THE FARMER'S WIFE

The Luchettis Book #1

 

   Kim Luchetti returned home eight years after she’d left it running.

   Well, perhaps running wasn’t the right term. But what was?

   Fleeing? Crying? Aching? Dying?

   Kim put a stop to those words and the thoughts they would lead to by turning up the volume of her car radio so high she could think of little else but the music. She’d become adept at avoiding memories since she’d left. So much so that the first sight of her father’s silver silos brought tears to her eyes.

   Eight years ago an American flag had flown atop only one of them. Now the Stars and Stripes proudly waved over three. Her father hadn’t been lying when he’d said the farm was doing well. Silos cost a whole lot of money. For that reason, when a farmer paid off his debt on one he perched a flag at the pinnacle or painted an icon on the side to let everyone know the towering, grain-filled structure belonged to him forever.

   “Way to go, Daddy,” she whispered.

   The heavy beat of “Another One Bites the Dust” shook her rented Miata sports car, the same make she drove back in Savannah. The lyrics caused a hysterical giggle to tickle her throat. Biting the dust was not something she cared to hear about with her father still in the hospital—present condition unknown.

   Kim flipped to another frequency, then winced as the twang of country-and-western music filled the air. But she didn’t change the station. She was almost there.

   Like the silos, the stone farmhouse and bright, white outbuildings came into view from several miles away. People didn’t call folks from Illinois flatlanders just to be rude. When Irving Berlin wrote “from the mountains to the prairies” he’d obviously been referring to Illinois—one great big prairie, dotted with farms and the occasional city. Even Chicago, home of the Sears Tower and various other buildings of every shape and size, was not exactly a Mecca of hills and valleys.

   Kim turned onto the gravel lane that led from the main road to the house. Within seconds the sound of the engine brought the farm dogs running. While most farmers employed canines with herding tendencies such as sheepdogs and collies, or mutts because they were tough, smart and free, on the farm of John Luchetti purebred Dalmatians ran with the cows, pigs, cats and chickens. Her father had always been an original in more ways than one.

   Kim’s eyes burned with tears she had yet to shed. “Dear God, let him be all right,” she murmured, and made the sign of the cross for good measure.

   She hadn’t talked to God much lately. Not since the last time her fervent prayers had gone unanswered—eight years ago, to be exact—but she’d do anything, beg anyone for her father’s life. She’d already done the unthinkable in coming back here.

Kim parked next to a line of pick-up trucks in an array of colors. From the display she calculated three of her five brothers were present. No big surprise that two were still MIA.

   Colin—brother number three—was a foreign correspondent, usually lost in some godforsaken hellhole, reporting from a cave.       Brother number two—Bobby—had escaped long before Kim, joining the army in a desperate attempt to get out of Dodge. He’d thrived in the military, entering the Special Forces and rising through the ranks. Speaking of godforsaken hellholes, Bobby had seen quite a few. He was probably stuck in one right now.

   Kim’s estimation of which family members were present proved correct when she glanced at the porch. Brothers one, four and five leaned on the railing and smirked as she fought her way out of the car.

Jabbing a fire-engine-red spike heel at the nearest dancing Dalmatian, she waved her purse at another and ordered, “Get!”

   While Dalmatians were known for their polite and aloof manner with strangers, once they recognized a friend they could be as welcoming as any puppy. When Kim had left, Bear and Bull—their names tributes to her brothers’ favorite sports teams, quaintly known as Da Bears and Da Bulls in local lingo—had been puppies. They must have amazing memories, or maybe amazing noses, to remember her for so long.

   At any rate, her attempts to disperse the dogs only caused them to prance faster, wiggle harder, jump higher. Her brothers laughed. Eight years hadn’t changed them. They’d never been much good for anything beyond torment.

   She made the mistake of glowering at the men and taking her attention off the dogs. Bear promptly placed his manure-encrusted paws on her shoulders. Since it was Kim’s misfortune to stand under five feet tall, the four-inch heels only allowed the animal to kiss her on the mouth rather than the forehead. He needed a Tic Tac in the worst way. Bull took the opportunity to rub his ice-cold, slimy nose across the back of her sheer stockings.

