Start reading this book:
Josie Star hoisted the last cardboard box onto the new table in her new office. She paused, her hands on the flaps, and looked out the window—windows, plural—at the snow-covered corporate campus, its usually lush greenery tucked up in a pristine winter blanket that sparkled in the afternoon sunlight.
She smiled. She’d earned every inch of this view.
This was her fourth office in the eight years since this Big Ag corporation recruited her out of one of the top agricultural degree programs in the country. Well, technically her third—she’d spent the first year toiling away in a tiny cubicle.
Her first promotion shifted her to a windowless room that demanded a punishing fluorescent glare even on the sunniest midsummer day, but it had four walls and a door that closed. Two years ago, she’d been upgraded to a sliver of an office with a narrow window onto the parking lot, which was drafty and noisy yet felt like surfacing out of a mineshaft into blessed daylight.
Now she’d finally arrived on one of the top floors, installed in an office reserved for senior leadership, and she felt like she was soaring. Years of late nights and early mornings, punishing travel, ever-raising bars, and total dedication to her career to the exclusion of everything else were finally paying off.
The money was nice—the money was always nice, she thought bemusedly as she tore her gaze from the view and opened the box—but it wasn’t what drove her. For better or worse, she’d always thrived on achievement. Purple ribbons in 4-H, barrel-racing trophies in her little hometown’s annual rodeo, the full scholarship she’d ridden out of state to college—she treasured them more than any of the sizable bonuses she’d pocketed over the years. The company-wide email listing her name among the slate of promotions had practically choked her with pride, making her so delirious with excitement she’d even forwarded it to her dad.
He hadn’t replied.
But then he wasn’t one for technology, she reminded herself as she removed a family photo from a layer of Bubble Wrap and set it on her new desk. A gruff, no-nonsense rancher who’d raised four girls on his own after their mom died young, he’d never had much time for compliments.
And he still barely knew how to use email.
Never mind—she’d long outgrown the need to impress her father. In fact she prided herself on not needing anyone. On the rare occasions she was asked out on a date—and the even rarer occasions when she actually had the time to go—her heart wasn’t in it, her attention inevitably drifting back to her to-do list at work, or her latest project deadline, or what that plastics-company merger would mean for beef packaging costs.
She smiled at weddings and consoled heartbreaks and was genuinely rooting for anyone who wanted to find their forever person, and only rolled her eyes the tiniest, smidgiest little bit when she received yet another engagement announcement.
Love just wasn’t on her list.
Her new boss, Elise, lounged against the doorframe, arms crossed, a knowing smile teasing her lips.
“This is the last box, and I still have way too much space. I might need to get a plant.”
“Or several. The light in here is amazing. You could have a whole greenhouse.”
“I won’t have time for that, not with all the ideas I want to bring to this new role. I really can’t thank you enough, Elise, I never—”
Elise cut her off with a waved hand. “You’ve been an unbelievable asset to the beef segment. The way you understand supply chain, market risks, the end-to-end operations of the business… Let’s just say your upbringing as a rancher’s daughter shines through. You’re a shooting star in this company, and I can’t wait for us to get to work. Plus it’s about time we got another woman up here.”
Elise winked, and Josie flushed with delight at her praise. Before she could give voice to the next round of effusive thanks gathering in her throat, Elise stepped forward, plucking up the small frame Josie had just taken from the box.
“How old is this? Is this a real photo?”
“It’s a copy. The original tintype is back in Texas. That’s my great-great-grandfather, Isaac Star. He came to the US from Austria after the Civil War, and opened the first general store in my hometown, Last Stand, to supply travelers on the cattle trails.”
“That’s incredible,” Elise breathed, passing over the picture of the mustachioed man whose stern expression yet vaguely twinkling eyes had been the root of her life story as she knew it.
Josie shrugged. “There are a lot of old families in Last Stand. The Stars are only fifth generation. We’re practically newcomers.”
“And I thought my family—”
There was a sharp rap on the doorframe. Elise’s assistant leaned in, her expression troubled.
“Sorry to interrupt. Josie, I’ve just had a call through the switchboard for you. He says he tried your cell, and you didn’t answer. Sounds like an emergency. I believe his name is Easton McKinney?”
Her father’s long-serving foreman, an honest, good man with a heart big enough to rival the Texas sky—and the best friend she’d ever had.
She shot to attention. Only an extreme situation would prompt Easton to call instead of text, given his less-is-more approach to talking in general.
“Take it. I’ll wait.” Elise nodded to the landline lighting up on Josie’s desk. Josie picked up the handset and pressed the button to transfer the call.
“Easton? Sorry, I didn’t see—”
The line was crackly and slightly delayed—not unusual given the remote location of the ranch where she’d been born and raised, but somehow extra distressing in this context. She put her free hand over her ear to block out the ambient noise from the office, but that wasn’t the problem. It sounded like Easton was outside and there was a lot happening around him—wind, voices, disproportionate activity for a sparsely staffed ranch.
“I’m here. What’s going on?”
