”
Levi nodded and smiled.
Before Cassidy could finish telling him about the latest song that Rose had sung, the
pickup stopped in front of a big red barn. “The Barn Door?”
The barn doors, which must have been every bit of fifteen feet high, where wide open.
From where they parked, Cassidy couldn’t see inside, but could hear banjo twanging, foot
stomping, and occasional shouts of delight. Levi turned off the truck. Cassidy remained frozen in
her seat. I’m not ready for this. In four days, she had burst through many of her prejudices and
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 164.
fears, but maybe this was a step too far.
She must have been wearing her fear across her face, because Levi put a hand on her
knee and said, “Give it a chance.”
She wouldn’t—not for anyone else—leave the truck, but his voice and his hand on her
knee gave her the courage she needed. She turned and smiled what she hoped looked like a
genuine smile instead of the facade it really was.
Levi walked around the truck, opened her door, and took her by the hand.
Cassidy stopped in the gaping doorway of the barn. Two strings of light bulbs, hung high
in the rafters, lit the entire room brightly enough for a photo shoot. On a makeshift platform at
the back of the barn stood a motley band of men ranging in age from teen to nearly dead: a
guitarist wearing a black cowboy hat and a pubescent smile, a singer who also played drums by
stomping the floor with his steel toed boot, a septuagenarian banjo player with a scraggly white
beard, and one man who appeared to be playing utensils from his youth, back when Ma used a
washboard to do laundry and Pa brewed his own whiskey and stored it in glass jugs.
The rest of the barn was one continuous dance floor of packed dirt strewn with golden
hay. A sea of people, waves of denim and flannel, pulsed rhythmically. Although everyone
followed the same basic moves, each person added their own unique twist: a hip bump, boot
slap, or hat wave.
Grinning broadly, a young boy darted in and out of the dancers. An elderly man, sucking
an unlit pipe, leaned against a post and tapped his toes.
Cassidy wished she had her camera. She would love to hide in a corner and snap shots of
these people at play.
After a guitar flurry and a “Whoa” from the singer, the song ended. Instead of jumping
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 165.
right into the next song, the singer stared at Cassidy from across the room. One by one, heads in
the crowd turned and people silenced. An intimidating hush fell over the room, broken only by
the young boy, still running and whooping, until even he stopped, right in front of Cassidy.
“Golly,” he said, before darting back into the crowd.
Cassidy felt like Cinderella, a fraud in a strange, but wonderful, world. She knew that in
two days, her odd vacation in the country and her entanglement with Levi would all turn
pumpkin. She wanted to run, back to the house, back to Rose, back to where she felt
Levi took off his hat and raised it high. In a booming voice he said, “Golly is right.” He
pointed to the singer. “How ’bout playing ‘Holdin’ Heaven.’”
The banjo player picked a melody. The guitarist joined in, strumming chords. The singer
waved his hat. “Come on ya’ll. Everybody knows this one.”
The crowd began to dance.
Cassidy turned to Levi, “I don’t know how to dance like this.”
“Just follow me.”
“I need a drink. Where’s the bar?”
“There isn’t one.”
“They’re doing this sober?” Before Cassidy could protest, Levi drew her into the crowd.
In the sea of unfamiliar faces, Cassidy drifted along behind him, tethered to his arm.
Levi parted a path until they reached the middle of the room. He pulled Cassidy up beside
him. “Just follow what I do.”
The crowd pulsed around them, shifting left, swaying right. Cassidy had never felt more
uncomfortable, not even that awful night of karaoke with Donatella.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 166.
Levi squeezed her hand. “You’ll get the hang of it.” He pointed to the couple in front of
them. “See, it’s just step, turn, step, step, turn, dip.”
When the pattern started over, Cassidy joined in. Step, turn, step on Levi’s toes—
“Sorry”—step on the man behind—“Sorry”—step, turn, kick—“Sorry.”
Levi’s smile never wavered. He did the steps methodically and without flare.
Everyone else seemed to be able to do this so effortlessly, even adding stomps and sexy
hip swings. Cassidy felt like Elaine from Seinfeld at the Christmas party.
The people beside her were so close that every misstep meant bumping into someone. In
New York, if you did that more than once, someone was going to get mad and drinks would fly.
At least here, they don’t have any drinks to throw on me.
She tripped over her own foot. The firm but gentle hand of a stranger grabbed her upper
arm and caught her fall. “Careful little lady.”
He didn’t look angry at all, more amused actually.
Embarrassed, Cassidy stared at the floor. Whenever she looked up and accidentally made
eye contact, men greeted her with a touch to the brim of their hats and women smiled with
It felt odd being lost in a sea of strangers without feeling a twinge of fear. Crowds in New
York always made Cassidy uneasy. She’d heard too many stories of lost wallets and worse.
“You’re getting it,” Levi encouraged.
She rewarded his compliment by inadvertently stepping on his foot. “Sorry.”
Just as Cassidy began to feel like she was getting the gist of the steps, the music stopped.
The crowd cheered.
In the brief lull after the song, the couple in front of her turned and introduced
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 167.
themselves, then the couple to her right did the same.
The atmosphere was so different from the New York club scene. Absent was the catty
competition, seemingly replaced by camaraderie.
The singer announced a new song, which she’d never heard of. He encouraged the crowd,
“Let’s hear it.”
The crowd cheered.
Cassidy’s eyes darted between Levi’s feet and hers.
“This one is a little tricky, but you’ll get it,” he said.
Left foot out, stomp, turn, sway. Cassidy turned and swayed and kicked (completely out
of step) gathering a wad of hay in her high heels. If it weren’t for the occasional comments of
encouragement from the people around her, she would have given up. Despite her awkwardness,
they made her feel welcome.
After two more songs, Cassidy slipped off her heels.
Levi tossed them into a corner.
She was beginning to get the hang of it. Soon, she had the basic steps down—nothing
fancy, but at least the basics.
When the next song ended and the crowd cheered, she clapped and smiled.
Levi leaned over and hugged her. “Do you need a break?”
“Who me?” The music started and she bumbled through new steps. By the third chorus,
she’d mastered the basic steps and began throwing in a little signature sway of her own.
Levi let loose and began to really dance.
Cassidy couldn’t keep her eyes off him—his firm grace, his confident moves, all without
any sacrifice of manliness. The more moves he threw in, the more Cassidy tried to up her game:
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 168.
swinging her hips, raising her hands over her head. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d
had so much fun. She even squeaked a “Yee-ha.”
She laughed at the silliness of it all. Levi laughed with her.
“That’s a mighty fine yee-ha,” said the man behind her.
Cassidy could feel herself beginning to sweat, but so was everyone else. She danced on
and on. The music, the lights, the smiling faces, the whoops of delight, it was like a dream—her
in the center of the room with the most handsome man, dancing and dancing and dancing.
Minutes became hours. Eventually, people began to leave. They paused at the door and
waved. Cassidy waved back. She’d met most of them. Although she probably wouldn’t
remember all their names, she would never forget them as a group—so kind, so accepting.
The end of the night found her in Levi’s arms. Everyone else had left except the band,
who had stopped playing and were packing up.
Levi slid his hands up her back. His touch titillated her skin.
They swayed gently with their bodies pressed together. Cassidy stared into Levi’s eyes.
He looked at her as if nothing else mattered or even existed. The overhead lights went out; the
barn fell dark. Still they danced, to music only they could hear. Their feet moved in perfect time
to the rhythm of Cassidy’s heartbeat.
Her eyes adjusted slowly. First, she could see only a shimmering glint in Levi’s eyes.
Then, bits of his face came into focus. She studied his features as if seeing them for the first time.
She felt comfortable staring, comfortable exploring.
His hands slipped down her back and rested at the top of her rear.
She nestled her head on his shoulder. She could feel his warmth against her cheek, could
feel his sweat blending with hers.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 169.
Normally, she would be self-conscious, would run off and blot her face and fix her
makeup, but in Levi’s arms, none of that mattered. She didn’t feel judged. His gaze seemed only
“Thanks for coming tonight,” he said in a low voice that rasped with manliness. “Did you
have a good time?”
Cassidy couldn’t believe how comfortable she felt in a barn, standing barefoot on hay,
wrapped in the arms of a cowboy. She exhaled and spoke in a tone of wispy satisfaction,
“Perfect, just perfect.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 170.
“People, people, I need your attention.” Cassidy stood on the porch of the Booger’s
General store. Three fill lights glared in her face. Cassidy took a headcount to make sure all eight
of the models flown in from New York were nearby and listening.
“We have a lot to accomplish today.” She pointed to the porch. I need you four guys right
The male models sashayed up to the porch wearing the J. Crew clothes for the first series
of shots. The rugged outdoor clothes made the sleek zero-body-fat models look even more
effeminate by contrast, and their habit of lifting their shirts and rubbing their hands
appreciatively over the ripples formed by their abs didn’t help.
She positioned them on the marks. “Okay, were looking for rugged, outdoorsy, just
kayaked a raging river, or free climbed a mountain.” She stepped back and mentally framed the
Her assistant handed her the camera. She took a few throwaway shots. She knew that the
models needed to hear the click of the camera a few times before they really came to life. “Come
on guys, get tough.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 171.
The camera felt good in her hands. She stepped closer. The shot list called for group,
two-shots, and individuals for these outfits.
She called to her assistant, “Give me some music.”
Techno music pumped from the speakers beside the set.
She’d worked with each of these models before. They were part of Élan’s stable. She had
always been pleased with them, but today, things just weren’t clicking. She took a step back and
looked over the set. The general store was perfect. The props on the porch, which she’d found in
the store: a rocker, a barrel, a footstool, and a row of jugs on a distressed table, all looked great.
The clothes looked spot on. All the elements were there, but still something didn’t click;
something stopped her finger from pressing the shutter.
“James, switch places with Noah.”
The two models swapped sides.
“Niko, give me some motion, something fresh.”
Niko shook his hands and flexed them like a cello player warming up for a symphony
concert and then settled back into the same cheek-sucking, lip-puckering look of disdain that had
served him so well on the runway.
Cassidy forced herself to take a few shots to shake off the rust. She tried appealing to
their egos. “Great, great, give me more. You’re just off the range after herding fifty head.”
Cassidy snapped a couple of shots. “Good, good.”
She moved in for two-shots, then stepped in closer for individual shots. Her free hand
waved instructions. “Look that way.”
It felt good to be working again and felt great to be in charge and on her game. The old
ambitions rumbled inside her. Laney may have my office, but she won’t get my promotion.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 172.
Cassidy could feel herself becoming the Tigress again. “Niko, get the stick out of your ass and
get animated.” He slung his head from side to side. She fired shot after shot. “I like it, I like it.”
She backed up for one final group shot. “That’s it. We’re done here.” She consulted her
shot list. “Next I need the ladies over there,” she pointed to McGuffin’s feed store. The prop man
was making the final adjustments to the set. He stacked bags of feed corn by the door and hung
bridles on the wall.
Cassidy ran the show with authority. “Lighting, let’s go. We have a lot to do today.”
She took charge of shot setup. “We need a saddle out here.” The prop man disappeared
into the store and came out carrying one on his back. He looked as if he might crumple under the
weight. The shopkeeper hurried from behind the counter to help him.
“Set it on the stack of feed.” Cassidy studied the set. “That’s perfect.”
She turned her attention to lighting. “Move that one up a little closer.” She had fully
descended into work mode. Nothing mattered except getting the shots and wrapping before dark.
“Okay ladies, you’re up.”
One of the models protested. “But the lights aren’t all positioned yet.”
Cassidy fired a steely glare. “You let me worry about that.” She pointed to the set with
such authority that the model swallowed whatever retort she had ready.
Cassidy knew how to handle talent: knew when to be gentle, when to push, and when to
lay down the law.
Her assistant handed it to her. Cassidy glanced down to be certain that he’d loaded the
correct film. The final fill light clicked on.
She framed and fired shot after shot, working fast and getting the most out of every
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 173.
minute. She didn’t waste time waffling over angles. By instinct, she knew where to be and what
“Excuse me,” said a voice behind her.
“Not now,” Cassidy barked. “Focus ladies, focus. Give me more.”
Cassidy fired the last shot of that roll. “Reload.” She held out the camera for her assistant
to take. “Ladies, don’t move.” Cassidy never took her eyes off the set. In her head, she cataloged
the pictures she would shoot next. She studied the light, the tones, the models. Everything had to
be perfect and, in typical Tigress fashion, it was.
“Not now.” Cassidy couldn’t afford to break her concentration.
The assistant handed her the camera.
Cassidy moved in for close-ups. “Move that leg…bend that knee more…hand on your
thigh…little higher.” Cassidy shot the entire roll in less than two minutes. “That’s it. Everyone to
wardrobe. I need Niko and James and Shante and Calista back here ready to go in five.”
She pointed to the corner of the porch. “We’re going to set up over here for the next
“What!” Cassidy turned, ready with a sharp comment for whoever was wasting her time.
The mayor rocked back on his heels. His hands were stuffed deep into the pockets of his
brown plaid sport coat. His belly pressed against his white button-down shirt.
Cassidy lowered her head, then raised it, now flashing an accommodating smile. “If it
isn’t the mayor of this fair town.” She meant to sound welcoming, but may have sounded slightly
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 174.
The mayor smiled the same warm smile as always. “Don’t mean to interrupt, but I do
need to get a bag of food for Dolly…my dog.” He pointed toward the door of the feed store. “I’ll
only be a minute.”
When in work mode, Cassidy hated interruptions, but on location, she expected minor
inconveniences. After all, she hadn’t had to pay for shooting permits or for the location. “Go
The mayor thanked her before stepping onto the porch and opening the door.
One by one, the models walked over from their final touchups and Cassidy placed them
on set. “Niko.” She motioned him to step back. “Right there. Lean against the door frame.”
The screen door swung open.
Niko jumped back as if assaulted. “Hey Gomer Pyle, watch it.”
The mayor stepped out carrying a fifty-pound bag of dog food on his shoulder. He
sported his ubiquitous congenial smile. “I’m so sorry.”
When the mayor turned away, Niko quipped, “That’s right Gomer, go feed the pigs.”
The other three models on set giggled.
The mayor acted as if he hadn’t heard the comment. “You have a fine day Ms. Kincaid.
Don’t forget the festival tomorrow.”
Cassidy nodded, but didn’t speak. She was too focused on getting the fill lights just right.
“Here we go people.” The camera shutter fired…fired…fired…
Techno music blared.
