For twenty years, Owen Fortescue, a down-to-earth farmer in upstate New York, has had an on-again, off-again relationship with volatile New York City artist Kerry Ruehling. Now that same-sex marriage is recognized in New York, Owen wants to tie the knot. But Kerry responds to the proposal with instant, angry withdrawal. Owen resolves to prove to Kerry that, regardless of the way his family of origin has treated him, family ties don’t necessarily tie a man down. With help from his grown daughter, Laura, who loves them both, Owen hopes to convince Kerry that his marriage proposal isn’t a trap, but a chance at real love.
KERRY Ruehling came back to Blue Thistle Farm in autumn, a wild upstate autumn, where an invisible painter’s brush had run riot among the maple trees. Vermilion, he thought, naming the colors to himself. Hooker’s green, with a touch of yellow ochre. Viridian and crimson lake….
Farm stands selling apples and grapes, pumpkins and cider and fall mums lined the rural highways of central New York state. The air smelled fresh, with hints of wood smoke and hay. As the sun sank toward the rolling hills, the day’s balmy warmth gave way to a sharp and biting chill, the first breath of oncoming winter. Kerry was a city boy to the core, but he had been coming back to this place for two decades—his entire adult life, give or take a few years—and it surprised him how many of the smells he recognized, how many of the crops in the fields he could name along with the colors he might use to paint them.
He’d taken a Greyhound to Syracuse and then hitched the rest of the way, riding most of the distance in the back of a hay truck, the only vehicle that would stop for him. Before leaving the city, he’d covered his spiked hair with a hoodie and had taken out most of his piercings, but apparently upstate farm wives still didn’t feel comfortable sharing a car with him. Looking down at his fingers, clasped over the torn knee of his jeans, he noticed the black paint on his nails was getting chipped and ragged around the edges.
He would be forty-two in November. The thought opened a hollow in his stomach. Maybe it was time to scrape off the nail polish and let some of the piercings grow over. But he didn’t know what lay at the end of that road. There was no roadmap and he’d learned a long time ago not to think about it.
Then the truck’s old brakes squealed because he’d reached his stop. There was the sign—hand-painted wood mounted on a homemade plinth of mortared fieldstone. He grabbed his backpack and hopped down to the road’s gravel shoulder. The truck pulled out with a heavy grinding of gears, and Kerry dusted hay off his jeans and waved to the driver.
Twenty years ago, he’d climbed off the back of another hay truck on this exact spot. It had been early winter then, and he hadn’t eaten in two days. But he’d been warm enough from the bottle of cheap red wine he’d bought with his last few dollars. He had shared a joint with a fellow traveler at the last gas station, and the high was just starting to fade, leaving the world too bright and moving too fast.
“I paint signs,” he’d said. “I work cheap. You folks need a sign painted?”
He’d been coming back ever since.
Back to Owen and Laura.
That’s decent work, he thought, looking at the Blue Thistle Farm sign. Not his best, but good solid work. Even an expert eye could hardly tell he’d been drunk half the time he’d been painting it and stoned the other half. The painted thistles—phthalo blue, softened with a smidge of alizarin crimson—needed to be touched up, and the sign could use another clear coat before winter, but it had held up well over the years. His old signature was visible in the corner. KayRay, he’d been signing things then. He’d thought it sounded trendy, dumbass kid that he’d been in those days.
He turned his back on the sign, then stopped. Right. One more thing. In the abandoned stillness of the country road, he snaked out of his hoodie and reached into his backpack for the soft, slightly scratchy mass of the sweater he’d carried up from the city. It was a little too heavy for the evening’s lingering warmth, but he put it on anyway and then shouldered the bag.
Now he was ready to see the Fortescues again.
He began walking up the Fortescues’ long gravel driveway.
LAURA Fortescue was milking the goats when she caught sight of a familiar figure strolling up the driveway—thin as a rake, draped in an oversized gray sweater over dark jeans. Even if she hadn’t recognized him—and she’d have known him on a dark night, blindfolded—there was no mistaking the bold many-colored backpack slung over one shoulder.
She waved. After a pause, he waved back.
“Dad!” Laura shouted, spinning in the direction of the lamb barn. “Uncle Kerry’s back!”