“It’s your dad. He fell out of the combine. Lost consciousness behind the wheel, looks like.”
The world around her screeched to a halt, shrinking to the phone, his voice, and the life she’d once lived over a thousand miles from where she stood.
“He’ll be okay,” Easton rushed to add. “The combine was parked in the machine shed, he hadn’t started moving. But the EMTs reckon his leg is broken, and it might be a heart problem that made him pitch over in the first place.”
He paused, and she knew what was coming next. Knew the moment she’d been waiting for her whole life was here at last, and that it would take from her as much as it gave.
She closed her eyes, allowing herself a fleeting instant of self-pity. The years of hard work, the tight deadlines, the utter lack of a social life, and the constant awareness of needing to be better just to be the same would now bring her no greater reward than what she already had. She would never take a meeting in her brand-new office, never move to a better one, never penetrate the highest corporate circles she’d dreamed of joining. She would leave all of this behind, the money, the respect, the professional thrill of unknotting complex, high-stakes business problems, and the satisfaction she derived from being a player in the game of global agriculture.
She’d always known that one day she’d have to give it up. That the life she was building would only ever be temporary.
She just hadn’t thought it’d be today.
The line buzzed, and she opened her eyes to a new world as Easton said exactly what she’d known he would.
“Josie, your dad would like you to come home.”
In her mind she was already in motion, hurrying back to her apartment, tossing the essentials into suitcases, identifying which of her acquaintances she could ask to help her liquidate what she left behind.
“I’ll leave now. Where are you?”
“Wrapping up here at the ranch, then I’ll go to the hospital in Austin. Your sisters are already on the way.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she told him briskly, firmly trading sentimentality for cold, clear logistics.
“All right. Travel safe.”
And despite everything, despite the fear and panic and brutal urgency swirling around both of them, she could hear Easton smile. Imagined his blue eyes crinkling at the corners as he adjusted his cowboy hat on his brown hair. Felt his warmth and calm and unending, unquestioning support as he added, “See you soon, shorty.”
She replaced the handset and turned to Elise, not bothering to sit down, not wanting to give herself even a fraction of a second to think. If she thought, she would doubt, and there was no room for that. There never had been.
“Sorry about that. There’s been a family emergency back home in Texas. My dad’s had an accident on the ranch, and I need to head down there.”
Her boss looked up at her with genuine sympathy.
“Of course, do what you have to do for your family. How long do you need? Two weeks? More?”
“Actually.” Josie pushed her shoulders back and took a deep breath. “I quit.”
A week later, Josie inspected the inside of the microwave mounted above the oven in her father’s new kitchen. The interior was Arctic white and immaculate, unmarred by a single breadcrumb, and smelling faintly of factory-fresh plastic.
She shut the door and came face-to-face with her own reflection in its glass surface. Briefly she made eye contact with the haggard-looking woman who stared at her in alarmed recognition, then spun toward the windows overlooking the pool.
“This is way nicer than my apartment in Minneapolis. Sure you don’t want a roommate?”
“Mighty long commute from here to the ranch.”
Many stories below where she stood a group of women in a rainbow assortment of swim caps were doing aerobics in the crystal-clear water, which sparkled even in the thin, wintry Texas sunshine. Josie turned away from the window and settled into the armchair across from where her dad sat on the couch, his fiberglass cast-encased foot propped up on a low stool.
“This is a nice setup, Dad. I think you’ll really like it here.”
Mike Star grunted.
Josie bit back a sigh. Her dad wasn’t the most demonstrative guy at the best of times, but in the week since the accident he’d barely said more than a handful of words in a row.
He’d had a traumatic experience—she understood that. In a matter of hours his forgettable, uneventful day had become one of the most significant of his life. What had been an ordinary afternoon ended with surgery for a broken leg and a pacemaker fitting, all before dinnertime.
For the second time in his life his world had turned upside down, and unlike her mom’s death from cancer twenty-five years ago, it happened in an instant. He was in shock—they all were, she and her sisters. It was a lot to take in, a lot to process. She got it.
And yet…she’d expected him to fight. To insist he’d be fine going home to the ranch, he didn’t need everyone fussing over him, and this idea of a long-term stay in a sixty-five-and-over community in Austin was ridiculous.
Instead he’d been unusually compliant. Didn’t argue with the doctor who gently suggested that an isolated, rural property might not be the best place for him anymore. Simply nodded when her older sister, Georgia, scrolled through glossy pictures of the retirement complex on her phone.
And when Josie promised they would be partners in running the ranch, and that she would involve him in as many decisions as he wanted, he merely shook his head and said, “It’s yours now.”
That should’ve made it all easier, she supposed. No twisting his arm, no half-truths or selective details or outright lies about what was happening and for how long.
Yet something about his placid, submissive acceptance of a situation that felt to her like a town-razing, life-altering tornado filled her with the one emotion she had no claim on: anger.
Josie was pissed.