Cassidy walked up and back, side to side, never lowering the camera to look where she
was stepping. Her feet had a catlike ability to find footing, which enabled her to concentrate
entirely on taking great shots. Three rolls later—“That’s it. Back to wardrobe for the next
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 175.
A familiar quivering voice said, “Dear, I don’t mean to interrupt.”
Mabel stood with a basket of muffins weighing down her left arm. “I heard about your
big photography shoot. I thought you and your models may be hungry.”
Cassidy smiled. What is it with her and Muffins? “Thank you,” Cassidy said, a little more
clip than she would have liked. She waved for the assistant. “Set those over on the table for the
The assistant took the basket from Mabel.
Mabel, relieved of her offering, looked lost.
“Thanks again.” Cassidy turned to the lighting tech. “No, no, leave that light. The other
light needs to come around.” She strode over to the tech. “No, here.”
The assistant set the basket down on the table.
Calista’s face contorted. “Carbs, carbs, carbs.”
“Don’t these hicks know how bad flour is for you?” Niko huffed. “Probably made with
Cassidy slid the light over another inch. When she turned back, Mabel was gone. Cassidy
felt a dull pain in the pit of her stomach. She took a deep breath and soldiered on. “Okay people.”
She clapped three times. “Listen up. This time I want you one at a time. Niko, you’re up.”
Niko stomped to the mark in the center of the set. He paused for a moment, looking at the
ground, and then spun toward the camera, sucking in his cheeks and scowling his patented—I’m
too cool to give a crap—look.
Cassidy fired shot after shot. “More attitude,” she shouted.
Niko wiggled his hips and settled into an even more intense scowl.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 176.
“That’s it…that’s it.”
“Oh honey, we need to feed that poor boy.”
Cassidy recognized Clara’s shrill voice.
Cassidy held up a hand and waved. “Little to the left,” she shouted. “There, slide that
hand up…higher…there.” Cassidy fired three more shots. “That’s it. Next model.” The music
Cassidy handed off the camera and turned toward Clara. “What do you think?” She stood
proudly in the middle of the excitement of the photo shoot. I bet the people around here have
never seen anything quite like this.
“Honey, I’m not usually one to push Mabel’s muffins, but these poor people are
Cassidy smiled knowingly.
“Don’t they make enough money to buy food?” Clara pointed to Niko. “That poor boy
keeps lifting his shirt and rubbing his empty belly. Look, I can see his ribs. And the other boy is
a twig.” Clara leaned in and whispered, “That is a boy, right?”
Cassidy nodded. She could barely contain her laughter. “They’re fine. They work very
hard to look like that.”
Clara looked confused. “Work? They don’t look like they could stand a single day of
hard work. That poor girl looks so weak that she shouldn’t try to carry her own purse. What kind
of work makes you like that?”
“Modeling is harder than it looks. They’re on strict diets.”
“So they work at not eating?” Clara’s look of pity narrowed into contempt. “Some work.
They’d be better off eating a hearty breakfast and plowing a field or picking some apples.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 177.
Cassidy patted her shoulder. “It’s the price they pay to be who they are.” She didn’t
expect Clara to understand. “Thanks for visiting. I have to prep the next shot.”
Cassidy turned her attention to the lighting. Something still wasn’t perfect.
Clara tapped her shoulder. “Do you mind if I stay?”
Cassidy waved dismissively. “That’s fine.” She pushed the flash tower a little to the right.
“Okay, next model.”
Calista slinked onto the porch with the attitude of a cat in heat.
Cassidy posed her and began firing. She didn’t call for music this time. Calista was in the
groove and Cassidy didn’t want to risk changing anything.
In the background, she heard Clara say, “Honey, please try one of these muffins.”
Cassidy didn’t hear the model’s response, just the giggles of the other two at the makeup
When Cassidy handed off the camera for a reload, a soothing voice said, “Hard at work?”
A smile rose to Cassidy’s lips. “Levi.” She turned and hugged him. “I’m so glad you
came.” She was happy to see him, but it felt awkward having him at her work. It had been fun
hanging out with him and playing country girl, but at work, she was the Tigress. She didn’t know
if he’d understand.
He looked at her with those eyes that made her melt. They even began to melt the
Tigress. “I don’t want to interrupt you. Keep working.”
“We’re due for a break in fifteen minutes.”
Cassidy’s assistant handed her the camera. Cassidy adjusted Calista’s pose and fired a
few shots. She kept peeking out the side of the camera at Levi. He walked over and leaned
against the bags of feed that had been in the previous series of shots.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 178.
“Just one muffin,” Clara said to the models at the makeup station.
Cassidy stepped closer. “Calista, look left. Stay with me. More…more…more…”
Cassidy took two more shots. “And you’re done.” She looked over to the makeup table. “Okay, I
need James.” Niko followed James onto the porch and stopped just short of the lights. Cassidy
saw him meet eyes with Levi, who greeted him with a nod. Niko turned and chuckled. Levi
“Young lady,” Clara said, “just try a muffin.”
Cassidy posed James. “Let’s go.” She took pictures as she moved from side to side to
capture just the right light. As much as she tried to concentrate on work, Cassidy kept thinking
about Levi, about last night. She shot a few sloppy pictures. Focus Cass, focus. Just as at the
beginning of the shoot, something wasn’t working. The lighting was perfect: not too much fill,
perfect angle on the backlight. The sun was cooperating. The set couldn’t have been better. Still,
something wasn’t right.
She turned the camera, focused on Levi, and framed a close-up. Perfect. The second she
pressed the shutter, she knew what had been wrong with the other shots—they were plastic. Levi
belonged in this setting. He looked real. These models would never really wear these clothes and
would certainly never be caught dead in this setting.
Clara’s voice cut through Cassidy’s thoughts. “Just one muffin.”
“I don’t want a muffin,” Calista blurted.
Niko joined in, “Aunt B we don’t want your damn muffins.”
Cassidy turned the camera and focused on Niko in time to see two meaty hands clamp
onto his delicate shoulders. Levi spoke in a tone that could argue with thunder. “You’re going to
apologize to her.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 179.
Niko squealed, “Let go of me right now or I’ll sue.”
Cassidy zoomed out to a two shot on them.
Levi looked straight into his eyes. “Apologize.”
“All right, all right, just let me go.”
Cassidy continued to watch this unfold through the camera lens.
When Levi let go, Niko took a step back. He looked ready to run. “Fuck you Bubba.”
Niko sprang to run, like a child from a spanking, but before he could get one step away, a fist
smashed into the side of his head and knocked the smirk from his face, replacing it with a look of
dismay as his head snapped back and his legs wobbled.
Levi grabbed his shoulders and kept him from falling. “How ’bout that apology.”
Niko’s voice slurred, “Fuc…”
Levi released his shoulders.
Face first, Niko fell to the floor and landed in a crumpled heap without ever finishing the
Cassidy couldn’t believe her eyes. What had Levi done? I can’t get a replacement model.
Niko was one of Élan’s regulars. What is Ginny going to say if he quits? The last thing I need
with Laney ready to pounce on my promotion is another problem.
Levi looked over toward her and shrugged his shoulders.
Cassidy couldn’t respond. She just stared through the lens, like a voyeur, watching her
chance for a promotion disintegrate. Her mind raced over the repercussions: Niko would sue
Élan, Ginny would go ballistic, Laney would gloat.
The crew and models stood frozen in stunned silence.
Levi walked over. “Where do you find these jerks?”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 180.
Cassidy couldn’t stifle her exasperation. “You…you…hit him! Do you have any idea
who he is?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.”
Levi’s calmness angered her even more. “You can’t just hit a top model.”
“I didn’t hurt him, just thumped him hard enough that he’ll think twice before talking like
Anger stole Cassidy’s words.
Levi reached out to comfort her.
She pulled away. “You may have just cost me a promotion.”
She could see concern in his deep blue eyes, but that didn’t change what he’d done. She
“My nose,” whimpered Niko. “I think he broke my nose.”
Clara knelt down beside him and took his face in her hands. “No honey. Your nose is
fine.” She dabbed the corner of a napkin at the little trickle of blood running from his nostrils.
“You’ve just got a little nose bleed. I think you bumped it on the floor. Lean your head.”
When Cassidy turned back, Levi was gone.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 181.
Cassidy tossed her camera bag onto the passenger seat of the El Camino. She sat for a
moment, content not to move.
She had managed to finish the shoot without Niko, but some of the photos had suffered.
Niko was definitely going to raise hell back in New York.
What am I going to tell Ginny? Cassidy usually called work after a photo shoot, to update
Ginny, but today she decided not to. Instead, she would call Ginny in the morning, after Cassidy
had time to clear her head and figure out how to explain what happened. This debacle was the
last thing she needed, with Laney already trying to push her aside and steal the promotion.
She turned the key and started the engine. The El Camino settled into its usual bump-et-y
When Cassidy reached for the gear shifter, her phone rang.
She flipped it open. She didn’t want to answer Ginny’s call, but knew that she couldn’t
dodge it either. “This is Cassidy.”
Ginny skipped the usual pleasantries. “What the hell happened down there?”
Before Cassidy could formulate a response Ginny said, “Kirkman says we may have a
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 182.
problem. He wants to talk to you.”
A talking to from Kirkman, the magazine’s lead council, was never a good thing. He
personally handled only the most egregious situations.
“I’ll call him,” Cassidy said.
“Niko claims some psycho hillbilly assaulted him?”
Cassidy could only imagine what Niko had said. “He wasn’t exactly assaulted...and he
deserved it. He was being a jackass.”
“He’s one of our best. He’s supposed to be a jackass. I would be worried if he weren’t.
When you’re that good, you can do whatever you want.”
Cassidy knew Ginny was right. In New York, Niko and the other top models were
royalty. “Not here.” His attitude was out of place in this quiet little town. No one was impressed
by who he was.
“Did they arrest the guy?”
Cassidy still didn’t know if there even was a sheriff or any other type of police officer in
town. The thought of Levi being arrested had never crossed her mind. “I don’t think they’re
going to.” Cassidy found herself defending Levi. “He didn’t hit Niko very hard.”
“So he’s a wimpy hillbilly. That doesn’t mean he gets to go around assaulting people.”
“If he’d wanted to hurt Niko, he would have. He was just teaching him a lesson.”
“Whose side are you on? If we come out defending this hillbilly, we’ll get taken down
Cassidy tried to explain the situation, but Ginny either didn’t listen or didn’t care. Ginny
reiterated, “Just let the hillbilly take the fall and keep Élan out of it.”
Cassidy didn’t respond.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 183.
“Do I need to arrange for Laney to do some fill shots?”
Cassidy didn’t need Laney cleaning up after her. The thought of it made her boil. “I have
all the shots we need.”
“Are you sure? When Laney heard about the problem, she offered to help out.”
Help out, my ass. She’s pushing me out the door. “I have all the shots we need. They’re
headed back with my assistant.”
“I’ll take a look when they arrive. Maybe I’ll pencil in a quick shoot for Laney, just in
Ginny had never used a backup for Cassidy, not even during Cassidy’s first year at Élan.
Suddenly, she doesn’t trust me, or my ability?
“Remember to call Kirkman.”
The phone clicked dead before Cassidy could respond. She sat there holding it and
wondering what just happened. In the five short days she’d been in Gumlog, she’d fallen from
company darling, about to get the promotion of a lifetime, to company goat, who may not have a
job when she returns.
Cassidy pulled onto the main street and passed under the traffic light, the only traffic
light, on her way home.
Her eyes followed Levi’s new fence until it ended at a small gap, where he stood,
leveling the last post.
Cassidy slowed. He was facing away from her. She could see every muscle in his deeply
tanned back. The late afternoon sun glistened off his sweat. His shirt hung from a fence post; his
hat sat atop. That’s a real model. As angry as she’d been about what he’d done, she couldn’t stay
angry at him. When she thought back to how kind and welcoming everyone in town had been to
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 184.
her at the dance the night before, she felt embarrassed by the way her models had acted.
New York, the bastion of culture and class, had been bested by a tiny little town nestled
in the southern Appalachians, a town without a single museum, or even a library, as far as
Cassidy knew. The elite of New York had been outclassed by a simple country man named after
a pair of jeans.
Cassidy eased the truck to a stop at the edge of the road.
Levi turned and wiped his brow.
She rolled down the window. “Almost done?”
He looked down the fence line. “Just nail the boards to this one and I’m done.”
Cassidy turned off the engine and stepped out.
Levi appeared uncertain what she might do or say.
She reached down, picked up a board, and positioned it against the new post. He drove
three nails in each side. They slipped silently into the routine of fence building. They worked
comfortably together, as if they’d been doing so for years. Cassidy couldn’t find the words to
express what she was feeling, but somehow, sharing the work eased her struggle.
When his eyes locked on hers, she looked away. She spoke slowly as she searched for the
right words, “I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
Levi’s face eased. He shook his head. “No need. I shouldn’t have hit him.” His lips parted
into a hint of a smile. “But I’d do it again, and apologize again, so I guess I don’t have any
regrets, except for messing up your photo shoot.”
She picked up the next board.
He sank each nail with two deft strikes.
She positioned the other side of the board. “You didn’t mess up the shoot.” She corrected
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 185.
herself, “Well, you did, but I understand why.”
Levi drove a nail—thump…thump.
Their eyes met again. Cassidy gazed into the depths of his blue eyes and said, “I’m sorry
they were such jerks.”
“They aren’t the first city folk to breeze through here all pumped up on attitude so high
that they look down on us.”
Cassidy wondered if he was talking about her. She thought back to when they met. She
felt embarrassed by her assumptions and actions. She had judged him on his accent and his
clothes. She had felt so superior, but now, in front of this amazing man of such strong character,
she felt small and petty.
Levi drove another nail—thump…thump. “But I’ve learned not to judge too harshly,
because some people will surprise you.”
Levi drove the final nail and completed the fence. He stepped back and surveyed his
work. “Time to cool off.” He slipped into the flannel shirt and plunked the hat on his head.
“Wanna join me?”
Cassidy wasn’t sure what he had in mind. She hoped there was a pool out back. She
didn’t answer, but did follow him toward the house.
“I usually go up every night around this time.”
Behind the barn sat the yellow biplane.
Her stomach tightened into a ball of fear. “I don’t know.”
“You know you want to.”
Levi was right. Despite the fear, Cassidy wanted to feel the wind in her hair and see the
world far below. She was scared and excited.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 186.
In the seat of Cassidy’s pants, she felt each dip in the pasture as the biplane accelerated.