   “Aargh!” She shoved at one and sidled away from the other. Unabashed, they trotted toward the barn, tongues lolling with idiotic doggy joy. Brothers and Dalmatians had a lot more in common than one might expect.

   Kim wiped the remnants of the kiss from her lips and glanced down. Her heels had sunk into the gravel about an inch. Her cream blouse sported smelly paw prints. Her black skirt was coated with a layer of dust and . . . She wrenched her neck and stared at the back of her legs.

   Y ep, there was dog drool running down her calves.

   She must be home.

* * *

   From the solitary window of her bedroom on the third floor, Eleanor Luchetti watched her baby return.

   “All grown-up,” she said aloud. “I must have blinked and missed it.”

   No one was in the room, but that no longer bothered Eleanor. Five sons, a dairy-farming husband and a daughter who would rather live anywhere but here had made her okay with talking to herself a long time ago. If she didn’t, she might go hours, maybe days without decent conversation.

   Eleanor turned away from the window. Where had she gone wrong?

   Shaking her head, she continued to sort the socks spread across the bed. How many mothers had asked themselves the same question since time began? Had any discovered the answer?

   Not likely. Children were a mystery, and children like Kim more so than most.

   When Eleanor had finally borne a daughter she’d been so excited. At last another female in the house. Pink instead of blue, quiet instead of loud, gentle instead of rough. She’d envisioned cuddles, giggles, shared joys, dreams and memories—a fellow cohort in the all-male, testosterone-humming Luchetti household.

   However Kim had never behaved as expected. Eleanor loved her daughter, but she did not understand her. What drove the boys was always near to the surface and easily detectible. But from the beginning Kim had been driven by forces beyond Eleanor’s comprehension. Her brilliant mind, lofty ambitions and restless nature had proved too much for her own, or anyone else’s, good.

John had said that their daughter had her own drummer and Eleanor hers. The two of them should accept that and move on. Kim had moved on—right out of the house, the state, their very lives.

   Now she was back. But how long would she stay?

   The familiar routine of sorting socks soothed Eleanor. She’d been doing it for over thirty years. Sometimes she thought the ebb and flow of her life could be found in the size, style and number of socks in the wash basket. She’d begun with man’s socks, then added itty-bitty baby socks. The baby socks had slowly grown until all of them were man-size—except for the socks of a tiny girl, who became a petite young woman.

   Eleanor closed really missed those itty-bitty pink things. She missed babies and toddlers; she missed busy days and people who needed her.

   Her children were grown, her husband, even before his heart attack, seemed to have forgotten she was there. Her life, which had turned out exactly as she’d planned, was not at all as she’d hoped—

   The door creaked behind her. “Mom?”

   Aaron, her oldest, most serious, quiet and responsible child would be the one to walk upstairs and make her come down.

   “She’s here.”

   “I know.”

   “She asked for you.”

   “She did?” Eleanor pressed her lips together, annoyed at the hope in her voice. Why did she still long for the love of a child who was unable to give it to her?

   Aaron shuffled his big feet and cleared his throat. She turned.  One glimpse of her son's expression and Eleanor knew the truth.    “She didn’t.”

   He shrugged. The shortest of the five boys, despite being the oldest, Aaron still wasn’t small. But with a father who was over six feet of lanky, sinewy muscle and a mother who resembled the hardy farmwife she was, all the boys had become big, rugged men. She had no idea how Kim had ended up petite, unless they’d produced their limit of strapping offspring by the time she had come along.

   “Kimmy wants to see Dad.”

   The boys had always referred to their little sister as Kimmy. She hated the nickname, which was why they continued to call her by it.

   Twenty-six years ago, John had not wanted another baby, had not been thrilled with a girl—what did you do with one, anyway?—yet he had formed a closer relationship with Kim than he had with any of the others.

   When she’d left, he’d said it was for the best. His baby girl was made for better things than the farm. Eleanor had been a bit hurt at the intimation that her life, her work as a wife, mother and helpmate, wasn’t something to aspire to, but she hadn’t said anything.    What would be the point?

