MARCH

 

THIS IS both the best day and the worst day of my life, thought Eddie Graber as he pulled into the long driveway of Meadow Lake Farm. The closing paperwork for his purchase of the twenty-five acre farm was on the pickup’s back seat, and the house keys were in his coat pocket. This had been his dream for years—owning his own place where he could build a farm sanctuary. Today should have been one of absolute joy. Except the person sitting next to him in the passenger seat was not Alex, his partner of six years, but Devin, his best friend. And that simple fact threatened everything.

“Oh. My. God,” Devin exclaimed as they drove up the long driveway. “Look at this place. Eddie, this is crazy! I can’t believe you bought this.”

“Yeah,” Eddie agreed, smiling despite his worry.

He’d looked at Pennsylvania farms online for the past three years. It had always been a “someday” thing, the way some guys looked at Jaguars and Ferraris. Then this farm came on the market, and he felt compelled to act.

This is it, a voice in his head insisted. This is the place. This is your sanctuary.

He used the entire small legacy from his grandparents for the down payment and took on a hefty mortgage too.

Everything about the farm was ideal. It wasn’t far out of town, but the house and barn sat well back from the road, surrounded by the farm’s acreage, so it felt like you were in the middle of nowhere, and the farm’s residents were unlikely to bother the neighbors. The six-bedroom farmhouse was a large old Colonial made of Pennsylvania fieldstone and superbly renovated. There was a pond situated down the hill from the house, perfect for waterfowl and wonderfully scenic. A huge old bank barn was in good condition, with plenty of room in its two stories for animals. There was a ten-acre fenced pasture and plenty of space on the remaining land for a vegetable garden, kennels, a visitor center, parking, or anything else Eddie might eventually want or need.

 

 

BUT MORE than any of that, the property was magical, beautiful, and serene. It was filled with magnificent old oaks, willows, pines, fruit trees, and berry bushes, like a tender oasis, evergreen. It was far lovelier than he ever dared dream. It felt… it felt like an incredibly special place.

There was only one small problem. Eddie had no idea how he was going to pay the mortgage now that Alex had dropped out of the project at the last possible moment.

“It’s so beautiful. It really is,” Devin murmured as Eddie parked in front of the house. He turned and squeezed Eddie’s shoulder. “I totally see why you felt you had to grab it before someone else did.”

Eddie smiled weakly. “It is. But can I admit I’m a little terrified right now?”

Devin pouted sympathetically. “I would be too. But you’re going to be fine.”

Devin always looked at the bright side. That was one of the things that drew Eddie to him six years ago when Devin had been a newbie in the art department at HarperCollins and Eddie had been an editor. But despite the fact they were both gay, and Devin was cute with his spiky dark hair, hazel-green eyes, and small mouth, there was never a spark of sexual chemistry between them.

Eddie took a deep breath. “Right. I’m going to be fine. Come on. Let me show you around.”

He opened up the house first, and they unloaded their overnight bags, leaving the boxes in the back of the truck for now. They walked through the house, their voices and footsteps echoing in the empty rooms.

“These two rooms are from the original house.” The front rooms had high ceilings, dark wood flooring, and mirroring fireplaces on the opposite walls. “There were two later additions.”

“Oh my God!” Devin said once more as they entered the dining room, with its twenty-foot ceilings and french doors overlooking the pond. “This is stunning!”

Eddie felt a burst of pride. “Yeah. Isn’t it? I thought we could use this room for presentations or meal service. Come on. The kitchen is this way.”

Devin was just as enthusiastic in the kitchen. “I immediately want to throw a party. Like, tomorrow.”

“I know it’s too big for me. But once the sanctuary is up and running, we may hold events here.”

“A double oven. Nice.” Devin opened one of the small oven doors. “God, Eddie.” He shook his head in disbelief. “This place is too much. I’m a little scared for you, if you don’t mind my saying.”

“I got a really good deal on it,” Eddie said defensively, and he had. Even so, he was nervous, anxiety tainting this amazing day.

