Book Title: From the Boots Up
Author: Andi Marquette
Genre: F/F Romance
From the Boots Up is a runner-up in the 2013 Rainbow Awards for best contemporary lesbian romance and best lesbian novel.
Hosted by:Book Enthusiast Promotions
Meg Tallmadge has more than enough on her plate. She’s finishing up a college degree, getting ready to apply to vet school, and working another summer with her dad, Stan, on the family ranch in southern Wyoming. He’s managed to get the Los Angeles Times to send a reporter out to do a story on the Diamond Rock, which doubles as a dude ranch. Meg knows the ranch needs all the publicity it can get to bring in more customers, but she’s not looking forward to babysitting a reporter for a week. When the originally scheduled reporter can’t make it, Meg worries that they won’t get a story at all, which is worse than dealing with a city slicker for a few days. Fortunately for Stan and the ranch, the Times finds a replacement, and Meg prepares to be under scrutiny, under the gun, and the perfect hostess. She knows what this opportunity means to her father, and she’s hoping that if it goes well, it’ll ease some of the distance between them that resulted when she came out a few months earlier.
What Meg’s not prepared for — and never expected — is the reporter herself and the effect she has on her. In spite of what she feels, Meg can’t risk the fallout that could result from overstepping a professional boundary. But as the week draws to a close, it becomes clear that not taking a chance could be the biggest risk of all.
Andi Marquette was born in New Mexico and grew up in Colorado. She completed a couple of academic degrees in anthropology and returned to New Mexico, where she decided a doctorate in history was somehow a good idea. She completed it before realizing that maybe she should have joined the circus, or at least a traveling Gypsy troupe. Oh, well. She fell into editing sometime around 1993 and has been obsessed with words ever since, which may or may not be a good thing. She currently resides in Colorado, where she edits, writes, and cultivates a strange obsession with New Mexico chile.
My weekend with Tex Hollis began when I pulled into the driveway of the Lazy T-Bar Ranch west of San Antonio. I knew this wouldn’t be an ordinary weekend when Tex cast a critical eye over my shorts, t-shirt, and tennis shoes. Two days later, I was as comfortable in jeans and boots as any of the buckaroos who spent their days in the saddle—
Meg laughed and tossed the magazine back onto her dad’s huge oak desk. She leaned back in her chair and braced one booted foot on the desk’s edge. “Tex Hollis,” she said, sarcastic. “Sounds like somebody out of a Longarm book.”
Stan looked at her over the top of his reading glasses. “And since when did you start reading that?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Davey keeps a stash. He gave me one to read one night, thinking I’d like the ‘plot’.” She grinned wickedly. “The plot was way better than the sex.”
His eyes widened and she laughed.
“I told Davey that, and he never loaned me another one. I think I ruined one of his fantasies.” She pushed back farther, regarding him mischievously.
He cleared his throat. “Fantasy?”
“Please, Dad. You’re a guy. You were Davey’s age. You know what guys think about.”
His cheeks reddened and he started moving papers around on his desk. “If your mom heard that. . .” he said with exaggerated sternness.
“She’d lose her religion because I know about sex. It’d burst her bubble.” Meg moved her foot and let her chair legs fall to the floor with a thump. And then her mom would haul out her Bible and start talking about chastity.
“Well, moms were young women, too, and they don’t like to think about their daughters running wild with young guys.”
“You mean like Mom did with you?” She asked innocently.
The phone rang and he shot her a mock disapproving glare that dissolved into a smile before he answered. “Diamond Rock Ranch. This is Stan Tallmadge.” He clicked the mouse on the computer as he talked.
Meg reached across the desk for the magazine and flipped idly through it again before studying the cover. A copy of Spirit, from Southwest Airlines. A pair of worn cowboy boots with spurs stood on a workbench against a log cabin wall. A nice photo, for a stereotype.
She glanced up at him. From the conversation he was having, it sounded like the call was another reservation. They still had two spaces available for guests this month and she hoped the spots filled. This sounded like it would drop their space to one. Good.
