Nestled within the Okanagan Highlands of Washington State there lies a magical place called The Promised Land.
"Thank you for calling The Promised Land Ranch, this is Heidi, how may I help you? …That is correct….Blue Valentine horses, Hancock, Driftwood…of course we can schedule a visit."
Heidi holds the phone to her chest and grabs a chewed pencil from the jar.
"Bella, can you please pass me the Rolodex and the monthly planner?"
It's a crazy busy Tuesday morning, which of course means it's the day I decide to volunteer in the main office. I help mostly with busy work - filing, charting payroll, logging overtime hours. Sounds boring but I enjoy it. Heidi, the spunky office manager, sits behind the wooden front desk where she spends most of her day on the phone with potential clients fielding questions about Promised Land while I flit around between the filing cabinets and my own smaller desk behind her. It's a chill working environment. We laugh, listen to the radio, gossip about the guests. There's an endless stream of tacky stories to tell – from guests getting lost on the trails and being found running naked after their horses, to the famous incident of a housemaid opening a suite door to find a guest tied to the bedposts clad in nothing but his spurs and a ball gag. We crack on the guests all the time; the way they sashay around the hotel lobby like it's theirs, the way they hit on the employees like they're part of the package…and that's where storytime ends. We never gossip about the employees. Heidi doesn't trust me that much.
She continues her sell to the curious customer on the phone.
"We concentrate our breeding on those bloodlines, yes we raise them on the range where they're trained and bred, mmhmmyes, sure you can stop by and have a look any time…"
We recommend early afternoon after the horses are fed and before the sun begins to set.
I rattle the rest of the spiel off in my head in time with her. I know it by heart. I've had the brochure memorized since I could read and it's hasn't changed that much over the years.
The Promised Land Ranch breeds the finest Quarter horses in the country. Luxurious guest quarters and a 16,000 square foot guest lodge are available to those looking for the complete ranch life experience, which includes horseback riding, lessons for children and adults, fishing, hikes and cook-outs. The Promised Land is open all year round.
There's one particular detail that isn't included in the brochure, however, and that's the location of the manor house. Snuggled at the edge of the property against the base of a large cliff is the main residence of Mr. Charles Swan, chief owner and operator of The Promised Land Ranch. It's also where I live. My name is Bella.
Heidi presses the phone to her ample chest again. "You can go to lunch, dear. This is going to take awhile," she rolls her eyes. I nod with a knowing smirk and close the folio where I've been reconciling yesterday's feed invoices.
"I'll bring you back a sandwich and a scone," I whisper, grabbing my purse and light blue sweater off the back of my chair before heading out the door into the sun and mountains.
My life was not one intended for manual labor or waiting in line, for lifting, digging, sweating, cursing, or sleeping on pallets, for waking up at dawn and being called in at dusk. I'm the only child of Charles and Renee Swan. I've been given everything I've ever asked for. There's an army of employees and staff at my fingertips should I need anything at all at any time of the day or night. To some it might be seen as a birthright. To me, it's a privilege, and it's in the humble presence of those around me where I feel most at ease, mostly normal. They're my wonderful extended dysfunctional family.
Charlie Swan did his best to raise me on the Promised Land without the help of my mother, his beloved wife. He provided me with everything he thought a little girl could possibly want. Don't little girls love ponies and tea parties and pink frilly dresses? Poor Charlie learned early on that daddy's little girl was more like her impetuous momma than she'd ever know – someone who'd rather make mud pies and run in the rain in her underwear than sit still for her weekly piano lesson.
It's been an idyllic seventeen, soon to be eighteen years nestled in the mountains where I was brought up. They've been filled with endless summer days spent on horseback and breezy nights relaxing on the back porch. Cold winters drinking cocoa in front of the fireplace. Christmas and Halloween parties in the lodge with the guests and their friends and families.
There's rarely ever a need to leave the ranch. School teachers come to me with their lessons. Trucks haul in food and supplies. But I do go out now and then, mostly when daddy's not around. I've been to the movies with Jasper and Sam a few times, and every month or so I take a ride to the nearest town with Esme and we have a girl's day out for lunch at the beauty salon.
