Chapter One

 

OSCAR KENNEDY sat at his dining room table and stared at his cell phone, then glanced again at the business card beside it on the table. He’d read the card so many times in the last month, he didn’t need it anymore—he had the damn number memorized. There was no reason not to make the call, but he’d procrastinated for weeks anyway. He’d asked himself why a hundred times over and hadn’t found an answer. Maybe it was because he’d grown up in that house. Maybe he wasn’t ready to close the book on his father’s life. Maybe he didn’t want to let anything else he cared about go.

But ready or not, without Dad living there, the old farm was costing him money in utilities, wages, taxes, and general upkeep every month it sat empty, and he had mouths in his own house to feed. He’d thought about it long and hard. He’d even thought about moving the family out there, but he just couldn’t find a way to make it work.

All right. Enough. He had to make the call. He took a deep breath, picked up his phone, and dialed.

“Jeffrey Stokes Realty. This is Janie. Can I help you?”

Jesus, that was quick. The phone had barely rung on his end. He fought a strong urge to hang up, and cleared his throat. “Uh, yes. Hello. My name is Oscar Kennedy. Bob Keller gave me one of Mr. Stokes’s business cards and suggested I call him about selling my father’s farm out in Lancaster County. Is he available?”

“One moment please, Mr. Kennedy.”

The Realtor’s hold music wasn’t bad. It sounded like the actual radio, tuned to an eighties rock station. Oscar tapped his fingers—decorated with pink sparkly nail polish—in time to Duran Duran and smiled as he discovered he remembered all the words.

The receptionist picked up again, and the music ended. “Mr. Kennedy?”

“Yes?”

“May I please get your number? Mr. Stokes is on another call, but he would very much like to speak with you.”

“Uh, sure.” He gave her his cell number, thanked her, and hung up with a sigh.

Wasn’t that just his luck? He’d finally gotten up the nerve to make the damn call and the Realtor wasn’t available. Now he’d have to find the courage all over again to actually pick up the phone when the guy—if the guy—called him back.

“Dinner will be ready shortly, Oscar.”

“Thank you, Rose.” Oscar stood and stuffed his phone and the business card into his back pocket.

“So… were you able to reach the Realtor?”

He knew she was going to ask. Hell, that was probably the only reason she’d come into the dining room. He leaned toward her, smiling indulgently. “Yes, Rose. I made the call.”

“Honestly, that wasn’t what I—”

“That was exactly what you meant,” he interrupted, smiling at the woman he’d come to think of as his own mother. “You and I both know it.” He bent down and kissed her on the forehead. “Hopefully he’ll get back to me. He wasn’t able to take my call.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, darling. That is frustrating.”

Oscar shrugged. “It’ll get done. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to visit the nail spa.” He waggled his pink fingers at her.

“You’re such a good sport.”

“The things I do for love.” Oscar left the dining room and headed through the living room and upstairs. “Riley, honey? Did you find the polish remover?”

“Yes! You want me to bring it downstairs?”

Oscar stuck his head into the twins’ room. “Nope, I’m here.”

“Oh! Come sit, Oz,” Riley said, smiling and patting the little stool that went with the vanity the girls shared. “Sit, sit. Right here.”

“Zoe, go on down and help your grandmother set the table for dinner, please?”

“It’s not my turn. It’s Sophie’s!” Zoe pouted at him.

“Well, all right, then. Please go tell Sophie I asked her to do it?”

“Okay!” Zoe ran out of the room, shouting Sophie’s name, and Oscar carefully took a seat on the little stool and let Riley start to remove his nail polish.

“I’m sorry you didn’t like the pink.”

“Oh, no. I loved the pink. I just have a meeting tomorrow, and I don’t want to distract my client with the beautiful sparkles.”

Riley nodded seriously. “I understand. Would you like something less sparkly instead?”

“Not tonight, baby, but thank you. Maybe over the weekend?”

Riley beamed at him. “Okay!”

God, he loved that smile. Riley and Zoe both had it, and it was Emmett all over—the wide lips and the dimples. The twins looked just like their dad, whereas Sophie and Emily looked more like Linda, their mother. She was killed in a car accident when they were very young, and he had only ever seen pictures, but their eyes were definitely hers.

