The third book in the Three Creeks, Montana series is set to launch this weekend. I thought I’d give you a little peek at what’s behind the cover…
Katie had tried on more than one occasion to convince Sarah to attend Ladies’ League. Tonight Sarah would accept her invitation.
While she crossed the parking lot, Sarah passed a pickup that could have been mistaken as Ryan’s. She almost stopped to check but talked herself out of the conclusion. Ryan was working somewhere in the countryside. Besides several people owned black, Chevy, one-ton pickups. She took an inventory of the vehicles in the lot. There were two other pickups that looked similar to it in the lot. Sarah took a mental picture to remind herself where she parked and headed inside to find her friend.
Just as she predicted, Katie was at the counter choosing shoes. She had her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. The pocket of her pink flannel shirt was edged with lace. Sarah remembered the shopping excursion when they bought it. When Katie’s eyes connected with Sarah, she pressed her fingers to her lips. Her brows wrinkled into a singular line. Through a fake grin she usually used on men she wanted to brush away, Katie greeted Sarah, “What are you doing here?”
Thinking she may have misinterpreted Katie’s invitation Sarah backtracked. Her eagerness to be out with friends waned to awkward embarrassment. She pointed at the sign behind the counter. “It’s ladies’ league night.” She frowned. “Or does that mean it’s all female teams play tonight?”
“No, this is our night!” Vada answered. She gestured with her thumb. “Except for the one village idiot over there. It’s all women.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah noticed that Katie flinched. The reaction compelled her to take a gander at the one man in a bowling alley full of women. His broad shoulders and narrow waist seemed familiar. Sarah dismissed the feeling that she knew the man. The only person she knew with that body structure was Ryan. It couldn’t be him because he was working overtime. She saw a couple women wearing red fedoras giving each other a high five. In the lane next to them, four women in matching pink bowling shirts danced along with the music playing on the overhead system. When her eyes returned to the last lane in the alley, Sarah blinked. Was that her Ryan patting Barbie on the backside right before she dropped the ball? The ball wobbled and landed in the gutter. Sarah’s world transitioned into a series of slow-motion movement reels. Barbie walked up to Ryan and slapped him on the arm. Ryan dodged the hit and made a grab for Barbie. He reached for her waist and pulled her into him. She laughed, then he laughed, and Sarah’s heart dropped. There was no way to misinterpret the situation.
Through the buzzing sensation that threatened to take over her head, she heard Katie’s voice. “I am so sorry.” Some other words followed, but they never made it through the rush of indignation that filled Sarah’s head.
As if he sensed her presence, Ryan turned his head to where Sarah stood. His eyes met Sarah’s across the room, and his mouth formed a perfect circle. From there the world returned to regular speed. Ryan stepped away from Barbie who followed his eyes. She waved with her fingers at Sarah. Sarah wanted to wave at both of them with one finger. She held up her hand to do it then remembered where she was and slapped it down.
Sarah wasn’t the type of person to cause a scene. Then again, she never contended with high concentrations of whatever hormone resulted from anger. She turned on her heel and marched out the door. The cool air hit her and siphoned the oxygen from her lungs. Sarah clutched her chest and gasped for air. This had to be a figment of her imagination or a bad dream. She took a couple more steps toward her car. The next thing she knew, she was in front of the pickup. Ryan’s pickup. It turned out it was his. The Montana shaped air freshener she bought him hung from the rear-view mirror.
Ryan called out to her, “Sarah! Wait a minute.”
She didn’t want to talk to him. If she saw him ever again, it would be too soon. Sarah tried to remember where she parked her car. The location eluded her, and she cursed under her breath. The chaos in her mind was almost too much. She took a breath, and the fog lifted. She took another breath and realized that she had been holding her breath since she left the building.
By this time, Ryan had caught up to her. His chest heaved with his exhalation. He did that when he was trying to get out of trouble with her. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Meaning to talk! You were at the restaurant today.”
Then she remembered Barbie was there. “Did you bring her to Keane’s?”
Ryan set his hands on his waist. “No, that was just a coincidence. Kaitlin wanted to bring me some lunch.”
“Kaitlin. Her name is Kaitlin.” Where were her words? Indignation for being treated like a fool mixed in with the sting of betrayal had her floundering.
“Sarah, you had to have sensed things weren’t going well between us.”
“No, Ryan. I couldn’t because you were working overtime.” A light bulb flashed in her mind. “Oh, you weren’t working overtime, were you?”
“It’s nothing personal. You’re nice. She’s just more suitable to my lifestyle.”
“Is everything okay out here?” Sarah looked toward the building that had bowling pins painted on the front wall. Katie, Vada and the two red hat ladies stood on the curb. The red hat ladies had their arms crossed in front of them as they shook their heads in a display of disgust.
“Yes, everything is okay,” Sarah said.
“Are you sure?” One lady said. “I am friends with Ryan’s mother. I can talk to her.”
If she wasn’t so angry, Sara would have thought the situation was funny. Her boyfriend of four years cheated on her, and someone offered to tell his mother on him.