At first, like at the airport, she couldn’t see anything over the front cowl, but then the tail lifted
and the nose dropped, revealing clear pasture ahead. Wind blasted her face. The roar of the
engine filled her ears, despite the protective headset.
“Here we go,” Levi said with a tone befitting a circus announcer.
The plane pointed toward the deep blue late-afternoon sky and left the ground.
Cassidy clutched the side of the cockpit. A shiver of fear danced through her body. She
looked down at the ground falling away and dug her fingers deeper into the leather trim.
“How ’bout we have some fun up here,” Levi said through the intercom.
Cassidy, already beyond speaking clearly, barely mustered a response of, “Sure.” She
feared what would happen next.
Levi banked the plane hard to the left.
Cassidy’s body sank into the seat under the force of the turning plane. It banked so
steeply that when she looked out the side, she saw straight down to the town below.
A white steeple pointed up at them. “My dad helped build that church.”
Cassidy had to force herself to respond. “Construction worker?”
Levi laughed. “No, everyone in town helped build that church.” He leveled out and flew
straight until crossing over the fence they’d just finished. He threw the plane into a right bank.
“He farmed the same stretch of land that I do now.”
Cassidy could see the layout of Levi’s ranch. It was ten times bigger than she’d assumed.
The front side was all pastureland speckled with too many cows to count. Behind the small house
that Levi had called his parents’, acres of fields stretched across a valley between foothills. On
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 187.
the far side of the property, tucked in a gap in woods, sat the large gray house she’d seen from
the street. “Who lives there?”
Levi banked and dove straight for the gray house. Just above the treetops, he pulled up
and slowed the plane. “Me and Tank.”
“My old blind Chow.”
The engine revved. The plane climbed. Cassidy noticed that they were headed toward her
Levi could tell, by the way Cassidy swung from side to side and looked around, that she
was more comfortable in the plane than last time. He wanted to show her the beauty of the area,
the simple pleasure of winging through the sky as the sun turns golden before dropping for the
night. This had always been his secret pleasure, but now it was important to share it with her. He
dipped the nose of the Stearman and descended toward Cassidy’s house. “Let’s say hello.” He
buzzed the roof before yanking back on the stick and firewalling the throttle. He climbed,
leveled, and then turned around. Laura Lynn, Beau, and Rose walked into the front yard. “Get
ready to wave.” Levi gently rolled the plane over and leveled the wings inverted.
Cassidy screamed a continuous squeal, but Levi had heard enough screams from the front
cockpit to know the difference between terror and excitement. Cassidy’s scream was both.
Laura Lynn, Beau, and Rose waved.
Levi rolled the plane upright and wagged the wings at them.
“That ridge is the edge of your property.”
“In front of us?”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 188.
“Yep.” He banked the plane into a gentle turn. He looked over the land below, which
he’d so fiercely defended against J. K. Kellerman’s theme park. Levi had avoided telling Cassidy
because he knew how badly she wanted to sell the place, and before, he’d assumed that all she
cared about was money and getting back to New York, but now, he felt a bond of trust with her.
She wasn’t the money grubbing city slicker he’d initially thought. She was a vibrant, beautiful,
caring woman. Just look how well she cared for Rose, and besides, she hadn’t even mentioned
selling the place in a couple of days.
A confession hung in his mouth. He wanted to tell her what he’d been hiding, tell her
about Kellerman, and trust her to do the right thing, but try as he might, the words didn’t come.
He couldn’t tell her—not now, not today, but soon. “Do you trust me?”
Cassidy was slow to respond, but eventually answered, “Sure.”
“Then hold on.”
Cassidy clutched the leather edge of the cockpit and set her jaw in anticipation. The plane
dove briefly and then the nose pulled up…up…up…until it pointed straight up. The engine
quieted. The plane slowed until it hung in the sky for a brief moment, which felt like an eternity,
before starting to slide backward. The nose fell to the right and the plane rushed toward the
ground. Cassidy screamed.
The plane leveled, then rolled to the left: upside down—right-side up—upside down—
right-side up, until Cassidy didn’t know which way was up. When the plane leveled, instead of
sky above, she saw only ground. The plane was inverted, but only for a moment. The plane
rolled the opposite direction until level and then the nose pointed up…up…and…over…and
down, completing a full loop.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 189.
Cassidy had never felt anything so thrilling, not even the time on spring break when her
friends goaded her into riding The Snake roller coaster.
She could barely keep her bearings—sky, ground, mountains—everything whizzed by so
fast. She screamed and screamed, out of fear and delight; and could barely catch her breath as he
rolled and looped and spun the plane. Despite the terror pumping through her veins, she trusted
Levi’s hands on the controls, his eyes on the horizon. She surrendered to his whims in the sky,
and he rewarded her with an exhilaration she’d never felt before.
By the time the wheels touched down in Levi’s pasture, Cassidy couldn’t scream any
longer. Her hands ached from gripping the edge of the cockpit.
When the engine stopped, she sat in the cockpit and enjoyed the tingle of total
satisfaction that came after such an adrenalin rush.
Levi unbuckled her and held her hand as she stepped from the plane. He didn’t let go,
even after her feet were on the ground. He looked at her with an intensity she’d never seen
directed at her before. His gaze seemed insistent yet vulnerable. “What did you think of that?”
Cassidy struggled for the right answer, but instead, she leaned in and stopped with her
lips inches from his. Her eyes darted furtively from his passionate eyes to his inviting lips. Her
heart pounded so loudly that she thought surely he could hear it, and maybe he did, because Levi
let go of her hand. Both his hands rose and cupped the sides of her face. His lips met hers in a
crash of passion. She could feel him press against her body. His lips explored hers. They were
firm and confident, just like everything else about him. His hands slid down to her waist. His
tongue parted her lips.
Cassidy couldn’t hold back what had been building. She threw her arms around him.
He kissed her with a passion that she’d never felt before, a passion that rivaled winging
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 190.
through the sky. She could barely keep her bearings, but, as in the sky, she trusted him to care for
her, trusted the man she saw behind those deep blue eyes.
He scooped her into his arms and lifted her off the ground. She wrapped her arms around
his neck and her legs around his waist. He carried her into the barn and gently set her on bails of
He knelt over her. The golden setting sun tinged his silhouette and darkened his face, yet
still, she could see his eyes clearly.
He didn’t rush for her buttons.
He stared into her eyes with such intensity that Cassidy almost looked away, but didn’t.
She recognized the look in his eyes. It was the same look she’d seen him give Rose and the same
look she’d longed for all her life.
Cassidy reached up and slowly unbuttoned his shirt.
When the last button parted, Levi slipped his shirt off and tossed it aside.
Cassidy followed the contours of his stout chest with her eyes. She wanted to see all of
him, every ripple and every muscle.
He reached forward and unbuttoned her blouse. It fell open. She felt insecure, for a
moment, until she saw the unwavering look of passion and care in his eyes. She liked it when he
looked at her body. It felt risky and wonderful at the same time, just like the flight. She could
almost feel the warmth of his eyes caressing her.
He unsnapped her bra.
His hands felt so warm on her breasts. She couldn’t quiet a groan.
One of his hands slipped to her hips, then down over her skirt. He pushed the skirt up
until it gathered at her waist. She could feel his hand working slowly up the inside of her leg
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 191.
until it stopped just short of where she wanted it. He squeezed her inner thigh. The edge of his
palm brushed against her panties. The anticipation was almost unbearable. Cassidy’s eyes drifted
lazily shut. Every other sense sparked to life.
She could smell the earthy aroma of fresh cut hay mingled with a hint of Levi’s cologne
and the sun sweetened smell of sweat. She could hear her heart beating, could feel each of his
fingers as they brushed across her nipples, could sense the desire pulsing through him. As in the
air, looping and spinning, she surrendered herself to the fear and exhilaration.
She reached up and felt the ripples of his stomach. Her fingers traced them down to his
belt. Levi unsnapped the buckle and slipped it off.
While her hands worked his button and zipper, he lifted her off the ground, unzipped her
skirt, and slipped it off.
The world melded into a collage of emotion and excitement: his touch, his breath—
looping, rolling, spinning—hay, musky cologne, sweet lickable sweat, his jeans tossed aside, her
panties slipped off, his boxers landing in the hay; his hands on her breasts, her stomach, between
her legs; his tongue on her nipples, easing down her cleavage to her belly button, tracing her
bikini line, teasing.
When Cassidy could wait no longer, when she needed him inside her, he paused and
pushed himself back to the same kneeling position that he’d started in. Cassidy opened her eyes
and met his—looking at her, admiring her, swallowing her—filled with desire, eyes that looked
at her as if she were the only thing in the world that mattered.
He eased his body onto hers, eased himself into her.
Diving and looping and spinning, they merged into one. Powered by their passion, they
flew high above the bounds of earth. Together they found a rhythm; together they discovered
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 192.
each other; together they rose into the sky and danced among the clouds.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 193.
Levi couldn’t force last night out of his head. He’d never been with anyone like her—the
passion, the body, the emotion—and he’d never been left feeling this way. He couldn’t stop
thinking about the littlest details: the two dimples above her rear, the gentle slope of her hips, the
way her eyes rolled back and fluttered. He needed to see her again, even if that meant running in
the ridiculous fun run.
As he drove out to Cassidy’s, he felt almost giddy with anticipation. Today would be the
day that he’d tell her about Kellerman and the theme park. He would no longer need to rely on
people in town to tear down Cassidy’s fliers. He could finally trust her to do the right thing with
the land and with Rose…and with his heart.
It was all happening so fast, but felt so right.
Today, he would ask her to stay. He could picture them becoming a family and raising
Rose right here in Gumlog, on the same farm where he grew up, learning the same country ideals
that his parents had instilled in him. He thought about the different scenarios of how and when to
ask her and what she might say. They could even farm Marlene’s land and build it into a proper
working ranch to give to Rose when she became old enough.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 194.
All the pieces fit together so well. For the first time since the death of his parents and
brother, Levi didn’t feel alone.
Cassidy, couldn’t decide what to where. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to run or not, but
she decided to dress for it just in case. Despite changing outfits three times, she was ready early.
She and Rose stood on the porch. She wondered what Levi would say after last night. Every time
she closed her eyes, she could see him, smell him, feel him. She had never experienced passion
like that. She would never forget it, would never forget her week in the country and the crazy
pilot rancher who stole her heart.
Too bad the fantasy had to end, as they always do. Today was her last day in Gumlog.
Tomorrow morning the shuttle bus would come from Atlanta. She had a one o’clock flight back
to the real world where her job was in jeopardy and her mother was succumbing to Alzheimer’s.
The deal with Kellerman was iron clad. He was scheduled to close in two weeks. Child
Protective Services would be up tomorrow morning to pick up Rose. This would be their last
afternoon together. Cassidy had already packed Rose’s bag.
She looked down at little Rosie standing in her red dress with black polka dots, smiling
an anticipatory smile. A single tear escaped the corner of Cassidy’s eye. This was going to be the
toughest thing she’d ever done. During her short time in Gumlog, she couldn’t help falling in
love with Rose, but she knew better than to let love shape her life. With the new demands of
clawing her way back to the top of her career, after being unseated by Laney, she wouldn’t have
any time for a child, even one as wonderful and loving as Rose. Cassidy wished there were some
other way, but she knew that life was harsh sometimes, and she was all too familiar with the
sacrifices needed to reach the top of her career. This time, she would have to reach further and
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 195.
fight harder to beat Laney.
Levi’s truck pulled up the drive. Cassidy welcomed the distraction from her thoughts, but
her resolve remained firm. She wondered if things would be awkward between them.
Levi stepped from the truck, strode across the grass, up the steps, and wrapped his arms
around her with such enthusiasm that her feet left the ground. If circumstances were different,
she could stay in his arms and bask in his gaze forever.
He set her down and picked up Rose. “Ready for the Ladybug Festival?”
Rose giggled. Cassidy could tell that Rose loved being in Levi’s arms as much as she did.
He carried Rose to the truck and strapped her into a car seat belted to the truck’s rear jump seat.
Cassidy was surprised to see that he had a car seat. It was yet another reminder of how
unequipped she was to be a parent. She’d never even thought about it.
When they pulled in to the square, Laura Lynn waved. Only a handful of people stood in
the grass, ready to run, with numbers pinned to their shirts. Cassidy asked, “Are we early?”
Levi checked his watch and shook his head.
“I’m so glad you made it,” Laura Lynn said. “Let me just pin these on.” She pinned the
number seven on Levi and turned to pin the number eight on Cassidy.
Cassidy stopped her. “I can’t leave Rose.”
Laura Lynn pointed to Beau sitting in the grass. “I’ll watch her.”
Rose ran over to Beau and flopped down beside him.
“I guess I’m running.” Cassidy felt comfortable with Laura Lynn watching Rose. Back
home, she never would have trusted anyone so completely with something as precious as Rose,
but here, the rules seemed different, the people were different.
Laura Lynn pinned the number on Cassidy’s chest.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 196.
“Runners take your mark,” the mayor shouted.
Cassidy and Levi walked to the back of the group. Cassidy turned to wave to Rose, but
Rose was looking the other way. Laura Lynn rushed over and wrapped her arms around both
children, covering their ears.
A gunshot roused a chorus of squawks from the crows in the trees bordering the square.
The cluster of runners surged forward. Levi and Cassidy started dead last.
“Three miles to go,” Cassidy said.
“You sure you’re up for it?” Levi asked.
Cassidy ran faster. Levi jogged up beside her. They both passed Jeb. Levi shouted
encouragement, “Lookin’ good.”
Within the first mile, they passed the remaining five runners and took the lead. Cassidy
could feel her competitive nature taking over. “Just you or me.”
For someone who didn’t train, Levi was off to a great start. He wasn’t even breathing
hard. He said, “Yep, you and me.”
Cassidy surged ahead. “You or me. I’m going to beat you,” she taunted.
How did he know her so well in such a short time? He seemed to understand her
competitive streak and wasn’t intimidated by it like most men.
He ran up beside her. “You and me,” he reiterated. “You can’t ditch me that easily.”
Every time Cassidy sped up, Levi matched her stride for stride.
They were so far ahead that when she glanced back, she couldn’t see any other runners.
People on the side of the road clapped. Some offered cups of water. Cassidy tuned them out and
focused on running. She was determined to prove that all those Pilates and Spinning classes
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 197.
hadn’t been a waste of time. She tried not to look tired, despite her heaving chest and burning
Levi looked relaxed and steady, as always. She wondered if anything, other than
obnoxious models, ever flustered him.