She studied him then, noting the fine lines that spiderwebbed from the corners of his eyes and the deepening creases around his mouth. His hair, once as dark as a crow’s wing, had lightened to gray at his temples, though she often thought about him without the gray, her attempt to prevent him from aging.
The magazine cover advertised a story about Montana, and how people could get an “Old West” experience at a couple of dude ranches up there. She’d heard of them, and she wondered how the ranch owners had managed to get covered in Spirit. The Diamond Rock needed more coverage like that. Even more than what they’d get from the reporter who was coming out to bother them next week. She turned the page and a photo of a couple of men on horseback herding a few cattle caught her eye. One of the men looked like her dad. She glanced at him again as he continued to talk, doing the Diamond Rock spiel to the person on the other end.
Ranching was in his blood, just like it had been in his father’s and in his grandfather’s before him. No other place on earth would fire his spirit like Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Mountains. Meg knew that, and she knew that if he ever left, it would kill him, just as staying was slowly leaching the years from his bones as it got harder and harder to make ends meet, to get enough paying customers for the dude ranch experience even while he tried to work the ranch with fewer staff.
He looked at her, eyes the color of a summer thundercloud, like hers, she’d been told, and gave her a thumbs-up. She smiled and returned to her magazine, but she wasn’t really thinking about the article. She took after her father in demeanor and physical appearance, she knew, and it was a point of contention when her mother had lived there. But it was Stan who had made Irene “pert near crazy” with his stubborn streak and independent nature. Loyal to a fault, but unreachable in the deep down parts of his heart, he’d driven Irene right back to Kentucky nine years ago, when Meg was sixteen.
“All right,” he said. “Thanks for calling. We’ll see you next week.” He hung up, satisfied. “Full up.”
She grinned at him and placed the magazine back on his desk, relieved. “So when’s that reporter coming in?”
He leaned back in his chair and stroked his mustache thoughtfully. He looked like an old-style cowboy with it, especially when he wore his hat and duster. She thought he resembled Wyatt Earp.
“Hopefully next Friday, still. I got a call from the editor out there this morning and the writer she wanted broke her leg. So she’s trying to rustle someone else up on short notice.”
Meg hid her concern. It was already Wednesday. Next Friday was just over a week away. “Will she be able to get somebody else to come instead?” A story in the Los Angeles Times was too important. They needed the publicity.
“She’s working on it.” He tried to hide his own concern, too, but she read it in his eyes. “Might have to delay the story a little bit, if she can’t find anybody on short notice.”
He gave a little shrug. “She said maybe a couple extra weeks. Then there’s another window of opportunity in July. Which won’t be too bad.”
The dude ranching season pretty much ended here by mid-August as fall started creeping in over the mountains. Stan needed this publicity, because it wouldn’t only serve for this summer. It would continue for the next season, and the article would be on the Internet, so they could use it in more of their promo.
“Did she say who the reporter might be?” The one that had been scheduled was originally from Idaho, and Meg had talked to her briefly on the phone. She sounded nice, and she’d grown up in a ranching town, so Meg figured she’d “get” the Diamond Rock, and she’d be able to really nail that in her story.
“Nope.” He shrugged again. “I’m sure she’ll find someone who’ll do a fine job on the story. It’ll work out.”
He narrowed his eyes then. “And you’ll be damn hospitable. I don’t want to have to be telling your mom why the story that gets published in the Los Angeles Times is about somebody’s bad experience at the Diamond Rock.”
“Why would you even think that?” She looked at him, hurt.
“I know how you get,” he said, more gently. “You don’t suffer fools and, unfortunately, you’ve got some of your mom’s temper. But in this case, I need you to suffer.” He smiled at her. “No practical jokes on the greenhorn.”
Her mother’s voice echoed through her mind. “Damn it, Stan! Would you get that girl in hand?” She sighed. “I’m not sixteen anymore.”
“No, but twenty-four ain’t that far off.”
“Not yet, missy. Next week. And I can still turn you over my knee. So no bullshit. We need this publicity.” He tried to look forbidding but a twinkle danced in his eyes and she relaxed.