Owen Fortescue appeared an instant later in the open barn door, wiping his hands on a twist of straw. Laura’s father was a solid, stocky man, his gray hair close-cropped, the sleeves of his work shirt rolled up to expose muscular forearms. He rarely hurried, spoke with quiet deliberation, and kept most of his stronger emotions to himself—a man economical of movement and words. Demonstrations were not his style.
But even from here, she could see him lighten, his back straighten. The air of calm resignation that always surrounded him in Kerry’s absence lifted, and perhaps it was just the glow of the sinking evening sun, but it seemed to Laura her father was filled with light.
She hung back to let the two of them have a moment, and focused instead on untying Lady Jane, one of the three Nubian goats they kept for milk; the goats were the last item on her chore agenda for the evening. “Go on, Lady,” she said, slapping the warm, sleek flank, and picked up the milk bucket.
When she joined them in the driveway, they were entwined, Kerry with his face resting in the crook of her father’s shoulder. One or the other of them saw her coming, and they separated with the alacrity of parents caught necking in the presence of children—even if the “child” in this case was twenty-five. Kerry gave her a one-armed hug. His other arm didn’t seem to want to let go of Owen.
“Hi, Uncle Kerry.” Laura set down the milk bucket to hug him back. As always, Kerry felt much too skinny; she could feel his bones through the sweater. Maybe her standards were skewed, though. As her father sometimes said, Fortescues were built like fireplugs, and Laura took after her father’s sturdy build rather than inheriting the willowy grace of the mother she knew mostly from old photographs.
“Is that the sweater I sent you?” she asked, delighted. “Stand back—let me see it!”
Kerry obligingly struck a pose and did a campy little runway-model turn, throwing his hips out. Owen laughed, and Kerry blushed as he smoothed down the front of the sweater, which Laura had knitted from 100 percent Fortescue-grown wool. Kerry looked tired—but then, he always looked tired when he came back to the farm. His clear, light-gray eyes, startling in his pale, pointed face, kept returning to her father, even when he was speaking to her.
“It’s just the perfect thing, Sugar. Thank you.”
“It’s a little too big,” Laura said, assessing the fit. “You’re too skinny.”
“That’s what you get for knitting on a Fortescue scale,” Owen teased.
“We’re not fat, Daddy,” she said primly. “We’re just practically built. Here, Uncle Kerry, I’ll take this for you.” She hooked a hand through his backpack’s strap and Kerry gave it up without a fight. He really did look tired.
“Is this still the same old pack?” she asked. Not that there could possibly be two of them. The backpack was smudged with road dirt and patched all over with a rainbow of different fabrics—bright pink satin, crumpled green crepe, faded denim, hand-painted canvas and, here and there, swatches of home-knit woolen fabric from Fortescue-raised sheep.
“Sure is.” Kerry reached out to twist it so Laura could see a familiar section of the pack’s original gray canvas. She ran a hand over it. Trees and flowers and smiley faces, scribbled by a child’s hand over a decade ago; she knew them by heart, even so worn that it was hard to make them out anymore. I love Kerry was still legible, printed in a twelve-year-old’s precise handwriting.
“It needs another patch,” she said, fingering a hole fraying through the edge of the canvas.
“It’s old, sweetheart,” Kerry said as they walked him up the drive to the farmhouse, Owen holding Kerry against his shoulder as if to keep him from vanishing into the evening air. “Sooner or later, the patches won’t help anymore.”
“Hey, some of us are only as old as we feel.” Her father’s tone was playful, and Laura wondered if she was the only one who noticed the way Kerry’s face went tight, his eyes hooding over.
“So tell me, you of the indeterminate age,” Kerry said with, Laura thought, slightly forced good humor. “How is everything down on the farm? The sheep are good?”
Owen needed no further urging to talk about sheep. “We introduced Merino bloodlines into the flock this year. I told you that in my emails, right? We decided to shear the Merino-Cotswold crosses for lamb’s wool this fall. Just got it done last week. It’s some of the finest wool we’ve ever grown here. Laura scoured it today—washed the fibers, that is.”
“And I’ve still got the wet knees to prove it,” Laura said. “He means fine in terms of fiber width, you know, Uncle Kerry—microns—not objective quality. It’s just a softer wool than most of our sheep produce.”