“That’s okay, Mrs. Jenkins,” Ryan called out. “This is something we can handle like adults.”
“Like adults,” set off a trigger in Sarah. She pulled her leg back and kicked Ryan’s tire. The force of her foot connecting with the tire sent a ricochet of pain through her leg. “Doh!” She groaned in pain.
She heard an older woman’s voice call out, “You should have kicked Ryan, honey. He’s the one that deserves it.”
Katie rushed to Sarah’s side and reached for her arm. At this point in the conversation, other women joined the crowd forming at the door. Katie pulled on Sarah’s arm to guide her away from the conversation. “He isn’t worth it.”
Her friend’s words sank in. Sarah was already embarrassed. Ryan not only cheated on her; God only knew how many people in the town knew about it. Her erratic behavior would only add to the small-town talk. Sarah grit her teeth. “Your right.”
She marched to the convenience store across the street from the bowling alley. “Where are you going?” Katie called after her.
“To buy a bottle of wine.”
Katie called out to Vada. “I’ll go with her to make sure she’s okay.”
Calls of encouragement in the effect of “If you need someone to share that bottle with you, let us know,” followed Sarah to the store.
When Sarah’s nerves were rattled, her go to beverage was a soothing cup of tea. With the frequent zaps of misdirected energy, Sarah knew the situation called for something stronger. She chose a bottle that had flowers on the edge of the label. If it had flowers on it, it had to taste good, right? The cashier regarded Sarah with questioning eyes. “Is there anything else I can get for you?” A sign above the cashier’s head read Powerball $25,432,103. The countdown, from five to zero, in the middle-caught Sarah’s attention. She pointed at the sign and said, “What are the odds of that?”
The cashier’s face wrinkled. Sarah looked at the person’s name tag. It read Chance. He said, “The Powerball runs twice a week.”
It was just another instance of miscommunication in the joke that had become Sarah’s life. She said, “I’ll buy one. What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
Chance replied, “You could win.”
Here is where the excerpt ends. Honey, I’m Home is available for purchase at
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“Go live your life,” her parents said. “You can get a husband after you’ve seen the world.” Her father encouraged. Her mother added, “Don’t make the mistakes we made and anchor yourself to responsibilities when you’re young.”
Grace Hudson followed her parent’s advice. Now she was the only one in her group of friends who was single. She sighed and took one last look at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her brown hair shaped into barrel curls hung on her shoulders. Grace spoke to her reflection, “Am I expecting too much?”
Her friends would argue, yes.
“And we still love you,” her best friend, Wendy would add.
It had to be true. They all had boyfriends. Boyfriends that allowed them to go to a concert for a girl’s night on Valentine’s Day. Grace’s last boyfriend broke up with her when she wanted to go to a women’s retreat in France for a month. Since then she had navigated life solo. Whenever she went out with someone, she compared men to him. His lack of response to her texts left a clear message. There were no second chances.
But that wasn’t what tonight was about. It was about having a good time. Grace smiled at a woman who entered the bathroom as she was leaving to meet her friends at the concession stand. She stopped short when a man oblivious of her presence darted by. He was in the middle of an animated conversation with…Grace froze. She could have sworn the stranger was talking to Wendy’s boyfriend, Matt.
Grace focused on the stranger. She recognized the wavy brown hair that peeked out beneath the baseball cap. From the back, his muscular frame did not resemble anyone she knew. Her gut told her to look again. There was something familiar about the man. She shook aside the feeling and wondered if Matt got tickets to the concert to keep tabs on Wendy. That would explain why he was willing to let her go without him. Grace found Wendy in the crowd. “Did you know Matt was here?”
Wendy’s face flushed. “It is Valentine’s Day.” Her eyes darted to their friends, Alana and Sarah, and pleaded for support.
Sarah’s lips folded in on themselves. Her red lipstick formed a downward shape curve. “We bought the tickets six months ago.”
“Yes,” Wendy exclaimed. Her auburn hair made the red on her cheeks even more pronounced. “Yes, Matt is here. He is with Clark.”
“Why did you have to include me in this?” Alana whined. Apparently, her boyfriend was at the concert too.
“She would find out when we sat down,” Sarah held her palms up. “The guys are in the same row as us.”
Grace saw the picture. Her friends didn’t come to the concert without their boyfriends. Technically they did, but once they got to the venue they planned to meet up. The cute backside she saw with Matt came to Grace’s mind. “Did you set me up?”
“No.” Wendy leaned away from the conversation. Her eyes widened at something behind Grace. Grace turned to see Matt and the mystery man walk away. They turned. But not before Grace caught a glimpse of the man’s chin. Her gut was right. She knew the man. Still, she had to ask. “Is that?” she stammered. It couldn’t be. She hadn’t seen Tanner Peterson in three years. Or at least not in person. She had seen pictures of him on her friend’s social media profiles. He unfriended Grace after he broke up with her. He wanted to get married but not to someone who would set a relationship with him on the back burner. Grace saw the writing on the wall. She and Tanner were in different places in life. At the time Grace thought them breaking up was a good thing.