“Well, since I’m such a loose cannon, can I not be in charge of the reporter?” She didn’t mind playing babysitter, but if she didn’t have to, that was fine with her. She hoped whoever the Times lined up had at least a little outdoor experience.
“The way I see it, whoever they send will be here for a week and they’ll want a ‘full range’ of ranching experience, and they’ll observe and ask questions. They might or might not want a tour guide. And you’ll be an official Diamond Rock liaison, so every day, I expect you to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with the reporter. Just treat whoever it is like a regular registered guest. You’re good with that, hon. They really do like you. Don’t think of it as being under the microscope or something.”
“Great,” she said with a sigh. She imagined them all dressed up like on the set of Bonanza and she groaned softly.
“I know. It’s kind of a pain in the ass, because we do have to mind our manners even more, and you don’t know for sure what’s going to end up in print. We’ve got to make it so this reporter can’t resist writing a great story about the DR. In fact, we want this reporter to come back every chance he gets. Or she,” he corrected himself.
“I know. Don’t worry.” She reached over to the neighboring chair to retrieve her hat. “You don’t think whoever it is will be like the writer of this story”—she gestured at the magazine, “and change your name to something like ‘Slim Thompson’?” She was only half-teasing.
He pursed his lips, pretending to think. “I’m hoping for something like ‘Dutch Walters’. And maybe you’ll get to be ‘Cherry Goodnight’.”
Meg grabbed the Spirit magazine off the stack of papers and threw it playfully at him.
He caught it and tossed it onto the desk, chuckling. “You could change your middle name to Cherry before the reporter gets here. So there’d be some veracity there.”
She gave him a look and started to get up.
“Your mom called this morning,” he said, as he leaned back in his beat-up office chair. He folded his arms and regarded her with an expression that was a mixture of concerned dad but acceptance for whatever decision she might make.
She settled in her seat again, her Stetson in her lap. She rubbed her fingertips over the black felt, waiting. She got her stubborn streak from him, but hers was more pronounced. He’d told her she could outwait a rock.
“You need to talk to your mom more,” he said after a while. “She misses you.”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she studied the knotted pine wood on the walls behind his head. He waited a few more moments then leaned forward and picked up the copy of Spirit. He flipped through it as she had done earlier.
“She’s your mom,” he said, without looking up from the pages.
“She’s not really thrilled with me right now, as you know.” She watched for his reaction, but his expression didn’t change.
“So don’t talk about that.”
“That’s all she wants to talk about. It’s not like I make it a point to advertise my personal life.”
“Well.” He set the magazine aside and tugged at the hair above his right ear, something he did when he was really uncomfortable.
Meg wished she hadn’t told him, either. Wished she’d never said that the painful break-up she’d endured last fall was with a woman. Since then, he’d struggled with it, and some of their interactions were tinged with an unfamiliar stiffness.
“I’ll call her,” Meg relented.
“That’s my girl.” He said with obvious relief.
“But I drive her crazy. Even on the phone.” Her mom always asked whether Meg was seeing any nice young men at school and Meg would have to deflect those statements or tell her she was still getting over someone. Irene knew it had been a woman because Meg had told her, around the same time she’d told her dad. But since Irene had gone back to Kentucky, she’d found the Lord, and this particular Lord didn’t care much for gay people. Even those in your own family.
“She’s still your mom,” he said, tugging on his hair. “Find something you’re both interested in and keep the conversation there.”
“Yeah,” she said doubtfully. She stood up and put her hat on. “See you around, Dutchie.” She grinned at him and was out the door before he could toss the magazine after her.
She decided to put off the dreaded phone call and walked instead across the swath of hard-packed earth between Stan’s office and living space and the lodge, which had been the main ranch house before her grandfather had converted it in the fifties to accommodate space for kitchen and dining facilities that could have passed muster in a big-city restaurant. Stan had upgraded it two years ago. New appliances, better shelving, new pots and pans, new dishes. They’d even added a walk-in cooler. Alice, the chef and “Kitchen Queen,” as she called herself, more than approved of the changes. She’d been at the ranch since just before Meg’s mom had left, and she thought of her as family, now, like a favorite aunt.