The farm was too much for him. It was even too much for him and Alex, but he thought they’d grow into it. Once the farm sanctuary was up and running, they’d have volunteers, lots of people around, vegan dinners, events. They’d need the space.

But would any of that ever come to pass now? The thought was overwhelming. Alex’s rug-pull had really shaken him.

 

 

ONLY TWO weeks ago, after the purchase of the property closed, Eddie came home from work to find Alex in their small Greenwich Village apartment. He stood there in the middle of the living room with a tortured expression on his handsome face and his oversized travel backpack stuffed full at his feet.

“I’m sorry,” Alex told him. “I wish you all the luck in the world, Eddie, but this move just isn’t right for me. I’ve been questioning our relationship for a while now. And I think this is the right time to make a break. I’m staying with Bill and Chris temporarily. I’ve already moved my things.”

Eddie was dumbfounded. Not hurt, not yet. The hurt came later. “Are you serious? You’re dumping me now? Maybe you could have told me that before I signed a six-hundred-thousand-dollar mortgage!”

Alex had the decency to look chagrined. “I’m sorry. But you wanted the farm so much, Eddie. And I know you wouldn’t have had the guts to do this without me. This way at least you get what you want. You’ll make a success of it. I know you.”

“But you cosigned!”

“That’s all right. I know you won’t default. We can have my name removed from any paperwork later.”

Despite Alex’s reassurances, his desertion had the distinct air of a rat leaving a sinking ship, as if he thought it would all implode and he didn’t want to be anywhere near it when it did.

Why hadn’t Eddie paid more attention to Alex’s halfhearted enthusiasm?

It was true, the romance had been lukewarm between them for a while. But moving to the country together was supposed to fix that. And, true again, the farm sanctuary was Eddie’s dream. But Alex had looked forward to living in the country. He worked it out with his boss to be in New York Monday through Wednesday and work from the farm the rest of the week. He didn’t have a calling to run an animal rescue, but he was happy to support Eddie’s vision. That’s what he’d said.

Yeah. That and a dollar would buy Eddie a fifty-cent cup of coffee.

Eddie hadn’t only lost his lover of six years that day. He lost half the income in his budget. And Alex was the accountant, the one whom Eddie counted on to deal with the money side.

You were the strong one, Alex. The spreadsheet guy. I was the dreamer. Now who do I lean on?

Years ago Eddie visited a psychic his coworkers recommended. She told Eddie his spirit was divided. He had a very spiritual side and an equally strong practical side, and those two sides would war with each other, causing him to feel torn in two. Fortunately he was going to meet someone who was very grounded, and that would free him to let his visionary side soar.

He’d actually bought that, hook, line, and sinker. And he’d thought that grounded person was Alex. But… no. Apparently he was wrong.

Or maybe the psychic, just like Alex, was as reliable as most dreams—they vanished into wisps of nothing in the harsh light of day.

 

 

AT 3:00 P.M. on Eddie’s first day at the farm, a truck with a livestock trailer pulled up to the barn. The driver had texted Eddie, so he and Devin were outside waiting. Eddie swung open the large cattle gate near the barn—my gate, my barn—so the driver could pull into the pasture—my cows. Holy crap. It was hard to believe it was real. But the trailer was real enough as it bounced over the rough grassy terrain. He was about to take possession of cows.

“I’m going to wait over here,” Devin said nervously. He climbed over the railing at the barn so he was on the cement walkway, safe from whatever Cthulhu monster was about to come out of that livestock trailer.

“They’re just cows,” Eddie laughed. His excitement had returned. This was it. The first two residents of Meadow Lake Farm Sanctuary were here.

“Yeah. Herbivores. I get it,” said Devin dryly. “But they stampede and buck and stuff. I’ve seen rodeos. So I’lllll just wait over here. Try not to get your head kicked in on your first day as a farmer, sweetums.”

Devin’s eyes twinkled, and he was clearly joking. But honestly Eddie was a little nervous himself. The closest he’d ever gotten to cows was petting some at the Watkins Glen Farm Sanctuary up north. But his heart was filled with welcome and, if not with love, then with the anticipation of love.

Poor thingsGinger and Fred. You’re home now.

