Authors: Ninette Swann
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
|Resplendence Publishing (2012)|
Jessica Deitermeier is on the run. The rings she inherited upon her mother’s untimely death are worth money, and her uncle will apparently stop at nothing to get them. In search of sanctuary, Jessica makes her way from Boston to Minnesota and finds work on a small farm. Everything goes smoothly... until the farmer's “prodigal son” comes home.
Ben Elkers is a failed businessman. After losing all his money in bad investments, he makes his way home to Sauk Centre. Considering the way he left his parents without so much as a phone call for the holidays, their unconditional welcome comes as a surprise. He’s even more surprised by the fiery red-headed girl who has taken over his old room.
Together, Jessica and Ben will discover the importance of family, but are they willing to do whatever it takes to find home?
By Ninette Swann
Resplendence Publishing, LLC
Copyright © 2012 Ninette Swann
Edited by Michele Paulin and CJ Slate
Cover art by Adrien Nicholas
Published by Resplendence Publishing, LLC
2665 N Atlantic Avenue, #349
Daytona Beach, FL 32118
Electronic format ISBN: 978-1-60735-617-2
Warning: All rights reserved. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
Electronic Release: December 2012
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and occurrences are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or occurrences, is purely coincidental.
To Alicia Helyer, who knows what home is and who will find it very soon.
Jessica Deitermeier twisted a wet cloth in her hands, relishing the feel of the warm water against the frigid December air. Taking a job on a Minnesota farm had been both the best and worst decision she’d ever made. Since starting during the summer, she’d seen her hands chafe then crack, the skin drying from keeping stalls clean and milking the cows. Her heart ached with loneliness. The farmer and his wife were kind employers. They put her up in their son’s old room and kept her warm and fed on top of her small salary, but they had no money for additional staff, and Jessica spent most of her days alone.
She was homesick, but it was better than sticking out a miserable life in her lonely Boston apartment with her only family an extended one she didn’t know and couldn’t trust. When she’d left the city all those months ago, she’d had only enough money for a train ticket. The farthest she could get was Minnesota.
She gritted her teeth and shivered into the old down parka she’d borrowed. Cold as it was in Sauk Centre, it was better than shelving groceries in Boston for minimum wage. She lived with nice people now. And her uncle would never find her here.
Jessica swept her eyes over the freshly cleaned barn, looking for messes she may have missed. The old farmer, Harold, had joined with a half dozen other farmers in the vicinity, forming an alliance to bring in more money for local produce. He’d been gone for two weeks, on a sales pitch around the state to expand their farm’s exports. It was up to Jessica to keep everything running in the barns until he got home. She hoped the group increased revenue. She knew the couple could barely afford to keep her on, even at the low rate she was paid.
Ellie, the farmer’s wife, baked pastries and scrubbed vegetables to sell at local flea and farmers markets. As the winter set in, the older woman had taken to canning goods and helping Jessica care for their animals. She set down the rag, took off her wool cap and shook out her coppery tresses. Her red hair and green eyes often garnered her stares in town, and to combat it, she walked with her head down and a cap firmly over her unruly mane.
Her goal here was to be unnoticed, quiet and safe.
The sun was setting, meaning it was past four p.m. Ellie would need help with dinner, as Harold was set to return tonight. Jessica smiled to herself as she thought of the love between the simple couple. She was sure Ellie would prepare a feast. The farm had been quiet in Harold’s absence, and his easy presence would be welcomed back with open arms.
Tugging on her snow boots, Jessica tucked her old jeans into the cuffs to battle the three-foot drifts then started the trek back to the house. She reached into her coat pocket, pulling out a flashlight and clicked it on, even though the last thin beams of sunlight still shown over the ground. Better to scare any animals she might meet before they had a chance to scare her.
* * * *
Ben Elkers sat in the warmth of his battered Ford SUV and looked up the steep driveway with a mixture of longing and unrest. It had been three years since he’d last set foot in his childhood home. He hadn’t meant to never visit his parents, but after spending his youth immersed in farmhand life, he’d been so excited to set off in business, he’d made little time for his past.
Those dreams of a corner office with a view of Manhattan’s skyline had shriveled in front of his eyes when his major investor had pulled the plug on his fledgling business idea. Defeated and alone, Ben had nowhere to be this Christmas. So he decided to go home. And here he sat, the week before the holiday.
Apprehension twisted in his gut. Would his parents welcome him back with open arms? Would they turn him away? He’d been too nervous to call ahead of time. His mother would cry, but would they be tears of joy or disappointment? Lord knew he was disappointed in himself. To have to start over at age thirty, to have to make amends to the only people who’d ever loved him, the very people he’d spurned in favor of a bright new future, it was humbling.
The driveway hadn’t been plowed. His father must not be home. Either that or he was too old to do it. Plowing had always been Ben’s job, anyway. He turned off his truck’s old engine and grabbed his overnight bag from the back. The other suitcases would have to wait. Even Ben, with his lean muscle and strong frame couldn’t wrangle the boxes up the hill leading to the house.