She went in through the front, and the rich, heavy odor of cowboy chili greeted her, along with voices from the kitchen and the sound of a knife chopping something. She blinked in the dim dining room, after being out in the midday sun. Three long tables, decorated with blue-and-white checkered tablecloths, stood parallel to each other in the center of the big room. Each could seat fifteen on the benches, and some summers, they did. On rare occasions, they had to add another table. Meg hoped it was that kind of summer. The more paying guests, the happier her dad was.
She wiped her hands on her jeans and checked through the stack of mail on the closest table then went into the kitchen, through the swinging door that separated it from the dining room and entered Alice’s domain, which could rival something in one of those high-end cooking magazines.
“Hey, Meg,” said Anna, Alice’s prep cook, as she looked up from the cutting board on the island where she was chopping carrots.
Alice emerged from the walk-in. “Hi, sweetie,” she said with a smile that, in conjunction with her swept-up hair, made her look like a glamorous 1940s actress, even when she had her cowboy duds on, as her dad called them. Jane Russell, Meg thought. That’s who Alice looked like, though her hair was a lighter color. She was in her late forties, now, but she was just as pretty as when she’d started working at the ranch. Alice always turned guys’ heads, but she was so down-to-earth that she didn’t seem to notice.
“Would you like a sandwich? You missed lunch.” She closed the walk-in door.
“Is the chili ready?” she asked hopefully.
“Not yet. Let me make you a sandwich.”
“Are you sure? I can just—”
She raised an eyebrow imperiously. “I am the Kitchen Queen. I have spoken. Go sit down.” She gestured at the counter by the back door.
“Yes, your majesty.” She walked around the island and hung her hat on one of the pegs by the door then sat down on one of the stools, her back to the counter so she could watch Alice and Anna. “We got another reservation.”
“Oh, good. I know your dad was worried about filling up,” Alice said as she sliced bread.
“He said that the reporter that was supposed to come broke her leg.”
She stopped slicing bread and looked over at her, concern written in the lines across her brow.
“The editor is trying to find another reporter who can come out on short notice.”
She went back to her sandwich making. “Well, that’s how journalists operate. They’re used to changes in plans.” Alice finished with the bread and started slicing part of a turkey breast. “How soon can the new one come?”
“They don’t know. I guess they’re trying to keep the same schedule, if they can find someone. But they might not be able to. So maybe the next couple of weeks or July.”
“Too bad. From what your dad said, the first one sounded like a good match for an assignment like this.” She spread deli mustard on one slice of bread and mayonnaise on the other then placed the slices of meat on the mayo piece and lettuce and tomato on the mustard piece. She’d add her “secret spices” next.
“Oh, and I’m not supposed to be an asshole.”
Anna snickered and Alice looked over at her, her lips twitching with a smile. She returned her gaze to Meg. “You’re hardly that.”
“Dad seems to think I am. He kind of makes me feel like I’m a teenager, still.”
“That’s his job as a parent. To make you feel like a teenager the rest of your life. And if it’s any consolation, you’re far from being a teenager. You’re your own woman. Just remember that to your dad, you’ll always be his little girl.”
“Then why is he freaking out that I’ll be an asshole to the reporter?”
“He’s just stressed, hon. He wants to make a good impression so the story gets a lot of attention.” She went over to one of the refrigerators and took out a jar of dill pickles.
“He thinks I have Mom’s temper and he thinks I don’t suffer fools. I guess he thinks if the reporter’s an idiot, I’ll let him or her know.”
She laughed. “Nothing wrong with pointing something out, and nothing wrong with a woman having a temper. You just need to learn how to direct it appropriately. And maybe soften the blow.” She retrieved a plate from under the stainless steel counter along the back wall. “Diplomacy, love.” she said. “The art of telling people they’re idiots without making them feel too bad about it.”
Anna giggled as she reached for another carrot.
