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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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BOOK: The Only Best Place
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“I lost my worm!” Anneke wailed.

Two words,
lost
and
worm,
galvanized me into action.

I pushed past Dan and snatched Nicholas into my arms before he found Anneke's new pet and inspected it the way he did with
all new discoveries. With his fingers, then his mouth.

I quickly scanned the floor. A pink worm should be easy to pick out on the Day-Glo linoleum. “Honey, stop crawling. I see
it.” I juggled Nicholas, reaching for her arm just as she put her hand down in the wrong place.

And Teddy was no more.

Anneke discovered this the same moment I finally snagged her hand. The wail she let loose would send air force pilots scrambling
to their planes.

Dan made it to the murder scene in time to catch his sobbing child in his arms.

“A little speed would have been nice,” I muttered, shifting Nicholas's chubby weight on my hip.

“It's just a worm, Leslie.”

“That's now squished all over our kitchen floor and your daughter's hand.”

Dan inspected Anneke's hand, then wiped it on his shirt. He cuddled Anneke, whose sobs didn't show any sign of shifting to
normal.

“Dan, for goodness sakes, wash her hands,” I snapped, raising my voice to be heard above the growing din.
Great, Leslie. Way to motivate him.
I opened my mouth, apology ready to spill out when I heard the door open behind us followed by the thump of shoes and two
young girls burst into the house.

“Hey, Uncle Dan!” they both said at the same time.

I looked over my shoulder in time to see the grinning faces of Tabitha, Gloria's daughter, and Allison, Judy's oldest girl.
Tabitha was fourteen,Allison thirteen, and to me they were interchangeable. They could be sisters instead of cousins.

“Is your dad at the corrals already?” Dan asked Tabitha, obviously thankful for the interruption.

“He's backing up the trailer with the horses in it,” she answered in a tone that made it clear she was Gloria's daughter.

“Then I better get going.” I saw an unfamiliar light of pleasure in his eyes as he scrambled to his feet. Dan had been talking
all day about the horses Gerrit was delivering, and the sparkle in his eyes left me with a flicker of jealousy.

He handed a still-sniffing Anneke to Tabitha, flashed me a quick smile, and left.

Nicholas let out an angry wail, but Tabitha, still cradling Anneke on her hip, tickled him, distracting him from the departure
of his beloved father. I often wondered how Dan got such a huge return on such a small investment of time. I spent precious
hours playing with Nicholas, reading to him, and still he resisted my charms. A quick tickle, a brush over his chubby cheeks
was all Dan had to bestow on our son and Nicholas was desolate whenever he left.

“So how do you like being on the farm?” Allison asked, watching Tabitha play with Nicholas and Anneke but making no move to
join them.

Time to put on my hearty voice. “It's really beautiful here. So much scenery.” So far I wasn't really faking too much. This
morning, as I cleaned, every time I glanced out the window, the nearness of the mountains took my breath away. As did the
amount. When God made Montana, he didn't skimp on the mountains.

“Didn't you have mountains in Seattle?” Tabitha asked, scrunching her face as Nicholas's chubby hands reached for her long
hair.

“We did, but I could only see them out of the upstairs window of our condo.” And only if I leaned my head against the window
frame to look past the rows of other condos that blocked my view.

“So why didn't you have your own house?” Allison asked, now leaning back against the counter inspecting her nails.

“We were going to buy one—” I stopped the note of self-pity creeping into my voice.

“But you moved here instead,” Tabitha said with a quick grin. She got up from the kitchen floor, swung Nicholas into her arms,
and held out her hand to Anneke. “Is it okay if I take the kids outside?” she asked. “I thought they might like seeing the
horses.”

“They might be scared,”Allison said. “They're still city kids.”

Tabitha simply shrugged Allison's comments away with a grin. “Not anymore. They're farm kids now.”

“Give me a few minutes, and I'll come with you,” I said.

Tabitha may have allowed Montana to make its hurried claim on my children, but I knew that the horses and cows Tabitha felt
so comfortable around would terrify my children.

“Are you going to help?”Tabitha asked.

