Discovering Our Story – Chapter 1

For those of you just tuning in, I’d be honored to share my writing with you. Keep reading to sample the first chapter of my contemporary romance novel titled Discovering Our Story. Feel free to share your critiques and comments with me.

 

Matthew’s eyes blinked open as the slightest glimmer of light crept into the morning sky. He rolled onto his back almost upon cue as he heard the rooster begin to crow. He brought his pillow to his face for a moment, wishing he could block out the noise, but realized it was futile. Their rooster would disrupt the sleep of everyone in the house sooner or later.

As he rolled over in his little twin bed, he saw the sleepy face and rumpled hair of his seventeen-year-old younger brother. He shook his head, wondering how it was possible that Samuel was somehow immune to the sound.

He got out of bed and quickly pulled on his t-shirt and long sleeve flannel to buffer against the chill. He grabbed his dirtiest pair of work pants and his brown leather work boots, carelessly bumping his only other pair of shoes as he did so. He set the brown leather dress shoes right again – neatly side by side, with their heels pressed to the back of the closet. He noticed his brother’s pile of shoes. There must have been at least five pairs of all variety of shoes and boots. He smiled, wondering only for a moment how in the world his brother had happened to come by so many nice shoes.

Here he was at twenty-four, a grown man with only two pairs of perfectly practical shoes; the same ones he’d worn probably since his feet stopped growing. By no means was he jealous of his younger brother, but it was a wonder how their paths had diverged so much from when they were younger. Matthew seemed to be on the exact same trajectory he’d been on his whole life, the exact one his parents had expected him to follow. And then there was Samuel, free as a bird to do whatever he wanted and to skate through life bending every rule.

Without another thought about it, he reached in near darkness for the water basin and pitcher on their dresser. He carefully poured in just enough water, broke off a small piece of fragrant homemade soap, and thoroughly scrubbed his face. He instinctively looked in the mirror above the dresser, though it was still too dark to see his reflection. It didn’t matter, he knew what would be staring back at him. He had a tan but otherwise plain face, plain hazel eyes, plain dusty brown hair. None of it seemed particularly special to him. He’d been told otherwise by some people, but to him, being plain was normal and that was pretty much how he saw himself anyway.

He chose his steps knowingly, avoiding the squeaky wooden floorboards as he passed his parents’ room with their door wide open. His father would be sleeping for only about another twenty minutes, and he fully intended to savor the solitude.

He walked into his niece’s bedroom, the one that used to belong to his sister, Catherine. He carefully drew up the covers around Hillary, tucking them gently under her chin. Her thin blond hair was a tangled crown around her cute little, freckled face. He kissed her forehead then stood there a moment longer, resisting the urge to scoop her up and take her everywhere he went. Sometimes he’d bring his books into her room late at night just so he could watch over her.

He proceeded downstairs, stopping to kneel in front of the mantel to recite a prayer; one he’d long since memorized. He made his way into the kitchen, lit the kerosene lamp then the stove to put the water on to boil. By the time he went outside to the outhouse and came back in, his water was ready. He quickly washed his hands. Then he sliced a piece of fresh bread and poured the water into his French press, which he’d prepared the night before. He made a mental note to go into town soon to trade for more coffee. While his coffee steeped, he walked outside to the end of the driveway and got the three newspapers out of their respective bins: The New York Times, Portland Tribune and the Tillamook Herald.

With impeccable timing, his coffee was ready when he returned. He poured it into an old insulated mug, tucked the Times and Tribune under his arm, and left the local paper on the corner of the table. As he passed the living room, he casually looked at the grandfather clock, knowing perfectly well that it was 4:20. He pushed open the screen door with his shoulder and used the heel of his foot to catch it so it didn’t slam behind him.

He walked into the goat barn and in the early morning light made his way to the instrument panel. It had been windy last night, so as he expected the DC batteries were fully charged. With a deep sense of satisfaction, he flipped the inverter switch to AC and turned on the power. He preferred being in the barn so much more when he could work in peace without the generator humming loudly. Even his father had finally conceded this point after Matthew had gone to such great lengths to convince him that the small wind turbines he’d built would be a worthy investment of his time and materials.

He’d tinkered with solar, but living about eight miles from the Oregon Coast rarely provided enough sunny days to be cost effective.

He dragged one of the stools to the workbench and laid out the newspapers under one of the three swinging barn lights. He only had about fifteen more minutes to enjoy his coffee and scan the headlines before his father would interrupt him before proceeding to the main barn.

Even though it meant waking a little earlier than the rest of the family, Matthew treasured those few moments of privacy and stillness every morning. For a few minutes each day, he could be his own man without bothering or offending anyone, nourish his mind, and feel connected to life outside the farm.