“Soft as clouds,” Owen said. “I don’t know whether to sell it as fleece or spin it up.” His big, square hand, resting on Kerry’s hip, twitched unconsciously; the thumb and forefinger moved as if drafting out fiber to spin.
“You know you want to spin it,” Laura said. She was only making idle conversation now, because she could feel the vibrating energy in the air, the tension between them, even though they hadn’t so much as kissed yet. Their world was narrowing to encompass only the two of them, shutting her out. She shifted the pack hanging over her shoulder and tried to remind herself she’d had her father all to herself for six months, and she was a big girl, too old to resent it when his attention turned elsewhere.
“Uncle Kerry,” she said, and continued when he dragged his pale eyes away from Owen, “I’ll take your bag up to your room, all right? Dad, I was just going to reheat the leftover roast for dinner. Stick some potatoes in the microwave, and there’ll be enough for three people, easy.”
“Notice she’s leaving us alone,” Kerry said behind her. “I think your baby’s all grown up, honey.”
Owen laughed. “She’s been grown up for a while now.”
“I’m surprised you noticed, Daddy,” Laura tossed over her shoulder, laughing and feeling a bit more lighthearted. She left the milk bucket in the sink for her father to deal with and toed off her muddy boots at the foot of the stairs.
The Fortescue house was a two-story farmhouse, one of the original buildings on the farm. Laura’s parents had bought it before she was born, and after a lifetime within its dark-paneled walls, she knew the old place as well as her own face in the mirror—from the second-floor bathtub’s leaky stopper to the loose riser on the third step from the bottom. She hopped over the creaky step and padded up to the second-floor hallway.
The spare bedroom on the second floor had been “Kerry’s room” for a long time now. Stale air greeted her when she opened the door, along with a faint chemical smell of old paints. Kerry didn’t keep a whole lot here, but he’d acquired a few things over the years. A roll of unprimed canvas leaned against the wall, with cardboard boxes of paints and brushes stacked neatly beside it. There was a toothbrush on the nightstand beside a lamp Kerry had obtained at a garage sale and then turned into a found-object sculpture.
Most of the house was decorated in what Laura jokingly referred to as Early Farmhouse—heavy antique furniture, patchwork quilts, family photos—but this room… in this room, her father had told Kerry, “Go wild, make yourself at home,” and he’d meant it.
The dark old wood had been stripped and painted with vivid, flowing murals. Laura dropped the backpack on the bed and tipped her head back to look at the skyscape above her. It was a feast for the eyes, featuring stars and planets, birds and dragons and dragonflies, space shuttles trailing cartoony swirls of rocket fire, a moon with an American flag and a McDonald’s on it.
She lowered her gaze to the walls, where a kaleidoscope of imagery marched around the room. New York City’s angular skyline blended into a fairy-tale forest, which then became a scene of desolation with factories belching smoke and trees cut to stumps, dead fairies scattered like fallen leaves. The next part was painted over but she remembered what had been there—a viciously satirical Iraq war mural—and part of it had become an abstract composition of blues, greens, and violets. The rest was blank and ready for something new. Kerry’s projects were forever in flux, never quite completed. He changed styles and subject matter as readily as he changed the color of his nail polish, dropping one half-completed project when another burst of inspiration or political fury hit him.
The bed needed to be made up, although Laura suspected Kerry would spend most of his time in her father’s bedroom anyway. She opened the window to let in some fresh air, struggling as the sliding lower half of the old window stuck on layers of antique paint. Holding back the drapes, she looked down at the rolling pastureland of Blue Thistle Farm, dotted with the grazing Cotswold and Border Leicester sheep that were the farm’s lifeblood.
There were sheep in the murals, too, if you looked closely enough, peeping out from behind the trees in the forest, wandering down the streets of Manhattan, even floating like puffy little clouds among the birds on the ceiling. Kerry’s life, Kerry’s aesthetic, entwining with theirs, spun together like different-colored strands of wool.
From the bedroom window, she could see some of the murals on the outbuildings. Kerry painted on anything that would hold still long enough—she’d heard her father tell him affectionately it was only a matter of time before he tried to paint a mural on a particularly lazy sheep.
Most of the farm’s barns and other outbuildings bore half-finished murals, displaying equal parts beauty and anger. Laura loved some of them, but others disturbed her, like the one on the back of the hayshed—Manhattan sinking in an ocean of blood.