“Isn't that what farmers' wives do?” I was going to make the best of our time here, and if working with large, unwieldy creatures
was part of it, I could play
Little House on the Prairie.
I hadn't considered helping with the cows until Gloria had called. I don't know if it was the take-charge note in her voice
that spurred me on when she said she and Gerrit and the kids were coming or the blanket assumption that I wouldn't be able
to help. Pride makes a woman do foolish things.

With a shrug in my direction,Allison followed her cousin out the door, leaving me alone to do what quick preparations I could
before the VandeKeeres invaded.

Twenty minutes later I stepped out into the empty yard. I glanced around but could neither hear nor see Allison,Tabitha, or
my children. I heard the distant whinny of a horse but couldn't place the direction. Suddenly the rattle of a truck penetrated
the stillness and an empty stock trailer came toward me from behind one of the barns. Gloria was driving, and behind her,
in the cab of the truck, I saw a jumble of heads.

The truck screeched to a halt and three boys piled out in a tangle of arms and legs and laughter, followed by a barking dog.
The boys glanced my way, nodded, and gave me the sheepish smiles of self-conscious teenagers. The dog ignored me.

I racked my brain for the boys' names. Joseph, Douglas, and Nathan. Gloria and Gerrit's boys. During our time in Seattle I
had accompanied Dan home once for Christmas and once for a family get-together. All I remembered of the nieces and nephews
was a bunch of kids sitting still long enough for the obligatory prayer before the meal, then filling their plates and running
off to various rooms in the house.

Just as Gloria turned the truck off, Allison and Tabitha stepped out of one of the older barns on the yard.

The boys had already run off toward the fields, the dog following, its tail waving like a plume, its mouth open like it was
smiling at the prospect of moving cows.

“Good morning, Leslie,” Gloria said as she got out of the truck. Gloria was a slimmer, more nervous version of Wilma. Pretty
in an uptight way. “So. Here you are.” She twitched out a smile. “It's good to have you with us. Mom's so happy about that,
too.”

I almost mouthed those last words along with her. Each time I met Gloria she said precisely the same thing. Like she had written
down somewhere, “Things to say when I meet Leslie,” and each time I got a sense of her watching me, looking for cracks or
possibly the same lewd behavior that my sister exhibited at the wedding.

And now the next thing would be… Wait for it…

“So how have you and your lovely children been doing?”

Bingo. Okay, these were often the same blank phrases tossed out when people first meet. A conversational equivalent of letting
your car run to warm it up. But with Gloria the conversation was always the same phrases in the same order and she always
started with,”So,”—pause—“here you are,” as if my presence was something she'd have to get used to all over again.

Today she had her long blonde hair tucked under a farmer's cap. She wore coveralls with a pair of gloves hanging out of the
back pocket. In spite of the farmer attire, she still managed to look like she was setting some new fashion trend.

I couldn't help but glance down at my clean blue jeans and pale pink jacket.

“Sweet coat, Leslie,” Allison said.

I didn't detect any irony in her voice, though I noticed too late that she and Tabitha were wearing faded and worn jackets
and jeans.

“What the well-dressed farmer's wife wears,” I quipped.

“You won't be doing much,” Gloria said, waving her hand at me, dismissing my capabilities with the flick of her wrist. “So
you won't have to worry about getting dirty.” Another twitchy smile.

Down, hackles.

“I'm a farmer's wife now,” I said with a blustery confidence that was ninety-seven percent fake. I still couldn't tell barley
from wheat or hay from straw, but I was undaunted. “I can help.”

“Well then,” was all she said.

“Are the horses unloaded already?” Tabitha asked.

“Dan and Dad are already headed out to gather up the cows. And Oma is getting the needles and medicine ready.” Gloria pulled
the gloves out of her pocket. “We'd better get going.”

“Wilma's here, too?”

“Of course.” Gloria frowned. “The cows belong to her.”

I nodded. My big attempt at integration struck aside by the reality of ownership. Wilma's cows. Dan and I were simply hired
help.

“We'd better get going.” Gloria's command became everyone's wish, so we started off. Nicholas babbled as Allison pulled him
along in the wagon. Anneke sang. And I had to look back to make sure these happy children were my offspring. My long nursing
shifts had left me with the tired and cranky version of my children after they had spent ten hours in day care. My mission
had always been to pick them up, feed them, and clean them up before Dan came home, then get ready for another twelve-hour
shift at the hospital.