Then she came home from the retreat and her father died. Her mother who was a widow at forty-nine shook her head in bewilderment. “I thought for sure we’d have a fortieth and fiftieth anniversary.”
Then the tune changed. “Grace, you need to find a husband.”
Like they pop out of a garden during husband season and she needed to pick the one that suited her taste.
“You need a man that can make you smile when you’re in a bad mood.”
That Grace could agree with. She wanted someone she could laugh with. Regret hit her. Especially when she saw an article about Tanner on social media. He played games with children at the hospital. Grace assumed Tanner’s new girlfriend was the parent of one of the children. Or he was dating a nurse and wanted to impress her. Regardless of why he was doing it, one thing was obvious; Grace blew it.
“Yes,” Alana confessed. “We bought an extra ticket thinking you’d have a boyfriend by now.”
“By now?” Grace winced.
“Don’t take it like that,” Sarah rubbed Grace’s shoulder. “We were thinking it would suck if you had a boyfriend and all of us had tickets but he didn’t.”
Grace wanted to be mad. They bought the tickets six months ago. They’d known all along their boyfriends were coming along and nobody said a thing to her. It was a conspiracy. They could have told her the truth and she could have offered her ticket to a couple. Then she’d be alone on Valentine’s Day. Embarrassment set in. She was so pathetic she couldn’t get a date for Valentine’s Day.
“Don’t be mad,” Wendy pleaded. “Consider it our Valentine’s Day present to you.”
They thought it was a present to set her up with an ex-boyfriend who hadn’t talked to her in three years.
“Does he know about this?” Grace pulled at the curl closest to her chin.
“No,” Alana said.
The air left Grace’s chest. Her mind flew to the quickest way to get out of the situation. She pulled out her phone to check the time. It was almost seven. If she drove home soon, she’d be home by nine. It wasn’t the best Valentine’s Day. But her friends saved her from wallowing alone in front of the television. “So, he wouldn’t know if I didn’t come.”
“Okay, we lied,” Wendy blurted. “He knows.”
“He wanted it to be a surprise,” Sarah added. “You weren’t supposed to see him until you saw him at the seat.”
Grace’s eyes instinctively darted to where she remembered where she last saw Tanner. Wendy pulled on her hand to get her to turn back toward the group. “He wants to see me?” Her voice hitched. “Why didn’t he just call me?”
“That’s for him to explain,” Wendy replied. “Just give him a chance.”
Butterflies took over Grace’s stomach. The last time she and Tanner spoke came to her mind. “One day, you’ll regret this decision. By then I’ll have found someone better than you and moved on.” She spent the years wondering what better than her was. Was better than her taller, funnier, prettier, smarter?
Alana didn’t give Grace time to answer. “I’m buying the first round of drinks.” She joined the line in front of the concession stands. Wendy pulled Grace in the opposite direction of where the men were talking. “This will be fun.”
Sarah chimed in. “The worst thing that can happen is you’ll pick up where you left off.”
Grace didn’t want to think about the worst thing that could happen. Sarah left out a multitude of other possibilities. So, Grace tried to ignore the empty seat beside her. Singing along with the music on the PA system helped. Taking selfies and posting them to social media set her mind at ease. She almost forgot about the person in the empty seat beside her when the lights in the arena dropped. The stage lights flashed across the front curtain. Live music blared loud enough to send vibrations of energy through Grace’s body. A sense of anticipation filled her. The audience clapped in a rhythm that matched the drum’s beat.
Shuffling in the seats to her right caught Grace’s attention. People stepped back and Tanner sidestepped his way closer to her. His eyes glowed with expectation. The wide smile on his face erased all of Grace’s concerns. He didn’t stop when reached the edge of the empty seat. He wrapped his arms around Grace’s shoulders and hugged her. She melted into his chest and wrapped her arms around his back. Tanner tightened his hold and kissed Grace on the top of the head. They remained in the embrace for a couple seconds. It felt like home to Grace. She forgot she missed the feeling until it returned.
The pain of being apart came at Grace and forced tears to her eyes. Tanner wiped them away with his thumbs. Grace sniffled to push them back. Tanner leaned in to speak in her ear. He said, “Me too, baby,” and kissed her gently on the lips. Then he said, “We’re here to have some fun. You ready for a Valentine’s Day we’ll both remember.” The excitement in his voice made Grace laugh. She nodded, he winked, and they both started clapping in unison.
Wendy bumped Grace with her hip. She leaned in and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day best friend.” Grace bumped her back. “Happy Valentine’s day to you too.”
From her post in the kitchen, Annie listened to Noah tell J.R. stories from their childhood. She sipped her cup of coffee while leaning against the kitchen island. A lot of the stories she hadn’t known about because they came from a time when it was just Jesse and Noah. While she was off doing the things young teenage girls do, Noah and Jesse tested their wits against life.