   John hadn’t meant to insult her. He’d only been trying to make them both feel better about losing their youngest to the allure of the big wide world. But she didn’t think John had ever felt better; he’d only pretended that he did.

   “Mom? You okay?”

   “Of course. Are we all going to the hospital?”

   Aaron shook his head. “Dean has to stay and milk.”

   Eleanor resisted the urge to smack herself in the head. She knew someone had to stay and milk the cows. And Dean, her fourth son, was a farmer the caliber of his father. Farmers were not made—they were born; and from the cradle Dean had been her child of the earth.

   Eleanor glanced at the clock on the nightstand—3:00 p.m. She’d lost track of time again. Ever since she’d found John on the floor of the kitchen, coffee cup shattered around him, breath shallow, skin gray, she hadn’t been very good at keeping track of anything but the socks.

   “Evan is milking for the Dwyers,” Aaron continued, a bit more slowly and surely than usual. He must think she was losing her mind. Sometimes Eleanor thought so, too. “They’re in Mason City visiting their daughter.”

   Evan, her youngest son, hired out to many of the local farmers. He lived alone in a small cabin on their back eighty. The contrast between Evan—so laid back at times Eleanor wanted to stick him with a pin just to get a reaction, and Kim, so wired she could light up the Las Vegas strip with her energy—astonished Eleanor.

   “I’ll be right down, honey,” she said.

   Aaron hesitated. Like her, he wanted to take care of everyone. Unlike her, he possessed a gentle soul, a quiet, unassuming, peaceful manner.

   He’d gone off to college, majored in theology and flirted with the priesthood. Though she’d been proud to claim a son with such devotion to the church, she’d also been secretly relieved when he’d returned home at the end of his freshman year and hadn’t left since.

   Devotion to God was one thing, devotion of your life was another.

   “Mom? You’re sure you’re okay?”

   “As okay as I can be with your father just out of ICU.”

   “He’s going to be all right. It wasn’t that bad. This time.”

   “This time,” she echoed.

   Aaron continued to hover in the doorway. He’d remain there until she did what he wanted. Aaron was like a brick wall—steady, sure and immovable—a person could lean on Aaron and he would never crumble.

   Eleanor dropped the unmatched sock she’d been wrapping around her palm back into the basket. She’d felt very much like that sock over the past few years. Complete and of use only with a mate; lost, alone, useless without.

   John might be physically present, but he was emotionally unavailable. Had that been the case from the beginning? Perhaps. It had been over thirty years since they’d been two and not three, four or more. Eleanor couldn’t remember if he’d always been distant or if she’d merely noticed now that she no longer had children to raise and no one who needed her.

   He’d never been much for words of affection. In their youth whenever she’d asked him to tell her that he loved her, he’d always said, “I’ll show you,” which was how they’d ended up with a child a year for a whole lot of years. She’d learned to live without the words and make do with actions, instead. But lately there hadn’t been much of either one, and she’d started to wonder why.

   They’d never talked about their hopes, their dreams, their feelings the way folks did on television. Did anyone? As a result, she wasn’t sure how to ask if the man she loved loved her any longer.

   Such reflections on the heels of John’s heart attack, combined with the return of the prodigal child, had made this a hellish week. But then, an entire week without a disaster of some kind on a dairy farm was a miracle the likes of which Eleanor had never seen.

   She turned her back on the laundry and smiled at her too serious son. “Let’s go see your sister.”

* * *

   The only changes in the house were the pictures on the wall, Kim discovered, and not the content of those pictures, but the pictures themselves. Her childhood memories were of a century-old gray stone farmhouse, large yet quaint, but devoid of any wall decorations or knickknacks made of glass.

   Five boys in five years had taught Eleanor Luchetti not to bother with frou-frou adornments unless she wanted them busted. Chasing, wrestling, the banging of doors and the throwing of every shape, size and color of ball were the order of each day. The first thing Kim had done when she’d bought her own place was to cover the walls with pictures and the tables with glass.

   In the midst of that memory, she was suddenly swept off her feet and spun round and round. Gasping for air, Kim clutched at her brother Evan’s shoulders. “Put me down, idiot!