Meg grinned. “I guess I might need to work on that a little bit.”
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Alice said with a smile.
Anna finished with the carrots and put them in a plastic tub that she carried into the walk-in. She had to duck her head, since she was pushing six feet tall. She’d never played team sports, for which her height probably would have served well. She was, however, an excellent barrel racer.
“I’m not going to screw this up,” Meg said. It still stung a little, that her dad thought she might.
“No, you’re not.” Alice brought the plate over to her. It looked like something out of a food magazine, with the pickle and chips arranged artfully around the sandwich halves.
Meg smiled. “Thanks. I love your sandwiches.”
She squeezed her shoulder. “Iced tea?”
“Yes, please.” She turned so she faced the counter and bit into the sandwich. Alice made the best. “How is it that your sandwiches always taste so good?” She said after she’d swallowed.
“Made with love.” Alice winked as she put a glass of tea and a napkin on the counter next to Meg’s plate.
“You’re the best-kept secret in the West. Please don’t ever leave us. But if you do, mention the Diamond Rock on your cooking show.”
She laughed and went to clean up. “You’re your father’s daughter.”
Meg continued to eat, Anna and Alice chatting amiably behind her. When she finished, she took the plate into the dishwashing room then went back into the kitchen where Alice was checking the chili. Anna must have gone into the dining room, because one of the swinging doors was moving.
Alice handed her a spoon. “One taste. No double-dipping.”
She laughed and took a spoonful, holding it over her cupped left hand so none would spill. She blew on it and tasted it. “Oh, my God. Best. Chili. Ever.” She finished the spoonful and Alice took the utensil from her.
“Make sure you tell the reporter that.”
“I won’t have to. One taste will prove it.”
Alice set the spoon aside and continued to stir one of the big pots on the stove.
“He’s still acting weird,” Meg said after a few more moments.
She stopped stirring and gave Meg her full attention. “About your break-up with Amanda?”
“He’ll come around.”
“I think he’s hoping that I was just experimenting, and now I’ll go find a boyfriend.”
“He also just wants to make sure you’re happy.” She reached up and brushed Meg’s hair out of her face, like a mom might. “Sweetie, your dad loves you more than life itself. But he’s a little traditional in some ways, and it’ll just take him a little bit to get used to the idea. Parents always have expectations for their children, and he’s having to revise some about you.”
“I feel like I screwed up. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him.” A knot tightened in her chest, and she hated this wedge that seemed to have come between her dad and her.
Alice pulled her into a hug. “You had to. Because this is part of you, and it’s not healthy to keep that all bottled up inside. I’m proud of you, for telling not only your dad but your mom.”
Meg groaned as Alice released her. “I’m supposed to call her.”
She gave her a sympathetic smile. “You are who you are, and you’re choosing to live your life on your terms.”
“She doesn’t like my terms.”
Well, it’s not for her to decide, is it?”
“She makes it seem that way.”
“You’ll get through.” She pecked her on the cheek. “Come and talk to me later tonight if you want.”
Meg nodded. “Thanks.”
Anna came back into the kitchen and Meg waved at her before she moved to the back door, where she retrieved her hat before she went outside. Across from the dining room and kitchen about thirty yards away stood the two-story structure dubbed “the motel,” modeled after a Northwoods hunting lodge for the guests, its rooms accessible from the outside. Covered verandas sheltered the walkways. Her father lived in quarters just off the office building, also across from the motel, and the hands lived in bunkhouses. All the structures surrounded a large packed-dirt parking area, like wagons circling a campsite.
She took the outside steps of the lodge to the second floor, where she lived. She alone occupied this level, unless they had extra guests. Otherwise, she kept the extra rooms closed up. Maybe the reporter’s story would bring them enough business that they’d be able to open these extra rooms. Her bootheels made hollow sounds on the wood and the metal roof of the veranda creaked and popped in the sun. She sighed as she opened the heavy wooden door into her foyer, hung her hat on one of the pegs near the entrance, and walked down the hallway toward her bedroom, where she kept a phone.