KATE

Kate 2

Kate chucked her favorite pair of heels across the room, wincing when they collided with a wooden picture frame holding a photo of what had to be the Winters family. There were at least a dozen people within the shot, all wearing denim pants, crisp white shirts, and matching smiles. Her eyes hung on Deacon who stood a good half-foot taller than the rest, his imposing stature making him the most prominent. He had an arm slipped over the shoulder of a beautiful brunette and a happy looking dog at
his feet. Deacon appeared content. Joyful. The polar opposite of the man she’d been introduced to just moments earlier.
“Sorry,” Kate apologized to no one in particular as she righted the frame and collected her discarded shoe.
Flopping back onto the bed, and sinking into the lumpy mattress, she stared up at the barn loft ceiling.
Cobwebs wove into the corners like forgotten Halloween decorations that never made their way back into storage boxes. There was an unlit candle perched on the nightstand and the thick layer of dust coating the
wax hinted it was more for looks than function. At least the quilt was soft and the pillows firm. This loft certainly couldn’t be mistaken for a popular weekend rental. In fact, Kate would be surprised to learn if
anyone had stayed in it since the previous holiday season. Still, she would just have to make do.
Deacon seemed glaringly unimpressed by her presence. She wasn’t about to put up a fuss about her living quarters and give him any sort of justification for that outlandish reaction. She made a mental note
to look for a broom and a duster the next morning to take care of things on her own. In no time flat, the barn would be cleaned up and feeling just like home, not that her own downtown address held any more
significance.
Just as she was about to unpack her limited belongings, she heard the buzz of an incoming call from
her phone nestled on the nightstand. When she saw the name on the screen, a grin burst onto her face.
“Toby!” she shouted into the receiver upon answering.
“Just wanted to make sure you made it to the tree farm okay.”
Kate wedged the phone between her jaw and shoulder as she made quick work of unpacking her things and stowing them into an old oak dresser, one of the few pieces of furniture in the little room. “You’re so
sweet to check on me. I did. Safe and sound.”
“And how is the place?”
Pulling back the sheer curtain on the only window in the loft, Kate cast her gaze out over the rolling hills swathed in deep forest green. “The farm is absolutely beautiful. Feels like Christmas everywhere you
look. Evergreen trees for days.”
“Shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to get some great footage of that, then. If you need any pointers
or tips, I’m just a phone call away. I’m happy to help however I can. I still feel bad that I can’t be there with you.”
“I appreciate that, Toby. And you’re right; I won’t have any trouble with that side of things. It’s the interviewing portion that I think is going to be the real struggle.”
“You think so? But that’s your bread and butter.”
“You wouldn’t believe the guy that runs the place. Apparently, he had no idea I was even coming here to begin with. His mother hired me without his knowledge—or approval—it seems. He’s not keen on me being here, much less recording any part of my experience. I’ve really got my work cut out for me with this.”
Kate could hear the reassuring smile in Toby’s voice when he said, “If there’s anyone that can do it, Kate, it’s you.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence, Toby,” she said. “I should probably head on down before I get scolded for taking too long to get ready.”
“I don’t want to keep you. Just know I’m here if you need me. You’ve got this.”
Kate beamed as they exchanged their goodbyes. She had relied on Toby over the years not just as her cameraman, but as a sounding board and confidant. In truth, the man had practically become her security blanket. While she knew things would be easier with him at her side, maybe this was exactly the push she needed to finally propel herself out of her well-worn comfort zone.
Either way, she had no real say in the matter.
Tugging a stiff boot onto each foot, Kate coiled her favorite green and red handmade scarf around her neck and descended the loft staircase, careful not to lose her footing on the creaky boards that threatened
to fall right out from under her. She could hear soft snorting and nickering from further down the barn aisle, the silhouettes of two saddled horses coming into view the closer she stepped.
“You take this one,” Deacon mumbled her direction once she was within earshot.
“Hello to you, too.”
Rolling his eyes, Deacon turned his back as he tugged on a strap under the horse’s belly to secure the saddle firmly into place. “I thought we already got all of the pleasantries out of the way.”
“I wouldn’t call anything about our first meeting pleasant.”
Deacon dropped a heavy hand onto the saddle horn. He cut her a look that made her stomach feel like a piece of wet fabric being wrung out. “You ready to get to work?”
She’d expected some sort of snide comeback and was honestly a little surprised when he didn’t readily
give one. “Yep. I’m ready.” Pointing a toe, she waved her hand toward her feet to show off her new kicks.
“Boots and all.”
“Sure, but that’s about it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
In one effortless maneuver, Deacon stepped up into one stirrup and swung a leg up and over to mount the horse. He looked just like a cowboy from the old, grayscale westerns Kate’s grandfather watched
when she would visit the convalescent home where he resided back when she was a child. There was something nostalgic in Deacon’s movement that had Kate’s heart squeezing at the memory. But when he opened his mouth to speak again, all of that reassuring familiarity flitted away. “That expensive jacket is
going to be covered in pine needles.”
Kate shrugged inside her wool peacoat. “This thing? It’ll be fine.”
“Suit yourself.”
Hooking her hands on her hips, she added, “Well, it’ll have to do because it’s the only one I brought.”
Deacon jabbed his heels into the sides of his horse and upon impact, the animal began walking steadily forward.
