Shelby McDonald stood in the midst of row upon tidy row of lettuces, a woven willow garden basket over her arm. Dew, shimmering like diamonds on the delicate leaves of the plants, was evaporating rapidly in the rays of the sun. The rich, dark earth was cool against Shelby’s bare knees as she knelt between the two rows and began picking.
She plucked some merlot lettuce from the ground, shook off the excess dirt, and placed it in her basket. It would go into the salad she was making for the St. Andrews Church potluck later that day. She moved to the next row and chose some heads of butter lettuce. Its smooth, buttery taste would be the perfect complement to the full-bodied flavor of the merlot. Plus, the pale green of the butter lettuce and deep burgundy of the Merlot would look beautiful together in the bowl.
Shelby had taken over Love Blossom Farm ten years ago, when her parents retired to spend their time traveling the country in their secondhand RV. She’d headed to Chicago after college, but city life hadn’t suited her, and she’d been glad to return to Lovett, Michigan, and the place she loved more than anywhere else on earth.
Shelby grew lettuces and herbs that she sold to the Lovett General Store and also cultivated a kitchen garden that provided her and her children with vegetables all year long—fresh in the spring and summer and canned or pick - led the rest of the year.
The speck of red in the distance was an old barn, where Patches, an aging calico cat, who was still nimble despite her advancing years, kept mice and other small critters at bay. Next to it was a chicken coop. Shelby kept a flock of cantankerous Rhode Island reds that squawked for their feed every morning but presented her with a stream of large brown eggs. Jack Sparrow, a bantam rooster inherited from an elderly farmer her parents knew, strutted among them, keeping order.
Her basket full of lettuce, Shelby headed back to the farmhouse. It was old, with worn gray shingles and plumbing that was in a constant state of disrepair, but Shelby loved it. She pushed open the back door and went through the mudroom and into the kitchen. She put the basket on the counter and filled the kitchen sink with cold water. Although she grew everything organically, it was still necessary to make sure the lettuce was free of any dirt or sand. She separated the leaves and put them in the water to soak.
Her computer was on a small table tucked into a corner of the kitchen. Shelby slipped into the chair she’d picked up at a going- out-of-business sale and powered on her laptop. She put her fingers on the keys and began to write.
Today is the church potluck fund- raiser. Poor St. Andrews is desperately in need of a new roof. Last Sunday it rained more inside the church than out. The St. Andrews Youth Group, under the direction of the Reverend Daniel Mather, who is beginning to look slightly harried, is erecting a large tent here on the grounds of Love Blossom Farm, and his wife, Prudence, is helping the Women’s Auxiliary as they prepare to set up long folding tables for the food.
As I write this, my house is filled with the fragrance of a cottage cheese pie baking in the oven and a huge pot of dill and wax bean soup simmering on the stove. I made the cottage cheese earlier this morning, and used the whey in the soup instead of some of the stock. There are dozens of uses for whey, a by-product of making cheese, and it’s packed with protein and vitamins and minerals. The house is so peaceful. The children are quietly occupied in the living room. Amelia is practicing her piano and Billy is working on his latest model airplane. It is amazing how well they get along even though Amelia is about to turn thirteen and her younger brother is only eight . . .
“Mom!” Amelia screamed suddenly in the tone of utter disdain that only a preteen girl can achieve.
Shelby took her fingers from the keyboard and rushed out of the kitchen to see what was wrong. Because Amelia’s tone made it very clear that something was wrong— of course, it could be anything from a wild bear breaking into the house and attacking them to the fact that she was down to one bar on her cell phone.
Shelby stopped dead in the hallway.
“Not again!” She cried. Dear Reader, Shelby composed in her head, I lied. The children are not playing happily together in the living room. No, indeed. Billy has gotten his head stuck in the bannister railing again, and Amelia is amusing herself by taking pictures of him and texting them to her friends.
If she was going to write a blog, Shelby decided, she might as well be honest with her readers about the crazy, tumultuous, sometimes frustrating, and often wonderful life she was leading on Love Blossom Farm—give them the good with the bad, because that was life.