Even jogging this fast, Levi was able to speak in a conversational tone, “You and I make
a pretty good team.”
Cassidy could sense that he was warming up to saying something. Now wasn’t the time
or the place for the “let’s be friends” speech. There would be time for that later. She surged
again. He followed her step for step. “I was wondering if we could talk?”
Cassidy surged again. She huffed and puffed, barely able to suck in air fast enough. Levi
ran up beside her. At least now he was breathing hard.
They ran side by side through the streets of Gumlog, past the base of the water tower,
behind the bank, along a creek, around an old barn…
Cassidy pushed herself to the point of excruciating pain and then beyond.
They turned onto the final stretch, a half-mile climb back to the town square.
Cassidy focused straight ahead. She surged, holding nothing back. She pulled away from
Levi and ran up the endless hill, accelerating faster and faster, at the very limit of her strength.
Levi not only caught her, he ran right by. His legs ate up the road with huge powerful
strides. She couldn’t match his pace, couldn’t catch her breath…couldn’t keep going. Her pace
tapered off to a jog, barely faster than a walk. Her head hung low and she stared at her feet.
She’d lost. This was one more in a line of recent defeats. She could feel a cloud of self-doubt
lurking up behind her.
She slowed to a shuffle. Yes, it was just a stupid race, but she didn’t need another failure.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 198.
All of her defeats flooded her thoughts and darkened her mood: Mom, dying so slowly, yet
unceasingly, from Alzheimer’s; Dad, back working in the tunnels; Laney, probably sitting
behind the mahogany desk in 29-B right this moment—my desk, damn it; and now Levi…Levi.
Her thoughts froze on him. He’d injured her, harmed her, in some way, beyond this silly race,
she was sure of it, but how…Then her heart answered—by making me fall in love with him,
even though it was impossible for them to build a life together. She almost quit walking. She
didn’t want to finish the race anymore; she wanted to go home. Oddly, the home she was
thinking of was Marlene’s house.
She finally trudged to the top of the hill.
The small crowd gathered at the top cheered.
She raised her head slowly. There, a hundred yards in front of her, a ribbon hung across
the road. Levi stood, fifty feet short of the ribbon, and cheered her on. Her walk became a
jog…and then a run…and then a sprint, but her chest ached, her legs burned. Her sprint trailed
off to a run…a jog…
By the time she reached him, she was exhausted and couldn’t jog another step.
He reached out and took her hand. Somehow, his power and his energy flowed into her.
Hand in hand, they jogged through the ribbon.
Cassidy sat on the blanket that Levi had laid on the grass in the town square. Rose sat
between her legs. Levi sat beside her. Four young girls carried a banner up the road reading:
Ladybug Festival. The mayor announced their arrival, “Here come our lovely cheerleaders. Give
’em a hand.” The crowd, which in the two hours since the fun run had grown large enough to fill
the small square, clapped and cheered in the supportive way of friends and family. Behind the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 199.
cheerleaders, the marching band, a discordant group of high school kids wearing bright but
mismatched uniforms, played some sort of school fight song.
“Go fightin’ Turkeys go,” shouted the mayor.
Rose clapped every time the mayor announced the arrival of another parade participant.
Cassidy pulled Rose close and kissed her on the head. I’m going to miss you little one.
She tried to lose herself in the day and forget about Child Protective Services coming the
following morning and to forget about leaving Gumlog for New York, but she couldn’t. The
impending departures hung over her, obscuring every thought and tugging down every smile.
Levi didn’t seem to notice her struggle. Cassidy could tell he was having a struggle of his
own. She wanted to ask what was on his mind, but couldn’t bear to have the breakup
conversation. Why not enjoy one last day together.
“Here come the Mustangs,” the mayor announced.
A line of vintage Mustang convertibles drove around the square.
The parade lasted over an hour. After the Mustangs, came tractors, then the Eastern Stars,
then the Shriners, then more cars (some with banners, others without), then floats, and even three
Volkswagen Bugs decorated to look like ladybugs. At the tail of the parade, Clara rode in the
back of a pickup surrounded by boxes, which Cassidy assumed were full of the precious
ladybugs Clara had been chilling in the fridge.
After the parade, Cassidy had Rose all to herself. Levi flew overhead, carrying
passengers. He landed and took off from the field behind the bank. Parents waved up from the
ground and children waved down from the plane.
Makeshift booths, most little more than long tables, opened along the edges of the square.
Cassidy walked with Rose. They stopped at the dunking booth and Cassidy took a throw. She
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 200.
missed, but the man behind her nailed the target and dunked the mayor, who splashed into the
water and surfaced sporting his ubiquitous smile. The water rolled off his brown plaid sport coat
as if it were made of plastic.
Cassidy stopped at a table covered with open boxes of muffins, behind which Mabel
stood proudly watching people sample her goods. She didn’t charge for the muffins, but did
accept donations to The Historic Society. Cassidy smiled, but kept walking.
Jars of honey with handwritten labels reading “Gumlog Gold” lined the neighboring
booth. The next booth wasn’t a booth at all, but rather, a phalanx of rustic chairs made from
branches gathered from the local woods. Cassidy stopped at the following booth, which had a
row of imitation Cabbage Patch dolls. She asked Rose, “Would you like a dolly?”
Rose raised both hands in an appeal to be picked up.
Cassidy lifted Rose and showed her the dolls. Rose shook her head and hugged Cassidy
tightly. “No dolly,” she mumbled into Cassidy’s chest.
After lapping the square, Cassidy returned to the blanket laid out on the grass. No sooner
had they sat, than Beau ran over. He greeted Rose with a hug. The two plopped on their rears
facing each other.
Laura Lynn waved from across the square.
“I’ll watch him,” Cassidy shouted.
Laura Lynn smiled and nodded.
Cassidy couldn’t believe how quickly this little town had accepted her. There was
something homey about it, something very comfortable, like the threadbare T-shirt Cassidy
usually slept in. Too bad she had to leave.
Cassidy reclined on her elbows and watched the yellow biplane circle overhead. Levi
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 201.
waved. She waved back. She wondered what he thought about their romp in the barn. Would he
ever consider moving to New York? As fast as the idea came, she shoved it away. Sure he did
okay here, but in New York, he’d be unemployable. He would become just like the hapless
dreamers she’d seen some of her friends marry.
But, that image didn’t really fit him. He was too proud to sink to that, but he was also too
independent to ever consider moving, and it wouldn’t be fair to ask him to leave everything that
As she watched him dip a wing and wave again, she realized she had to tell him today
that she’d sold the land, that she was giving up Rose, and that she was leaving in the morning. It
wouldn’t be fair to disappear without explanation; she owed him more than that. She would tell
him…later, she couldn’t find the words just yet.
Cassidy opened the picnic basket that Levi had brought. Inside, he’d packed sandwiches,
chips, water, and soda. She wondered which he would prefer: the turkey sandwich or the ham
While Laura Lynn watched the children, Cassidy walked over to the field in time to see
the biplane touch down on the waving grass. Levi taxied over and shut down the engine. He
helped a young boy from the cockpit and into his mother’s outstretched arms. “What was it like
honey?” the mother asked as they walked away.
“Going to be a long afternoon,” Levi said to Cassidy. The smile on his face confessed the
pleasure he was deriving from giving kids a taste of freedom in the sky, the same taste that, by
candlelight, he’d described his father giving him so many years ago.
Cassidy pulled out a sandwich and a soda. “I’m sorry folks, but the pilot needs to refuel.”
Levi pointed to a cluster of children waiting along the rope barrier. “I’ll eat after this
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 202.
“By the time you get through this group, there will be another. You need to take a break
“Yes dear,” Levi said mocking her playfully. “It’s been over a decade since anyone has
spoken to me like that.”
Cassidy smiled. “Well someone has to.”
Levi and Cassidy sat in the grass beside the plane. Cassidy unwrapped the turkey
sandwich and handed him half.
“Rose doing okay?”
“She’s eating with Beau and Laura Lynn.”
“We’re going to have to watch out for that Beau or he’s going to steal her away
Cassidy opened a soda and set it beside him. “She’s a strong girl. Nobody will steal her
When Levi finished, he patted his thighs, and prepared to stand.
Cassidy put a hand on his thigh and pushed him back to the blanket. “Finish this other
half, then you can go play.” She laughed. But, she was only half joking. He needed to eat more.
Up in the sky, was no place to be muddled by hunger.
Levi ate the other half of the sandwich in three bites. “We’re open for business,” he
announced. He turned back to Cassidy. “We really do make a great team.”
Her smile faded from genuine to forced. It was hard to hide the sadness she felt when he
talked like that. Cassidy didn’t know what Levi thought of last night. Surely he didn’t think we
would become a couple, him down here and me all the way in New York? She knew all too well
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 203.
how long distance relationships worked, or rather, didn’t work.
Cassidy walked away.
Levi shouted. “Don’t forget, I want to talk to you about something later.”
The mayor stood on a platform between the state and federal flagpoles in the center of the
town square. Laura Lynn stood beside him.
The mayor spoke, “This year, we’re going to end the festival a little differently, but first,
I’d like to introduce Mabel.”
Mabel held a gavel in her hand, but there was no podium to strike it on. She looked
momentarily perplexed, then turned and banged it on the chair she’d been sitting in. “Thank y’all
for coming.” She surveyed the crowd. “The Gumlog Historical Society is proud to announce the
declaration of the Cody house as a House of Historic Significance.” She waved to Levi. “The
house, built in nineteen thirty-two, is one of the few remaining examples of the community spirit
that built this town. It doesn’t represent a specific style as much as an attitude. The house was
built by the hands of Richard and Carolyn Cody, with the help of neighbors and friends.”
She went on to explain the finer points of the construction and then read a list of the
people involved. Eventually, she began to lose steam. She closed with a bang of the gavel on her
Laura Lynn took the stage. She walked with the awkward gate of a child trying to obey
the letter of the rule: don’t run, without really slowing down. She could barely contain her
enthusiasm. “This year we’re going to do something new. We’re going to crown a prince and
princess and king and queen of the festival.” She looked to the crowd for a cheer, but initially,
received only blank stares. Cassidy clapped, Levi clapped, soon the clapping spread through the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 204.
Laura Lynn smiled triumphantly.
“I’ll start with the prince and princess.” She turned around. “Daddy, where are the
The mayor stepped up beside her holding four paper crowns, which looked like they
could’ve come from Burger King, except there wasn’t one in town.
Cassidy leaned toward Levi. “I pity the poor people who have to wear those.”
“The prince of this year’s Ladybug festival is—” she paused and looked out over the
Beau had been busily playing with Rose, but when he heard his mom call his name, he
“Over here Bo-Bo.”
Beau waddled to the stage, blissfully unaware of his new title. His grandfather, the
mayor, set a crown on his head.
“And the princess is—” again, Laura Lynn paused, presumably for grand effect“—Rose.”
Rose looked up at Cassidy with an expression that asked, what should I do?
Cassidy lifted Rose to her feet and pointed toward Beau. He waved.
Rose waddled to the edge of the stage, climbed the one-foot lip, and waddle to Beau’s
Cassidy whispered to Levi, “They’re quite a pair.”
When the mayor set the crown on Rose, it slipped over her head, slid down her neck, and
landed on her shoulders. She giggled. The mayor slid it off, made a few sharp bends, and set it
back on her head.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 205.
Laura Lynn clapped. “Let’s have a hand for our prince and princess.”
The crowd still didn’t seem to share Laura Lynn’s bubbly enthusiasm, but they clapped
A long black limousine slithered up the hill and parked behind the stage.
A slow wave of silence washed over the crowd.
Laura Lynn, oblivious to the arrival of the car, looked confused and nervous. She cleared
her throat. “Your prince and princess.” She again pointed to Rose and Beau and clapped. She
looked to the crowd, but no one joined her.
“Now for the king and queen.”
Cassidy recognized J. K. Kellerman when he stepped from the car. He stood beside the
door and looked over the area as if he’d just purchased the town. He couldn’t contain a satisfied
Levi leaned in close. “See that guy?”
“He’s been trying to get his claws into this place for over a year.”
Cassidy swallowed hard.
“I’ll explain later.”
Laura Lynn must have seen the eyes of the crowd staring through her, because she turned
toward Kellerman. He motioned her to continue.
She turned back. “Um…okay…now for the king and queen.” Her smile quivered as if
held up by enormous effort. “The king of the Ladybug Festival is...”—this time during her pause,
she stole a glance at Kellerman—“Levi Cody.”
Levi’s face flashed with embarrassment, before a forced smile appeared. Through his
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 206.
clenched teeth he said, “Great.”
Cassidy would have jibed him about it if she weren’t preoccupied staring at Kellerman,
standing beside the limousine.
Levi walked to the stage. He stood behind Rose and Beau and, with his usual aplomb,
received a paper crown.
Cassidy wondered what Kellerman was up to and what Levi wanted tell her. She thought
back to her meeting with Kellerman. He hadn’t mentioned what his intentions were with the
property, only that he didn’t care about the house. It had struck her as odd, but it wasn’t any of
her business. Their contract was unbreakable, so the property would be his to do with as he
pleased in fourteen days. Besides, she would be back in New York.
Despite her rationalizations, she couldn’t help wondering what he was up to and
wondering if she’d made a huge mistake.
Through the fog of her thoughts, she heard someone call her name. She looked up at the
stage. Levi was laughing and Laura Lynn was waving for her to come up.
Every direction Cassidy looked, she met the eyes of the crowd watching her. She stood,
reluctantly walked onto the stage, bowed her head, and received her paper crown.
“Your king, queen, prince, and princess,” declared Laura Lynn.
The crowd clapped.
Levi leaned close to Cassidy’s ear. “Even the town thinks we make a great team.”
“This was rigged,” Cassidy replied.
The mayor stepped to the front of the stage.
Laura Lynn motioned Cassidy, Levi, Rose, and Beau to sit at the back of the stage.
The mayor pulled a pair of glasses from his pocket. “I’m going to read the story of the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 207.
founding of our town.”
A few people in the crowd groaned.
“I know, I know, you’ve all heard it before, but that’s what tradition is based on.” He
opened a spiral notebook. “I promise, I’ll do the short version.” He read, “In eighteen twelve, a
group of farmers made up of three families, the Jenkinses, the Kirbys, and the Codys, headed
north after aphids destroyed their crops. They had no idea where they were going, but were
confident that they’d know when they got there. They traveled, by foot and by horseback, over
two hundred miles to this very spot, where they emerged into a clearing and saw the sweetest
sight to a farmer: thousands of ladybugs. The bugs landed on their shirts and heads and arms.
