More Than an Experiment

Staff Feature: Abbey Downey

July 1909
Miami County, Indiana

Cressida Wright forced her eyes back to the papers she was trying to balance on her arm while taking notes. Gawking at the farmer that her partner, Dr. Andrew Boyle, was attempting to interview wouldn’t make the man more likely to expand on his monosyllabic answers. But those icy blue eyes held so much depth that her curiosity was piqued.

And it didn’t hurt that he had perfectly wavy hair and filled out a dusty white shirt and brown vest in the most appealing way.

Next to her, Dr. Boyle was growing frustrated. He ran a hand over his grey hair and tried again. “Mr. Martin, isn’t there any information you can give us about what made your steer grow to such an impressive size?”


Leo Martin had refused to speak more than that since the moment they stepped foot on his farm. He hadn’t told them to go away, though.

Peeking around the two men who now stood in tense silence, Cressida gestured toward the barn, a well-kept building painted traditional red. “Perhaps we could go see the animal?”

Mr. Martin’s eyes flashed in her direction as he growled the longest response yet. “He has a name.”

Dr. Boyle threw up his hands and huffed back toward the train that had brought them straight to the Martin farm, muttering about a stubborn hick impeding science. But Cressida took the impassioned response as progress. Fixing a smile on her face that she hoped would communicate her genuine excitement for being there, she held her pencil at the ready. “And what is that name?”

The farmer hesitated, looking her up and down in a way that would normally make her defensive. But she sensed he was open to working with her when so many others weren’t. As a woman employed by the USDA at the Purdue University research station, she constantly had to prove she was as capable as any of the male research assistants. If this trip went well and they could secure an agreement to study Mr. Martin’s record-setting steer, it would prove she didn’t belong in the domestic sciences wing, after all.

Cressida waved toward the barn again. “I’d love to meet him. Perhaps you could arrange an introduction?”

The hint of a smile pulled Mr. Martin’s lips upward. Cressida suddenly found it hard to swallow. He was distracting enough. If he ever managed a full-blown grin, it would be impossible to focus on her work.

Without a word, he turned and headed toward the barn. Cressida took that as an invitation and followed, lifting her black pleated skirt a bit higher to avoid the mud that remained from a recent rain shower. At least she’d worn her most sensible shoes, an older pair with low heels and a stable, comfortable fit.

By the time she reached the barn, Mr. Martin stood waiting with his muscular arms crossed over an impossibly broad chest. He quirked one eyebrow at her. “What’s a lady like you doing on a research trip, anyway?”

Standing close together in the barn doorway, she could see sincere interest in his expression. But if she explained her love of agricultural research, would he tell her she ought to get married and stay home as most people did?

Letting a deep breath fortify her, Cressida took the chance. “Studying ways to improve the livelihood of Indiana farmers is my passion. There’s nothing more thrilling than discovering a new method that makes agriculture easier and more profitable.”

He nodded approvingly, his hand brushing her arm as he reached past to push the door open further. Tingles raced down her spine at the inadvertent touch and the way his voice sounded so close to her ear. “You must have some history with farming. Most government people only come to gawk at Ben.”

Ben. She smiled at the affection in his voice when he said the name. “My father comes from a long line of Hoosier farmers. If I can do anything to make this life better, it’s worth all the time and effort.”

That truth must have been what he was waiting to hear. Mr. Martin strode into the barn, explaining Ben’s history as Cressida followed. “Ben was born in 1902. His parents weren’t large, but he was already setting records at birth.” He stopped by a stall and leaned against the gate. “Here he is, the world’s largest steer, Old Ben.”

Cressida heard shuffling in the shadows, then a huge brown nose appeared, sniffing at Mr. Martin’s shoulder from much higher than she expected. She had to take a step back to look up into the animal’s intelligent eyes, framed by one horn that curved forward and one that twisted upward. “Well, hello Ben.” She let the steer sniff her hand before addressing his owner. “How tall is he?”

Pride laced Mr. Martin’s words. “Six and a half feet. Almost that long, too.”

She scribbled the details in her notes. “And you haven’t done anything unusual with him? Different feed? A special care routine?”

Mr. Martin reached up to rub Ben’s nose affectionately. “Nothing. I wasn’t trying to be difficult with your partner. There’s just no answer to those questions. I’ve treated him the same as every other animal since birth.”

Cressida couldn’t help smiling when he belied that claim by pulling a lump of sugar from his pocket and letting Ben lick it from his palm. “Except for maybe spoiling him a bit?”

Meeting her eyes, Mr. Martin finally offered the wide grin she’d been waiting for, and it was as breathtaking as she’d imagined. He took a half-step closer, his eyes warm. “Perhaps.”

Their gazes remained locked together until Ben snorted, startling them both. Mr. Martin turned serious. “I’ve resisted letting anyone study Ben because they all treated him like a specimen. But I think you appreciate him as more than an experiment. So, I’ll tell Dr. Boyle that a research team can visit. As long as you lead it.”

Warmth spread through Cressida, as grateful for the chance to see him again as she was for the opportunity to have her own research team. She returned Mr. Martin’s smile while reaching up to pat Ben’s solid neck, finally feeling as if she had an ally…and maybe something more.

Abbey Downey
A life-long midwestern girl, Abbey Downey lives in central Indiana with her husband, two kids, and one rather enthusiastic beagle. She loves filling her days with fixing up a few acres in the country and writing inspirational romance stories. She also has two books published under the name Mollie Campbell.

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