It was hard to believe that he—that they—had lost Emmett nearly three years ago. The year leading up to Emmett’s death had seemed like an eternity, but somehow the three since had practically evaporated. He honestly didn’t know what he’d have done if Emmett’s mother hadn’t insisted he allow her to move in and help with the girls. He and Rose had joked, since the first time Emmett introduced them over dinner, that something had to be wrong that he actually got along with his mother-in-law. Despite her own unimaginable grief, she had been an absolute godsend through those excruciating first days and every single day since. Being together had been good for them both. It had to have been impossibly painful to lose a son, likely even more impossible than losing a husband, and they’d been able to grieve together, but they both knew they had to get up in the morning and soldier on for Emmett’s girls.

The girls were growing up now too. They’d seemed so young when Emmett passed away, but now Emily and Sophie were seventeen and fifteen, and the oopsy twins, Riley and Zoe, had just turned ten and were still sweet as anything.

“Oz?”

“Hm?” Oscar blinked. “I’m sorry, baby. Did you say something?”

“I said you’re all done.”

“Oh! Well, look at that. Thank you so much.” He leaned over and kissed Riley on the cheek.

“Maybe purple next time?”

“Perfect.”

“Dinner!” Sophie shouted from downstairs.

“Coming!” Riley and Oscar shouted back together. They laughed their way out of the bedroom and down the hall. Oscar knocked on Emily’s door on the way by. “Dinner, Emily.”

“I heard.”

Oscar just shook his head and headed downstairs.

Rose had made her famous baked ziti, everyone’s favorite. There was a huge pan of it sitting in the middle of the table, along with some garlic bread and a big bowl of broccoli.

Sophie was putting out milk for her sisters, and Rose was setting down a glass of iced tea for herself.

“Can I get you a glass of wine, Oscar?” she asked.

“Thank you. You sit down and eat, Rose. I can get it.”

“Ziti! Oh, it smells really good, Gram.”

Oscar had to look back over his shoulder to be sure, but yes, that was in fact Emily’s voice.

“Have a seat, dear. Dig right in.”

Oscar poured himself a small glass of wine and joined his family at the table. “Everyone got their homework done?”

The answer was a chorus of yeses.

“Good. So, thorns?” He looked at Riley. “Go.”

“Bobby kicked me at recess. Not on purpose but it hurt.”

“I’m sorry, baby. Is it better now?”

Riley nodded. “Gram gave me ice.”

“Excellent. Zoe?”

“I can’t find my favorite hair tie.”

“The pink-and-white striped one?” Rose asked.

“Yeah.”

“I washed it, sweetheart. It’s in the bathroom drying for you.”

“Oh! Thank you, Gram!”

Oscar nodded approvingly. “Thorn to a rose. Boom. I like it. Sophie?”

Sophie sighed and answered in her shy voice. “I had a math test today. It was hard.”

“I was going to ask about that. Hard like bad?”

“No, just hard. I was the last one to finish.”

He smiled at her. Sophie was a good student, but she needed a lot of encouragement. “No worries, Soph. It’s good that you didn’t rush.” He looked over at the last one, knowing already what she’d say. “Aaaand… Emily?”

Emily shrugged. “Same as usual.”

“School is boring and you have no life?”

“Pretty much.”

“I like the consistency.” There wasn’t any point in forcing her to play along. It just made everyone aggravated. “Now roses. Riley.”

Riley started, “Zoe and I—”

“Got to pet puppies this morning!” Zoe finished for her, bouncing in her seat.

Riley continued, equally enthusiastic, “They were at school today.”

“They were so cute!”

“How cool is that?” No, they were not getting a puppy. He moved on quickly before either twin could ask. “Sophie?”

“Um. I bought a new journal on the way home from school.”

“You really like the writing, huh?”

Sophie nodded at him. “I got a cool pen too.”

“Nice. The right pen can be inspiring. So….” Dare he ask? “Emily?”

“This is my favorite dinner. Thank you, Gram.”

Oh. That was so unexpected and sweet it made his heart ache. Every so often Emily showed them a tiny, little bit of the lovely young lady he knew was in there, if a bit repressed by teenage hormones.

“Thank you, lovey.” Rose smiled at Emily and patted her hand. Their grandmother made dinner every single night of the week. It was nice that the girls said thank you spontaneously once in a while. Oscar said it all the time, but he knew it wasn’t quite the same as when the girls were happy.

“I think I’m headed out to Grampa’s farm this weekend if anyone wants to go with me,” he said, not really expecting anyone to be interested. The girls didn’t have much attachment to the place. “It will be going up on the market soon, so I don’t know how many more chances you’ll get.”

