They were half a mile from the Elderberry Cafe when Annie turned the corner of Puckett Street and drove straight into a snowdrift. Her vehicle was high centered and refused to budge. Annie shifted her pickup into reverse. Sometimes it was easier to back out of the situation and add speed. Her engine revved, the wheels spun, and the pickup remained in the same spot where it had stopped.
“Do you have it in four-wheel drive?” J.R. snapped at Annie.
She sighed in resignation. “We’re going to have to get help.” They were in front of the mercantile. Someone in there had to have the equipment to tow her out of the drift.
“If you had a boyfriend like normal women your age, we could call him,” J.R. grumbled. He shoved the door open and jumped out of the pickup. He craned his neck and peered in the window. “Bob Miller is in there.”
Annie didn’t want to ask Bob Miller. She already asked him for help more times than she wanted. “This snow could stop anytime,” she groaned and prepared herself to go into the store and grovel.
It was so cold the door resisted opening and Annie had to give it a sharp shove. She jumped out with both feet for a safer landing. She turned around to see the last person she expected.
Noah Flynn knelt beside a tire and searched under the car. “I can give you a push with my Suburban.”
“Holy mother of snow!” Annie exclaimed. On any occasion, she’d have been delighted to see Noah. The last time she heard anything about him he was practicing medicine in some tropical location. His arrival at the exact moment she needed help was a sign from above. Everything was going to be okay. “Where did you come from?”
“My mother says heaven,” Noah winked. “But my father says I got here a different way altogether.”
“I don’t care which one is right. I’m just glad to see you.” Annie launched herself into Noah and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.
He wrapped his hands around her waist and gave her a warm squeeze. “It’s good to see you too.”
Hugging him felt like home. Like he hadn’t been gone for the better part of fifteen years. Annie pulled out of the hug and said, “Do you remember how to tow a car out of the snow?”
“It has to be easier than avoiding a mudslide,” he stepped away and looked at the underside of her car. “The worst thing that can happen is we can call someone with a plow to get the both of us out.”
J.R. trudged through a snowbank to the sidewalk. He clapped his gloved hands together and folded his arms in front of him. He bent down and examined the car. “It’s caught by the rear axle.”
The three of them worked together. Noah attached the tow rope to the back bumper. J.R. used his right hand to guide Noah and left hand to help Annie. In a matter of moments, Annie was freed from the snowdrift and headed toward the Elderberry Cafe with a teenager who seemed more congenial since Noah agreed to join them.
For a minute Annie’s mind made a trip to the past. A younger Annie, Noah, and Jesse crammed into the front of Jesse’s Ford Courier pickup were walking into the cafe. She’d eat her French fries dipped in her chocolate milkshake while listening to Jesse and Noah talk about plays they learned. She never imagined she’d be doing the same thing close to twenty years later.
Before they got out of the pickup to go into the cafe, J.R. reached for Annie’s hand. When he wanted her undivided attention, he’d anchor her to him with a touch. His voice held the tenderness from when he was a child and wanted something from her. “About what I said earlier. I’m sorry. That was hunger talking.”
Annie offered him a soft grin of conciliation. “Thank you for your apology.” She tapped him on the shoulder and gave a gentle shove. “Otherwise I’d have pushed you out of the vehicle.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” J.R. grinned wide enough to show the blue band on his braces. “I’m your darling boy.” He motioned to open the door and turned back to the conversation. “And, the only one who is able to give you grandchildren.”
“Not anytime soon. I hope.” Annie scowled.
“Don’t worry. I have my eyes on something bigger,” he answered. “Right now, it is a double bacon burger with tots.” He curved his body to avoid the swipe she made at his arm.
With the air between them cleared they helped each other navigate the icy parking lot to the entrance of the diner. Noah was already there and had saved two seats for them. He greeted them with, “J.R. told me the bacon cheeseburger is good enough to make him clean his room.”
J.R. rolled his eyes. “Now she will use it against me.” He pulled out the chair across from Noah and took Annie’s purse and put it in the seat beside him. “You sit on the other side of the table. This will give me room for all the food I want to eat.”
Annie chuckled at Noah’s raised brow. “He’s joking.”
The joke worked at keeping the tone light and opened the door for Noah to get acquainted with J.R.
The last time Annie had seen Noah was at Jesse’s funeral. He came back from a hospital in Panama and returned as quickly as he arrived. They had had little time to catch up. Noah entertained J.R. with stories of injuries and illnesses, and he described in detail the ones J.R. had never heard of.
The conversation gave Annie a whole new perspective on life. If she ever thought about complaining about the snow, she’d remind herself that there were people in the world who needed a doctor to extract fly larvae that had been embedded in their backs.
It was getting late, and J.R. still had homework, so Annie asked for the check. As she signed the credit card slip, she said, “If you’re not too pressed for time, we’d love to have you come by the house.”
“And take in a game,” J.R. added, “We have a chance at taking state this year.”
Annie wanted to give Noah a way out if he was too busy. She knew how visits back home went. People made more plans than they’d ever be able to fulfill. “If you can’t we understand.”
“Jesse made me promise that if anything happened to him, I’d come back and check on you.” Noah’s smile softened. “It’s what I’ve been looking forward to ever since I knew I’d be back in town.”
“How long are you going to be here?” J.R. asked. He stole a fry off of Annie’s plate and shoved it in his mouth.
Noah cast a quick glance at Annie. “I have a month to decide where I’m going next.”