The settlers didn’t swat them off. Instead, they welcomed them, for it was the ladybugs, these
defenders of crops against all manner of harmful bugs, who welcomed the settlers to their new
home and gave them a promise of bountiful harvest. Since that first day, the ladybugs have
protected our crops. So, as it was with the settlers, it still is today—the humble ladybug reminds
us that we are home.”
He nodded to Clara who shuffled down the row of boxes, flipping open the lids. A cloud
of ladybugs wafted into the air.
“And today, I want to remind each and every one of you, that you are home.”
The ladybugs descended into the crowd.
One landed on Rose’s arm. She held it up for inspection. One landed on Cassidy’s blouse,
then another. They crawled across her chest. Everywhere she looked, the colorful little bugs flew
and crawled, and grown adults marveled at them with childlike enthusiasm.
Levi whispered, “That guy at the limo is Kellerman, he’s trying to put a theme park in
town and run a highway up from Atlanta.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 208.
Cassidy didn’t know how to react. She felt guilty about having sold Marlene’s land to
Kellerman, but no one had warned her. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Levi looked uncomfortable, maybe even rattled. “I didn’t know you…know I could trust
Cassidy’s voice rose above a whisper. “Couldn’t trust me?”
“That was before…”
Cassidy wanted to run off, but they were surrounded by the entire town and it felt as if
everyone was staring at her. “What other secrets have you kept from me?”
Levi was slow to answer. “We’ll talk about it later.”
The mayor announced, “I hereby close this year’s Ladybug Festival. I appreciate ya’ll
coming.” He waved to the crowd.
A hand descended on Cassidy’s shoulder from behind. “Thanks,” Kellerman said, before
walking to the front of the stage.
In three distinct phases, Levi’s face changed from concerned, to confused, to betrayed.
Cassidy needed to explain, but couldn’t find the words. She hadn’t meant to hurt the
town, to hurt him, but it wasn’t her fault. If Levi had only told her. If she’d only known.
Levi’s face reddened. “You didn’t.”
Kellerman spoke in a booming voice. “I am here to announce that in fifteen days, we will
begin construction on the largest theme park in Georgia. We will be bringing in crews from
Atlanta, but will also be employing local help. Anyone interested in applying, take a flier.” He
dropped a stack of fliers on the stage.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 209.
Not a single person approached to take one.
He continued, “This is going to be the greatest thing ever to happen to this town.”
Levi mumbled through clenched teeth, “Best thing…best thing my ass. More
moneygrubbing outsiders stealing our town. You city scum would kill your cousin for a dollar.”
His words, although directed at Kellerman, slapped Cassidy with palpable force. She had
come to consider herself part of the community, but now understood that any outsider would
always be a moneygrubber and would never really fit in. She slid the paper crown off her head. It
fell to the ground. “I’m leaving tomorrow,” she said.
She hoped Levi would see through his anger and ask her to stay, beg her to stay. She’d
never before felt so close to someone only to, in an instant, feel a million miles apart. She could
feel the bond between them snap. She wanted to reach out, to apologize, and to tell him that she
loved him. Love him? The thought had snuck up on her. Love? What is love? A familiarity? An
attraction? I can’t love this man. We’re not compatible. He could never live in New York, never
be a part of my world.
Levi’s chair screeched against the stage as he stood.
Cassidy had never seen him angry, not like this, not even when he hit Niko. His face
turned dark, no longer red, just dark. His eyes looked sunken and sharp. His brow became a
battering ram. Every muscle seemed to crackle.
When Kellerman turned toward them to walk to his car, Cassidy thought Levi was going
to kill him.
She sprang to her feet and grabbed Levi’s bulging forearm.
Levi tried to shrug her off, but she held tightly.
Kellerman, for a man in the middle of hostile territory, looked smugly untouchable. He
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 210.
wore the smile of a conquering dictator.
Levi leaned forward. His eyes begged Kellerman for a reason, any reason, to justify
ripping off the intruder’s head.
Kellerman nodded dismissively.
Levi surged forward with a force that surprised Cassidy, and must have surprised
Kellerman, because his smile vanished, replaced by a gasp of fear.
Cassidy clutched Levi’s arm.
He dragged her half the distance to Kellerman.
Cassidy jumped in front of Levi. She tried to wrap her arms protectively around him.
He pushed her away. “You…you, bastard,” he shouted at Kellerman.
Cassidy made sure that Levi had to go through her to get to Kellerman. She knew
operators like Kellerman. He would like nothing more than to call the state patrol to arrest Levi.
He didn’t subscribe to country justice and would do everything in his power to lock Levi up and
sue him for his land. Cassidy had hurt him enough. She wasn’t going to let Kellerman hurt him
Levi pointed at Kellerman over Cassidy’s shoulder. “You’re not getting away with this.”
Cassidy wanted to protect Levi, wanted to do something, anything, to mend her mistake.
Levi turned his flame-throwing stare at her. “How could you do this?” His words stung,
but the look in his eyes hurt far worse. She had never seen such a look of betrayal.
Levi walked away without looking back.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 211.
Cassidy rolled over and closed her eyes. She couldn’t clear her head, couldn’t stop
thoughts from creeping in: Levi’s face dark with anger, Rose’s innocent blue eyes, Kellerman’s
She rolled back and checked the clock again—6:47 a.m.
Cassidy tossed the covers aside and sat up. Her face felt puffy and her eyes ached. She
felt as if she hadn’t slept at all.
But Cassidy was a trooper when she needed to be, and today, she needed to be. Her
schedule was tight, but she’d mapped it out on her PDA. Child Protective Services was
scheduled to arrive at 9:30 a.m. to pick up Rose. Her things were already packed. The van from
the airport was scheduled to arrive at 10:00 a.m. A shipper was coming at some point in the
morning to pick up the boxes of Marlene’s belongings that Cassidy wanted to keep. The rest
would be picked up by the Salvation Army within two weeks. Anything left after that would
become Kellerman’s property.
Cassidy would call Clara from Atlanta and give her the pig and goat as they had
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 212.
discussed. Levi had Betsy. Cassidy would also leave the tractor for him, in part because she
didn’t know what else to do with it and in part because she felt guilty about how everything
ended. He had treated her like no other man. She owed him something.
At 3:25 p.m., Cassidy would touch down in New York. She just had to gut out one more
day and then she would be able to put all this behind her.
Cassidy glanced at the clock as she went about her morning routine—7:12 a.m.
She stood in front of the vanity with a white towel wrapped around her. She opened her
travel makeup case, stared at herself in the mirror for a moment, and then closed the case.
7:31 a.m., Cassidy stepped from the bedroom wearing a pair of Marlene’s khaki pants
and a denim shirt. A week ago, she would never have considered wearing such an outfit, but with
all that she had to accomplish today, it only made sense to be comfortable. There would be time
enough for Vera Wang and Dolce Gabbana when she was back in New York. Today was a
denim sort of day.
8:49 a.m., Cassidy brought out Rose’s bag. Rose didn’t have any real luggage, so Cassidy
packed Rose’s belongings in one of Cassidy’s bags. She’d left just enough room for Boo-bear to
be added after Rose awoke and unhanded him.
8:58 a.m., Cassidy checked her watch as she dragged her luggage to the porch. She was
surprised how late Rose had slept, but the later the better today.
9:11 a.m., Cassidy stacked the boxes for the shipper on the porch. The porch looked like
a loading dock. At the far right sat the boxes of Marlene’s belongings, in the center, sat Rose’s
lone bag, and on the far left sat Cassidy’s designer luggage. Three people’s lives reduced to
boxes and bags, each group segregated and awaiting departure. Three people’s lives that had
collided together because of a convergence of events, now prepared to ricochet apart because of
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 213.
Cassidy counted the boxes. Marlene’s life had been reduced to seven boxes, two of which
were filled with photos that Cassidy had taken from the frames on the walls. Cassidy had more
luggage than that stacked on the far side of the porch. An entire life reduced to seven boxes—all
Marlene’s ambitions, all her dreams, sitting in seven cardboard boxes.
Marlene was the first person Cassidy’s age that she’d ever personally known who died,
other than a boy in the fourth grade who died from meningitis, but she hadn’t really known him
well. Then again, did she really know Marlene? Before this week, Cassidy hadn’t known
Marlene had a daughter. Before the phone call, she hadn’t even known where Marlene lived.
Did she live? Did she enjoy her life? Did she find someone to love? Did she wake up
eager to greet the coming day? Cassidy didn’t really know what Marlene’s life was like…or
maybe she did. She thought back over the last week. She had basically stepped into Marlene’s
life: cared for Rose, come to know her neighbors, danced the night away with her friend. Maybe
I do know what her life was like. Cassidy thought about how fulfilling it was to put a smile on
Rose’s chubby little face, how nice it was to be part of a community, dancing under a string of
tiny lights in a barn, and how satisfying it was to point her camera at ducks in a pond, solely for
pleasure. Marlene really did have a nice life, Cassidy thought. Not one that I would have chosen
for myself, but it was a full life, a satisfying life. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something
about living in this tiny town in no-where-ville felt real, tangible, even graspable. It differed from
the fleeting moments of ephemeral success she’d experienced in New York: the superficial hugs
from models after a shoot or the perfunctory claps of her coworkers when she was promoted to
Cassidy wondered how her life would be judged after she died. If someone were to go
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 214.
through my apartment, what would they save? What would they consider important? What
would they think of my life? She had a walk in closet with rotating racks filled with designer
clothes. Would they end up in the keep pile or the Salvation Army pile? My Kandinsky? Would
someone keep it as a reminder of me, or sell it? My framed magazine covers? They aren’t artistic
like Marlene’s photos, but they are milestones in my career. What pile would they end up in?
Cassidy resolved to work harder, achieve more, and make a bigger mark on the world.
Right now, her life didn’t even add up to seven meaningful boxes. She was determined to change
The screen door slapped shut.
Rose clutched Boo-bear and held out a familiar book. “Story?” She looked so vulnerable
with her eyes still glassy from sleep.
Cassidy didn’t have time to read about Harold and his purple crayon, but she couldn’t say
no to that angelic little face; besides, they only had a short time left together.
Rose climbed into her lap. As always, Rose pointed to the pictures and giggled while
Cassidy read about Harold’s grand adventure in a world of his own making, drawn with a
magical purple crayon.
Cassidy read slowly, reluctant to turn each page, because each flip of a page carried with
it a feeling of finality: she would never again hold Rose in her lap and read to her.
A brown truck turned into the gravel drive and stopped in front of the house.
Cassidy pointed toward the stack of boxes. She didn’t stop reading because she thought
that if she did, Rose might ask questions about the boxes or about the day, which Cassidy
couldn’t answer, at least not without crying. She tried to stay detached, but couldn’t quell the
upwelling of emotion that occurred whenever she thought about handing Rose to Child
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 215.
Protective Services and imagined watching them put her in a car, with her cherubic face looking
bewildered and scared. Cassidy hated the thought of what Rose would go through.
Giving up Rose is the right choice, Cassidy told herself, the only choice, but that didn’t
make it any easier.
The shipper drove off with the seven boxes containing the entirety of Marlene’s life,
everything, that is, except her greatest legacy, the little girl with sparkling blue eyes sitting in
Cassidy’s lap pointing to Harold and his crazy crayon.
Cassidy realized that because of Rose, Marlene’s life would always have meaning and
would always have significance. Cassidy ran her fingers through Rose’s wispy blond hair.
Someday, I hope I have a baby just like you, Cassidy thought, when the time is right, when I
have a wonderful husband, and when I am the most successful photographer in New York.
You’ve really taught me a lot.
Cassidy heard the crunch of gravel under tires. She closed the book. She picked Rose up
and turned her around to face her.
Even though Cassidy had rehearsed this moment in her head, now that the time was
actually here, looking Rose in the eyes, she didn’t know what to say. “Rose, it’s time to go on a
little adventure, like Harold.”
It would have been easier if Rose cried or threw a temper tantrum or did anything other
than flash a baby grin, wiggle in anticipation, and look at Cassidy with complete trust in her
eyes. Cassidy ached so deep down, even deeper than her heart; her soul ached for little innocent
Rose, sitting in her lap, believing her, trusting her—this poor little orphan about to be torn from
everything she knows as home and left in the care of strangers.
A white SUV circled in the yard and pulled up, passenger side to the porch. Both doors
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 216.
Rose asked, “Where we going?” Her voice fluttered with excitement.
“Well Rose,” Cassidy explained, “you are going…” Cassidy started to cry.
Be strong for Rose, she thought. Send her off on a good note.
Cassidy had thought through the decision many times: it wouldn’t be fair to raise her in
New York; I work until all hours of the night; Rose deserves a Mom and a Dad; Child Services
will find a good home for her. Over and over, Cassidy churned through the reasons that
indisputably confirmed her logic, but still, she felt sick.
A man dressed like every male science teacher in high school, brown corduroy pants and
a wrinkled button down shirt, stepped from the car. A woman stepped from the passenger side
wearing a navy-blue polyester business suit one size too small
“You’re going to go with these nice people.” Cassidy couldn’t stop tears from rolling
down her cheeks, but she did keep from sobbing long enough to talk.
Rose looked at her with such care and compassion that it wrenched Cassidy’s already
aching heart. This wonderful little girl is worried about me.
The man stood beside the front fender of the car. The woman stepped onto the porch.
“This must be Rose,” she said in a patronizing voice.
Rose tucked her face into Cassidy’s cleavage.
Cassidy wrapped both arms around her.
“And you must be Cassidy Kincaid.”
“I’m Gertrude. We spoke on the phone.”
“How do we do this?” Cassidy asked.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 217.
Gertrude lifted her face into an exaggerated grin. “If we don’t seem upset, then she won’t
be too upset. It’s all just a trip to the park.” She spoke in the same high tones one does when
praising a dog.
Cassidy wiped tears from her cheeks. She gritted a toothy grin. “Rose…Rosie?”
Rose didn’t budge.
Gertrude said, “Once we have her in the car, I’ll have you sign the papers and then we’re
Cassidy didn’t like feeling rushed. She needed more time with Rose: time to explain, time
to make sure Rose was okay—just time. The closer Gertrude edged, the more Cassidy wanted to
run away with Rose. Everything was happening faster than she could absorb.
Gertrude held out her hands. “Okay Rose, time to go.”
Rose clung to Cassidy with her little face buried.