Beside us Gloria and Tabitha chatted about the weather, school, the cows, the farm. At one point Tabitha laughed and dropped
her head onto her mother's shoulder.

The little gesture made me feel a tad despondent. Gloria just seemed too good to be true. Like her mom. Inadequate me had
been secretly looking for chinks in Gloria's armor that would make me feel less deficient, but so far she seemed well and
truly in charge of her world.

“So, what do we do with the cows?” I asked Allison, slipping my hands into the pockets of my “cute” jacket.

“We process them. Give the calves shots for blackleg before we put them out on summer pasture in a few weeks. You never did
this before?” Allison's voice suggested that processing cows was something normal people knew all about.

“Honey, the first time I found out that the milk I bought in those nice cardboard containers actually came from a cow, I was
physically ill.”

Allison released another laugh, which netted us a curious look from Tabitha.

“You've gotta come and see my dad's milking parlor,” Tabitha said with a touch of pride as she glanced over at us. “It's so
clean you can eat off the floor.”

“That might not mean much. I can sometimes eat off my kitchen floor, but that's only because I didn't manage to pick up all
the crusts that Nicholas threw off his high chair in the morning.”

Tabitha and Allison both laughed. Auntie Leslie. What a cutup.

“I don't believe you're that messy. Auntie Judy always said your place in Seattle was immaculate.”

The secondhand praise from my favorite sister-in-law warmed my heart.

“You lived in a condo, didn't you?” Gloria asked.

Judy and Dayton had managed a trip to Seattle to visit us, but Gerrit and Gloria could never get away from their dairy farm
long enough to make the trip. So they never saw our place in Seattle. Nor our place in Dallas, or Minneapolis.

“Yes. We were hoping to get a house, but when Dan went broke, that was the end of that dream.” I kept my voice detached, breezy,
skimming over the soggy ground of disappointment. “I know it bothered Dan…”

“It wasn't his fault.” Gloria rushed to her brother's defense. But what surprised me more was the anger in her voice. And
the flash of accusation in her eyes. Did she think the fault was mine?

I looked ahead, trying not to take this personally. She was simply upset for her brother, that was all.

“Hey, Aunt Leslie, did you ever go see the underground city in Seattle?” Tabitha asked. “We learned about that in some history
class a while back.”

Bless you, child, for validating my existence.
I told her about the tour I had taken one afternoon when a friend from work and I had finally managed to make a coffee date
sans children.

While we talked, we made our way around the shed where the machinery was stored. As we came through a break in a line of trees
that surrounded the farm yard it was as if the land opened up in front of us. All I saw was a vast expanse of field with mountains
crouching along their edges. No houses or buildings broke the breadth of the vista. My steps faltered as a wave of dizziness
washed over me. It still caught me unawares, this endless space. It was as if the world had been sucked empty.

“You okay, Auntie Leslie?”

I flashed her a nervous smile. “So where are the cows?” I asked, pulling in a long, slow breath into my oxygen depleted lungs.

Tabitha pointed past a barbed wire fence that bordered the field.

Against a tree line beyond the fence, I saw the herd of cows moving toward us. A man with shaggy blonde hair anchored by a
baseball cap waved a rope as he whistled through his teeth at the cows slowly moving ahead of him.

What made all of this unusual was he was doing this from the back of a dark brown horse… and the cowboy was my husband.

Gloria and Allison forged on ahead while I stopped in my tracks to watch. I knew Dan had a horse. Its name was Taffy, and
it was part quarter horse, part Morgan. That was information I had absorbed casually without understanding the implications
for me and my life, until now.

My husband was an honest-to-goodness cowboy.

One of Gerrit's boys rode up, and soon he and Dan were moving the herd inexorably toward us. The cows and Dan silhouetted against
the mountains were truly a calendar-worthy picture. Why hadn't I brought my camera? The picture would make a lovely memory.

“That's good, right?” I asked as my eyes caught Gerrit and the boys moving the herd in our direction. I could feel my heart
speed up. “The cows coming at us like that?”

BOOK: The Only Best Place
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