She was pretty sure she’d
have felt this way even if she hadn’t been exhausted from
driving solo cross-country, roughly a couple thousand miles
farther than she’d ever driven before, and in a car she now had
serious doubts about.
It had been sold to her
by a distant cousin of one of her dad’s retired construction
company employees. The price had been right and the mechanic had
assured her it should make the trip to Northern California with
no problem. But maybe she should have had the car looked at by
someone more interested in inspecting the engine than in
checking her out, and one who wasn’t related by marriage to the
car’s owner. That was Astoria for you: on every corner a cousin
or an in-law.
And she’d been in a hurry
to get a set of wheels and go, convinced the only way to escape
the ghosts of the past year was to get the hell out of New York
and put the pedal to the metal. That was how messed up her life
Now she could add yet
another life lesson to her personal list. It wasn’t just marry
in haste, repent at leisure—but also buy a car in haste, repent
as your palms grew slick when the steering wheel failed to
respond at even the easy stuff, like switching lanes. The less
said about the blinding snow in Kansas and the car’s iffy
brakes, the better. Then there were the vehicle’s ominous coughs
and rattles. With each, her stomach had tightened.
But somehow she’d made it
to the Golden State, which on a cold, gray January day didn’t
look very golden to her and didn’t make her feel like shouting
“Eureka!” at the top of her lungs while she launched into a
quick jitterbug, or whatever the state dance was. As a
going-away present, Anna had given her a guidebook to California
that contained all sorts of trivia and factoids about the state.
Before Tess reached her current level of exhaustion (somewhere
around Colorado), she had studied the guidebook every night
after she’d checked in to yet another motel.
The town of Acacia, California, where fate
had decided she should go, hadn’t made it into Tess’s guidebook.
Hardly a surprise.
Acacia’s downtown had a grand total of four streets. A booming
metropolis it was not. She’d never been in a place so small that
“one-stop shopping” could be taken literally: Its post office
was housed inside the same low-slung wooden building as the bank
and a general store with a lunch counter.
To give it due credit, the
town possessed an offbeat charm. Who could quibble with a place
that had among its businesses an organic wool store that offered
knitting and weaving classes; a boutique that sold candles and
handmade jewelry, smelled of lavender and beeswax, and had
crystals hanging in the window, making rainbows that danced upon
the rough-planked wooden floors; a coffee and tea shop that sold
free-trade beans and brews and had the mellowest people behind
the counter (they must be drinking the decaf); a clothing store
that sold only natural fibers; a salon that offered all-natural
products; and a liquor store that specialized in wines from the
The merchants she
encountered seemed as wholesome and friendly as the items they
stocked. Tess had never heard “Right on” and “All good” used so
often without a hint of irony.
Acacia was just the sort
of place she might like to visit for lunch and a quick stroll
before heading back to a real town, one with bright lights,
buildings taller than three stories, and public transportation.
Its tiny size did have one advantage.
It took Tess less than an
hour to go door-to-door inquiring about a job. To be told in the
nicest way possible that she was flat out of luck.
Determined to leave no
stone unturned, Tess entered the beauty salon on the corner of
Main and Laurel. At the front desk a woman smiled and said,
“Hello, welcome to A Brand New Day. I’m Ava. Can I help you?”
Tess introduced herself
and then said, “I’m looking for a job. I was wondering whether
you needed a receptionist?”
“’Fraid not. I own this salon and, as you can
see, we’re pretty slow here right now.” She gestured behind her
to the three empty stylist chairs. “Can you come back in April?”
This was the same
response she’d received from every other storekeeper she’d
approached. They’d all told her that January was a slow period,
with very little traffic until the spring tourist season
“I kind of need to find
something now.” Or yesterday, Tess added silently. Traveling
across country wasn’t cheap. That dratted car drank gas like it
was going out of style, and she had a terrible suspicion she was
going to have to take it to a garage and get those weird noises
“What kind of experience
do you have?”
“I worked for an events
planning company in New York City for five years. So I’ve done a
bit of everything.”