   He ignored her order. Nothing new there. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tight, lest he get it into his head to fling her at Dean like a beach ball. That would be nothing new, either. One of her brothers’ favorite games had always been Toss the Little Sister.

   Evan stopped spinning, and shortly thereafter, so did Kim’s head, but he continued to hold her aloft, feet dangling over one of his rock-hard arms. The youngest of the boys, Evan was also the tallest. Though not as handsome as Dean—who cornered the market on looks if not personality—Evan had a special something that endeared him to most of the female population. Perhaps it was the brooding expression in his heavily lashed blue eyes.

   “Glad you finally made it home,” he said.

   After eight years in the South, the sound of a flat Midwestern accent grated, as did the characteristic bluntness that would be considered outright bad manners below the Mason-Dixon line.

   “Did you think I wouldn’t?”

   “We had a bet.”

   Dean lounged in the doorway. He didn’t appear all that happy to see her. She had a pretty good idea why.

   “Who won?”

   “Me.” Evan set Kim on her feet and patted her on the head. Why that still made her want to kick him in the knee, she wasn’t sure.

   Instead, Kim reached up and touched the auburn streaks that ran the length of his dark-brown ponytail. “What does Daddy say about this?”

   He lifted one shoulder, lowered it. “I look like a thug, a drug dealer, a hippie. Depends on the day and his mood.”

   Evan and their father had never gotten on. Daddy was driven, Evan laid back. Not that Evan didn’t work just as hard; he merely did it in his own time and on his own terms.

   The two struck sparks off each other. To tell the truth, her father struck sparks off of all his sons except Aaron, and then only because Aaron wouldn’t let him. It appeared that the house wasn’t the only thing that hadn’t changed.

   “Gotta go.” Evan paused in front of Dean and held out his hand, palm up.

   With a labored sigh, Dean made a show of pulling out his wallet and handing Evan a twenty.

   “You really didn’t think I’d come home?” she asked as the door closed behind Evan.

   “Nope.” Dean pushed away from the doorjamb and strode to the window. Even after he’d jacked it up a few inches, he continued to stare out, pointedly ignoring her.

   Dean was still angry, and Kim couldn’t say that she blamed him. But the crimes she had committed had not been against him, and the one she’d hurt the most would never tell the entire truth, especially to her brother. But since she wasn’t going to explain why she’d left to Dean, or anyone for that matter, Kim moved on. She was very good at moving on.

   “How is Daddy—really?”

   Dean turned, his expression revealing that he knew what she was up to and thought less of her for it. However, he couldn’t think any less of Kim than she already thought of herself.

   “He’ll be all right if he changes his habits.”

   Relief flowed through Kim, strong enough to make her dizzy. He was going to be all right if—

   She frowned. “What habits?”

   “Less red meat, eggs and milk for starters.”

   “Sacrilege to a dairy farmer.”

   “You got that right. But what he really isn’t going to like is less alcohol and no more cigarettes.”

   Kim winced. Each childhood recollection of her father—riding the tractor, milking the cows, leading a bull around by the ring in its nose—was accompanied by the familiar sight of a cigarette hanging from his lips. Every time she caught the scent of sun, wind and cigarettes, Kim thought of Daddy.

   Her favorite memories were of summer evenings, waiting on the porch for the first sight of him returning from the barn or the fields. She’d race inside, grab the beer she’d put into the freezer a few moments earlier and meet her father coming up the stairs.

The weariness would fade from his face as he pressed the icy aluminum to the back of his neck. Then he would crack open the can, and together they would watch the sun go down. Before they went inside to join everyone for supper, he would make her laugh with foolish, corny knock-knock jokes that he’d made up while riding his tractor or operating one of his other huge, expensive pieces of farm machinery.

   “Who’s going to tell him?” she asked.

   “I vote for you.”

   “Me?” Kim squeaked. “Why me?”

   “The rest of us have been here. You haven’t. It’s your turn to do something.”

   “Bobby and Colin haven’t been around, or Evan half the time either.”

   “They visit. They spend vacations with us. We haven’t seen your face in eight years.”

   She narrowed her eyes. “I’m here now.”

   “Big fricking deal, Princess.”