“One time your dad and I got this crazy idea that we could move faster than alkali absorbed.” He chuckled and added, “Which, now that I think about it, made little sense. On more than one occasion our fathers’ tractors got stuck when the soil didn’t match their expectations. If something with a wide surface area couldn’t make it, it would have been easier for something with a tire this thick to sink.”
J.R.’s chuckle at Noah’s insight sent rays of warmth through Annie. She leaned against the counter with her cup of coffee in her hand. The further Noah got into the story, Annie remembered how the story ended. Right after the two friends recovered their vehicles from the muck, a cleaned up Jesse stopped by her house to ask her to a barn dance. Noah got grounded. Jesse, in need of another companion, invited Annie instead. That began the story of Jesse and Annie.
She joined the two in the living room. J.R. sat on the couch with his leg perched on a stack of pillows. They reset the bones in his leg and had him in a red cast that went to the bottom of his knee. Noah sat in the recliner he moved to position himself across from J.R.’s head. The pain medication they gave J.R. in the hospital had taken effect, and he blinked to fight off to sleep.
Noah spoke to Annie, “It looks like I’m losing him.”
“He does it to me all the time,” she joked. Glad that her son was at home and comfortable, Annie brushed a piece of J.R’s hair away from his eyebrows. Sure, she loved her mother and sister, but maternal love drove her to keep moving when she thought the world ended. She didn’t know what she would do if anything happened to J.R.
“What time is it, anyway?” Noah asked.
They both glanced at the clock she made. Framed pictures of J.R. at different stages of his life made up the different times.
“It is four in the morning,” she exclaimed while looking down at the empty cup of coffee in her hands. “Maybe I shouldn’t have drunk this.”
“I’m glad you did.” The corners of Noah’s mouth curved to form a mischievous grin. “That means we have the time to make breakfast together.”
Annie did a quick mental inventory of the items in the pantry. She didn’t feel comfortable offering her staples of oatmeal, Honey Nut Cheerios, and breakfast cookies. Then it came to her. She had biscuit mix. And in the basement, her box freezer full of venison supplied the protein for a quick meal. They had made some into sausage. “If it isn’t too small town for you, I could make us some sausage biscuits and gravy?”
Noah groaned his delight. “Sausage biscuits and gravy. That’s what I love about coming home. Eating the food that I grew up with.” He wriggled his fingers. “I make a mean biscuit.”
Annie pulled out the biscuit mix and gravy mix and handed them to Noah to place on the counter. He followed her to the basement. Annie found the package of sausage and handed it to Noah. “Jesse’s dad gives us half of his deer every season.” He called her at the hospital and said he’d be by the house in the afternoon to check on his grandson. He’d have more food and stories to share to console J.R.
From out of nowhere Noah said, “You’re doing all right, Annie.”
While she appreciated his assessment, Annie wrinkled her brow in confusion. She didn’t know where it came from, or why he shared his opinion with her.
Noah explained, “I don’t know what I expected.” He shrugged. “A more fragile version of the person I remembered from when we were growing up?” He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, “Instead, you seem stronger.”
“I have my days,” Annie admitted. “I wasn’t feeling strong when I was stuck in the snow the other day. Thank you for helping us.”
“To be honest, I’m glad you were stuck.” Noah played with a strand of hair that rested on Annie’s shoulder. “It brought us back together.”
“I’ve been here the whole time,” Annie answered.
“That’s not what I mean,” Noah’s voice softened.
Annie’s heart fluttered at the change in his tone. The voice in her head reminded her that Noah was there for J.R. Before she made a fool of herself, Annie held up the package of sausage, said, “We should get this in the pot. It’ll take a while to cook,” and headed for the kitchen.
Noah talked while she browned the sausage. “When I was in Jinotepe the women brought me fresh tortillas for breakfast every day.”
“Was there a special tortilla baker in your life?” Annie pried for more information about his life outside of Ashbrook.
He fiddled with the utensil drawer. She saw a slight blush in his cheeks. “One or two.”
She had to give Noah credit. He had the decency to blush. She smiled at the change from the Noah she remembered. When they were in high school, he’d tell Jesse and Annie every detail of his dates. There were still a couple of women she couldn’t look in the face because of some things Noah shared.
“What about you? Have you dated since Jesse?” He paused as though he was searching for the correct word, then said, “Left?”
Three years had passed since Jesse died. He died doing what he loved, riding the quad. So while she was sad for herself, she always thought if it was his time to go, that was the best way for it to happen. “No, I didn’t have it in me to see anyone else.” She admitted. “And, J.R. keeps me busy.”
“Jesse said that would happen.” A wrinkle formed in the middle of Noah’s brow.
“What?” Annie had no idea Jesse and Noah talked about her. Although it made sense. He survived cancer in his twenties. After facing death, he approached life differently. Sometimes when they laid in bed, he’d ask her what she’d do without him. Annie always replied that she didn’t want to think about life without him. Now she was living it. If he were to come back and ask how she was doing, Annie would have said that she was right. Life without him was too hard.
“You’re too young to stop living.” Just as Noah said it, the timer signaling that the biscuits were finished baking went off.