“New York, huh? A
lifetime ago I lived there. I was nineteen when I came out to
San Fran with a guy. He went back. I stayed but eventually
struck north. For a while I hung out in Sonoma, but that got
kind of crowded so then I found my way here. It’s been
thirty-one years since I left New York. Is it still noisy and
“You’re fifty? Honestly,
I wouldn’t have put you above thirty.” She looked at the
skin-care products lining the wall. “Those products must be
The woman smiled. “They
are. We use local honey and beeswax, olive oil, and other
all-organic ingredients for the skin-care line. You should come
in sometime. I give a fantastic facial, if I do say so myself.
It would make you feel brand-new.”
Tess was excruciatingly
aware of how she must look after almost a week on the road. “I’d
love to, but I think I need a paycheck first.”
“Like I said, Acacia’s
pretty quiet now. Tell you what, why don’t you drive out to
Silver Creek Ranch and see whether they have any jobs? It’s a
big spread. They’re busy year-round.”
“A ranch? Um, I’m not
really all that familiar with ranching.” Even working at the
hardware store on Main Street—Wright’s, established 1949, she
recalled—would have been a stretch. “It’s a guest ranch.” Her
lips pursed in amusement when Tess looked at her blankly.
“It’s a working ranch. They raise horses,
cattle, and sheep, but they also have accommodations—you know,
cabins and a restaurant—for folks who want to come and stay.
Like I said, it’s a big spread, probably the largest ranch in
the area, and beautiful. With the vineyards close by, the
Knowles—they’re the owners—do a good business. They employ a lot
of the townsfolk. In fact, they pretty much keep Acacia alive.
Guests from the ranch wander into town and pick up mementos or
come in for services like the ones I provide here.”
Tess placed her handbag
on the counter and drew out the folded map of California and
opened it. “Would you mind showing me where this ranch is?”
Ava looked at the map and
then up at Tess, her black brows arched in surprise. “It’s here,
pretty much where you’ve X’d the spot.” She tapped a buffed nail
on the blob of green where Tess’s own finger had landed and
which Anna had immediately marked with a ballpoint pen. “You’ll
want to follow Main Street out of town. It joins 128. Go for
about four miles. On the left you’ll see a road, Bartlett Road.
Take that for another mile. Next you’ll see a sign for Silver
Creek Road on your right. The entrance to the guest ranch and
main lodge is about a half a mile farther on your right.”
Her finger had landed on
a ranch. Okay. Things couldn’t get much weirder. Pasting a smile
on her face, Tess refolded the map and slipped it into her bag.
“So I basically just head out that road and then make a left and
then a couple of rights?”
“That’s about it. You’ll
want to speak to Adele Knowles. She and her husband, Daniel, and
their three children run the ranch. Tell her Ava Day sent you.”
“Thanks for your help.”
“Hope you find something.
And remember to come back for that facial.”
Tess walked back to the post office where she’d parked, a walk
that took approximately three minutes and during which perhaps
five cars passed her. It was chilly enough so that only a few
pedestrians were about, but through the windows of the post
office–general store–luncheonette–bank, she could see a number
of people clustered about small wooden tables. It was obviously
the happening place in Acacia.
Reaching her car, she opened the driver’s
side door. “Here goes nothing,” she muttered, eyeing the bucket
seat with distaste. After two thousand–plus miles, she was
thoroughly sick of driving. But even though she couldn’t believe
there’d be a job for her at a ranch, it seemed like this was her
last shot at finding employment in this one-horse town. And
she’d promised Anna she’d do everything she could to find a
place to live and work as close to where her finger had landed.
Her conscience would never give her a moment’s peace if she
didn’t at least try every available option.
She hoped Ava Day hadn’t
been exaggerating about Silver Creek Ranch, and that it might
actually need someone with her abilities. She turned the key in
the ignition. An unearthly noise greeted her—a gnashing and
grinding of metal parts—and then nothing. The silence was even
“Oh, come on! Please,
please start.” She turned the key again and pumped the gas pedal
for good measure, since the car loved gas the way a vampire
loved blood. This time a high-pitched whine was added to the
cacophony. Then, miraculously, the engine turned over.