   Kim’s hands curled into fists. How long had she been here? Fifteen minutes, and she was contemplating murder. Not bad. Her brothers could usually send her from zero to pissed off in two point five seconds. In her other life as a paralegal she was well-known for never losing her temper. If her colleagues could only see her now.

   Kim stood toe to toe with Dean. Then she tilted back her head, and she tilted it some more. No wonder she never came home. She’d forgotten that living with the Luchetti brothers gave her a constant crick in the neck.

   “You don’t know anything about me.”

   He leaned down, putting his face nearer to hers. “And whose fault is that?”

   She could smell the farm on him—cows, grass, hard-earned sweat, the autumn wind in his short, dark hair—and while the scent should be unpleasant, instead it reminded her of—

   “I call every week,” she blurted. “Daddy understands.”

   “I don’t think anyone understands, Kim, least of all—”

   She slugged him. She didn’t mean to. It just happened. But she’d made him stop. He hadn’t said that name.

   “Kimberly Marie Luchetti! How many times have I told you not to hit your brothers?

   Dean straightened. His smirk shouted “Gotcha!” without him having to say a word.

   Kim stuck out her tongue at him. Eight years gone and nothing had changed. Her brothers were still the bane of her existence and her mother . . .

   She turned, blinked, stared. Her mother had changed.

   Oh, she was the same tall, sturdy, stoic farmwife. Her face tanned, the same life lines creased the corners of her blue eyes, though a few new worry lines bracketed her mouth. But her hair . . .

   Her long, ebony hair had turned snow-white.

   “What happened to your hair?

   Dean made an impatient sound. “Goddammit, Kim. Is that all you can say?”

   “Watch your mouth, young man!” Eleanor snapped, though she continued to stare at Kim. “You will not take the Lord’s name in vain in this house.”

   “Yes, ma’am.” Dean slammed out of the house without a backward glance. Through the open living room window Kim heard him cursing all the way to the barn.

   She caught a glimpse of Aaron in the hallway before he, too, escaped. For big manly men, her brothers were amazingly chickenhearted. What did they think was going to happen? An immediate resumption of the same old conflicts between mother and daughter? Kim certainly hoped not.

   “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

   Her mother’s smile was serene, though Kim could see tension in the way she wrung her hands. “I’m sure my hair was a shock. But then, if you’d been home recently it wouldn’t be.”

   Kim had known when she got on the plane that this visit would not be easy for too many reasons to count. She just hadn’t figured her first half hour would be chock-full of contention.

   She didn’t acknowledge her mother’s comment. What defense did she have against the truth? “Can we see Daddy now?”

   “Can I have a hug first?”

   Kim resisted the urge to shake her head, jiggle her ear. She couldn’t recall the last time Eleanor had requested a hug. “Uh, sure.”

   For a moment, her mother seemed to cling. But Kim must have been mistaken, or merely hopeful, because in the next instant she was alone again.

   That had always been the way. Eleanor Luchetti had too much to do in any given day to waste time cuddling. Kim had satisfied her need to be held elsewhere. And therein lay the root of a whole lot of problems.

   A horn sounded from the yard.

   “Aaron’s ready to go.” Her mother eyed Kim up and down. “You want to change first?

   Though she was no doubt referring to the dust and the manure on Kim’s clothes, still Kim felt judged and found lacking. True, her short skirt and high heels were completely inappropriate for the farm, but she owned few clothes that weren’t.

   Kim grabbed her suitcase. “I’ll be quick.”

   In the downstairs bathroom she dusted off the skirt, swept a damp washcloth down her stockings and donned a fresh blouse.     Minutes later she stepped onto the porch, where her mom stared at the Miata.

   “Nice car.”

   Kim frowned, uncertain if she was being facetious or complimentary. “I, uh, have one like it at home. Figured it would be easier to drive the same kind while I’m here.”

   “Home?” Eleanor descended the steps, snarled at the Dalmatians when they danced too close and headed for the American model SUV idling nearby. “I thought this was home.”

   Kim glanced at the cows behind the barn, the pigs in the pen and the dogs that now cowered behind a bush, hiding from her mother.

   Home? Ugh. Never.

   But she knew better than to say so.

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