The sound startled Annie into moving. She pulled the oven mitts out of the drawer and opened the door. After the initial wave of heat passed, Annie inhaled the aroma of warm biscuits and her mouth watered. As she set them on the counter, she said, “I need to get your biscuit recipe.”
“Some things are best kept secret,” Noah’s eyes sparkled. “Besides, if I don’t tell, you’ll invite me back.”
Annie wished it were true. That he’d stick around to make biscuits whenever she had a taste for them. But she said nothing because it would be too harsh to remind Noah that he was only in town for a visit and then he’d be off living his life of adventure.
I am pleased to announce that For A Visit is available for purchase at your favorite online book retailer. If you like what you’ve read so far download a copy.
The start of the third quarter went off with an intensity that made Annie glad she gave the taco in a bag to Darry. Her gut clenched with the tension. The Paradise Hills Panthers must have had an interesting pep talk from their coach. They executed more physical plays. From her seat in the middle of the stands, Annie saw elbows jut out a little further. One player backed up and poked out his butt with such an intensity it tripped Andy mid layup. The six-foot four center recovered, but it was too late. He missed the shot.
If the strategy was an attempt to intimidate the Ashbrook Eagles into submission, it didn’t work. The players took the negative energy and used it to their advantage. After every free throw they made, they threw out a little fist bump and nodded in determination. They intended to beat their rival.
Annie wanted to look away but kept her eyes glued on her son. She watched the Panthers player throw a shoulder into J.R. Both boys were running at full speed, and the action caught J.R. off guard. His arms flailed as he adjusted his body to recover from the shift in momentum. It didn’t work. J.R. fell to the ground like a building that crumbled in a detonation. The hush of silence in the stand was almost deafening.
One dad who sat in the left row of the bleachers called out, “Shake it off J.R.”
J.R. sat up, and the crowd gasped a collective sigh.
“I think he can’t get up.” Annie heard the concern in Hazel’s voice. When Hazel wasn’t baking pies at the Elderberry Cafe, she sat in the same place in the stands and cheered on her favorite team. Rather than turn around and make sure, Annie devoted all her senses to her son as though wishing him better would make it happen. Through her hand that covered her mouth, she whispered, “Get up son. Please.”
J.R. writhed in pain, and her heart sank to her stomach. Instinct kicked in, and Annie pushed her way through the people between her and the aisle. She ignored the whispers of, “I hope he’s okay,” and “That does not look good.”
Annie hustled down the stairs. Hoping against hope that J.R. would be fine, she stopped at the boundary line of the basketball court. The last thing her son would want was for the team to get a technical foul because his mother coddled him. She craned her neck to get a better view of her son. Officials and his teammates surrounded him and blocked Annie’s view. Under her breath, she muttered, “This is not supposed to happen.” But she knew injury came with playing athletics.
Noah wrapped his arm around her shoulder to offer a side hug. “I’ll take care of this.”
Annie had never been so thankful to have a friend as a doctor. She nodded her assurance in him. As much as things changed, they remained the same. Twenty years ago, Noah was on the court with Jesse. Now he was there in proxy offering support to Jesse’s son. Noah marched to the circle the team of boys formed around J.R. They separated to make room for him and reconverged when he bent down to assess the situation.
Murmurs of speculation drifted from the stands. “I’ll bet you twenty bucks it’s broken,” was followed by, “I’m not stupid enough to take that bet. That family has had nothing but bad luck.”
Although their comments weren’t anything Annie wanted or needed to hear, it was her truth. It began when the doctor diagnosed Jesse with prostate cancer at nineteen. From there, she and J.R. worked through an unfair share of hardship. They didn’t have time to complain. As soon as they recovered from one situation, another one they never saw coming presented itself.
Lennie Archer, her neighbor from down the street, approached Annie. The man wore a maroonish red, long sleeve t-shirt with “will work for beer” written in black letters across his chest. Annie noted that at least Lennie had the decency to wear a shirt that coordinated with the school colors. He looked Annie in the eye and offered a hopeful smile. “If it’ll make you feel better, I can hold your hand.”
Annie blinked in shock. “Um, I think I’ll be fine.” She inched away from Lennie and shoved her hands behind her back just in case he didn’t believe her. “Thank you for your support.”
“I’ll be right over there.” Lennie pointed to an empty spot in the middle of the front row. “If you need anything just holler.”
She had to give the man credit; he tried to be nice. It wasn’t his fault that the thought of holding hands with him made her want to hurl. Annie forced a grin and said, “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” and turned to face the middle of the basketball court. Two boys had their hands on their chin as they spoke to each other. Their postures confirmed what Annie feared. She would not like what they saw.
Darryl came up alongside Annie and stood with her in silence. The two of them had been a part of each other’s lives since elementary school and fluently spoke the silent language of close friendship. He didn’t need to say a word for Annie to understand that he worried alongside and for her.
Lisa joined them and stood on the left side of Annie. “Noah’s out there taking care of him. Everything will be fine. Just watch.”