Looking back, he wondered if maybe he should have made more time for the family to spend out at the farm with Dad, with the horses. But back when Emmett asked him to move in, the girls were still young, especially the twins. Emmett had worked very hard to create routine and stability for them after Linda died and adding Oscar to the mix was another big adjustment for them. Emmett wanted them to spend weekends at home together, trying to find the family’s new normal.

That was one of many reasons he’d decided not to keep the farm and sell this place. The farm was in the middle of nowhere, and this was a busy neighborhood with lots of kids, biking distance from town. The girls had very few memories out there, especially since Emmett died and Dad got sick. Why would they want to move?

Hopefully he’d be meeting the Realtor there, but either way he had to talk with Russ about getting the farm ready to sell.

He got some version of maybe from all of them, and he thought about trying to persuade them, but his cell phone rang, interrupting him. He didn’t answer the phone during dinner as a rule, but tonight he was expecting the Realtor, and he really didn’t want to play phone tag.

“It’s him,” he said to Rose. “I’m sorry.”

“Go on, Oscar. It’s okay.”

He nodded and answered the phone as he headed into the kitchen. “Hello?”

“Mr. Kennedy?”

“This is Oscar, yes.” Not that anyone confused him with his father anymore.

“Mr. Kennedy, this is Jeffrey Stokes returning your call.”

“Yeah, hey. Thank you for getting back to me so quickly, Mr. Stokes.”

“Please call me Jeffrey, and I was very glad to hear from you. Bob Keller mentioned your farm to me a couple of weeks ago, and I took the liberty of looking it up.”

“Oh, hey, that’s great. So you’re a step ahead of me.”

“Well, yes and no. Bob says you’re looking to sell soon?”

“I am, though I’m sure you’re going to tell me the farm needs some work before it’ll sell.”

“That’s usually the case with these older properties, yes. Twenty acres, right?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Got it. Main house, guest cottage, three barns?”

“Four paddocks with run-ins, outdoor ring.” There was also half an indoor ring that Dad never finished. Before getting sick, his father had intended to hire instructors and offer lessons.

“Horses still on the property?”

“The barn has eighteen stalls, and we have fourteen horses. We can rehome them or sell them with the property.” He hadn’t ridden them in ages. Years, he thought.

“I’m interested in the details. Do you have some time in your schedule this weekend?”

“I do. Maybe Saturday morning?” He was hoping for Saturday. Sundays he tried to spend with the girls.

“Like, tomorrow Saturday? That would be perfect. How about we meet out there about ten o’clock?”

“Yes, like tomorrow. Sorry. That’ll do fine.” How did he forget it was Friday? Sometimes the routine just ate his brain.

“Thank you for getting in touch, Mr. Kennedy.”

“Oscar.”

“Oscar it is. Have a good evening.”

“See you tomorrow.” Oscar hung up the phone.

Okay. He sighed.

So that was done. He wished he understood how he felt about it. He’d think more on it later. Right now he was hungry and had girls to herd, so he headed back into the dining room. The girls always ate fast if someone didn’t keep them talking, and the twins were already heading toward the kitchen with their plates. So much for family dinner. It was his own fault; he shouldn’t have answered the phone. He had a rule and he’d broken it, but he really needed to get that call over with.

“Are you sure you’ve had enough, Emily?”

“Ugh. I am so stuffed, Gram.”

“Me, too, Grandma.”

“All right, ladies. You may be excused.”

Oscar watched them walk right past him. He shook his head. “Well, I’m still hungry,” he said, taking his seat.

“I’ll sit with you, darling. What did the Realtor say?”

“We’re meeting at Dad’s tomorrow morning.”

“Good. I’ll stay with the girls.”

“I was hoping maybe they’d want to go with me, but Em and Soph probably won’t even be out of bed before ten.”

“Maybe the twins will take the ride up there with you.”

“Maybe.” He wasn’t optimistic. If only he’d thought about how much he’d regret not taking them up there. He’d just convinced himself there’d be time later. Like when the girls got to know him better. When the twins were a little older. When work was less crazy. When Emmett got better.

And then Emmett didn’t get better.

He dug back into his dinner even though didn’t have as much of an appetite now. It had cooled, but he didn’t want to be rude and stick it in the microwave, so he ate it like it was. It still tasted good, like Rose and home, and he felt a little better with each bite he took.

“I’ll be taking Sunday, if you don’t mind.” Rose told him that every Friday night after dinner.

“Of course.” She would go to services first thing Sunday morning. There was altar guild and then the service and fellowship; she’d be there until well after lunchtime. After that she usually went to the library and did some shopping or something. Whatever it was she did all afternoon, she usually arrived home just in time to put something simple on for dinner.