Cassidy put both hands on Rose’s waist and pushed gently, but Rose didn’t move.
Gertrude leaned in and grabbed Rose’s upper arms in an effort to peel her off.
Rose wouldn’t let go and Cassidy didn’t want her to. Clung to her chest as she was, Rose
felt like a part of Cassidy and losing her would be no easier than losing an arm. “Give us a
minute,” Cassidy said.
Gertrude sighed an audible huff of disappointment. She remained bent over, ready to tear
“Give us a minute,” Cassidy said again. This time, her voice commanded.
Gertrude stepped back and checked her watch. “We have a long ride back.” She
exchanged looks of annoyance with her coworker.
Cassidy didn’t care about Gertrude’s schedule. She needed a moment with Rose. She ran
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 218.
her fingers through Rose’s hair. “Rose,” Cassidy said, just above a whisper. Cassidy wanted to
reassure Rose that everything would be all right and that this was really the best thing for her.
That’s what she wanted to do, but words didn’t come, only tears. Cassidy rocked gently, holding
Rose tightly. “I don’t want to do this, but I have to.” Cassidy knew that she was speaking as
much to herself as to Rose. “You will find a good home—” Cassidy kissed the top of Rose’s
head “—with a mommy and a daddy who will love you.”
“Wuv me,” Rose parroted in a voice so meek that Cassidy barely heard her.
“That’s right. They will love you, like your mommy did—” Cassidy sniffled “—and like
A white van turned into the drive, circled, and pulled up behind the car. The sign on its
side read: Greenway Airport Shuttle. It was empty except for the driver.
Cassidy held up a finger to signal that she’d be ready in a moment.
Almost in synch, Gertrude, the science teacher, and the van driver checked their watches.
Cassidy pointed to her stack of luggage. The driver began loading it into the van.
Cassidy was no stranger to time pressure—racing the sun for a photo shoot, editing shots
in time for press, and beating the competition out for position—but saying goodbye to Rose with
two people checking their watches and tapping their feet in annoyance and with the van driver
tossing her bags into the van in an obvious huff was more than she could bear…but she had to.
She had gone over all options, and over, and over again. There weren’t any. Rose didn’t fit into
her life in New York, couldn’t fit. It just didn’t work and wouldn’t be fair to Rose. She deserved
better. She deserved a family.
Cassidy wiped tears from her eyes. Her voice became purposeful. “This is what’s best.
You’re a wonderful little girl and I’ll always carry you in my heart.” Rose lifted her head and
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 219.
gazed at Cassidy with a look of total trust.
Now was the time.
Cassidy lifted Rose from her lap. She looked Rose straight in the eyes. “I love you.”
Cassidy turned her head toward Gertrude, who, wasting no time, swooped in and took Rose from
Cassidy couldn’t take her eyes off Rose. She struggled to record as many mental
snapshots as she could. She wanted to always remember those pudgy cheeks and glinting eyes.
The van driver, done loading and now sitting back in the driver’s seat, honked and
pointed to his wrist.
Gertrude set Rose on the porch to adjust her grip and straighten the girl’s skirt.
Rose held out an arm pleadingly toward Cassidy.
A ladybug landed on her finger.
Slowly, she raised her hand to her face to study it closer. Her eyes widened with
amazement at the sight of the tiny bug.
“Bad bug.” Gertrude slapped the bug from Rose’s hand.
The stunned ladybug lay upside down on the porch deck, wriggling its legs.
Rose’s eyes narrowed. She bent down and reached out to the bug.
Gertrude grabbed Rose’s hand and slapped it. “Pretty little girls don’t play with bugs.”
Rose’s cheeks flushed. Her lower lip protruded.
“Pretty little girls don’t cry,” Gertrude scolded.
Again, Rose reached out for the struggling ladybug.
Gertrude stomped on the bug. “No.” She wiggled her foot as if putting out a cigarette.
Cassidy was waiting for Rose to explode into tears, but she didn’t. Rose’s face glowed
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 220.
red, her eyes remained fixed, and her body tensed, but no tears fell. Her eyes turned glassy, but
wouldn’t release a single tear. It was as if she’d learned that life was tough and not always fair
and that sometimes you just had to stand there and take it. Cassidy had learned this lesson well
throughout her career: humoring bosses she hated, patronizing egomaniacal models, and sucking
up to corporate clients. It was an adult lesson, too adult for precious little Rose. “Let her go.” The
words barely leaked from Cassidy’s lips. She wasn’t sure if anyone heard her. There was still
time to shut up and let Gertrude take Rose away. All Cassidy had to do was swallow her
emotions for a few brief minutes and it would all be over, Rose would be gone, and Cassidy
would be on her way to the airport. Just let Gertrude take Rose. It’s best for everyone. Just sit
here. Don’t move. Don’t speak. It’ll all be over soon.
Gertrude snatched Rose up.
The van driver honked again.
Cassidy stood slowly, as if each fiber of each muscle needed to be commanded
individually. To the left, the white shuttle van awaited to whisk her away. To the right, Gertrude
carried Rose a step toward the car. Cassidy knew that all she had to do was turn left, and walk
the ten or so steps to the van. It was that simple. The single most difficult decision came down to
a simple twist of her hips. Just turn away from Rose and turn toward the van, toward your career,
toward your life in New York.
“Let her go.” Cassidy’s voice startled her. The words had flown out, this time with
volume sufficient to stop Gertrude, but did Cassidy mean them? She wasn’t sure. She couldn’t
move. Her brain still told her to turn away, but her heart wanted to grab Rose, to run away with
her, regardless of the consequences.
Cassidy knew the score. Her head always won. Yes, her heart had put up a good fight
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 221.
when Trevor left for Japan, but her head had won out, and as always, looking back, she was glad
it did. Her head never steered her wrong. She could always trust it for the prudent course of
action, unlike her heart, unlike her emotions. She had always trusted her head before and didn’t
have any reason to doubt it now, which is why she was so surprised when she turned toward
The whole world froze except Cassidy’s eyes, which met Gertrude’s contemptuous glare,
then the van driver’s annoyed glower, then the science teacher’s disapproving scowl, and then
little Rose’s pleading stare. Cassidy wondered what her eyes looked like to them. Could Gertrude
see her spitting anger? Could the van driver sense her contempt? Could the man by the car see
her apprehension? Could Rose tell that Cassidy’s heart was breaking at the thought of losing her?
No birds chirped. No breeze rustled the trees.
Cassidy battled, her head against her heart, with her body rigidly trapped in the middle,
unable to walk away or step forward.
The van driver honked.
Cassidy didn’t know why she took the first step toward Rose, or the second, but by the
third, she knew what she had to do, not for Rose, but for herself.
She grabbed Rose from Gertrude’s arms. “She’s staying with me.”
Gertrude postured her hands on her hips. “We’ve come a long way.”
Cassidy clutched Rose to her chest.
When the stunned look evaporated from Gertrude’s face, what remained was a
purse-lipped, jaw-set expression of anger. “It’s not that simple.”
To Cassidy, it was that simple. I’m keeping Rose.
Gertrude’s voice darkened, “You told us about your circumstances. You’re not really her
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 222.
mother. Scribbles in a chemistry notebook can’t make you a mother. You have no legal rights.”
Cassidy knew Gertrude was right. Why did I tell her that? Why? What makes me think I
have the right to take this little girl?
Rose looked up at her with the same expression Cassidy had seen in Levi’s eyes, a look
which said that Cassidy was the only thing in the universe which mattered to Rose at that very
moment. It was that look, which gave Cassidy the right to take Rose—legal transference by
glance. Cassidy grabbed Rose’s bag, pushed past Gertrude and strode toward the van at a
measured pace between a walk and a fleeing sprint.
“We know where you live,” Gertrude shouted. “This isn’t over.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 223.
Levi plunged the posthole digger into the russet Georgia clay. Scoop after scoop of dirt
piled into a mound beside the deepening hole. It was the hottest day of the year so far and he was
glad for the heat. Everyday since Cassidy left, Levi had worked on the fence, despite having
already completed all that he’d intended. That didn’t stop him. He bought more materials and
began replacing the fence across the back of the property, even though it had a few serviceable
years left. When he finished that, he began a fresh fence that split a third off the front pasture,
which Cassidy had helped him fence in. He thought the smaller area would be perfect for Betsy.
At least that’s what he told himself. The end result didn’t matter. What mattered to Levi was the
work. As long as the sun scorched sweat from his body and burned his shoulders, he couldn’t
think about Cassidy and Rose, at least not as often as when he wasn’t working himself to
This had helped him endure the first week, and had gotten him through another couple of
days beyond that, but today, between grunted thrusts of the shovel, Cassidy’s face crept into his
thoughts. He shoved the image aside and worked harder and faster.
The hole looked deep enough. He dropped in his measuring pole—a little too deep. He
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 224.
kicked in some dirt and then dropped in the post. He slipped the level from his rear pocket and
checked the post in two spots. It took a little tweaking to get the post exactly vertical; he wanted
it perfect. The more he focused on the post, the less he thought about Cassidy holding Rose on
her lap singing “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at the top of her lungs before crashing through his
fence, the less he thought about Cassidy lying on the couch wearing only a robe that kept
slipping off her silky leg, the less he thought about her lying on the fresh hay in the barn with her
breasts heaving with passion.
“Damn it!” He tossed the level down. He looked up at the sun as if the sky held the
answer. “Why did she do this to me?” He ran his fingers through his hair. Every good image of
Cassidy was inextricably attached to a bad one: yelling at him, taking Rose away, selling
Marlene’s land to Kellerman. Had his first impression been right? Was she just another city
slicker out for only herself? Then why had she risked her life to save Betsy in the storm? Why
did she take Rose back to New York?
It didn’t make sense; she didn’t make sense, but most of all, he didn’t understand why he
cared so much, why it ate away at him every waking hour and haunted him when he slept. He
couldn’t work hard enough, run fast enough, or scream loud enough to shake loose from the grip
she had on him. He was so angry that he could feel his pulse pound when he thought about her.
So why couldn’t he stop thinking about her?
“Just let it go,” he told himself. He picked up the level, straightened the post, and packed
dirt around it. He stepped back to eyeball it. “Spot on.” He tamped the dirt with all his weight
until the post was unwaveringly firm. Something about the strength of a lone post, rooted to the
earth, comforted him, because too was a lone post. He too stood proud and strong.
He bent down, picked up a cross plank, positioned it, and then braced it in place with his
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 225.
It slipped and fell to the ground.
Again, he picked up the board and wedged it in place with his knee. As he drove nails, he
remembered how much easier it had been with Cassidy holding the rails in place. She’s pretty
tough for a city girl. Hell, she’s pretty tough for a country girl. As he swung the hammer, he
wondered what she was doing at that very moment.
Cassidy reclined at her desk. “I don’t believe it.” She held her composure even though
there was no one in the room to notice. Again, she read the memo on her screen. Her eyes paused
on each word. Laney is gone, she thought, leaving the company to go work in Paris. Ginny must
be furious. I bet Laney only used Élan to negotiate a better deal. Cassidy didn’t care about the
details. All that mattered was that not only was Laney leaving Élan immediately, she was leaving
New York entirely. This would make Cassidy the undisputed top fashion photographer in the
Like a gentle breeze, the possibilities flowed over her: the big corner office would be
vacant, other magazines would surely try to woo her away, and with Laney gone, she could get
the promotion she’d fought so hard for.
When Cassidy left Gumlog, she thought she was returning to New York to fight for her
job, but now, everything she wanted was close at hand.
She spun her chair around, stood, and walked to the floor to ceiling windows that formed
the exterior wall of her office. “I’m back.”
She stood so close that her breath fogged the glass. She looked up at cottony clouds that
speckled the otherwise bluish brown sky. Then, she looked down over the city, over the cars
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 226.
scurrying about, over the people flowing in masses.
The last time she was this close to the windows, she lay, splayed out on the floor,
petrified with fear. This time, she stood tall and unafraid—enjoying it actually. She smiled at her
The view down reminded her of flying in Levi’s plane, but without the thrill of the wind
blowing through her hair or the clamor of the engine in her ears.
She leaned her forehead against the window and closed her eyes. She could feel the
airplane engine vibrate through her body, could hear the flying wires whistle, and could feel that
giddy tingle of anticipation in her stomach. She had never before felt anything comparable to
flying through the deep blue Georgia sky, and nothing since, except one evening in a barn.
That was one memory Cassidy didn’t want to relive. Not yet. It stirred up too many
emotions. Cassidy opened her eyes and stepped back.
When she heard a knock on her doorframe, she turned. “I’ll leave these on your desk,”
said one of the new interns. She didn’t know his name. He dropped an open box filled with slide
trays on her desk.
Once he left, Cassidy sat down and flipped on the light table built into the right side of
her desk. She pulled out the trays of slides and set the box off to the side. All the slide trays were
labeled with her usual dates and sequence numbers except two. Sometimes the lab forgot to
transfer the labels from her notes on the rolls. It had been happening more often, since the
magazine had reduced the staff in the lab because most of the photos came in digitally now.
Cassidy knew that eventually, she would have to switch, but she still liked to the absolute clarity
and vividness of slides.
She placed a slide from one of the unmarked boxes onto the light table and set a loop
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 227.
Rose’s smiling face looked back at her from the nook of the oak tree in Marlene’s yard.
Cassidy lifted her head. She remembered the day she took the picture and remembered the spent
roll of Marlene’s she’d removed from the camera—the second unmarked tray. She couldn’t bring
herself to look at Marlene’s shots. Not yet.
She looked back through the loop and marveled at the contrast between Rose, so young
and innocent, and the venerable oak tree, with its branches drooping to the ground. Rose was a
natural. The camera loved her. Even on film, the glint in her eyes sparkled undiminished.
Cassidy wondered how Rose was doing today in daycare. Cassidy had enrolled her at The
Little Academy, the best daycare and pre-preschool prep in the area. Rose would have all the
advantages that money could buy, but Cassidy wondered if she understood the sacrifices. Rose
never complained, but somehow she seemed subdued. She didn’t sing anymore and never giggle
quite as hard as she had when Levi flew her over his head.
“Cass, can I see you.” Ginny stood in Cassidy’s doorway.
Levi pushed the throttle forward. The plane accelerated across the recently mowed grass.
Faster and faster the plane rolled, bounding over the wallows and bumps, until Levi hauled back
on the stick and yanked it into the air.