Just then, Andy’s twin brother Rodney trotted to where Annie stood. “The trainer wants to talk to you.”
Lisa, Darryl, and Annie exchanged glances of concern. Annie’s heart raced faster with each step she took alongside Rodney. Her pulse stopped, and the world spun when Annie saw the lump in the middle of J.R.’s leg.
Nobody had to say anything. Annie knelt on the ground beside J.R. who was laid out flat on the ground. His eyes dilated, and his bangs clung to the sweat on his forehead. His voice croaked, “I don’t think I’ll be able to take out the trash when I get home.” Annie choked back the cry that came with her son’s attempt at humor. She took J.R.’s hand in hers and said, “We’ll get you fixed up son.”
He groaned, “I know Mom. Noah’s a doctor.”
There was the teenage son she remembered. He had to let her know she missed the obvious. In the midst of her eye roll to hide her relief, Annie’s esteem of Noah changed. She apologized for getting jealous when he flirted with the younger woman. Her interpretation of the relationship shifted, and she thanked God for bringing a man into her son’s life to help him through this difficult period.
The stands in the high school gym vibrated with energy from the crowd. On the left side, it was a sea of red and white. Some high school students wore wigs while others used colored hairspray to show their school pride. With every basket scored by the Ashbrook Eagles the frenzy grew. Men hooted and hollered, and women cheered. “Get that basket, Nickerson!” or “Way to go Eagles!”
A mixture of pride and concern filled Annie. J.R. had been in the game for most of the first and second quarter. He was a good athlete and handled the pressure from the crowd well. However, the momentum could change with one timeout session. The other team could go back on the court with a new game plan. Then, cheers of adoration would take the form of harsh rebukes, “Go for the rebound,” or “Block your man.” J.R. said the criticism didn’t bother him, but he always stayed after and threw one hundred free throws for every one he missed when the team lost a game.
When Noah arrived, he headed straight to the scoring stand and took a seat beside the coach’s wife. He didn’t acknowledge Annie at all. No wave, or head tilt of hello. It was as if she wasn’t in the building. She sank. Perhaps she thought more of the two dinners they had shared. Maybe he was just being friendly. Annie shrugged away the rebuff, concluding that her loneliness clouded her interpretation of the situation.
After she and Jesse married, things changed. The best friends whittled down from three to two when Jesse and Noah pushed her out of the triangular relationship. She reminded herself that Noah was Jesse’s best friend and was probably making sure the absence of a father didn’t hamper J.R.’s progress.
Annie forced herself to adjust her thinking. Was she attracted to Noah? Of course. Only someone who suffered from blindness or oblivion would fail to notice how handsome he was. Annie overheard Lisa from the donut shop joke about adding some extra sprinkles to Noah’s pastry. The women who sat beside her snickered while agreeing with her.
A woman that had to be at least ten years younger and twenty pounds lighter than Annie sidled up to Noah and confirmed Annie’s conclusion. The smile he offered the young tart, filled Annie with an anger she didn’t know existed. She tasked Noah for being too familiar with someone much younger than him. It should have been obvious that the time they spent together was for J.R.’s benefit. How could she have thought he had any interest in a single mother who had a pie addiction?
Hallmark Channel stories about high school friends reconnecting in their later years happened to other people. Annie stood to go visit the concession stands. Surely, they had something to help her take her mind off the relationship that never was. The quarter was almost over, and if she left now, she’d beat the rush.
The buzzer rang just as Annie reached the counter. Allowing the foul mood she developed to guide her decision, she ordered what she wanted. “I’ll have a Pepsi, a Snickers bar, some popcorn and…” she paused and added, “I should get something healthy to go with this. I’ll also take some nachos in a bag.” Normally, a concoction of Doritos topped with taco meat, nacho cheese, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream would have given her the worst case of the day after consumption regrets. Annie didn’t care. It was her body and her life.
Carly, the cashier, peered around Annie. “Is anyone here to help you carry all this stuff?”
“I’ll shove the candy in my pockets, and it’ll be fine.” Annie’s voice gave off more confidence than she felt. As she paid the $9.50 for the armful of food to drown her sorrows, impulse eater’s remorse struck her. She grinned at Carly, “I’m sharing the popcorn with some friends.”
“Do you want me to help you carry some of that?” Darryl the auto shop teacher offered.
Annie took one look at the grease under his fingernails and thought better of accepting his help.
She placed the nachos in a bag in his hands. “I bought these for you.”
Darryl’s face brightened. “You didn’t have to do that?”
“It’s the least I could do for your kindness.”
“Why, thank you.” Darryl took his reward and stepped forward in the line. “Can I get a Pepsi to go with this.” He waved the bag in Annie’s direction and nodded a last thank you.
Annie rushed to get into the gymnasium before the second half of the game started. If she hadn’t tried to rush, she might have missed bumping into Noah. This time he stepped back and held his hands in the air to avoid the collision. “You have an interesting way of getting close to people.”
“Sorry about that. I was trying to get back to my seat.”