He’d tried to explain that she should feel free to come and go as she pleased, that he only needed to know so he could make sure to be home if she couldn’t be, but she wouldn’t hear of it. “I’m here for those girls,” she’d told him time and time again. “Sundays are lovely.” It was a load off his mind to be sure. It meant he could focus on providing for them and paying the bills, and it kept his career as a compliance officer on track. He’d managed a promotion since she’d moved in, with a significant financial gain that had gone a long way toward making up for the loss of Emmett’s salary.

Emmett had been an accountant, and he’d worked at home. Rose used to help out a lot from January to April but otherwise he’d been a hands-on dad, driving the girls to school, making lunches, helping with homework, coaching soccer. He’d been an equally devoted husband. A love that had caught Oscar completely by surprise. No promotion of any kind would ever make up for that kind of loss.

“I’ve got the dishes.” He stood up, needing to snap out of that train of thought.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. Maybe you’d like to tuck the twins in tonight? They’d love that.”

Rose gave him a smile, the look in her eyes knowing and compassionate without pity. They’d created a whole silent language of knowing looks between them, every one of them full of things that were hard to say.

“I’d love that as well.” She kissed his cheek and gave the other one a pat, then headed for the stairs. Sixty-five wasn’t that old, and the girls were pretty well-behaved, but they still took energy, and he knew that by Friday, Rose was tired. Sending her upstairs early meant she could turn in early too.

He washed every single dish by hand, even though he had a perfectly good dishwasher, letting himself reminisce a little in his mind. Not a day went by that he didn’t think about Emmett, but the crushing grief that had left him breathless for so long had slowly, subtly subsided. Lately the thoughts had been more in passing, and more often brought a smile.

He was trying to remember the last time he and Emmett were in Dad’s house. There was nothing terribly remarkable about it. They’d gone for a trail ride, Dad leading with Emmett in the middle as he brought up the rear. It had been a long one because the day was gorgeous, and then after the ride they’d come home, watched a ball game, and made dinner. He couldn’t remember specifically what it was, but it was probably something simple and hearty like spaghetti and Dad’s famous homemade meatballs. Emmett had probably made a blueberry pie for dessert, which was always Dad’s favorite.

Emmett had been pretty sick even then, but the treatment hadn’t totally wasted him yet. It wasn’t long after, though, that Emmett really wasn’t able to leave the house anymore. Oscar held on to the picture in his mind of Emmett sitting awkwardly on horseback, smiling happily, framed by trees and blue sky.

Good night, Emmett. He shut off the kitchen light and headed for bed.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

OKAY, THEN. Jeffrey leaned back in his office chair. He had a new client. Sweet.

Last month had been a slow one, but this one was picking up. Jeffrey hung up with Mr. Ken—with Oscar, and made sure to put their appointment down on the calendar for Saturday morning. He took a minute to fill in the few details he had in the notes for the appointment and also to make a short list of what he needed to prep and to bring with him.

He was about to take another look at the property when a knock at his door interrupted him. He looked up. “Come on in.”

“Hey, Jeff.”

“Hey….” S. An S name. “Stacie, is it?”

“Stephanie.” She smiled at him.

“Stephanie. Right. I’m so sorry.” Because that wasn’t embarrassing or anything. In his defense, he didn’t spend a lot of time actually in the office. This wasn’t even his own desk; he shared it with two other Realtors.

“No worries.” Stephanie struck a flattering pose in his doorway that showed off her hips and stretched her blouse across her chest. Pretty. He wasn’t interested tonight, but she was lovely. “How’s your month going?”

“Oh. Good. Much better than last month. I just landed a new client.”

“Yeah? Nice. What is it?”

“It’s a working horse farm.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. I always hate to see those go.”

“Go?”

“Developers, you know? Housing developments, condo complexes, shopping malls? You lucked out. That’s good money.”

“Oh, I think he wants to sell it as a farm. To farmers.” Bob had given him the name after all, and he knew why.

“Huh. Well, that’s possible too, I’m sure.” She sounded doubtful or incredulous. He wasn’t sure which.

“Sure it is.” Of course it was possible. He’d sold two other working farms, and Bob Keller’s was less than a year ago. He’d found a great buyer for Bob, and he knew that was how he ended up with Kennedy’s place. What had Bob called it? Stable Hill Farm. He hoped it lived up to its name.

“Not the same money, though.” She grinned at him. He’d been told Stephanie was one of the top earners at the agency, so she knew what she was talking about. He’d already planned to pick her brain at some point. He had a face to go with the name now at least. Assuming he remembered it.