It’s not that he hid from his family his stacks of books or newspapers, but he tried not to flaunt it. He knew his father saw no need for him to spend so much time learning about the things he enjoyed, but they’d eventually worked past that as a daily battle. Still, he preferred not to see the subtle shake of his father’s head or his lips pressed into a thin line, so he was sure to put his papers away before he expected his father.

Just like everything else in his life, like clockwork, his father entered.

“Morning, Matthew.”

“Morning, Father,” he said, tipping his head in greeting.

“It sounds as though Samuel has a test this morning, so he won’t be able to help with the milking. I’ll need you to lend a hand with the cows before you tend to your goats.”

“Yes sir,” he said dutifully. He had known his father would say that and could equally anticipate the next command.

“And be sure to fetch the eggs for your mother. She’d surely appreciate it. Hillary’s still scared of that one hen and won’t go near ’em.” He walked out just as quickly as he’d walked in.

Matthew watched his father walk away with his usual swift, energetic, and purposeful gait. Paul Stanwick didn’t look a day over forty-five, though he was a decade older. His father was shorter; about 5’9” next to Matthew’s own 6’2” frame. However, the height difference didn’t matter much. His father was stout and strong, and his stern and domineering presence filled every room, often making Matthew feel like he was about ten years old again. He wore a wide-brim straw hat every day of his life, so unfailingly that he didn’t even know if his father was losing his hair yet or not. He had ‘one hat for workin’ and one hat for churchin’,’ he used to tell them when they were kids. His wife dutifully made him two new ones every year for his birthday. Despite the hat, his skin was deeply tanned and almost leathery from a lifetime of working outdoors.

Mr. Stanwick, as everyone but his wife and cousin called him, was a no-nonsense man. He wasn’t unkind, but he didn’t have time for feelings or nonsense like that. He did what he said he would, followed the rules, and expected everyone else to do the same. With the seeming exception of Samuel and Hillary, everyone else had to work hard to live up to his high expectations. But if you managed to live up to them or at least lived a life of integrity like himself, he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.

For the next two hours, Matthew tirelessly and without complaint worked through his morning chores. He let their two horses out to pasture and replaced their feed, filled their water, and then milked their two dairy cows. He decided he’d come back later to clean the stalls since he could hear his goats bleating; signaling they were ready to be fed and milked.

After breakfast, Matthew sat reviewing his long mental to-do-list while his mother cleared the dishes. Bowls of oatmeal, fresh bread, eggs, sausages, and berries, all of which came from their farm, still littered the table. It was customary to rise early, do the first round of chores, and then all eat a big morning meal together before going back out for more chores.

Samuel leaned over and whispered loudly, “Matthew.”

“I never could understand why you can’t whisper,” he said, shaking his head. Taking his brother’s cue they walked upstairs to the bedroom they’d shared since Samuel was born.

Samuel was definitely a Stanwick man, at least by all outward appearances. He was right in the middle based on height, weight, and body shape. Not quite as tall and lean as Matthew, but not as thick and stout as their father. His hair and eyes were the same as Matthew’s, except that Samuel was never caught without perfectly styled hair and his eyes always seemed to sparkle a bit more than his older brother’s. Probably because Samuel was always cooking up one scheme or another.

“I need you to cover for me,” Samuel said.

“What is it this time? I can only imagine.” Matthew rolled his eyes.

“I’m expecting a call from this woman. I need you to help me set up a time to meet with her at The Little City Drip tomorrow morning.”

“Yeah, um, back up. One, what woman is this and why are you meeting with a woman and not a girl? You’re only seventeen, for Pete’s sake. Two, you don’t even drink coffee, so why The Drip? There are so many reasons why I shouldn’t go along with this.”

“Relax, she’s probably some old lady, so that’s not a concern. It’s just this lady who wants some information from me and I’m trying to seem… you know… sophisticated. So I said we’d meet for coffee. Just tell her I’ll meet her at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow. Really, it’s no big deal.”

“I must be crazy to help you with this oh-so-shady situation you’ve gotten yourself into. And don’t you have class at 10?”

“Class won’t be a problem. Doubt I have a test or anything.”

“Hmmm that’s funny because it seems to me you pretty much always have a test that you need to get your sleep for,” Matthew said with air quotes. “Like this morning? Remember?”

Samuel paused to think for a moment. He smiled. “Oh no, I don’t have a test, I just needed to leave early so I can pick up Marie on my way to school.”

“In my truck?”

“Of course in your truck.” Samuel looked at him blankly, like he’d asked the dumbest possible question.

“Wait, who’s Marie? I thought you were dating Allison.”

“Oh, I was, but Marie is more my style,” he said, crudely gesturing in a way to indicate that Marie was more well-developed in the breast department.

“Brother, your respect for women is really honorable.”