“Billy, didn’t I tell you not to do that?”
“Aw, Mom, I didn’t mean for my head to go all the way through, honest.”
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to get it out this time,” Amelia said without taking her eyes from her phone.
Her curly blond hair and blue eyes made her look like an angel, which Shelby knew was a highly misleading resemblance.
“We’ve done it before, we can do it again. The ears are always the biggest problem.”
Unfortunately Billy’s ears provided no hindrance to getting his head through the bars, but they sure did when it came to pulling it out. It was a matter of tilting his head at exactly the right angle. After all, if he got it in, surely they could get it out again?
Shelby studied her son. Exasperation combined with a tidal wave of affection washed over her. She loved every inch of him—from his dirty feet that looked too big for his body to the freckles scattered across his nose, the tiny chip in his front tooth from the time he fell off his bicycle, and the cowlick in his blond hair that was as stubborn as he was.
Shelby put her hands on either side of his face and turned his head slightly.
“Ouch,” Billy yelled.
“He’s faking,” Amelia said with her eyes still glued to the phone in her hand.
Shelby grabbed the wooden railings on either side of Billy’s head and put as much pressure on them as she could. If they moved even a millimeter, it would help.
“Come on, pull,” she said. “Harder.”
“Owww,” Billy yelled again, but his head finally came free and he staggered backward. He rubbed the back of his head briskly, making his hair stand on end.
“Where are you going?” Shelby grabbed him by the strap of his overalls as he turned and tried to head back to the living room. “Not so fast.”
“But cartoons are on.” “It’s time to get ready for the potluck.” Shelby gave him a gentle push toward the stairs.
“I am ready,” Billy protested.
“You’re not wearing those dirty old things.” Shelby pointed to his stained and torn overalls. “Go wash your face and hands and put on a clean shirt and pair of pants.”
Billy grumbled, but he did as he was told. Shelby let out a sigh. That would end soon enough, when he reached Amelia’s age. Her daughter refused to listen to anything she said, and they argued more often than not. Shelby knew it was a stage. She just wished it would hurry past.
If the children’s father was still alive, perhaps things would be different, Shelby thought. William “Wild Bill” McDonald had lived up to his name—dying in a motorcycle accident on a rain- slicked road one night several years ago.
At the time, Shelby thought she would die from the pain of her loss, but over time the pain had lessened until it became a dull ache. Much to her surprise, entire days went by now when she didn’t think about it.
Shelby went back to the kitchen, hit save on her computer, and powered it off. She would finish her blog later. She’d started writing The Farmer’s Daughter during the long, lonely winter nights mostly to amuse herself and chronicle her little family’s life on the farm, but the blog had taken off and she now had a respectable following. She loved sharing recipes and cooking and gardening tips along with the challenges and joys of being a single parent and running Love Blossom Farm. If she didn’t post for a day or two, readers would actually e-mail her to ask if everything was okay.
Everyone at St. Andrews had prayed for good weather for the potluck, and it looked as if they’d been successful. Only the faintest wisps of clouds floated in the blue sky, and the breeze was soft and gentle. Shelby paused on her front steps. Even though she’d grown up on Love Blossom Farm, she never tired of the view of the rolling green hills of southwestern Michigan. She took a deep breath, savoring the scent of newly mown grass and fresh hay mixed with the faintest hint of manure. That last wasn’t a scent most people cared for, but to Shelby it smelled like home. And if the wind was coming from the east and Jake Taylor’s dairy farm, there would be more than a mere hint of manure in the air. It was possible to have too much of a good thing, Shelby thought.
Next to the farmhouse, with its welcoming front porch cluttered with wicker rocking chairs and pots of flowers, was a large pasture that Shelby leased to Jake. He kept a herd of black-and-white dairy cows and, in exchange for a reduced rent, provided Shelby with enough milk to make the cheeses she sold to the Lovett General Store.