It had been years since Kate sat on the back of a horse and then it was only a short trail ride where her horse had, for all intents and purposes, been on autopilot. She didn’t know the first thing about steering,
guiding, or managing a thousand-pound animal.
And evidently, she didn’t know how to get on top of one, either.
Grabbing the saddle with both hands, she attempted to pull herself onto the horse but her foot wedged awkwardly in the stirrup, hooking on the toe of her boot, and before she could process what was
happening, she tipped up and over and landed flat on her backside in the slushy dirt below.
Deacon swiveled his steed around. “Really?”
“A little less judgment and a little more help would be nice.” Kate tried to tug her foot from the stirrup that trapped it. Even her horse angled a sidelong glance as she struggled to free herself from the tangle. With a huff of displeasure, Deacon slunk off his horse and clomped toward her, his feet heavy and frustrated breaths even heavier. “You’re lucky Sarge is an old, spookless horse. You try that on any other animal and you would’ve been dragged a half-mile down the road.” He shot a hand out toward her like the toss of a lifesaver into troubled waters.
“You think I ended up on the ground on purpose?” With his assistance, Kate got to her feet. She brushed off the back of her pants with two palms and yanked on the hem of her coat to try to appear somewhat presentable.
“I don’t know. Isn’t that what you reporters do? Add dramatic effect or something?”
Unbelieving, Kate stood there, shaking her head like a nervous tick. “You are unreal.”
“I’m not the one in the fake news industry.”
“Oh, please! I’m a journalist who reports on unusual jobs. I’m not some frontline investigator.” She swiped her hands together before she tried—for a second time—to get into the saddle. “Would it be too
much trouble to ask for some assistance?”
Before she could collect herself, Deacon had two huge hands on the curve of her waist and with the effort it would take to lift a feather, he all but tossed her onto the horse’s back. She wasn’t sure if it was from her previous efforts or from his unexpected touch, but a heated blush crawled up her neck and onto her face, warming her up by several degrees. “Oh. Thank you.”
“Welcome,” he muttered as he strode back to his waiting horse. “I got you into the saddle, but it’s your job to stay there.”
“I’ll try my best.”
Luckily, Sarge proved his worth and trailed uneventfully behind Deacon and his horse as they journeyed toward the thick forest of greenery.
“Where are we headed?” Kate called out. The horse hooves pulsed in a beat, a rhythm that was consistent despite everything around her being anything but. Kate typically did fine out of her element, but something about Deacon made her confidence blunder.
“Checking on our rental trees. We start deliveries next week.”
“I remember reading on your website that you offer live trees for rent. Not too many farms do that, right?”
“Right,” Deacon mumbled. He sure had a knack for buttoning up any conversation Kate tried to start.
“Do a lot of people sign up to rent them?”
“Uh huh.”
Kate would’ve closed her eyes to collect her thoughts and composure if she hadn’t been on top of a massive animal. Instead, she pursed her lips and silently counted to ten in an effort to regroup. It didn’t do her any good to let frustration get the better of her here, she knew that full well. “How many people are currently enrolled in your rental tree program this year?”
“Fifty-three.”
At least she got answers when she kept at it long enough. “And you deliver all the trees?”
“Yep.”
She leaned back in her saddle for balance as the horses navigated the slope of the land, one hoof placed dexterously in front of the other on the steep terrain. “Do people get the same trees year after year?”
“Most of ‘em.”
“So they rent a specific tree for the holiday season and then you take care of it the rest of the year?”
“We do.”
This was like pulling teeth, and not even wiggly teeth but those stubborn, immovable back molars.
“Shoot,” Deacon blurted out of nowhere. “Donna’s looking a little too thick around the middle. Dang it. Mindy, too.”
Kate blanched. “Excuse me?”
“I said Donna’s gotten real fat. Her proportions are all off.”
“Well, goodness! Don’t you think that’s rather rude?”
For the first time since meeting, Kate heard a jovial sound escape Deacon’s mouth. She couldn’t be sure, but it sounded an awful lot like a laugh. “Calm down. I’m talking about the trees.” He pointed toward the closest fir on their left-hand side. “That one belongs to Donna Palmerson. See how it’s lost its shape? How it’s too round in the middle and thin at the top? It’ll swallow ornaments whole. We need to come through here tomorrow and do some final pruning before these are ready to leave the property.”
“You call your trees by name?”
“I do. It makes them easier to identify. They’ve got nametags, but I’ve also got a spreadsheet that lists them all. I like it better than calling them by a number.”
Scanning the tree closest to her for a tag, Kate perked up when she located it and said, “Jenny here is looking kind of scraggily.” Whatever semblance of rapport she felt developing between them was obliterated with that lone
sentence.
“You don’t get to comment on Jenny’s tree.” Deacon’s voice felt like a reprimand.
“I’m sorry,” she recanted, disliking the irrepressible waver in her tone. She held securely to the reins in
her hands and gulped. “I just thought that we could pretty it up a little before delivering—”
“That tree isn’t going anywhere.” Deacon clucked his tongue and whipped his horse around, pointing it in the direction of the barn that sat like a beacon on the hilltop. “We’re done here for today.”
“But we just got started—”
“Breakfast is in the main house at 6:30. We’ll begin working at 7:30 AM, sharp,” he spoke over his
shoulder as he spurred his horse into a trot like he was running away from both Kate and the conversation. Sarge picked up on the cue and jogged compliantly behind. With his face kept forward,
Deacon added, “And don’t think about showing up late like you did this afternoon.”

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