As I made my way down the grand staircase I saw Rusty and his mom standing in the foyer, along with another older man, who I judged to be Rusty’s father. Grace was fidgeting with Rusty’s collar in an endearing motherly manner, while he stood there patiently and allowed the process to be finished. The other man was not quite so patient.
“Come on, Grace, leave the boy alone,” he said gruffly. “Honestly, you’d think he was going on a date or something.”
“You never know how things could turn out…” Grace said cryptically.
Rusty saw me approaching and grimaced, “Ma…” Grace looked up and saw me at her son’s prompting.
“Annie! So good of you to join us today!” she said cheerfully.
I responded back warmly, “Thank you for including me.”
“Annie, this is my husband Reggie. He manages the farm. Trust me, it’s not often you will see him cleaned up like this,” Grace indicated the graying man standing with a cowboy hat clutched in his hands. He was wearing a western style suit, which seemed incongruous next to Grace’s earthy watercolor skirt and bright jade sweater.
“Don’t mind me,” he said, holding his hand out for me to shake. “I’m just an old hired hand around here. This lady is the one who really runs the show.” Reggie’s manner was gruff but I could make out a twinkle in his dark eyes, just like his son’s.
“And don’t you forget it,” Grace said teasingly, and then turned to indicate her son. “It sounds like you already met Russell.”
I faltered for a brief moment before responding, startled by the name change. “Y-yes. We met on the ferry yesterday.”
“What are the chances?” Grace said, beaming at her son.
I looked at Rusty as well, who was looking more than a little embarrassed at all the attention. Boy, did he look smart in his navy blue suit, made all the more endearing for the slight red that was creeping up his neck.
“Crickey, let’s get going!” Reggie huffed, putting his hat on and heading toward the door. “It’ll be Monday morning before we get to the service!”
Rusty and I made eye contact as his parents rushed out the door, Grace’s silver bracelets leading the way with their bright tinkling sound.
“Shall we?” he asked, offering his arm to me.
“Why, thank you…Russell.”
Rusty’s eyes danced as I took his arm and we trailed behind his parents.
As promised, after church and a delicious lunch that Grace had allowed to roast in the oven all morning, Rusty took me on a tour of the farm. I changed into some jeans before heading out, not sure exactly how rustic this farm was and not wanting to step in any mud piles or piles of something worse.
Rusty met me at the bottom of the stairs. He had also changed into some jeans and a pullover sweater. Man, this guy looked good no matter what he was wearing! My heart fluttered a little when his gaze fell upon me and gave me a warm smile.
“So, have you ever seen an alpaca?” Rusty asked, as we headed around the side of the house and toward the fenced-in partitions.
“Only in passing yesterday. Are they like llamas?”
“Sort of. They are in the same family, but are only about half the size,” he answered.
We approached the field that was closest to the house and leaned on the white fence. On the other side were what appeared to be baby alpacas standing close to their mothers. Their coats had a large range of colors, from snowy white to cinnamon brown to chocolate brown to black. The little ones made a bleating sound, almost like sheep, and the mothers responded with a strange hum.
“The babies are called crias,” Rusty informed me, motioning out to the field. “Some of these are almost weaned and will be separated from their mothers soon, but over there you can see some new ones.”
Rusty pointed to one side of the field where there were a few mothers huddled with their babies. The babies were standing on their own, but didn’t look quite as agile as some of the older babies. Their mothers hummed and clicked, seeming to offer a voice of encouragement. The babies’ coats looked impossibly soft, making me want to reach out and cuddle one.
We moved down to another field where there were older alpacas grouped together, grazing on the short green grass.
“These are the weaned males. They are basically like a pack of teenage boys, so you can imagine what antics they get into,” Rusty said, laughing as we watched a few of them jostle each other for a choice section of grass, humming and clicking all the while.
“Is that why you keep them separate from the teenage girl alpacas?” I asked, giving him a sly look.
A wide grin erupted across Rusty’s face. “Pretty much,” he said, playfully knocking his shoulder into mine.
One of the males approached the fence, evidently curious about his visitors. His coat was a dark chocolate brown, and he had a fuzzy white face framing eyes that looked like big black marbles.
“This is Rascal,” Rusty said, reaching out to the creature. Rascal darted his head forward to get near Rusty’s hand, but quickly pulled it back again before making contact.
“Do you name all your animals?” I asked.
“No, but this guy just seemed to be begging for a name. He’s always knocking over the feed bucket and picking fights with the other boys.”
I laughed. “Sounds like a few boys from another species that I know.” Bending down I picked a bunch of long grass that was growing by the fence. Tentatively I held it toward Rascal, hoping that he would draw a little closer.
