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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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BOOK: The Only Best Place
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People looked into boxes, sat on chairs, tried out appliances, inspected items normally secreted in the cupboards of the house
behind us but now laid out for anyone who had the least bit of curiosity to look over and comment on.

“I can't believe she's selling this,” one woman sniffed, holding up a chipped porcelain dog. “Why not pitch it out?”

Maybe it was a daughter's favorite figurine,
I thought as the other woman rolled her eyes.

“Hey, Dan, there you are.” A tall, older man wearing a red plaid shirt over a T-shirt strode toward us, waving. Two younger
men trailed him. One of them wore a jean jacket, the other a loose hoodie and the oversized pants favored by young city boys
trying to look tougher than they really were. I would know. I'd stitched up enough of them.

Both of these clean-cut, strapping young men who didn't look like they would know beer from iced tea had the same sandy blond
hair as Dan, and when the one smiled I saw Dan as a teenager. They had to be relatives.

“Why haven't you been by?” the man asked, clapping a large hand on Dan's shoulder. “Auntie Gerda made your favorite pie when
she heard you were back, and she's been waiting for you to come and eat it.” His dark eyes slid over me, then the kids, then
back to Dan. “And you got your family along?”

“Leslie, this is Uncle Orest and my cousins Ben and Jason. This is Leslie and Nicholas and Anneke.”

Orest gave me a huge grin and caught my hand in both of his, burying it in a pack of calluses and thick knuckles. “Good to
see you, girlie. Heard lots about you.”

Which, of course, begged the question, what? But I wasn't going to head down that path and simply smiled, trying not to look
too threatening.

Ben and Jason acknowledged me with the imperceptible nod of teenagehood, then turned back to Dan.

“So, you here to check out some deals? I saw a Massey here, like the one Keith used. ‘Course, Keith didn't use it much after
he blew the head gasket on it.” Orest shook his head as if he couldn't understand Keith or his actions. “That man didn't know
how to maintain equipment. You ought to check this out. Old man Harris got T-boned with it turning a corner with a load of
bales so the body is useless but I bet you could scam the engine off it.”

Dan's eyes lit up… until he looked my way. “I'm going to check out a few things. Do you want to come or stay here? I can
take the kids.”

I shrugged. I sensed a mini-family reunion and I would cramp his style. “Go ahead. I'll keep the kids.”

He gave me the kind of smile that reminded me why I fell in love with him in the first place, and I knew I had done exactly
the right thing. For a change.

“I'll keep an eye out for the dryer.” Dan touched my arm lightly, cementing our brief flash of togetherness. Then he and Uncle
Orest and his cousins left, deep in discussion about head gaskets, cylinders, and pistons. I knew the terms but hadn't developed
the deep affection for them that Dan had or, it seemed, his uncle and now animated cousins did. What was it with men and internal-combustion
engines that put a light in their eyes that even lingerie could barely compete with?

In spite of my assurances that I'd be okay, fear nipped at my heart as Dan walked away. I felt trapped in a bubble of strangeness
that pushed people away, separated me from the crowd. I tried to smile and make eye contact, but no one seemed to notice or
care.

“Mommy, I want out,”Anneke called out from her perch.

“No, honey. Stay in the wagon.” I couldn't let her go in this strange place. One glance away from her, and she would be gone,
lost. And I would be running around, calling out her name, an irresponsible mother full of panic.

No thanks.

“Let me out, let me out, let me out, let me out!” Anneke called out, her voice rising a few decibels with each repetition.

Of course she chose this moment and this place to push.

“No, honey. You stay in the wagon with Nicholas.” I kept my voice low and quiet as I concentrated on projecting “be rational”
vibes, the only tool available to mothers when their children are spiraling out of control in a public place. I don't know
why I tried it here. It didn't work in toy stores, grocery stores, or parks.

And, of course, she started to climb out just as I turned around to warn her. I went to grab her arm and she danced out of
reach, and suddenly I was giving the auctioneer competition as irritated eyes turned toward me and my daughter.

“Hey, little girl. I don't think you should wander off.” A man blocked her line of flight by crouching down in front of her.
Curious, she stopped, sizing him up.

“My mom says I'm not ‘posed to talk to strangers,” she said primly, as if her mother's feeble pronouncements were the laws
that dictated every action of her day, instead of the other way around.