The driver, a large middle-aged man in a red baseball cap, had Eddie sign a form on a clipboard and then advised him to stand back as he opened a large door on the trailer. He led the first cow on a rope halter, bringing her down a metal ramp.

Eddie recognized her from her picture. This was Ginger, the momma cow. She looked wide-eyed with fear, having no idea where she’d been taken or why. Eddie hurried to open the gate to the barn’s end stall, and the driver took Ginger inside and slipped the lead off her. Eddie stood watching, wishing he could touch her but knowing it needed to wait.

Ginger trotted around the stall, sniffing and sending anxious glances toward the humans.

“Now for the big one,” the driver said. “She was fun getting in the trailer.”

He jogged back up the metal ramp, and there was a sound of an interior door. He reappeared with a large dark-brown Jersey cow on a lead. This was Fred, Ginger’s daughter. She was less tractable than Ginger had been, her eyes rolling with panic. She kept tossing her head, trying to shake off the man with the rope. In response the driver held the rope closer to her neck, perhaps tightening it. Eddie watched, intimidated. He had no idea how to do that.

Fred resisted moving toward the barn, eyeing the pasture instead. But then Ginger bellowed from the closed stall, and Fred ran toward it, practically dragging the driver along. Eddie barely had time to get the gate open before the half-ton animal brushed by him with frightening speed. The driver let go of the halter, and Eddie closed the gate behind her, his heart pounding.

Immediately Ginger began licking Fred. It was sort of touching, Eddie thought. His pulse was still racing. It was as if Ginger were trying to comfort her quite huge calf.

The driver went into the stall, got the halter, then slipped out again.

“Good luck to you now,” he told Eddie, shaking his hand. He got in his truck. A moment later Eddie let him out of the pasture, and the truck and empty trailer rattled off down the driveway.

Eddie shut the large gate. With the pasture secure, he had an urge to let the cows explore it. He didn’t want their first experience of the farm to be in lockup, so Eddie opened the stall gate and left it open. He moved to stand near Devin.

It was a nice day for March. The sun was shining, and there was a cool breeze in the air. Eddie and Devin watched as Ginger, apparently the bolder of the two, sniffed her way to the open gate, looked around, then took off in a shot, Fred on her heels. The two cows ran and bucked in the open pasture as if they’d never had such space before, as if they’d arrived in cow heaven. They danced out their wonder and joy for an hour, running all the way to the rear fence and then back to the barn, two cows racing around a ten-acre pasture.

Watching them, Eddie’s chest grew hot and tight, and he had to swallow repeatedly. This. This was why. This was worth it, even though Alex had dumped him. It was worth the big mortgage hanging over his head. It was worth it, even though he was a small gay man with an enormous dream that threatened to roll over and crush him in his sleep. Watching Fred and Ginger cavort free for the first time in their lives, he knew his dream had merit.

Devin leaned his head on Eddie’s shoulder briefly, and they both just watched the animals. There was nothing that needed to be said.

When the two cows finally came closer to the barn, looking at Eddie expectantly, he straightened up. “Guess I should feed them.”

Devin held out his hand, leaning over the gate. “Come here, cows! Yoo-dle hoo!”

Apparently the cows didn’t find Devin as hysterical as Eddie did because they ignored him.

Eddie went into the feeding aisle that ran next to the stall. He tried to open a fifty-pound bag of cow feed he’d picked up earlier that day but couldn’t figure out the pull string. He finally took out his pocketknife and ripped the top. He scooped two small piles of grain into the feeding trough, and Fred and Ginger ate it as though they were starving. They licked it up with long tongues that were gray and bizarrely huge.

Eddie tried to pet Ginger’s nose through the opening over the trough, but she shied away immediately.

She has no idea what to expect from you. Give her time.

He let her eat in peace and went back outside to rejoin Devin.

“You have no clue what you’re doing, do you?” Devin said easily, watching the cows.

“Nope. Not a clue. I’ve read some books, though.”

“Well,” Devin sighed. “I had a dog once. How much harder can they be?”

Eddie laughed. “Other than being ten times larger and not socially cued to humans?”