Okay, the car sounded as
if it had contracted whooping cough, but at least it was
“Thank you, thank you, I
love you, really. I didn’t mean any of those things I said in
Utah,” she whispered, knowing she was stretching the truth like
taffy but too pathetically grateful to stop.
Shifting into gear, she
pulled out onto Main Street and drove slowly toward the corner,
partly out of respect for the speed limit, partly because she
didn’t want to do anything to further annoy the car.
The miles crawled by.
Houses began to be spaced farther and farther apart and sit
farther back from the road. Tess followed the winding two-lane
blacktop past fields and woods. The road dipped and climbed, and
the houses disappeared from sight altogether. She was wondering
whether she’d misunderstood Ava day’s instructions when she saw
the sign for Bartlett Road on her left. She turned onto it and
then there was nothing around her but fenced meadows and trees
and mountains, their peaks taking ragged bites out of the gray
“Thank God,” she breathed
when she spied a small black-and-white sign saying “Silver Creek
Road.” It couldn’t be too much farther now.
The gates to the ranch
were on her right, “Silver Creek Ranch” painted on a carved
wooden sign that was nailed to the gate. The road became gravel
, and the pings of stones flying up and hitting the
undercarriage made it seem like her car was under attack. It was
certainly acting that way, coughing and wheezing and rattling
A plume of smoky dust
drifted past her and she frowned, her tension ratcheting up. The
road didn’t seem that dusty.
She was definitely going
to have to find a garage as well as a job. When she’d stopped at
the last service station, they’d had some info placards posted
by the gas tanks about stretches for drivers to ease their tight
muscles and sore backs and a chart to help identify different
bug-splattered carcasses on a windshield—California humor at its
finest—but no mechanic on duty to take a look at her engine.
She kept her eyes fixed straight ahead,
ignoring the long uninterrupted line of wood-and-wire fence
running parallel to the private road, ignoring the disturbing
noises erupting from under the car’s hood. Ignoring everything
but the fact that ahead of her a large timber and stone building
was beginning to take shape. Her destination was in sight. She
just had to get there.
The wheels of her car
rumbled over a small wooden bridge, bringing her within a
hundred yards of a big circular courtyard with trees and shrubs
planted in its center. That’s when she saw the man. He was
walking up another road that, like the spoke of a wheel, joined
He wore blue jeans,
cowboy boots, and a denim shirt. A dark beige cowboy hat, pulled
down low, shaded his face. She’d noticed a number of men wearing
cowboy hats in town, but this guy didn’t look like he wore the
jeans and a hat as a fashion statement. He must be one of the
ranch hands. Even if the guests at the ranch liked to dress up
like cowboys, she doubted they’d have so much dirt on their
She eased off the
accelerator, slowing to a crawl and then braking. Unfortunately,
the car didn’t seem to appreciate idling any more than it did
moving. If anything, the racket it made worsened. And those
wispy clouds she’d noticed earlier? They seemed to be snaking
out from beneath her hood. The sooner she found a place to park,
She lowered her window.
The car was filthy, coated with salt and grime that no amount of
squeegeeing could wash away. Now, with the barrier gone, she saw
with twenty-twenty clarity the man approaching her.
Wow, that was a lot of muscle. A lot of
seriously honed muscle if the way his jeans hugged his long
thighs was any indication. His belt buckle was at eye level, a
big oval thing just right for gripping. Dismissing this errant
thought, she forced her gaze up, past his flat stomach and broad
shoulders to the strong column of his neck. As her gaze reached
the flat line of his mouth, it stalled, and she felt her own
“Uh, hi.” For some reason
her voice was breathless. It carried no further than a whisper.
Nerves, she told herself. This place, the prospect of working
here, even this man, they all unsettled her.
Copyright 2013, Laura Moore
Do not reproduce without permission