“They’re friendly, but a little skittish,” Rusty warned. “Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t take it.”
Rascal must have heard what his master said and felt the need to contradict it, because he approached me in a more deliberate manner than he had to Rusty. I gently shook the stalks of grass, trying to tempt him with their green smell. He bobbed his head a few times, and then finally went in for the bite. Before he could move back I reached out and touched his head. Just as quickly, Rascal pulled back and bobbed his head a few more times, letting out a funny bleat. He came close again, hoping for some more grass but avoiding my hand all the same.
I laughed out loud. “He is so cute!” I cried. “And so soft!”
Rusty chuckled. “Yeah, this boy’s a charmer, that’s for sure. I’m surprised he let you touch him.”
“Barely,” I said, “I wish he would just let me pet him.”
“They never let you do that,” Rusty said, shaking his head. “They may be curious, but they don’t like to be handled at all. It makes it all the harder when we have to shear them.”
“When do you do that?”
“In the spring. We are probably going to do it later this week, actually, before it gets too hot. Maybe you will get to see us in action.”
After exploring the barn and chicken coop we headed back to the house. Not ready to end our time together quite yet, I sauntered over to the porch swing and sat down. There was just enough room for one other person on the seat and Rusty looked at it a little undecided. We would be pretty cozy. He opted to lean against the porch rail and I let out a tiny disappointed sigh.
Looking out at the fields, I sat quietly for a few minutes breathing in the early evening air. As the sun began to set I noticed that the noises that surrounded me transformed. Instead of hearing animals calling to each other, I could hear the wind rustling in the trees that surrounded us and the gentle chirrup of tiny frogs hiding in the grass.
“It’s really beautiful here, Rusty,” I finally said, reluctant to disturb the tranquility of the moment.
“I agree. I grew up here. I was born in this very house, as a matter of fact.”
“Yes. My great-grandfather was an old homesteader, trying to find a place to settle. Finally he found a group of settlers wanting to establish some property on these islands. My great-grandmother was adventurous herself, so she was up for the challenge. Back then, there were no ferries, of course, so this was very remote territory. They settled in this valley, starting small, but they had big dreams. They started the foundation for this house but my great-grandfather didn’t live to see it completed. My grandfather had a great mind for business. He started a few companies here and there, all so he could fund the building of this house, but none of them really took off. Finally he heard a travelling trader talking about the popularity of alpaca fiber. It was highly prized and quite expensive, since alpacas were only raised in South America. My grandfather liked to think outside of the box. He saw a great business opportunity. He invested in enough alpacas to get a herd started, and then began selling the fiber. People around here went crazy! The fiber is so soft, it is compared to cashmere, and yet it is also a great insulator, as good as wool. Everyone had to have some for themselves. He couldn’t produce it fast enough. He was able to complete this house within two years of starting his alpaca herd.”
“That’s amazing!” I said, looking back up at the beautifully crafted home.
“I can’t help but think of how proud my great-grandfather would be, looking down on what this property has grown into. He had such grand dreams, but I bet he couldn’t have even imagined all this.”
I smiled, thinking of how amazing it would be to have such a connection to one’s past.
After a brief pause, Rusty continued. “Of course, this wasn’t always an inn. My mother was the mastermind behind that evolution. Unfortunately, it was out of necessity. Although we are still producing plenty of fleece, it is harder to sell now. People are more interested in synthetic fibers because they are so much cheaper to make. It was becoming too difficult to run the farm, and my parents were afraid of losing the entire property. Converting it into an inn helped bring in just enough extra revenue to keep everything afloat.”
“You said that I have been the only guest all winter and things have been slowing down. Is everything still okay with the farm?” I asked, concerned about this amazing family property.
“Well, that’s actually why I was on the mainland last week and met you on the ferry. I was meeting with some investors, hoping they would be willing to keep us going.” Rusty looked down at his hands, fidgeting with his thumbs.
“So what happened?”
Rusty shrugged, trying to look nonchalant but not quite succeeding. “They weren’t interested. I’ll just have to come up with another plan.”
I unconsciously stopped rocking the swing, a sudden idea grabbing hold of me.
“Rusty, if your inn was booked full of guests every weekend, would that be enough to keep the farm running?” I asked, my excitement difficult to contain.
“Well, yes, but…”
I interrupted him. “Do you know what I do for a living? I work in advertisement! I know there are ways that we could help promote this amazing place! We could get it so full of guests your mother won’t even know what hit her!”
A smile crept across Rusty’s face as realization dawned on him, until finally it reached those dark dancing eyes.
We put our heads together and started to make a plan.
Check back tomorrow to see how the plan goes!