The minute the tires left the ground, he breathed a little easier. He climbed out over the
trees and leveled off five hundred feet above the ground—too low by FAA regulations, but Levi
knew that no one would report him; most people in town enjoyed seeing his plane overhead.
Gently, he banked left and then right, feeling the push of the wind against the control
stick and relishing the freedom of the sky, his sanctuary. He zigzagged across town, circled the
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 228.
water tower, and headed back toward his property.
It was earlier than his usual evening flight. Instead of being bathed in the golden glow
before sunset, the town was lit by the unabated spring sun. Under the scrutiny of the sunlight, the
town looked stark and plain.
Even in the air, Levi couldn’t outrun the loneliness that Cassidy had excavated from his
past where he’d buried it deeper than the fence posts. By filling his void of loneliness, she’d
made him aware that the void existed, when before, his only clue had been an occasional dull
ache when the wind blew through him, as it had the day he’d flown Cassidy over Wrangler’s
dorm. Now, with her gone, the void had ripped wide and even expanded by the loss of Rose.
Should I have told Cassidy that Rose is my child?
He firewalled the throttle and climbed.
His thoughts gave chase. What would she have said? done?
But Rose was his by blood only. He had no delusions otherwise. His agreement with
Marlene had been spelled out clearly: he was a sperm donor with no parental rights. It was a gift
of life to his close friend. They’d both assumed that he would play an avuncular roll in her life,
but would never be her father. They’d never envisioned Marlene’s death.
His thoughts turned to Marlene. Everything since her death happened so fast. He still
couldn’t believe that she was gone, her daughter—gone, her farm—gone, to Kellerman, who
would surely tear it down. His mind played out the horrible scenario: bulldozers pushing over the
house that was to him a second home, knocking over the pens that he’d built in the back for the
pig and the goat, tearing through the barn where President Carter had waited out a storm. He’d
always assumed that, one day, he would tell Rose that story. Now, thanks to Cassidy, that day
would never come.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 229.
Levi dipped the nose of the plane and gathered speed.
How could she sell it and take Rose away?
He pulled back on the stick and hauled the nose up…up…up…and over. He flicked the
stick forward and flew upside down.
As blood rushed to his head, so did a realization: she probably had no idea what selling to
He flicked the stick to the right and rolled the plane upright.
He replayed their final argument. With his eyes not blurred by anger, he could hear her
words and see the concern on her face when she’d replied, “You never told me.”
He pulled the nose of the plane vertical and dropped the throttle back to idle.
Even with this new realization, he was angry with her, and he didn’t know why.
The plane slowed until it hung, briefly defying gravity, nose to the heavens. He asked the
sky, “Why am I so angry?”
Ginny led Cassidy into the bullpen where the bulk of the staff worked in cubicles, waiting
for a chance at a job like Cassidy’s.
Ginny spoke above the din, “Everyone, listen up.”
The room fell silent and all eyes stared at them.
Ginny put a hand on Cassidy’s shoulder. “From now on, if you need to talk to Cassidy,
go to office twenty-nine B.”
Things were happening even faster than Cassidy had hoped. Ginny was giving her the big
corner office, Laney’s old office. Cassidy, caught by surprise, realized that she hadn’t reacted.
She forced a conquering Tigress smile to her lips.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 230.
When the clapping and congratulations faded, Ginny added, “Welcome to your new
office Miss Vice President.”
Cassidy had waited so long to hear those words. She’d worked countless nights and
weekends, eaten meals at her desk, even physically pushed and shoved for better shots at shows.
She deserved this promotion.
Why did it feel hollow?
She thanked Ginny with a superficial hug and a pat on the back.
This was it, the moment she’d been waiting for, but still, she had to force a smile to her
lips. She felt strangely devoid of emotion. When she’d dreamed of this moment, she’d felt more
excitement than she did now.
A few of the employees came over to congratulate her. She shook hands and hugged and
smiled, but their congratulations, and in some cases, cloying praise, didn’t make her feel
appreciated. Instead, she felt terribly alone. Yes, they said all the right things, but something in
their eyes, something that had probably always been there, but that she’d never noticed before,
left her feeling cold and distant. She didn’t know what was missing. All she could compare it to
was the way Rose looked at her. One glance from Rose conveyed more intimacy and closeness
than a thousand compliments from the people around her. She felt more appreciated, more true
adoration, in Rose’s eyes.
When it was appropriate, Cassidy retreated to her office. She thought for a moment that
she would cry. Don’t be silly, she told herself, this is everything you ever wanted.
Still, she was on the verge of tears. She felt as if she’d just climbed to the top of the
tallest mountain, witnessed the most breathtaking sunset, and turned to tell a friend about it only
to realize that she was alone. There she sat, atop her mountain, with her new corner office, and
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 231.
new title, with compensation to match, but she just felt alone. All Cassidy wanted was to be with
Rose, to hold her tight and maybe read her a book.
The thought of Rose pointing to the pictures of Harold and his purple crayon brought a
glimmer of a genuine smile to Cassidy’s face. Just like Harold, Cassidy had finally drawn her
perfect life, and here it was right before her—big office, promotion—yet still she couldn’t feel
happy about it. There was a gaping hole in the picture that her crayon couldn’t color in.
Cassidy leaned forward and looked at the slide of Rose. “My beautiful little girl.” Cassidy
spread the rest of the slides from that tray across the light table. She looked at the series of shots
of Rose—those pudgy little cheeks. Cassidy wanted to go straight to the daycare and tell her
about the promotion. She wanted someone who really mattered to hear the news, but that
couldn’t be Rose. How can a young child possibly understand? To her, the promotion will just
mean less time with Mommy. How can that be a good thing? How is that a good thing? Cassidy
She knew who she really wanted to tell, but also knew that she couldn’t. She wanted to
look into Levi’s unwavering intense eyes and tell him the good news, but he too probably
wouldn’t understand how hard she’d worked and how much the promotion should mean to her.
Should mean? Try as she might, Cassidy couldn’t feel the elation of her promotion. She just felt
empty and alone. She bent down and looked at the next slide: three ducks paddling across an
otherwise still pond. The sun glinted off wakes radiating from each duck.
She could picture Levi’s plane flying over the lake. It had happened only minutes after
she’d snapped this shot.
That’s the feeling, the elation, that I should be feeling right now, that crazy, giddy
excitement I felt in the air, tumbling through the sky, scared silly and loving every minute of it.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 232.
Cassidy remembered the two flights with Levi. The first one had been uncomfortable and
terrifying even though Levi hadn’t performed any aerobatics, but the second flight had been
shear ecstasy. The only difference—Levi. For the first flight, she had been in the hands of some
unknown pilot. For the second flight, she’d had total trust in him. In one short week, she’d come
to trust him more than she’d trusted Trevor after two years of dating. Something about Levi
made it easy to trust him.
In a flash, her thoughts darkened. Why didn’t he trust me? Why didn’t he tell me about
How could I be so stupid? Selling Marlene’s land to that jerk was the last thing she would
have wanted. If Levi had only warned me.
If there were any way out of the contract with Kellerman, Cassidy would scratch the deal,
but when she’d talked to Kirkman, Élan’s lead council, he’d told her the harsh reality: there was
no way out of the contract unless Kellerman defaulted, which of course, he wouldn’t. Kirkman
had had some good news though. Niko wasn’t pressing charges and wasn’t suing. Apparently, he
didn’t want the embarrassing situation splashed across the tabloids.
Cassidy never meant to hurt Levi.
Would she ever be able to forget the betrayed look on his face at the festival? It had been
such a good day until that point. For the first time in her life, she’d really felt like a part of
something, felt accepted, and the moment she crested the hill during the race, huffing and
puffing, and saw Levi waiting for her instead of defeating her, she felt cared for in a way that
exceeded anything she’d ever experienced before. She felt appreciated, cherished, nurtured,
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 233.
The nose of the plane fell off to the right and accelerated toward the ground. Levi pulled
the stick back stick and fed in some throttle. The plane flew straight and level, while his thoughts
whipped around. How did she get under my skin?
From the very first time he met her, she’d affected him: first like a punch in the gut, but
later, as he came to know her, she made him feel things he hadn’t felt in years, things he hadn’t
allowed himself to feel.
He rolled the plane over onto its back and pulled the nose through the bottom of a loop.
As the G forces shoved him into the seat and drained blood from his head, he was left with only
one thought—Cassidy. He tried to color the thought with anger, but couldn’t. He wasn’t angry
At the bottom of the loop, he eased in more throttle and yanked the stick back and over to
the side. The plane careened through a barrel roll.
I’m angry with myself.
Levi flew straight and level.
He could picture Cassidy sitting in the front seat with little wisps of hair flitting in the
breeze. Even back at their first meeting, he’d inexplicably wanted to touch her. He remembered
sliding the orange jump suit off her. How he’d wanted to go further. At the time, he never could
have imagined that one day, in a hay barn, he would get his chance to get to know all of her, and
he never could have guessed that the reality would exceed the fantasy. Cassidy was like that. She
always surprised him in ways that exceeded his expectations. He liked that about her. No, he
loved that about her.
The word lingered in his head. He hadn’t told anyone that he loved them since his parents
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 234.
died, not even Wrangler, not even Rose. If he could change one thing about his life, that would
be it. He’d go back in time, to the day he dropped Wrangler off at school, and give him a hug and
tell him that he loved him. At the time, Levi assumed Wrangler knew, and he probably did, but
that still couldn’t compare to looking him straight in the eyes and telling him. Levi wished he
had told all of them—Wrangler, Rose, Mom, and Dad—that he loved them everyday he could’ve
because, as Levi now knew all too well, tomorrow doesn’t always come.
He feathered the throttle and descended below the tree line. When the tires settled in the
grass of the north field, he realized that he couldn’t change the past, but he could change the
future. The plane rolled to a stop. Levi pulled off his headset and goggles. For the first time since
Cassidy left, he didn’t feel the breeze blowing through the hole in his gut. He knew exactly what
Cassidy pushed the final slide under the loop. In it, Levi stood beside the yellow
Stearman. Cassidy chuckled. She never would have thought she’d know that that particular plane
was a Stearman, built in 1941 to train pilots for World War II, or any of the other myriad of
details about flying that she learned from Levi. He had such a passion for flying. She saw that
same passion when he held Rose. The last two days of her stay in Gumlog, she saw that same
passion when he held her. He communicated more appreciation with a single look than Trevor
could with a thousand dollar gift certificate to Saks. Cassidy slid her chair back from the desk.
She felt cold and alone again.
As much as she tried to deny herself the indulgence, Cassidy knew that she loved Levi.
Not the negotiated type of love that she’d had with Trevor—her love for Levi made no logical
sense, but yet, there it was, pulsing through her veins and dominating her thoughts, crazy,
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 235.
irrational…love, which Trevor would have called “geographically undesirable.”
Just admitting it filled her with a childlike jiggle of anticipation, but that lasted only a
moment before her thoughts turned back to Levi’s look of betrayal. Even if she wanted to let
herself be swept away with her feelings for him, she couldn’t change the fact that she’d betrayed
him on the deepest level.
Still, a spark glowed within her heart, an irrational, selfless spark, which didn’t care about
anything except telling him she was sorry and falling into his arms.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 236.
Levi hadn’t flown with a banner in over a year. The plane felt sluggish, the controls, stiff.
He had never talked on the radio as much he did this morning. The area was tightly controlled. It
took all of his southern charm just to get approval to fly the banner.
A gust of wind jarred the plane.
He dipped a wing to make sure he was still following the river. Yep, there it is.
He coughed. His lungs weren’t used to this air. It smelled stale and burnt.
Levi patted the side of the cockpit. “Good job ol’ girl. I wasn’t sure we’d make it this
Cassidy hadn’t seen Rose this happy since they left Gumlog. It warmed her heart. Come
what may, she knew she was doing the right thing. She reached over and patted Rose on the
head. “But that’s the sound it makes—listen.”
Cassidy repeated, “But that’s the sound it makes—listen.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 237.
Rose sang, “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
Cassidy joined in, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Rose sang louder, “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
“Oh you pretty—” Cassidy tickled Rose and she squealed, “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
Together they sang, “Shitty Shitty Bag Bag we love you.”
They swayed from side to side in the back of the van.
“And, our, pretty Chitty Bang Bang, Shitty shitty Bag Bag loves us too.”
The driver stared at them in the rearview mirror.
Cassidy didn’t care what he thought. They sang even louder.
“High, low, anywhere we go, on Chitty Chitty we depend.”
Rose bounced to the rhythm. “Bag Bag Shitty Shitty Bag Bag.”
They sang together, “Our fine four fendered friend.”
Cassidy slipped Marlene’s camera from the case. The lighting was terrible, but that didn’t
matter. She leaned back and snapped a picture of Rose—one for the photo album.
When they finished the song, they started over without missing a beat.
Levi looked at the sectional on his kneeboard. He was coming up on a turn. He looked for
the bend in the river. There it was, ahead. I should be able to see the building soon.
He craned his head. There it is. He’d done it, crossed over nine hundred miles in two
grueling days. He looked back over his shoulder at the banner. It was tracking nicely behind the
There’s the building. He adjusted a little to the left. He struggled to count the floors from
the bottom to the top. He was looking for the twenty-ninth floor.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 238.
It took three counts to find the correct floor, but he did, and he descended to that height.
He was going to fly past, south to north, and then turn and come back from the other direction.
He was beginning to get last minute jitters, or maybe it was the excitement of what he
was doing. He comforted himself with the memory of how well this same stunt had worked for
Frank Kelly and the widow Mulberry.
On the first pass by the building, Levi stared at the windows to see if he could see any
people. At first, he didn’t see anyone, but then, a body appeared against a window, then another.
He couldn’t make out any faces, but there were definitely two people watching him. He
wondered if one of them was Cassidy. If so, what was she thinking?
The building disappeared behind him. He banked the plane and turned one hundred
eighty degrees. Again, he lined up on the twenty-ninth floor. One, two, three, four, five…there
were at least five, no…make that seven people pressed against windows watching him.
He raised his arm and waved. Almost in unison, all seven waved back.
Surely one of them must be Cassidy. He put his hand into his pocket to check his cell
phone. He wouldn’t be able to hear it, but he would feel the vibration if she called, but she
On the third pass, more people pressed against the twenty-ninth floor windows than he
could count, but still no call.
Levi checked the fuel gauge. He tapped it to be sure. He was already cutting into the
reserve needed to make it back to the airport. He didn’t like the thought of a forced landing in
New York City. He had pulled one off in Atlanta, but from up here, it looked doubtful that he
would be as successful. He would have to keep a close eye on the fuel level and hope that the
prevailing wind didn’t change.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 239.
