Authors: Julie Anne Lindsey
“No.” He jerked upright and turned to the other room. “No. Hey, who’s playing?”
He’d have to dig harder, later. Nothing appetizing presented itself. Drinks in hand, he headed to the couch.
“Highlights. You sure you don’t want to take the boat out a while?”
“Nah. I got some work to do here. I’m hoping to get this job and save that old willow tree.”
“You and that tree. You
marry it.” Mack took a can and sipped. “You spent so much time there senior year I thought you were hiding a secret girlfriend.”
“No. That’d be unheard of,” Mack scoffed. He sucked down the rest of his drink. “Well, the fish aren’t going to climb up out of the lake and head on over to my place, so I best get moving. Good luck with your project, Tree Hugger.”
The sun hung low in the sky, casting an orange glow across the room. Outside, the four- wheeler fired up. Gravel snapped and bounced off the tires exiting the drive. Nicholas’s stomach growled, raising the head of his hound who’d taken up residence under his feet. Disappointment fell over him. He flipped to the local news before making his way outside to light the grill. The familiar clickety-clack of paws on hardwood floors followed him out back and into the grass.
The redhead’s face worked itself into his mind again. He didn’t realize she was so much younger. Probably because he didn’t feel older. Honey Creek pulled him back to childhood after the service. Over there he felt twice his age. Back home he could’ve been living with his parents or heading to college every morning instead of juggling the over-scheduled life he made for himself. His therapist accused him of avoidance, not dealing with post-traumatic stress. He thought he was doing a stellar job.
Yowling broke his train of thought a moment before Mitchell Fallon stepped around the side of the house and into sight.
“A lot of warning you give me.” Nicholas clucked. “
. Good thing it wasn’t a bad guy.” Saggy red eyes beamed up at him. A lazy tail swatted once, and she collapsed, her job done.
“How you doing, Mavis?” Mitchell squatted to rub behind her ears, and Mavis rolled over in bliss.
“Hungry?” Nicholas waved a spatula, thankful for the distraction. The girl probably thought he was insane the way he glared at her, still reeling from his loss. Heck, she probably thought he was a dirty old man for looking at all. With any luck she hadn’t heard rumors about his therapist or his time overseas. Those stories were probably brutal. His mama and Mitchell swore they never heard any rumors about Nicholas. He didn’t believe either of them. Small town twists gave gossip a special burn.
“Not if you’re offering strawberries. Cynthia and her grandma have strawberries spread between the two houses. The air even smells like strawberries at my place. You’d think that was a good thing until a few days go by and your work boots smell like strawberries and you realize you can’t smell anything else.” He scrubbed a hand over his crew cut and leaned into the porch railing.
“Well, can I get you something to drink instead?”
Mitchell eyed the closed grill and looked at him with weary eyes. “I’m kidding. How about a nice meaty, non-fruity, burger?”
He lifted the lid. Mouthwatering aromas wafted out. “I’ve already put ‘
His guest nodded too quickly, and Nicholas barked a laugh. Laughter felt good in his chest, unwinding the stress his day rolled and knotted there.
“You’re coming by next week to build the frames for the judges’ tent and the pie eating contest, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Nicholas pressed his forearm against his forehead, erasing a line of sweat. July in Ohio sweltered with the same intensity January used to turn it all to ice. “I’ve still got the plans from last year. Will those work again?”
“Yes they will. Let me get some plates.” Mitchell reached behind him into the Igloo on the porch and pulled out paper settings for two. Everything they needed stayed right inside the Igloo all summer. An old metal tub beside it held a bag of ice ripped down the middle with some cans stuck inside. “You planning on company?”
“Nope. I’m planning to sit out here until I get some things straight in my head. Figured that’d take a while.”
“Need any help? I’m an all right listener.”
Nicholas looked his friend over and smiled. “Yeah. I heard something like that.” Mitchell was the good Reverend Fallon to most of the town. If anyone knew what people were saying about Nicholas, Mitchell would, but he kept up his story. No one said anything about Nicholas.
“I put in a bid down at the lodge to do some landscaping and build a gazebo. Some benches around that old willow would look mighty nice, but I get the feeling they might want to rip it out. I’m hoping to come up with a way to impress them that includes keeping the tree.”
“You already turned something in?”
“Preliminary. I want to head back out there tomorrow, stop by the lodge and make another couple of suggestions.”
“You should talk to Jackson. He’s an architect. Ask him.”
“I did. He’s talking to his crew, but the landscaping part is out of his scope. We’d make a great team on this.” He rubbed his hands on a potholder and let the thought settle. “All right Mitchell, dinner is served. All meat. No fruit.”
“Bless you.” Mitchell bowed his head for a quiet second that ended in
-mmm. Nicholas barely dropped his head to join in the blessing and Mitchell had moved on to eating.
They ate in silent companionship until Mitchell started looking around. “Did you lose something?”
“You’ve been picking things up and putting them down since we started eating. You looked in the cooler twice.”
“Huh.” His mind wandered. He didn’t know his hands did too.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about anything?” He wiped his mouth and settled back in one of the rockers lining the porch.