Now what’s this? she thought, catching a glimpse of her father’s stocky figure vanishing behind the main sheep barn—sans Kerry. They couldn’t possibly have had time to fight already, could they?
She left the door open for further airing of the room, made a mental note to make the bed later, and went back downstairs. Kerry was alone in the kitchen. He’d shed his sweater in the warmth of the house, and he was humming quietly to himself as he sliced roast beef onto a plate. He didn’t look upset. Perhaps whatever had happened between him and her father wasn’t too bad.
“I leave you crazy kids alone…,” she said, feeling obscurely guilty, as if her own irrational jealousy had caused Owen to leave. She and her father were together so much that there was, at times, an almost psychic rapport between them. He could have picked up on her emotions and withdrawn. “Where’s Daddy?”
“I don’t know where your father went,” Kerry said, not sounding particularly curious. “He started mumbling about something he had to do and ran off.”
Laura tried to squash her guilt and reached for the morning’s fresh-baked seed loaf in the antique breadbox on the countertop. Her father loved old things. He hadn’t grown up in this house, but he’d filled it with antiques, purchased cheaply in terrible condition and refinished with loving care. Laura had often thought her father was no less an artist than Kerry, in his own way. He loved to take broken things and make them look new again.
“Typical,” she said. “I hope he’s got a good excuse.”
Just a lovely story about a long-term, nontraditional couple.
Read the full review at
I loved the idea of two mature gay characters in a novel and jumped at the opportunity for an ARC when offered. This book didn't disappoint my expectations. And while it's not a romance in the traditional sense, it had plenty of moments filled with powerful emotions. No, I'm not talking about sex.
Owen is a widowed farmer who's been raising his daughter Laura on his own for over 25 years. For about 20 of those 25, he's also quietly and steadily carried on a love affair with Kerry, a free-spirited artist fighting many inner demons.
Owen is in his fifties and like many of his generation (my own dear husband included), he doesn't like to talk about his emotions and can't often find the words to express them. He quietly loves his daughter, quietly loves Kerry and quietly loves the land he owns. He's portrayed as the typical gentle male whose still waters run deep and hide the many complexities of his character.
Kerry, on the other hand, is a broken, damaged soul, still pained by the losses of friends in the 90s due to the AIDS epidemic, and reluctant to settle down with Owen on the quiet farm. He loves Owen in his own way, but is afraid to admit that he needs him and instead chooses to run whenever the going gets tough. A lot of his characterization is realistic and very much understandable, as his background information is slowly released, but I still found him to be rather on the selfish side, though I made a concession and considered that his selfishness was a protective measure due to lack of trust, and the hurt he's gone through.
I very much liked the characterization of Laura, Owen's daughter, who didn't have all the answers but genuinely loved both her father and her "uncle" Kerry, who's been a fixture in her life for 20 years, no matter that he doesn't actually live with them, and they only see him every so often (when NYC gets too loud and Kerry needs to escape).
There isn't much action to the story, and both men struggle with communication and honesty, fearful of saying too much or opening up too much, thus inviting more pain. There is a cataclysm towards the end that shows Kerry something he hadn't realized before, and we get a satisfying ending to the book.
The writing was very good, flowing nicely, and really invoking the emotions as intended. You could feel Kerry's pain and desperation, Owen's confusion and fears, and Laura's exasperation with both of them.
Also, as far as M/M romances go, this book is very much on the PG side of things. Nary a scene, and none explicit. It didn't suffer for it though, because the author managed just fine without them to make this reader feel the depth of their connection.
A lovely introduction to this new to me author, but definitely not the last time I pick up one of her books.
Please note: I received a free ARC from Dreamspinner Press. A positive review was not promised in return.
Chevalier by Mary Calmes eBook
Loaded for Bear by Cheyenne Meadows eBook
Beauty, Inc. by Tara Lain eBook
Love in Retrograde by Charlie Cochet eBook
There You Are by CJane Elliott eBook
Not Just Passing Through by Jamie Dean eBook
Wyatt's Recipes for Wooing Rock Stars by Clancy Nacht and Thursday Euclid eBook
Sand-Man's Family by CJane Elliott eBook
Jewel Cave by Elizabeth Noble eBook
I Experimented Once in College by Aishlar Snow eBook
Requires site membership
Wolfsong by TJ Klune Paperback