“I’ll land something high-dollar soon too, I’m sure. I just want to do right by this client.”

“You’re a good guy, Jeff. I’d heard that about you.” She stepped into his office, brushing her blonde hair to one side. “You have plans tonight? I was thinking of getting some dinner and a glass of wine.”

He’d expected that. And, truthfully, if she were his type, he’d have totally taken her up on it. “I do have plans,” he lied. “I’m sorry.”

His plans were to find a man. Hopefully a hot one. If he had to pick a label, and he really didn’t like labels, he’d say he identified as bi. But he only ever went out looking for men. The relationships he’d had with women were far fewer and less casual. He’d even had one serious one as the boyfriend of a married couple. Amy was lovely, and no question he’d been attracted to her. To them both.

“Mm. Shame.” Stephanie straightened up, giving up on her seduction.

“I liked the whole doorway pose, though. You looked hot.”

“Thanks.” She made a face at him. “That’s one of my signature moves.”

He laughed. “Don’t lose it. It works for you.”

She headed for the office door. “Whoever you have plans with is very lucky.”

He winked at her. “Thank you.”

“Good night, Jeff.”

“Night, Stephanie.”

He watched her leave his office.

Good Lord.

Okay, back to work.

Selling a big farm in the current market wasn’t going to be easy. He’d already figured that out. But he’d done his research after his conversation with Bob Keller. It was a nice place, built from the ground up by Oscar’s father, who owned it until the day the man died. Only one owner in its history was a big deal, and they still kept horses. Should be a decent price point, but he’d know more after he saw it.

Jeffrey sat down at his computer, googled the farm, and found a workable aerial view of the property. Rough forest, a creek or something along one side of the property line, a bunch of good-size buildings. A couple of fields that looked to be growing hay, though it was hard to tell how old this picture was. Nice. Assuming it was really in decent shape and this Kennedy guy had a little bit of cash to throw at it, they should be golden. And if Kennedy was broke, well, there were ways to get a spit shine for a song.

It sure had taken the guy a long while to call, though. Bob said he’d passed on Jeffrey’s info weeks ago. Hopefully that just meant Kennedy was disorganized or busy, and it wasn’t a bad sign.

All right, it was time to head out. He needed some dinner, maybe a drink or two. He locked up the little office right on Main Street and got into his car.

Did he want to go out or stay in? Weeknights the bars were easiest because he could get home early enough to be worth something the next day. He enjoyed the clubs, but he usually saved them for weekends so he could dance, people watch, find a hookup a little more organically, or at least in person, and stay out late. Or all night.

Maybe tonight he could stay local. He pulled out his phone and opened Grindr to see who was nearby and looking, and set his display to “Top 31.” He scrolled through the grid, flipping right past “SugarDaddy4u,” “Bruh,” and any numbers under twenty-five, no matter how hot, finally clicking on “Visiting 29.” Great body shot, online now, presumably leaving town in the near future. That would do. He tapped the flame and then the chat icon.

Hi. U looking for casual tonite?

Hey Toppy. Yes. Like ur pic. Hot. What are u up for?

Drink at the bar, penetration, no flip. Pretty much the same thing every time.

OK

Limits?

No kink, no power play

No problem. That works

Drink sounds great. Play safe?

Oh good. He often ended up asking that question first. Always. Interested? Got a room?

Marriott on Dempsey. Meet in the lobby.

He sent his deets so the guy would know how to spot him. Dark suit, blue tie, clean shave. See u in 20

Okay, then. A little close-to-home fun. Worked great for him. He turned up the radio and headed for the Marriott. Jeffrey used to have guilt about doing this, meeting random men, enjoying the night together. He really preferred to meet guys in person, but it had been forever since he’d met someone he was into. He was kind of interested in this one guy he’d met at the River, a bar outside town. It wasn’t a gay bar, and it was just shy of being a dive, but the drinks were cheap, the music was good, and there was always a game on. One night he’d been in the right place at the right time.

He’d run into the guy there a couple of times since, but Jeffrey wasn’t interested in giving out his cell number, so that was hit-or-miss. It was nice when it was a hit, though. They’d park someplace and rut like goats in the back of the guy’s pickup. Something about the possibility, however unlikely, of being caught was a huge turn-on, and the guy was lovely, young and wild, and it made him feel that way too.

But hitting the River and waiting the guy out required a patience he didn’t have tonight. He had a new client to celebrate, and he wanted some contact. Going home disappointed wasn’t going to sit well.