“Do you know the girl with the camera? I see her everywhere lately.”
“Sure. She’s Emma Hastings. Grew up here. Went to OSU, came home a few years later to open a photography studio.”
The confusion of his thoughts must’ve shown because Mitchell added, “In her barn. There’s a section that once housed an office for the farmer who lived there before. She converted it last year. I think Jackson helped.” He smiled, looking satisfied. “Now you’ve got two good reasons to call him.”
“I don’t remember her being here before. Now I feel like I see her everywhere. I thought I knew everyone in town, then the last couple weeks, she’s at the market when I stop in, or I pass her on the road. Heck, today she was down at the lake. Weird, right? Why do you think that is?”
Mitchell blinked, obviously considering his words. “She’s younger than you. I doubt you’d have run in the same circle before. Then you joined the service. She left for college before you got home. She came home early from school, but it took her some time to fall back into the rhythm here. Then there’s winter, and not everyone thinks freezing their tail off is good fun like you and Mack. Now, it’s summer. She’s a photographer. Summer must keep her pretty busy.” He raised a palm to the world in bloom as evidence. “Your paths were bound to cross eventually.”
“Why’d she come home early?” Curiosity shot the words from his mouth before he had a chance to think better of it.
“Why do you ask?”
Nicholas hoped the heat spreading up his neck didn’t reach his face. What kind of pansy blushes? And why did he care?
Oh, right. Because she’s the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen
. There was that.
“I was thinking of having Mavis’ portrait done.” He grinned.
Emma’s eyes opened slow and heavy. She mashed her face into her pillow. The best dream of her life stolen by the sun. Her phone buzzed and spun on the nightstand beside her. A groan pushed its way through her lips. She rolled onto her side, away from the caller who conspired with the daylight.
She’d been at her tree watching boats on the lake when his shadow crept over her. The sun shone around his silhouette, masking his features, but she knew on instinct he was her soldier. His wide shoulders blocked the lake from her sight, and despite the shadow, she knew he smiled. He loved her and she loved him.
Emma rose onto her elbows and sighed. Shoving the sheet from her body, she swung her toes over the bed’s edge and reveled in the coolness of the wooden floor. Her reflection caught in the mirror, and her hand rose to her collar. She swallowed once and walked to the mirror where her scar glowed, white and puckered against her otherwise healthy skin. For a moment she considered it wasn’t as horrid as she imagined. Maybe her marred body could still be attractive to someone. Not every child who saw it would scream like on the old Frankenstein movies.
Those were lies she tried often. They never stuck. If the tragic white line wasn’t as awful as she once thought, that was only because she’d seen it every day for five years.
The phone danced again. Glad for a reason to look away from the mirror, she grabbed the offensive little dream crasher.
“Hello?” Her mother chirped into the phone, happy as a lark. She woke the roosters.
“Are you sleeping?” Her voice raised three octaves on the final word. Hadn’t she taught her better than to sleep when she could be up living her life? Her mother took Emma’s heart attack more personally than she had. Now, every day was “a gift not to be squandered.” Squandered could be defined as relaxing in any form if you asked her mother.
“Nope. I’ve been up for hours.”
“Excellent. Tell you what. I want to take you to breakfast at the lodge today. I hear they’ve got strawberry everything courtesy of Reverend Fallon’s wife and her grandmother. I for one don’t want to miss out on Mrs. Potter’s preserves if I can help it. I’ll be over in ten.”
The click of disconnect told her she better start moving.
.” She wanted to sip coffee at the table and try to remember her dream. Emma tossed the phone back onto her nightstand and saw the journal. She had enough time to shower or read until her mom arrived. Either way her mom had to wait. She couldn’t get ready in ten minutes. Her gaze swung between the bathroom door and the nightstand. With a smile, she leapt onto her bed and pulled the journal over her face at arm’s length.
“Emma?” The front door thundered under her mom’s fist. She must’ve called from the car on her way over instead of waiting for ten minutes to leave like she promised. Thirty seconds later she pulled open the door to her mother’s agitated face.
“You’re in your pajamas. You said you’d been up for hours.” Her mom shoved past her and went to the kitchen.
“You said I had ten minutes.”
Her mother started wiping down the counters. “So, you fell asleep? Really. You could’ve told me you didn’t want to have breakfast with me.”
“Breakfast?” She looked to the red rooster clock hanging over her stove. Ten fifteen. Had she been reading for two hours? Images ran through her mind of the man so kind he gave his only food, preserved and rationed as it was, to a little girl and her dog on the roadside. Her dirty face had worried him. Her family might’ve perished in one of their airstrikes the night before. He wished he could start an orphanage in America for the children who lost their families to the war in Iraq. Emma’s heart clenched then expanded for the soldier. She thought men like him didn’t exist in her generation. If he was in her generation.
“If you used lemons on your countertops, they’d smell fresher, less like dishrags.”
“No one smells the countertops.” Emma spun back toward the stairs.
“Where’re you going?”
“To get dressed. I’m having brunch with my mother.”