“That's a good thing your mother told you,” he said, glancing up at me with brown eyes fringed by thick lashes. His dark hair
had a wave that would make a woman as jealous as his eyelashes did, and when he smiled a slow, lazy smile, I caught the faintest
flash of a dimple. He wore blue jeans, a leather jacket, and cowboy boots. Something about the combination, the quality, the
way he wore the clothes set him apart from all the other men present. Even my Dan. He could have been anywhere between thirty
and forty-five and had that self-assured air that both appealed and sent warning signals up my spine.

Axe murderer,
I thought instantly as City Leslie kicked in.

“She sounds smart,” he said, pushing himself up, his gaze still holding mine. “You've done a good job with her.”

Now he was he flirting with me? I glanced down at my farm-wife clothes. No makeup, hair worn in the artfully tousled “mommy
ponytail” that looked great on Julia Roberts and sloppy on me, yet, when I looked back at him, I caught the faintest hint
of interest. Had to be crazy.

I caught Anneke by the hand to pull her away just as the man held out his own hand.

“I'm sorry, Leslie. I should introduce myself. I'm John Brouwer.”

He knew my name. He wasn't flirting with me at all. Fear grabbed my heart with icy fingers.

Stalker, then. Well-dressed stalker. Did he know where we lived? Would we have to move?

“I was talking to your sister-in-law Judy,” he continued, “and she told me that you used to work ER in Seattle.”

I blinked and stopped edging away from him as reason pulled me off my usual rabbit trail of delusion. “Pardon me?”

“I'm a doctor in the local hospital, so when I heard you were a nurse, I paid attention.”

My heart slowed down, and I mentally gave myself a slap on the head. Some animals have a fight-or-flight defense mechanism
when they are frightened. Me? I freeze and let my mind dive into the worst possible scenario and
then
I run with it.

I finally took his outstretched hand, regretting the shoulder cramps he must've suffered while I mentally labeled him everything
from Lothario to deranged killer. “Sorry. My name is Leslie VandeKeere, but it seems you already know that. And yes, I did
work as an ER nurse.”

“You must have seen your share of trauma.” Now that his status had been downgraded from psycho to physician, I realized how
attractive he was.

“The usual,” I said with an airy wave of my hand. “Gun-shot wounds, stabbings, sometimes a broken arm to keep us on our game.”

He nodded and glanced at the kids. “How old is your little one?”

“Nicholas is a year and a half.”

“So, when did you go back to work?”

“Pretty much right after he was born.”

“Dedicated, then.”

“Broke, then.”

“And now?”

“Well, I'm trying full-time motherhood on for size.” I swung Anneke's hand to remind myself that I was still supposed to be
interacting with my children, that they weren't mere accessories.

“And how does it fit?”

“Still working out the wrinkles.”
Okay, enough with the metaphors.
“Why do you want to know?”

“Again, I apologize. Not too deft with this head-hunting business,” he said, suddenly serious. “When I heard you were an ER
nurse, I thought I'd ask. I'm not a stalker, and I'm not trying to come on to you, in case that's what you were thinking…”

I dismissed the comment with an airy wave of my hand as if that wasn't even worth consideration.

“But I hope I can talk you into coming to work for us.”

Desperate much?

“I've decided to take a hiatus from nursing.” I tried to inject a note of heartiness into my voice. “The kids are only young
once.” And wasn't that profound?

“If you ever change your mind”—he lifted his hands in a “what can I do?” gesture—“I'm sure you know where the hospital is.”

Forty-eighth Street, along the main highway going through town as you come to the bottom of the hill heading into Harland.

“Thanks, but I think I'll wait for now.” I gave him my best motherly smile, then turned and walked briskly away from temptation. Anneke
skipped along beside me, happy to be on the move, and Nicholas was smiling, his cheeks rosy and his eyes bright as his wagon
bumped along the frozen ruts in the yard. I couldn't help but smile too, he looked so adorable. How could I even consider
going back to work when I had these two precious children to take care of? Surely that should be enough. I was a farmer's
wife. I was going to expend my energy on my family.

How? You can't bake or garden, and that cow thing—did you really think you made a difference?