When Prudence Mather had approached Shelby about holding the potluck at Love Blossom Farm, she had readily agreed to the plan. When Shelby’s husband died four years ago, members of the church had wrapped their arms around her and her family, bringing them dinner every night for weeks, stopping by to keep her company in those early days, running errands when she was still too dazed to drive. She was glad she could now return the favor in some small way.
The farmhouse was set far back from the road with a sweeping and fairly level front lawn bordered by a white fence. It was the perfect venue for the dozens of people expected to attend.
“Whoa,” someone yelled suddenly.
Shelby looked in the direction of the shout. The tent was tilting precariously to the right.
The women scurried out of the way, chattering like Shelby’s chickens when she came out with their feed in the morning. Daniel Mather, the newly appointed rector of St. Andrews, was gesturing wildly. He was decidedly sweaty now, and Shelby was pretty sure that he was muttering a couple of choice words under his breath, despite being a minister. She knew she would.
“Grab that rope.” He gestured frantically to one of the members of the youth group, a skinny kid with glasses. “No, the other one. No, that one over there.”
The young boy hesitated like a baseball player trying to decide whether to steal second base as he attempted to make sense of the reverend’s contradictory instructions.
The tent listed farther and a high-pitched scream went up from one of the women.
“Daniel, please be careful. You could get hurt.”
Prudence Mather scurried over to where her husband was trying to deal with the uncooperative tent. Daniel gave Prudence the same sort of look that Shelby’s husband used to give her whenever she told him to be careful. She’d seen other men do it, too. It was their I am a man and therefore invincible, so please don’t emasculate me by telling me to be careful look.
Prudence was wearing powder blue capris, with a flowered top and matching blue sandals. She would have been homely if not for her eyes, which were large and a deep, sapphire blue.
“Need some help?” Jake stepped over the fence separating the front lawn of Love Blossom Farm from the pastures beyond and strolled over to the group.
He looked more like a cowboy than a dairy farmer—dressed in worn jeans, a faded blue work shirt, and cowboy boots.
“Thank you,” Prudence gushed, squeezing Jake’s arm before scooting out of the way.
Jake studied the tent, then grabbed one of the ropes and pulled. Slowly the tent righted itself and a sigh of relief went up from the crowd.
“Got a hammer?” Jake held the rope with one hand and untied the knot anchoring it to the stake with the other.
Daniel rushed over to Jake and handed him a large hammer with a red handle. He stood back and ran his finger around his collar. He wasn’t wearing his clerical collar but was dressed informally in a short-sleeved shirt and khakis.
“Thanks. I want to hammer this stake in a little further. If you’ll hold this rope . . .”
Daniel grabbed the rope with two hands while Jake pounded the stake a couple of inches farther into the ground. Daniel handed him the rope. Jake quickly tied it to the stake and gave it an extra tug for good measure.
“We can’t thank you enough,” Daniel said.
Jake stood up and brushed some bits of grass from the knees of his jeans. He ambled over to where Shelby was standing. “You need any help with anything?”
He shaded his eyes with one hand and smiled at Shelby. She noticed that the expression created attractive crinkles around his blue eyes.
She gestured toward the crowd on her front lawn. “Thanks, but I haven’t been given any jobs to do besides bringing the dishes I’m contributing.”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t be of any help to you there.” Jake laughed. “My cooking skills consist of microwaving, opening take-out containers, and peeling the plastic off frozen pizzas.”
The thought of someday inviting Jake to dinner flashed through Shelby’s mind. She knew he found her attractive, by the way he looked at her and how he was always offering to do little things to help her out. She certainly found him more than attractive. Someday. She wasn’t quite ready yet.
Prudence came over to where Shelby was standing.
“What have you made for the potluck, dear? I read your blog all the time, and those recipes!” Prudence clasped her hands together and rolled her eyes heavenward. “They all sound so delicious.”
Shelby told her about the cottage cheese pie she had baked earlier that morning and the various salads she’d put together with produce from her own gardens.
“That sounds wonderful. I can’t wait to try everything.”
By now the women had the tables set up and covered in plastic cloths. Napkins, paper plates, and plastic silverware were set out, along with some flowers Shelby had picked earlier.