He turned back for a fourth pass.
Almost everyone waved back.
He struggled to pick Cassidy out from the crowd, but couldn’t.
He reached into his pocket—still no call.
Cassidy could tell that Rose was getting more excited with every mile that the van
covered. Not long now, she thought. She felt as giddy as Rose, even though a voice in the back
of her head was whispering doubts: what if he’s still angry, what if he doesn’t feel the same way,
Cassidy ignored the whispers. That’s the old me, she thought, the person who planned
everything and calculated gains and losses. I don’t care about that. Only one thing matters now—
being true to myself, my real self.
She had rehearsed more versions of what she would say than she could remember, but
still didn’t have it figured out.
Her cell phone rang.
She checked the caller ID: Élan Magazine. Cassidy didn’t want to answer; she couldn’t
explain what she was doing or why and didn’t know how to respond to the flurry of questions
that would surely follow. She stared at the caller ID, then slapped the phone shut.
In her whole life, she’d never dodged a work call. Nothing ever took priority over work.
Things were different know. It felt good to slip the phone into her pocket, knowing that for the
first time, she had one thing…no, make that two things…two people, more important than work.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 240.
Levi tapped the fuel gauge. He felt the little twinge in his gut that always grumbled when
he took unacceptable risks in the air. His stomach worked like an alarm, and it was going off
loudly. He needed to turn back and head for the airport. He had already eaten up almost all of his
One more pass, he told himself. His stomach responded with a sharp cramp.
This time he flew closer to the windows than before, much closer than was legal and far
closer than was safe. The wind, riled by the building, buffeted the plane. He slowed as much as
he dared. He could see faces, lots of faces, and arms waving, but he couldn’t pick out Cassidy.
Still no call.
Cassidy’s cell phone rang again. She pulled it from her pocket and checked: Élan again.
Her resolve wavered. She wanted to answer the call, but she had to remain true to her new self.
Work comes second, or maybe even third. She slapped the phone shut. She debated turning off
the ringer, but what if Dad called? She left it on.
The airport shuttle van crested a foothill and Gumlog came into view in the valley below.
She hugged Rose. “Not long now.”
Levi tapped the fuel gauge. He had come too far to quit without an answer. He re-counted
the floors to make sure he was looking at the right one. By now, people on all floors were lined
against the glass. Why hadn’t she called or found a way to stand out? Surely she could signal
him somehow. He resolved to make another pass even though he had exceeded his fuel reserve.
Cassidy’s phone beeped. They don’t quit, she thought, as she opened the phone. This
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 241.
time it was a text message. She almost slapped the phone shut, but curiosity pulled her finger to
the keypad. She viewed the message.
Cassidy opened the attachment. A photo slowly rendered on the screen.
Cassidy recognized the view from her office window, but not the
yellow…yellow…biplane. Levi! He was flying by her office with a banner. She read the banner
slowly, because that was the only way her heart would allow her to. With each letter, her pulse
C-A-S-S-I-D-Y-W-I-L-L Y-O-U M-A-R-R-Y M-E-?
Levi’s phone vibrated. He veered away from the building in case the plane wandered
while he answered. “Hello.”
When he heard her voice, his heart skipped a beat. He had flown so far—through fog in
North Carolina, rain in Virginia, bitter cold in Pennsylvania—just to get to this single moment in
time, which would determine everything that happened next.
“Levi?” Cassidy sounded unsteady.
Levi immediately thought the worst. She’s going to say no. This was a stupid idea.
“Cassy? Wave to me Cassy. Cassy?” He scrutinized the windows but still couldn’t pick her out.
“I can’t,” she said.
Even though Levi had braced for the worst, her rejection of his proposal still punched
him in the chest with enough force to knock the wind out of him. “I understand,” he said, but he
didn’t understand. Had he so misjudged her? Doesn’t love, true love, always prevail?
“I can’t wave to you.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 242.
His disappointment turned to concern. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not there.”
Levi banked the plane and headed for the airport. A quick glance at his fuel gauge told
him that he wouldn’t make it. Crash landing for love was one thing, but she wasn’t even there.
“Where…where are you?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I said yes.”
“Yes to what?”
Cassidy spoke slowly and over enunciated. “I’m in Gumlog. Yes, I’ll marry you.”
Levi didn’t know how she knew that he’d even asked, but he didn’t care. She said yes!
He pumped his fist in the air and screamed.
“What?” Cassidy asked.
“That’s great. That’s great. I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
“Rose and I will wait.”
“I love you,” Levi said. “I love you.” He wanted to start their new relationship without
any secrets. “Rose is my child.”
Cassidy didn’t respond.
“Are you okay…are we okay?”
“No she’s not,” Cassidy said. “She’s our child.”
When Cassidy hung up the phone, she sat in total silence until Rose tugged at her arm.
Cassidy slid Rose onto her lap. Tears began to roll down Cassidy’s face. She could tell
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 243.
that Rose was confused and concerned. “It’s okay Rosie. Everything is just great. We’re going to
be a family.” Cassidy had never felt such all-encompassing joy. It eclipsed everything in her life
thus far. She knew that she had made the right decision, because for the first time in her life, she
let her heart decide instead of her head. “Everything is going to be just great,” she told Rose.
Levi recalculated his fuel. There was no way to make the airport and no closer
alternative. He had done everything possible: descended as low as practical, leaned the mixture,
eased the throttle to the most efficient cruise, and even tossed out his sandwich to save a few
ounces, but that wasn’t enough.
He flew so low that he was barely higher than the bridge ahead. He looked back and
wondered if the banner, which hung lower than the plane, would clear. It was at that very
moment, spun around in his seat, that it occurred to him. He yanked the release. The banner
broke free and drifted down toward the bridge. The plane sped up nine knots. He recalculated.
He was still a half gallon short of what he needed. He patted the cockpit combing. “Come on
girl. You can do it.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 244.
“He’s here, he’s here,” Cassidy shouted. She grabbed a printed email off the counter and
bounded up the stairs. “He’s here.”
Rose met Cassidy in the hall.
Cassidy swept Rose up and into her arms. “Daddy’s here.”
She ran out of the house, past the barn, to the edge of the north pasture.
Rose pointed to the Stearman. “Airpwane.”
The yellow Stearman descended below the treetops and settled onto the grass.
Cassidy stood on her toes and waved.
The plane rolled to a stop in front of them. After a final burst of flatulence, the engine
The normally pristine plane looked as if it had just returned from a mission over enemy
territory. Oil and smoke stains streaked the fuselage. The windscreens, the propeller, and the
leading edges of the wings were thick with the red and black innards of bugs splattered at a
hundred miles an hour.
Levi also looked battle weary. Oil streaked his goggles. Brown exhaust residue tinged his
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 245.
It had taken two days, but he was home.
Levi took off his headset and climbed from the cockpit. As he walked toward them, he
stripped off his goggles and let them fall to the ground behind him, and then his leather cap. As
he approached Cassidy and Rose, he unwrapped the scarf. Without a pause in his stride, he
picked up both Cassidy and Rose and carried them a few steps before stopping with their feet
still dangling in the air. His look told her everything that she needed to know, everything that
she’d ever wanted. What his eyes didn’t say, his lips did. His kiss lifted her higher off the
ground, or maybe that was just how it felt. “I love you,” he said. “I’ve loved you from the minute
I first saw you.”
Cassidy couldn’t wait to spend a lifetime in those arms. “I love you too.”
Levi gently set her down. He lifted Rose from Cassidy’s arms and flew her overhead
while sputtering airplane noises. Cassidy hadn’t seen her this happy since they left Gumlog.
When he set Rose down, Cassidy handed him the page in her hand. A single tear rolled
down his cheek as he read that Child Protective Services had closed their case on Rose after
determining that Levi was her biological father.
He wrapped his arms around both of them.
Cassidy didn’t know how everything would work out, but she knew that it would, as long
as she followed her heart.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 246.
“Is she having a good day?” Cassidy asked her father.
He nodded. “Getting out of the city was just what she needed.”
It had taken six weeks to update the plumbing, the electrical, and the appliances in the
little house at the front of Levi’s property. They’d changed it from a shrine, back to a home.
Cassidy’s parents had been living there for the last three months. The fresh air and open spaces
seemed to do both of them good. Her Dad deserved it after years in the tunnels.
“Are y’all ready?” Cassidy said. The second the words left her mouth, she gasped in
astonishment and then laughed. “This place is rubbing off on me.”
Rose looked so cute in her ladybug dress with a red ribbon perched atop her head.
Cassidy sat patiently waiting to be called. She had expected to be nervous. Instead, she
felt excited, but not jittery. Everything about the day was better than she’d ever envisioned as a
child. She spoke to Rose, “Are you ready for your job?”
Rose nodded with an expression of total earnestness.
Cassidy handed her a red pillow with a ring tied to it by a white ribbon. “You carry it just
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 247.
like this.” She placed it in Rose’s tiny hands. “When I nod to you, you hold up the pillow and I’ll
take the ring.”
“Yes, Daddy’s ring. And as the maid of honor, it’s your job to take care of it.”
A knock on the door interrupted them.
Clara and Mabel walked in. Clara held both hands behind her back. “We know that you
already have your something old and your something new, but we thought we’d bring you a
“Of sorts,” Mabel added.
Clara handed Cassidy a plaque.
The Pajic-Cody Barn
This barn protected President Carter
during a rainstorm in 1979.
It stands today, a monument to history,
protected in perpetuity
The Gumlog Historical Society.
Cassidy laughed. “This would get Kellerman’s goat. Too bad he’ll never come back here
to see it.”
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 248.
Thanks to Clara’s guile (with a little help from Mabel, Levi, the mayor, and Cassidy)
Kellerman’s plans to develop Marlene’s property had been thwarted by declaring it a Structure of
Historic Significance. He could still have purchased the land, but couldn’t build his theme park,
not if it meant changing the barn or the surrounding grounds. He backed out of the deal.
Levi had already begun to farm some of Marlene’s land. They intended to develop it into
a working ranch to give to Rose someday. Cassidy helped him when she could, but since leaving
Élan, she’d been busy photographing the area. Her goal was to capture the rickety barns and
abandoned farmhouses before time and the elements claimed them. What started as a hobby,
inadvertently turned into a booming business when Cassidy showed her work at a gallery in
Cassidy’s father stuck his head in. “It’s time.”
Cassidy looked up at a framed page from the New York Times. The headline read,
“Who’s the Lucky Lady?” Below the headline was a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge with a
banner hung up in the support cables—CASSIDY WILL YOU MARRY ME.
I’m the lucky lady.
Below the framed page, hung a cluster of framed photos: two photos of Rose sitting in
the nook of the old oak tree, two photos of ducks swimming on a lake, two photos of a weathered
old barn, and two photos of Levi standing beside his Stearman. The photos looked like a
montage created from a day of photography, but Cassidy knew otherwise. She’d taken only half
of the shots. The other half had been taken by Marlene shortly before her death and left on the
roll that Cassidy had found in the Nikon bag and had had developed at work, the other unmarked
slide tray. They’d both unknowingly taken nearly the same shots, seen beauty and value in the
same images, just as they’d discovered they had when they first met, in the darkroom at college.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 249.
Cassidy hung the photos on the wall to remind herself that she and Marlene weren’t so different
after all and that the real value of life was in the beauty of moments: sharing a laugh with a
friend, or a walk on a sunny day, or a flight at sunset, or a passionate roll in the hay. Under her
breath, she thanked Marlene for showing her what truly mattered.
Cassidy looped her arm through her father’s. They stood at the top of the stairs. An
endless row of white roses on either side outlined her path down the stairs, across the capacious
foyer, and then the roses ascended an archway under which Levi stood, silhouetted by the golden
evening sunlight streaming through the floor to ceiling windows of the great room of their house.
If they weren’t getting married right now, they’d probably be flying over the mountains
enjoying the sunset, as had become their custom this time of the evening.
The wedding march began.
A lone ladybug landed on Cassidy’s arm. She didn’t, not for a moment, consider swatting
it away. She smiled and, with the ladybug riding on the cuff of her sleeve, descended the stairs
into her future.
Ahead, Rose carried Levi’s wedding ring.
Cassidy, after kissing her father on the cheek, stepped under the archway of roses and
stood on Levi’s left. He took her hand in his. On Cassidy’s left, Rose stood ready with the
pillow. On Levi’s Right, Beau did the same.
Cassidy stared into Levi’s eyes and he into hers. Words and time flowed past. She
remembered little except those eyes in which she wanted to spend eternity.
“Do you, Levi, take Cassidy to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 250.
worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”
“I do.” Levi lifted the ring from the pillow in Beau’s hands. He slipped it gently over
“Do you, Cassidy, take Levi to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for
worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”
“I do.” Cassidy looked over to Rose.
Rose held the pillow up and then stretched onto her tippy toes.
Cassidy heard a few chuckles from the crowd.
She took the ring and slipped it over Levi’s finger.
She couldn’t wait; she leaned forward. Levi took her in his arms and kissed her.
The minister cleared his throat. “You may kiss the bride.”
A giggle swept through the audience.
“Good people of Gumlog, I’m proud to present Mr. and Mrs. Levi Cody.”
The crowd stood and cheered. Levi took Cassidy’s hand in his and walked up the isle.
Cassidy never felt more complete; not only had she discovered her soul mate, she discovered
Behind them, Rose and Beau were left standing under the archway of white roses. After
an awkward moment, Beau reached out and took Rose’s hand in the way that he’d seen Levi take
Cassidy’s. The two children stood facing the minister, as if it were there turn.
Y’all be sure to come back for another visit to the mountains of North Georgia to see what Rose,
Levi, Cassidy, and good people of Gumlog are up to in Roses for Mommy, the next installment
in the Rose Blossom Series.
The Rancher’s Rose/Novey 251.
Laura Lynn hasn’t seen Jake Bartram since the day he left her standing in the high school
parking lot with a backpack full of clothes and her savings and broken dreams—and a peanut
shaped baby growing inside her. She was supposed to go with him, to leave Gumlog Georgia
behind, but instead, she found herself left behind. She never second guessed not telling him
about their child, until six years later, when Jake rumbles into town on a motorcycle. But this
isn’t the Jake she knew and loved. This man is cold and guarded and in no way fit to be a father
for her child, Beau. She’s determined to keep her secret, even if it means denying the love she
still feels for Jake, despite his new attitude. Will familial love be the perfect salve for his deep