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 had become.
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 nearby vineyards?
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 started.
“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 checked out.
“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 dirty?”
“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 awfully good.”
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 more nerve-racking.
“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 running.
“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 sky.
“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 ominously.
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 the courtyard.
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 jeans.
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, the better.
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 smile slip.
“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