He’d had such high hopes for Elverna.
He’d wanted to implement the practices of what a small family farm used to be before the chemicals and the crop dusters took center stage. He’d tossed out words like sustainability and diversity. He’d corresponded with scientists and agricultural researchers.
Thanks to her brother’s unbridled determination and persuasive passion, he’d gotten the whole town on board, ready to follow his vision. And they needed someone to lead them and give them hope after several farms in the area had gone belly-up, bankrupted after a few poor yields.
And while she couldn’t wait to leave this place and carve out a life of her own, she’d respected his dreams and supported him—despite his crappy choice of a best friend.
So, while Cal ignored her, Jamie listened.
Her brother never laughed when she talked of living abroad and experiencing life in a bustling, culture-infused city. He never shook his head or raised a critical eyebrow when she shared how she wanted to be idolized and famous, like the world travelers and fashionistas she followed on social media. The women’s glamorous lives and posts about exciting adventures fed her deepest desire to be more than just Mabel Ruth Muldowney, some farmer’s daughter from the middle of cow country.
She glanced out the back door and stared at the cottage—Jamie’s cottage—that stood empty, a stone’s throw from the main house’s back porch. Years ago, her grandparents had lived there. She’d never known them. They’d passed away before she was born. But it was a big deal when Jamie left the room across from hers upstairs and moved into the empty two-bedroom bungalow last year—a sign that he’d committed his life to the family business. A move that demonstrated a permanence and a promise that he’d continue on as a Muldowney, farming these three hundred acres just as his father and grandfather had done.
She couldn’t fathom how two siblings could be so different. It wasn’t easy to tell at first glance. On the outside, they shared the same dark hair, the same smattering of freckles on their cheeks, and the same blue eyes. She’d played around with adding a strand of hot pink or deep teal to her hair over the years, and Jamie had acquiesced once and allowed her to dye one of his dark curls purple. But when it came to where they saw themselves in the world, they were as different as night and day. Still, their bond was as strong as steel.
No, that wasn’t right.
The bond was gone.
The person she’d looked up to since she was a girl was dead.
She stared at Duke, perched on the cottage’s front step, one ear cocked, waiting for Jamie to return.
“I know how you feel,” she whispered, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, then wiped away another tear as she caught her reflection in the glass.
Her gaze went to the glint of rose gold at the hollow of her throat. With a trembling hand, she took the tiny letter M that hung from the chain between her thumb and index finger—a birthday gift from her brother.
She’d found the small white box on her chair right here in the kitchen after she’d padded down the creaky old stairs a week ago. She’d lifted the lid and had been enamored with the thoughtful gift instantly.
Rose gold was her new favorite. She’d told Jamie a few weeks ago how it was a hot trend. She could still picture herself, feet dangling from where she sat on the fence as she held out her phone to show him the website of one of her favorite fashion influencers. He and Cal had been working on the tractor. Cal had ignored her, of course. The guy had barely uttered two words to her in the last eight years—but not Jamie. Like always, he listened.
She’d thought nothing of that day—another afternoon on the farm.
Now, she’d never forget it.
She hadn’t been able to thank him. By the time she’d dragged herself out of bed at eight in the morning, what her father considered an ungodly late hour, Jamie was already gone.
He’d died a freak, sudden death from a heart condition they didn’t even know he’d had.
She released the M and sighed—a sad, resigned sound.
Nothing made sense anymore.
And this town responded with casseroles.
It was absurd.
Obviously, they’d decided that the best way for her to mourn the loss of the one person who was always in her corner was by training for a casserole eating contest.
This wouldn’t happen in London, Paris, or Milan—cultured places that the tiny rural town of Elverna couldn’t hold a candle to. There, no one would gloss over such a monumental loss with something as bland as Frito pie.
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