Noah’s eyes searched the basketball court where the team was taking practice shots. Annie knew when he found J.R. because Noah’s eyes targeted in on him. His face changed to show his appreciation. “My memory may have distorted facts, but from what I remember about Jesse, I think J.R. plays better than his father.” He turned back to focus on Annie. “And Jesse was one helluva player.”
Smiling at the shared memory, Annie said, “I’ll tell him you said so.”
“Make sure you do. I want him to know he has the potential to play in college if he wanted.” Something behind Annie caught Noah’s eye, and he moved in the direction.
She walked back into the gym and stopped before climbing the stairs to her seat in the bleachers.
The logical conclusion came to her. Noah and J.R. had formed a friendship. She was just a conduit. A pinch of sadness touched the edge of her conscience. The last thing she expected when they reconnected was the distance between them would remain. With the mystery of Noah’s intention being solved, she went back to her place in the stands and waited for the next half of the game to begin.
Seeing Noah the day before added fuel to Annie’s fire to get tone. While he failed to age, she looked like life had put her through the wringer and forgotten to leave her out to dry. She regarded the tiger stripes around her waist and the laugh lines around her eyes with pride. Both marks of aging represented a mother that loved. When she put her head on her pillow, she felt good about herself. Still, she couldn’t help hoping that the 10,000 steps she walked faithfully would magically melt inches from around her waist.
Before J.R. left for school, she reminded him that they had a crock pot meal for supper. She didn’t want to be tempted by Hazel’s pies. The action proved prudent when she imagined the cinnamon and brown sugar-coated apples tendered by the baking process melting in her mouth.
Annie rounded the corner of the hall and pulled up her wrist to check her steps. It was the same place she always checked her steps. This time the turn surprised her. From out of the blue, a man’s body pressed against hers. He wrapped his arms around her and twirled so quickly Annie didn’t realize what happened until she landed on top of him and exhaled with an “oof.”
She struggled to gather her senses. What had happened? One minute she was walking down the hall and the next she was on the ground in Noah’s arms.
A smile spread across his lips, and his eyes sparkled. “I’ve had women fall for me. But not with as much vigor.”
Uncertainty filled Annie. Her heart raced, and her world lost its balance. Annie pushed at his chest to get away from him. She couldn’t help noticing that someone replaced his chest muscles with rocks. It was like pushing herself away from a wall. “I am so sorry. I wasn’t paying attention…” She rolled away from him and scanned the area around them to see if anyone else had seen the fall.
The sound of balls dribbling on the other side of the gymnasium wall told her the whereabouts of everyone else. Nobody had seen her make a fool of herself.
Noah stood and offered her a hand to help her up. “J.R. told me you’d be here exercising. I thought I’d join you.”
Annie accepted his hand and pulled herself up. “When did he tell you…” She never finished the question because the answer sparkled through his copper colored eyes. She also understood the sly smiles the two of them had shared over dinner after she returned from the ladies’ room.
She arched an eyebrow in challenge. “Is there anything else I need to know about what you two discussed?”
The dimple in Noah’s chin deepened as he tried and failed to suppress his smile. “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
Annie swallowed hard to tamper down the fluttering of the butterflies in her stomach. What has my son done? Because she feared the answer, she kept the question to herself.
Noah eyed her Fit Bit. “How many steps do you have to go?”
Annie pressed the button too hard, and it bypassed the steps and displayed the heart rate monitor. Her pulse read at 142 beats per minute. Twenty over her normal walking heart rate. Her eyes widened, and she pressed the button several times to get back to the home screen. When she skipped it again, Annie dropped her wrist to her side and said, “It doesn’t matter, I have enough.”
His gaze traveled her body, and he smiled his assessment. “Yes, you have enough.”
It had been a long time since anyone had flirted with Annie and she didn’t know how to respond. Heat flushed through Annie’s body, and her face reddened.
Noah cleared his throat and adjusted his tone. “What are you two doing for dinner tonight?”
His inclusion of J.R. in the dinner plans set Annie’s mind at ease. Perhaps she had misinterpreted his intention.
“It’s crock pot, chicken and rice for us. We have extra if you’d like to join us.” Annie always made extra because Jesse’s uncle and brother made it a habit to stop by. When they didn’t have the company, J.R. brought leftovers to school for lunch the next day.
Noah reached over and fiddled with the hair around the base of her neck. “I’d love to, but I promised my Aunt Peggy I’d eat with them. She’s making a chocolate silk pie for dessert. If you’re willing to change your plans, you’re welcome to join us for dinner.”
Just then Al came around the corner. Noah pulled his hand away, and Annie startled. For the brief time they had talked she forgot they were in a building full of people.
“What are you two crazy kids doing in the hall by yourself,” Al’s eyes twinkled through his scowl.
“Pie,” she exclaimed, “we were talking about pie.”
Al’s face changed to reflect his congenial nature when he laughed. “Ha! You should see the look on your face Annie.”
“I can’t wait to see what it looks like when she tells J.R. that they’re not having pie because she wanted to eat crock pot, chicken and rice casserole,” Noah joked.