They’d be a challenge, but Eddie didn’t mind. He felt a fierce happiness at having Ginger and Fred here. Nerves too, yeah, but mostly happiness. After all, a farm wasn’t much of a farm without animals, and a farm sanctuary was nothing at all.

“I can’t believe you took them so fast. Only you, Eddie, would end up owning two cows before you’d even spent one night on your brand-new farm. You should have given yourself a few weeks to settle in, get unpacked.”

“I had no choice. The couple who owned Fred and Ginger sold their homestead two months ago, and they had no place to put them. They’ve been living in some guy’s garage ever since. A garage. He’s been calling me relentlessly, asking me to take them. He threatened to call a butchering operation if I didn’t get them soon.”

“Oh no!”

“Yeah.” Eddie rubbed at his breastbone to soothe a sudden ache. The idea got him right in the feels. “And the homestead they were on before that was tiny. I saw a picture of it. They were in a small backyard with an overhang for a shelter. The lady was milking Ginger after Fred was born, but then got bored with it. At least now they have a pasture with real grass and an actual barn.”

Devin slung his arm around Eddie’s shoulders. “Lucky cows.”

“I hope so.”

A flutter of nerves returned. Fred and Ginger were here, and they were counting on him. If the farm sanctuary failed, they’d be homeless once again. He sighed. “You have no idea how many animals in need there are out there. When I filed the paperwork for 501(3)(c) status, I had to be a registered farm sanctuary. And once I registered, my contact info went up on the farm sanctuary website. I’ve had a dozen emails already, people who need to rehome animals. And it’s only going to get crazier. I’ve already committed to three sheep, but that’s it for a bit, at least until I get my bearings.”

Devin hugged him tighter. “You’re just one person. As it is, I can’t see how you’re going to take care of this huge property, and the animals, and work full-time from home. I wish I could hang out for a week or two, but things are nuts for me right now. And not the good kind of nuts either. I’ve got two new ad campaigns kicking off next week.”

“It means a lot to me that you came for the weekend. This would have totally sucked if I’d been alone.”

“Alex is a douchebag,” Devin said firmly. “But you’ll find someone else. Someone better. I just know it.”

Eddie said nothing, but he thought to himself finding a boyfriend was the least of his worries. In fact, after what Alex did, he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to date again. The real problem was running the farm alone. And money. Definitely money.

Devin patted his arm like he was a kid. “Seriously. Things happen for a reason. You’ll be fine, and you know why? Because no one has as big a heart as you, and because all you want to do is help animals. You’ve got karma on your side and angels on your shoulders.”

Eddie snorted. “I wish I could believe that.”

“Just listen to your inner voice. You’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, like those guys who constantly predict the end of the world and then, hey, look at that! They’re wrong. Or, you know, Son of Sam. Inner voices don’t have the greatest batting average.”

Devin stuck out his tongue. “How can you be such a soft touch and a stone-cold cynic at the same time?”

“I was born kindhearted. The cynicism is learned behavior.”

“Ha,” Devin said flatly. “Well, maybe you should unlearn it, buckaroo. You’re running an animal rescue now. No cynicism allowed. I say we go crack open that bottle of wine and celebrate your new cows. Are you with me?”

Devin held up his hand for a high five. Eddie rolled his eyes and gave him one. “Yeah. Just wait right here. There’s one more thing I want to do.”

Eddie ran into the house and dug out a two-foot statue from a duffel bag, where he’d wrapped it in clothes so it didn’t break. He went back out to the barn and placed it in the nearest garden bed, digging the base of it in a little so it wouldn’t fall over.

“There.”

Devin raised an eyebrow at the terra cotta piece. “Isn’t that a saint? I thought you were Jewish.”

“It’s Saint Francis, patron saint of animals. My boss gave it to me as a going-away present. It’s symbolic. Or possibly a gag gift. Anyway, you’re the one who just told me not to be a cynic.”

“True. Well, I hope St. Francis brings you all the good juju.”

Eddie did too. Fred, Ginger, and dozens of animals he hadn’t met yet were depending on him.