He shivered against the sub-zero temperatures and pulled his hood over his black hair, thankful that he’d let it grow out a bit. The ends nearly covered his ears, giving him added heat. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he trudged up drive, the sound of crunching snow giving him a deep sense of home and belonging as he went.
He could almost smell his mother’s apple pie, and his mouth watered for her beef stew. It had been hours since he’d eaten anything and years since he’d had anything worth eating. He started going over his entrance speech in his head when a flash of light dragged him out of his thoughts.
“Hello!” he shouted. “Who’s there?”
The light switched off.
Ben stopped, listening closely, but he heard nothing except occasional snow dropping off the pines.
Shrugging, he continued. It was probably just his dad coming back from the barn.
* * * *
The hot water felt heavenly as it made its way down Jessica’s back in rivulets of pleasant sensation. She soaped up quickly, letting her mind wander back to the rich male voice she’d heard upon arriving back at the house. Jessica had felt the innocuous, cheerful call deep in her abdomen. The flurry of excitement and fear the sound had set off within her had jarred her enough that she’d shut off the flashlight and stood silently until the darkened figure had moved on. He had been going toward the house, too. Something in his familiar tone warded off thoughts of danger. Jessica felt sure it must be a friend of the family.
When she’d heard the trudging steps begin again, she’d scurried to the back door and slipped up the stairs unnoticed. She’d hurried into the shower. For some reason, she didn’t want whoever owned that voice to see her grubby and smelling barnlike. So much for helping Ellie. She felt a twinge of guilt and quickened her pace. She would still have time to set the table and cook the side dishes for the welcome-home feast.
Turning off the water, she strained her ears as she toweled herself down. Voices from the kitchen floated upstairs, and while Jessica couldn’t make out the words, she heard their jubilant tone. She hesitated in confusion. Had Harold returned early? She could have sworn the voice belonged to someone else, but maybe she’d been mistaken. She couldn’t imagine anyone else putting such laughter into Ellie’s cadence.
On the off chance the voice matched the dark, handsome stranger she’d envisioned, she pulled on her best sweater of the three she’d brought, tight-knit white wool that hugged her frame and accentuated her curves. She chose simple jeans to go with it, not wanting to overdo her impression, especially if the man downstairs was just Harold after all. She pulled her hair into a ponytail at the base of her neck, allowing some of the defiant strands to spring loose toward her small face. Surveying herself in the tarnished mirror above the sink, she nodded in approval. Perfect rustic chic. Or, she admitted, at least good enough.
She bounded down the stairs, hoping to announce her arrival before she got there. The voices lowered upon hearing her, and when she walked into the kitchen, Ellie rushed to meet her, beaming with joy.
“Jessica!” she squealed. “What an early Christmas present we have. Ben has returned.” The older woman pointed behind her excitedly, and Jessica raised her eyes.
The man was tall and broad. Thick shoulders and chest tapered down to a lean waist and stomach. The T-shirt he wore did little to disguise his toned physique. Muscled thighs strained against black track pants as he walked from the counter to join his mother. A brush of jet black hair fell across his forehead, and he moved a large hand to swipe it away. His firm lips broke into a wide grin as he then extended that hand toward her.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Ben. Mom tells me the light I saw outside earlier was you.”
Jessica could only nod, lost in his pale blue eyes. Their almond shape made his glance hint at mirth, but when she gazed into their depths, she saw a quiet sadness there. He cleared his throat, drawing her attention to his bow-shaped mouth, just a hint darker than his skin.
She tried to speak, but no words came. She nodded again instead, shaking the offered hand. The heat there seeped through to her bones. As if sensing Jessica’s speechless plight, Ellie broke in.
“Yes, she’s been helping us with the farm work since August. She’s actually staying in your old room.” Ellie’s face darkened. “Oh, I suppose we’ll have to do something about that.”
“Not necessarily,” Ben said in a quiet tone.
Jessica glanced at him quizzically. Surely, he couldn’t mean…
He broke out into laughter. “I meant I’d sleep on the couch in the living room,” he said, still chuckling.
Jessica blushed. Had she been so easy to read?
She shut the thoughts out of her mind. She had no interest in romance, she reminded herself. She was here to work and to stay hidden until her uncle grew bored of looking for her.
She fingered the rings on the sturdy chain around her neck. Her great grandmother’s engagement ring and wedding band—the only family heirlooms left. Before her parents passed away, they’d given her the jewelry, one-of-a-kind and now worth millions. Jessica couldn’t wear them on her hands. She’d chip or scratch them, given her work. She also didn’t want them out of her sight. The chain had been the best alternative.
After the car crash had taken her parents’ lives, her uncle had tried to contact her. The note seemed pleasant enough, written in chicken scratch on a sympathy card, but he hadn’t been at the funeral. It hadn’t surprised Jessica at the time. She’d never met her uncle, and her mother had hated him for reasons she had never disclosed. When, at the bottom of the note, her uncle had asked about the rings and their worth, protectiveness had curled inside Jessica. He’d claimed his family was in dire need of funds, but she didn’t know them. They’d never tried reaching out to her before. Why after her parents’ death? Why suddenly this year, when she could be of some monetary use to them? She didn’t like it.