Prudence glanced at her watch. “I guess we should start bringing out the food.”
She looked toward the group of women for confirmation. One of them, an older woman with tightly permed gray hair, nodded approval.
“I need to know where your outdoor outlet is,” Prudence said, looking down at Shelby.
Prudence was of average height, but Shelby barely made five feet and even soaking wet wasn’t much over a hundred pounds. Amelia was already almost as tall as her mother, and Shelby knew Billy wasn’t far behind.
“It’s over here.” Shelby led Prudence across the lawn toward the side of the house. “I have extension cords and a couple of surge protectors, too.”
“I’ll need to plug in my slow cooker,” Prudence said. “I’ve made some meatballs.” She frowned. “I do hope they’ll be okay. The telephone rang while I was making them and in the end I couldn’t remember whether I’d put any salt in them or not.”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Shelby said.
She left Prudence to deal with her slow cooker and scurried away as quickly as she could. She noticed Billy had come out of the house and was wearing a fresh outfit. Never mind that the shirt and pants clashed wildly— at least they were clean. He was amusing himself by weaving in and out of the tent poles. Shelby looked around, but Amelia was nowhere to be seen. She was probably still in her room, polishing her nails or fussing with her hair.
A woman was headed across the grass toward Shelby. She was clutching a bowl covered in plastic wrap.
Shelby waved to her. “Hi, Jodi.”
“Hey,” Jodi said. She held the bowl out toward Shelby. “I brought some potato salad. I hope it’s okay—it comes from the General Store here in town. I just didn’t have time to make anything. I felt kind of bad when I saw what everyone else brought, though.” She jerked her head in the direction of the tables.
“It’s perfect. Everyone loves the General Store’s potato salad.”
“If you’re sure. You’re always posting those great recipes. Someday when I have time . . .”
Jodi Walters had a full-time job in the local dentist’s office, a husband who was a long-distance trucker, and three young boys to look after. It was hard to imagine how she found the time to sleep, let alone cook something for a potluck.
Cars were beginning to pull into the empty lot next to Shelby’s house. Among them was a small truck with Lovett General Store written on the side. It maneuvered into a space next to a red pickup. Shelby noticed Matt Hudson get out of the driver’s seat, walk around to the back, and open the double doors. He wrestled several large coolers from the truck. A couple of men rushed to help, and they carried them over to Shelby’s front lawn.
“Any particular place you want these?” Matt asked when he came abreast of Shelby.
“What are they?”
“Popsicles for the kids. Compliments of the Lovett General Store.” Matt grinned.
Shelby looked around. “Maybe under that tree?”
She pointed toward a large maple whose branches would provide some shade. It was so like Matt to think of the kids. She walked alongside him as he made his way to where she was pointing. He bent and put the cooler down with a grunt.
“We’re almost out of your herbed yogurt cheese,” he said, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
Matt had purchased the Lovett General Store from the previous owner who had operated it ever since Shelby could remember. He was slowly introducing some gourmet food items—particularly Shelby’s homemade cheeses and homegrown lettuces and herbs—amid the packages of macaroni and cheese and canned spaghetti and rakes, snow shovels, kayaks, and all manner of other things the store carried. The nearest big box store was forty miles away, so people depended on the Lovett General Store to meet their needs.
Matt always had a slightly sad look about him, but Shelby thought it was slowly lifting. He had come to Lovett to escape from memories of September 11. At that time, he had been working as an investment banker at a firm in Lower Manhattan. He counted himself lucky to have survived when some of his friends hadn’t been as fortunate. He had stayed in Manhattan for almost another ten years before deciding that he needed to get away in order to heal completely. Shelby knew he liked her and that with a little bit of encouragement would probably ask her out. Someday, she said to herself again.
“Looks like you’ve got a good turnout.” Matt shaded his eyes and looked around at the growing crowd. A line was beginning to form at the food table.
“Yes. I think Reverend Mather is going to be quite pleased.”
Peg Cochran also writing as Meg London..