“Brother, we can’t all be honorable like you. Hey thanks for taking my call, I gotta run!” he said, swiftly leaving the room.

“I hope you don’t think I’m planning to wait by the phone for your mystery caller. If this person calls when I’m near the phone, I might answer it and I might pass along your message!” he yelled after Samuel, who was already halfway down the stairs.

#

Sitting in the high rise, window-walled conference room at the Discovery Channel, Karissa looked at her planner with the furious notes and doodles scribbled everywhere trying to absorb every last thing her Senior Producer had just told her. She felt utterly overwhelmed.

Karissa’s forty-something, hard-ass, impeccably dressed, demanding as hell boss, Eileen, stuck her head back in the conference room one last time.

“Also, you don’t stand a chance of building credibility with these farmers in your fancy city clothes. We are sending you out to find the next great reality series about the struggles of the small American family farm. They won’t talk to you if they don’t trust you. So you’d better plan to country yourself up while you’re there. Why the hell do you think you were picked for this prospecting project?  Eileen barked in her no-nonsense way.

Karissa’s head dropped to the table. Eileen turned and walked back into the room and sat down in the chair next to her.

“Aw, my young protégé. Was that too much?” Eileen asked.

Karissa kept her forehead on the table but managed a nod.

“Listen, Karissa, you can do this. Did I promote you and pick you for this assignment because I knew you grew up in a rural community? Yes. Did I pick you because you’re cute as hell and I know the farm boys will be flocking to you? Yes. Did I pick you because I’ve heard you ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes sir’ with the best of them? You bet your ass I did.”

Karissa stopped her. “Eileen, can you please just get to the part when this little pep talk is supposed to make me feel better?”

“Are you done interrupting me? I was getting there. Karissa, I also picked you because I think you have pretty good instincts. Or at least I sure as hell hope you do.” Eileen paused and narrowed her eyes at Karissa. “I’m giving you this chance because I think you can do this. I know it will be hard and I know you’ll struggle, but I also know you’ll dig deep and roll up your sleeves to do the hard work, both literally and figuratively. If they ask you to shovel shit – you better shovel shit. And they will, so be ready for it.”

“Seriously?”

“Absolutely. And I expect you to do damn near anything to make sure you get around their dining room table and into their hearts so they tell you the real story. I don’t want some fluff piece about Bonnie the blue ribbon milking cow. If I wanted that, I’d send Tina. I want to know what sets these families apart. I want to see on screen if they’re going to make it as a small farm or if they aren’t, and if they aren’t, even better – tell me why. Make me cry my eyes out for them. That’s what I want!”

Karissa nodded weakly.

“Be ready to do damn near anything – except sleep with them. Don’t you dare do that!” Karissa shook her head vigorously. “But do everything else you can to establish your credibility and earn their trust. Remain objective and bring me a story.” Eileen nodded for full effect. “Now repeat that back to me.”

“Shovel shit, win their hearts, but stay out of their pants, earn their trust, but remain objective. That sounds totally doable,” she added sarcastically.

Eileen stood up and clapped her on the shoulder. “Two more final things.” Karissa’s head hit the table again. “I’ll want to check-in by phone every Friday morning. And make sure you confirm your contact with the Stanwick fellow before you get there. You don’t want to show up on their doorstep unannounced; they might shoot you.”

#

Matthew went downstairs and finished helping his mother wash and dry the dishes. He was stalling in an effort to wait for the mysterious caller. He knew his mother wouldn’t answer it. She claimed she didn’t trust anyone she couldn’t look in the eye. Five more minutes ticked by before Matthew decided it was ridiculous. He was done sitting by the phone to help his brother with something he was pretty sure he shouldn’t be helping him with anyway.

He kissed his mother on the cheek and walked out the front door. Just as he heard the screen door catch, the phone rang. He paused, trying again to decide if he should answer it. Finally, he ran back into the house, and on the fourth ring, he picked up.

“Hello, Stanwick residence.”

He heard a muffled voice on the other end. “Pick up, pick up – shit – pick up. Shit, shit!”

“Hello?” Matthew asked a little louder.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to swear at you – I mean I wasn’t swearing at you, I just… sorry.” The woman’s voice paused, taking what sounded like a long breath. “Let me start again. I was hoping to speak with Mr. Stanwick. Is he available?”

Matthew rolled his eyes but continued patiently. “Well ma’am, that depends on which Mr. Stanwick you’re looking for.”

He could hear the distant sound of papers flipping. “Um the eldest Mr. Stanwick, um…” More papers. “Samuel.”

“Well, ma’am, it turns out that Samuel is actually the youngest Stanwick in the household. But perhaps he led you to believe otherwise,” he mumbled under his breath. “What did you say your name was?”