Later that night Anne smiled quietly as she looked back on how her plans failed to come to fruition. She only walked 8000 steps and J. R. had to help her pack two lunches of chicken and rice casserole for the next day.
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.”
Annie stopped in front of the portrait of her graduating class on the wall. She couldn’t help smiling at the younger version of herself. Close to twenty years of life had happened since the portrait had been taken. Crow’s feet accented her amber eyes, and the hairstyle changed. Otherwise, she remained the same. She still loved deeply and gave all she had. Annie laughed out loud at her lie. She power walked the halls of the school three times a week to slim down the hips widened by childbirth and her love of apple pie.
Portraits for the all the classes that attended the school lined the hall. The picture of her husband, Jesse, who graduated a year earlier hanged adjacent to hers. It was as if something meant for them to be together from the start. Only the frames from the two graduating years of 1995 and 1996 served as a boundary between them.
Her smile faded as quickly as it appeared. Like the pictures, something beyond her control separated Jesse and her. This time it was life and death. Annie shook her head to pull herself back to the present. Her brief visit down memory lane pinched less, but it still hurt. She needed to focus on what she could control—getting 10,000 steps before her son finished basketball practice.
She marched to the end of the hall, circled around, and slowed only to check her steps. Pleased with her progress of 8,432 steps she kept her eye on the prize. Jesse Jr.’s basketball practice ended in twenty minutes. She had more than enough time to get the last 1500 steps. Then she wouldn’t feel so bad about eating a piece of pie for dessert.
The gym door was open enough to allow Annie to peek through them as she made a pass to make sure practice was still in session. The screeching sound of sneakers against laminate answered her question before she watched her son touch the ground with his fingertips and sprint down the court. Annie continued her walk but hadn’t got too far.
With his face tightened in concern, Al, the school janitor, asked, “Is something bothering you?”
In the name of being polite, Annie stopped her routine to talk to Al. “I’m trying to lose weight.” Holding out her arm to show him her Fitbit, she said, “I’m at 9,112.”
“I’m sure it’d be easier if the weather were a little more cooperative.”
A boom of thunder cracked in the sky.
He rubbed the back of his neck and cast a concerned look toward the door. “Lightning in February isn’t common. My mother always said when you have lightning in the winter, a big change is about to come.”
“I could handle a big change right about now,” she tapped her thigh and giggled.
Al shook his head and joined in the laugh.
The pounding of feet running in their direction caught both of their attention. Both looked up to discover that Annie and Al stood between fifteen tired basketball players and the drinking fountain. They stepped to the side to let them pass. Her favorite player stopped in front of Annie and swiped at her water bottle. “I’ve never been gladder to see you than I am now.”
Her time to exercise had ended and her time to be mom began. Annie promised herself that she’d get those last 900 steps before she went to bed.
Coach Evans approached her while she waited on the bench. “J.R. plays just like his father,” To eliminate confusion on who they were addressing people got into the habit of calling Jesse jr. J.R. A tint of sadness mixed in with the pride in his voice. “I’m sure Jesse would be proud if he saw how J.R. turned out.”
“I see him more in J.R. as he gets older,” Annie offered a warm smile. Thankfully she was past the stage where the mention of Jesse brought tears to her eyes.
J.R. came out of the locker room with his duffel bag hanging off his left shoulder. His wavy brown hair still wet from the shower hung onto his forehead. For that brief moment, time transported Annie back to 1994, and she was outside the locker room waiting for Jesse.
“Does that mean no?” J.R.’s voice interrupted Annie’s reverie.
Annie blinked herself back to the present. “I got lost in a thought. I’m sorry what were you saying?”
J.R. frowned, and a crease formed in the middle of Coach Evan’s brow. Impatience flicked across J.R.’s face. “I asked if we could eat dinner at the Elderberry Cafe tonight. I could go for a burger.”
She wrapped her arm around her son’s shoulder. He was having as hard a time as her without his father. It had been three long years. They made it by taking it one day at a time, and when that didn’t work, they tackled life by approaching it from one minute to the next. The scent of fabric softener from his clothes combined with the soap he used made her heady. Her life wasn’t perfect. But there sure were a lot of things in it to make it worth living.
This ends the first chapter. Since the entire book is already written, I can promise that chapter two will release next Saturday morning. Until then I hope the week treats you well.
A year ago, I shared a short story with you. After a discussion on Facebook, one of my friends challenged me to write a short story. I had written blogs, but short stories were not within my comfort zone. Three days later, the story was written and shared with you. At the time, I thought it could be developed into a novelette. A year later the characters talked me into a novella. As I share this blog post, the story is in the editor’s hands.
Here is a link if you didn’t get a chance to read the original post.
The video is a peek at the story. It is what I used to keep my focus. Beginning this Saturday, I’ll start posting a chapter a week. The first couple posts will be before the editor tells me to eliminate parts. Just thought I’d warn you.
I hope your as eager to read the story as I am to share it. See you on Saturday.
p.s. Chapter One begins here.