There was an unspoken expectation that of the four of them, she would be the sister who’d inherit the ranch. None of the others were remotely interested in agriculture, never mind on a commercial scale. Georgia was Last Stand’s assistant district attorney, Jessa had been a professional dancer and now ran a dance studio, and Amy, well, she changed jobs almost as frequently as she changed her underwear, but the firefighter/EMT gig seemed to be sticking.
For as long as she could remember, Josie had loved working the ranch. As a child she enjoyed the animals and open spaces, and when she got older, she grew to appreciate the nuances of wrestling weather and water and wind into a profitable operation. She’d always known that the ranch would be hers one day—but she’d also assumed that day might not arrive until she was well into her forties at the earliest.
Not that she had reason to think otherwise. Her dad shared almost nothing about what was happening at the Lone Star, certainly never asked her for advice, and ran the place with such stubborn independence that she’d resigned herself to waiting until his funeral to pick up the reins.
Except now she was here, having slammed the door shut on her life as she knew it with a moment’s notice, ready to gently pry control of the operation he’d doggedly refused to involve her in from his work-roughened hands.
Instead, he’d handed it over without so much as a peep of protest. And her dad’s apparent indifference, his utter lack of gratitude, and his sudden willingness to dump the ranch he’d guarded so closely for years made her mad as hell.
Which got her exactly nowhere, so she forced another of the wooden smiles she’d been leaning on like crutches.
“We got the meal service lined up, so starting tomorrow you’ll get lunch and dinner brought up. You’ll have to fend for yourself at breakfast, but I’m sure you can handle that. Jessa said she dropped off a lasagna this morning—pre-portioned and colorfully garnished, no doubt. Want me to get some out for you, for tonight? I can leave it on the plate in the microwave.”
Her dad shook his head. “I’ll manage.”
“Anything else you need me to do? Jessa told me she organized your pills, and programmed the different complex numbers into your phone, and finished unpacking your bags. I know you didn’t want any of us to stay over tonight, but—”
“You better get on. Before it’s dark.”
That stiff smile creaked back into place, shuttering the outrage and resentment and flat-out dejection that swirled beneath it.
“All right, then. I’ll give you a call tomorrow.”
Her dad inclined his head in some approximation of farewell.
Josie took one last look at her father. He’d gone so much grayer in the eighteen months since she’d last been home, his hair thinner, the shadows under his eyes dark and deep. She supposed some of it could be blamed on the events of the last week, but not all of it. Not the weight loss, or the healed-over gash on his arm, or the fading bruise he’d reluctantly admitted was from falling over in the barn.
He was struggling. And he hadn’t breathed a word to any of them.
With pursed lips Josie pushed up out of the chair and swept her bag off the pristine granite countertop. She had her hand on the brushed-nickel doorknob when her father called her name.
She glanced over her shoulder and met his eyes. They were the same hazel green as two of her sisters’, but not hers—her eyes were blue.
Like her mother’s.
“Any problems at the ranch, anything you got questions about, go to Easton. He knows the place almost as well as I do.”
She nodded tightly.
“The new cattle chute is arriving tomorrow. I can’t remember if I told Easton that, so make sure there’s someone around to take the delivery.”
Josie resisted the urge to drum her fingers on the strap of her purse. She’d barely gotten a word out of him for a week, and now he wanted to run through a list of ranch admin?
“Yes. I think you’ll do a fine job, Josie. The Lone Star is in good hands.”
Great, now she was going to cry.
“Thanks, Dad,” she murmured, rushing back across the apartment and stooping down to give him a hug. It was the briefest of squeezes, but it went a long way to steadying the earth that’d been shaking beneath Josie’s feet since Easton’s phone call a week earlier.
They exchanged a hasty goodbye and she left, making quick work of the hushed, carpeted hallways and the demurely swishing elevator to where her month-old SUV waited outside. A treat to celebrate her promotion, the smooth-riding city vehicle was absolutely not appropriate for the rough, rocky tracks crisscrossing the Lone Star, but it’d have to do until she could trade it in for something more practical.
She used the navigation on her phone to get out of Austin, a city she hadn’t known well anyway, and which had changed so much in the twelve years of her absence that it felt like somewhere she’d never been at all. No big deal—she could kill the maps app as soon as she hit the highway that would take her into Last Stand, her hometown.
She’d cut along the small town’s main street, past the site of her great-great-grandfather’s general store. He was a Jewish immigrant from Austria who’d come to America to seek his fortune—and found it. His son had homesteaded the Lone Star, then her grandfather expanded it to two thousand acres. Her dad built a prosperous cow-calf operation, and now it was her turn—her chance to make her mark on the land that had anchored and sustained her family for generations.
Once she’d made her way through Last Stand, she’d turn onto the rural route that had connected the Lone Star Ranch to what passed for civilization for over a hundred years, a rarely traveled road that she could probably navigate with her eyes closed. The town it led to had shifted and grown and evolved enormously in that century, but the twists and curves in that track remained exactly the same.
She’d spent most of the last week in a hotel near the hospital, but now that her dad was settled into his new apartment, it was time for her focus on other responsibilities.
Time to go home.
End of Excerpt