“Oh, sorry again, yes, of course, my name is Karissa… Karissa McMillan from the Discovery Channel.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. McMillan, did you say you were with the Discovery Channel? Maybe I misheard you. We have a Science Discovery Museum nearby. Is that what you said?”

“No, you heard correctly, I am with the Discovery Channel,” she said brightly. After an awkward pause, she continued. “It’s the national flagship network focusing on science and nature educational programming… I’m eager to speak with Mr. Samuel Stanwick. Is he available?”

Matthew had to regroup before he could even continue speaking. He had in fact heard of the Discovery Channel, although he’d never actually watched any of their programs. But he couldn’t imagine why his little brother was being contacted by them. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, ma’am, Samuel’s not available, but I do believe he was expecting your call.”

Matthew hesitated, already regretting his involvement in Samuel’s latest scheme. He shook his head and let a breath escape. “He asked me to pass along the message that he’s available to meet you tomorrow morning at 10:00 at a local café in town called The Little City Drip. Will this be agreeable to you?”

Her voice squeaked a little before saying, “Absolutely, thank you so much. I’ll be able to meet him at the agreed upon time and place.”

“Good day then, Mrs. McMillan,” he said, slowly hanging up the receiver. What was Samuel up to now?  

“Well I guess we’re done talking about it then,” said Matthew later that evening.

“Oh, Big Brother, you worry too much. It’ll be fine, I’m just going to talk to her and hear what she has to say. I promise not to spill all of our deep, dark family secrets. She’s interested in farming, nothing more.”

“I’m only going to say it one more time. I’m not sure she even works for the Discovery Channel, she seemed pretty unprofessional on the phone. And even if she is, there’s no way Father’s going to let her on our property even once.”

“You just let me worry about our father. Don’t you think we could use a little shake-up around here?”

About an hour later, Matthew was still reading with his headlamp on when Samuel asked, “What are you reading?”

“It’s a guide to LEED-certified building best practices.” At his brother’s look of sheer boredom, he went on, “It’s really interesting, actually.”

“Sounds like a bedtime story for sure. It would sure as shit put me right to sleep.”

“Language!” he scolded in a whisper.

Samuel was quiet for a moment, and Matthew thought he’d fallen asleep until he spoke again. “I don’t know how you do it. I admire the hell – I mean the heck – out of you, Big Brother. You know that. But how do you have the energy to do this day in and day out and keep in good spirits? You could do anything if you got away from here. Have any beautiful woman you choose, not some plain, boring farm girl that you’ll probably end up with if you stay here.”

Matthew didn’t know if he should be flattered or offended. He paused to collect his thoughts before speaking. “I guess it’s in my blood – our blood. This land, these animals, this farm; sometimes I’m pretty sure it’s the only thing I want in this world. And other times… I feel like my life’s paused. Like I’m only going through the motions, waiting for my real life to start.

“And to tell you the truth, I’m not so concerned about whether I end up marrying a plain, boring farm girl. You basically described our mother and she’s done right by us all these years. That doesn’t sound so bad to me. There’s more to a good woman than her tits and ass.”

Matthew! Samuel laughed and feigned shock. “Don’t you want a woman who makes you feel alive, who you can’t help but dream about every moment of every day? Who you can’t keep your hands off all that tits and ass?”

“I tried that once, and it didn’t turn out real well.” The instant he said it he deeply regretted it.

Samuel sat up in bed. “Wait, what? Are you serious? How did I not know this? You’ve been holding out on me!”

Matthew slowly shook his head. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry, but I am not going to give up any details about my private life. You’re the biggest gossip I know! I’ll only tell you this – I was younger than you are now, and I was in way over my head. You were only nine and didn’t have a clue. I had absolutely nobody to talk to about it. So make good choices young man, because you only get to make that choice once.”

“Okay, okay, I get that you aren’t going to tell me, even though I desperately want you to.” Samuel paused. “Was it Joanna Woods?”

“Samuel,” he warned.

“Okay fine, but let me ask you this. Do you really think you have all this… choice, as you call it?”

“Of course you do. It might not feel like it sometimes, but you always have the choice to keep it in your pants.” He seized the opportunity to counsel his very girl-crazy younger brother.

“But that’s not what I mean,” Samuel said after a long pause. “I mean, do you really think you have the choice in who you love? I get that you have choice in who you kiss and who you marry even. But when it comes right down to it, don’t you think that love, real love, just chooses you most of the time?”

“Maybe so, Little Brother.” Matthew paused, thinking about what he’d said. “Wait, are you in love with this Marie girl?”

“What? No! But damn that girl’s hot!”

“Goodnight, Samuel,” Matthew said, turning off his headlamp and climbing into bed.

“Ooh, it wasn’t Mindy Jacobs was it?”

“Goodnight, Samuel, we’re done talking about this.”

**Thanks for reading!**

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