Of course I did. Dan was proud of me. That had to be worth some sacrifice.

If that cow had come out, you would have turned tail and run. Wilma knows you're a fake. Why even bother trying to get her
approval?

It's Dan I'm worried about.

You're going to be here a whole year. You're going to need some kind of distraction. And money would help.

I shoved the thoughts into a box, slammed the lid, and quickly went searching for my husband. I was here to maintain our marriage
and build it on mutual trust and respect. At least that's what the book
How a Marriage Can Succeed or Fail
said. And because I was campaigning for the Succeed part, I figured I better stick with my plan even if Dan didn't.

I followed the auctioneer's voice and found Dan. He stood with his hands in his coat pockets, his shoulders hunched against
the sharp wind that had sprung up. Anneke danced beside me, but as soon as she saw her father, she called out his name and
ran to him.

Dan bent down and swooped his little girl up in his arms. He was talking to Uncle Orest, nodding seriously. As I came alongside,
he glanced at me and stopped talking.

That didn't hurt. Not a bit. I forced down my frustration. Dutiful Wife, I thought, Dutiful Wife. If I repeated that enough,
it might soak into the part of my brain that doesn't analyze everything trying to make it fit.

“So, what's up for sale now?” I asked. This was the classic “ask open-ended questions” portion of
How a Marriage Can Succeed or Fail.
Chapter Three, page seventeen. The part toward the bottom. I was still trying.

“A couple of terrific appliances up next,” the auctioneer said, answering my question. “Brand-new and hardly used.”

He led the bidding, starting high and flowing down 'til he caught a bid and away he went. Dan waited and I watched, trying
not to get nervous. I knew shopping opportunities would be limited and I really, really needed this dryer.

The bidding was desultory, but steady.

“I think Mrs. Harris had that machine for two months, tops,” I heard a woman beside me say as Dan upped his bid. “If it doesn't
go much higher, you'll get a deal.”

It took me a few moments to realize the woman was talking to me. “She hardly used it. Too cheap, you know. Hung her clothes
on the line, spring, summer, fall, and winter.” She shot me a conspiratorial wink.

The young woman wore a shabby down-filled jacket over a fitted T-shirt that said “Baby” in pink glittery letters, tucked into
snug and faded blue jeans. With her black spiky hair and five earrings marching up each earlobe, she didn't exactly blend.

She rocked on her heels as she glanced at Anneke and Nicholas. “And I'm sure you could use a dryer right about now.”

I scrambled for words, trying to figure out what I should or should not say to this complete stranger.

The woman stuck her hand out, grinning at me. “I'm Kathy Greidanus. Married, two kids.” She waved her hand vaguely. “We live
just a few miles from your place.”

She was short and wiry, with quick darting eyes that flicked from me to Dan to Nicholas, still in my arms, to Anneke, crouched
by my legs, and finally to me. “So, you got to move into the hallowed home place?” She quirked a laughing half grin at me.
“Lucky you.”

And in that one gesture underlined by the hint of sarcasm in those two words, I read a lifetime of knowledge of both Harland
and its residents.

“I'm Leslie VandeKeere, but of course, you already know that.”

Kathy shook my hand and turned to Anneke. “Hey, cutie patootie,” she said casually, waggling her fingers.

I peeled Anneke from my leg with one arm, juggling Nicholas with the other, but Anneke froze, staring at Kathy.

“I'm guessing you're Anneke,” Kathy continued. “How old are you?”

Anneke rubbed one foot against her ankle, ducking her head slightly. “I'm foah.”

“Really? I have a little boy who's ‘foah,’ too. His name is Cordell. He likes worms and jumping on the trampoline. If you
want you can come and jump on it, too.” She clucked her tongue against her teeth. “If spring ever comes.” She glanced at the
auctioneer then at Dan. “Looks like you got yourself a dryer.”

I saw Dan nodding and realized I had missed the entire event. I didn't even know how much he had paid for it. It was all so
anticlimactic.

“Do you do coffee?” Kathy asked, slipping her hands into the pockets of her jacket and shrugging it up around her neck.

“You mean, like now?” I watched Dan drift away, following the crowd who followed the auctioneer, lured on by the “Bargains,
absolute bargains, folks.”

BOOK: The Only Best Place
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ads

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