"You don't need a trip to the beauty salon, Miss Bella. There's nothing they can do for you there. You're too pretty as it is," she'd tease me as we walk through the mall. We'd go anyway, just to 'pamper ourselves', as Esme called it, although she deserved to be pampered more than me. We'd get mani/pedi's, our hair washed, cut, and colored. (Esme got the color. Light brown over her gray roots. She'd say, "When you're my age, you'll put this on the list too, my dear. Until then you leave that gorgeous chestnut brown hair as it is.")
I wouldn't say it's a lonely life. I have everything I need right here. There's excitement and beauty all around me. The sky is my ceiling. The trees and mountains are my walls. And yet…sometimes I wish…late at night when I look out my bedroom window at the stars that appear so close, like they're resting right on top of the stable…I think…there's got to be something more out there meant for me.
"What are you looking at Miss Bella? Those boys over there?"
"No. I mean…they were looking at me."
"Of course they were. Get used to that, my dear."
Grabbing a freshly baked cranberry scone from the plate on the kitchen table, I push the screen door open with my hip. It was a good day to wear shorts. There's not a cloud in the clear blue sky. Warmth buzzes all around me as my shoes crunch in the gravel. My dark brown hair is pulled back into a long wavy ponytail. My bangs are pinned back with simple barrettes.
The hustle and bustle of the morning is at fever pitch; tractors pulling out of the lot heading towards the fields, horses being lead out to pasture to graze, some being lead to the barn to be groomed and shoed. The doors to the stable are thrown open. Hay arrived on carts and is tossed into the stalls in assembly-line fashion. The organized chaos of a daily workday unfolds before me. Diligent workers holler orders to and fro. Laughter erupts in the breakfast line.
There's a familiar voice calling my name. My face instantly grows a goofy smile at the friendly face strolling towards me.
Blond and tan with pearly white teeth and sleeves rolled up to his elbows, Jasper is by far the handsomest, most sweetest ranch hand in all the land, and in my humble opinion. He has an effortless way with the horses and a similar way with humans. An instant calming influence during even the most stressful situations, he's helped me through many girly freak-outs since his arrival two years ago. Hence his silly nickname for me.
"You coming down to the hole later?" he asks, wiping the sweat from his brow. "The day's turning into a scorcher."
"Can't. I'm working the night shift in the front office again," I say, chewing with my mouth open. "What's going on out here? Everyone's running around in a tizzy. Is daddy coming home early or something?"
"Yep," Jasper nods, shielding the sun from his eyes with his hand. "And he's bringing someone with him."
"Really? That's weird. Who?"
"Dunno. A new guy, I guess. Didn't think we needed one but he called ahead and told us to put a mattress in the loft."
The loft? My eyes immediately dart to the stable; a long wooden A-frame building stretched out along the perimeter of the drive with chipped paint and white double doors warped and gray with age. To me the stable has always held a strange allure, something I couldn't place, an eerie mystery that I would contemplate from the safety of my bedroom window. The loft is perched high in the eaves and had been vacant for as long as I can remember. In my grandfather's time it had been the residence of the head groomsman, Aro Volturi. I get goosebumps just looking at it.
I can't hide my surprise. It wasn't like my father to add to the staff when there was already a full house for the season. "But, no one sleeps in the stables except the horses," I say, even though it's common knowledge to all. "Carlisle doesn't even stay in there and he's the groom."
"There's no room in the bunkhouse. Emmett's staying on for the summer, so new guy either takes the loft or sleeps out under the stars." Jasper flashes me that million-dollar smile and pulls a bandana from his back pocket, tying it around his wrist. "Anyways, I gotta run." He gives me a salute and trots off towards the field, calling over his shoulder as he goes.
"It's gonna be hot today, goofy-girl! Stay out of the sun, willya! And tie your shoes!"
Huh? I look down at my feet - size nine and a half clunkers – and wouldn'tcha know, Jasper's right. Well, I thought, bending down to tie my fave pair of tennis shoes, at least I remembered to put them on this time.