Dreaming of His Snowed In Kiss

Chapter 1

Poppy Kyle slowed her car to a crawl and gave the old rickety bridge a second look.

She wasn’t a naturally positive person, but she’d worked hard the last few years to train herself to always see the good.

Most of the time, it worked.

She bit her lip as her finger tapped on the steering wheel. Positive thinking wasn’t helping her to see this bridge in any light other than rotted and old and about to fall into the admittedly placid-looking river below.

The river wasn’t exceptionally wide or deep, and the bridge wasn’t terribly high; still, maybe it was conditioning since childhood, or maybe it was just a natural inclination, but the idea of falling into it as the bridge collapsed made her keep her foot on the brake and her finger tapping on the wheel.

She lifted her eyes. West Barclay’s house and barn were two hundred yards on the other side of the river.

She could smell the steaming meatloaf and almost taste the mashed potatoes that were packed in newspaper and sitting in a box in the back of her car along with three other casseroles that could be frozen or cooked later this week.

She supposed Pastor Race and Miss Penny would be extremely disappointed in her if someone were to find her parked alongside the road, halfway back to town, with the meatloaf and mashed potatoes half gone and crumbs in her lap.

Her stomach rumbled, almost as though putting up an argument in favor of losing her position at the church.

Even if it was volunteer, the idea of not being dependable didn’t sit right.

She shoved the idea out of her head, less appealing for the food aspect, maybe, than for the idea of not having to drive over that bridge.

Her finger hadn’t stopped tapping. She leaned forward, looking up at the sky, like that would help anything.

She kept hearing about a “storm of the century” coming. Next week. But in her experience, the weather station liked to exaggerate things. They went wild and crazy with their green crayon any time it rained and even wilder and crazier with the white one when it was time to snow.

Not that Arkansas saw that much snow.

But she hadn’t always lived in Arkansas.

She sighed. The sky hadn’t given her any answers, not that she expected them. Looking out through the windshield, she scanned the picturesque Ozark Mountains that created the backdrop behind West’s house.

Pretty.

Beautiful, actually.

Although she hated to give West Barclay any more credit than he deserved. Or his house.

He treated her like an annoying insect—a gnat flying around his head. One he put up with but would prefer to swat away.

Her brain wanted to get stuck on that track, but she pulled it back.

Positive thinking.

Anyway, regardless of how West treated her, he was in over his head with his new houseguest and her four children. Which was why Poppy had a car full of food for them.

Unfortunately, her car was on this side of the creek. In order to get on the side of the creek where West, his guest, her children, and his house was, she had to cross that rickety old bridge.

Tempted to get out and visually inspect the bridge, she stopped with her hand on the latch.

What would a visual inspection help? She wasn’t an engineer.

Even an engineer couldn’t predict with infallibility whether or not the bridge was going to collapse.

Maybe she’d be better off to say a prayer and have faith.

Lord? Am I supposed to die today? Maybe You could let me deliver the food first?

Holy smokes. She hadn’t even thought of that. She’d have to cross the bridge twice. Once on the way over, and once on the way back.

Consider West’s pickup.

Maybe it wasn’t the Lord speaking to her—He should be talking about lilies of the field rather than pickups—but it was definitely a voice of reason.

His pickup was much bigger, and she assumed much heavier, than her little compact car. Probably it would be an accurate assumption that if the bridge could hold his pickup, it could hold her car too.

Maybe it was the prayer, maybe it was the voice of reason—although she truly believed that God was reasonable and she did not find reason and prayer mutually exclusive—she felt her foot lifting off the brake pedal and sliding slowly to the gas.

She wasn’t exactly an expert on driving, and she was kind of torn. Should she go slow and stay on the bridge longer, causing less trauma with the slower speed? Or should she go as fast as she could, taking the chance that she might hit a bump and come down hard with the bouncing, giving undue pressure on what looked like old, rotted timbers?

Deciding moderation was always a good choice, she closed her eyes and pressed on the pedal.

Wait a second. Old rickety bridge or no, she was almost begging for trouble to drive with her eyes closed. They snapped back open.

She laughed at herself.

She trained herself to be happy, yes, but she hadn’t completely conquered the common sense she’d been born without.

What seemed reasonable and obvious to everyone else seemed like a brilliant discovery to her, years after other people had figured things out.

Like driving with their eyes open.

She knew it; she just forgot sometimes.

Her front tires hit the old timbers of the bridge and began to rumble across.

The thought that she could point the steering wheel straight and still close her eyes tugged hard at the back of her mind, but she kept her lids up. She would be brave.

She could be both happy and brave.

Maybe having problems to work out was good for her. Always in the back of her mind was the knowledge that she could end up like her mother. After all, she’d gone through the same horrifying experience.

Just because she hadn’t fallen into a deep depression right away didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

She wouldn’t let it.

It felt like years before her front tires hit solid ground on the other side, and she let out the breath she was holding. The food had made it safely across, and so had she.

Now all she had to do was go back over the bridge on her way home.

It didn’t take any time at all to pull up to the house and grab the hot food. She’d come back for the casseroles in a bit. It was February, just a few days before Valentine’s Day, and even though it was Arkansas, it wasn’t hot.

As she climbed the porch to the small house, she realized with the pan of food in each hand, she wasn’t going to be able to knock on the door.

What sounded like a muffled thump and a scream on the other side of the door made her wonder about the wisdom of whether this was a good time.

If they wanted their food hot, it had to be a good time. Also, she really didn’t want to have to drive over the bridge three more times instead of one, so she was going to deliver it right now despite any inconvenience.

Another three thumps in quick succession had her pulling her lip in and biting down on it. It sounded like maybe the kids had taken over in there.

Maybe she could help.

For the woman and her kids who were staying here and not necessarily for West.

Using her elbow, she rang the doorbell, hoping it worked.

She couldn’t hear whether it rang or not.

It felt like forever that she stood waiting before using her elbow to ring again.

She’d given up and was looking for a place to put the pans in her hands down so she could knock when the door jerked open.

West, with a screaming baby in one arm and a crying child holding onto his left leg, stood facing her.

Poppy had been a Christian all her life. She’d been taught not to laugh at another’s calamity. That seeing someone else suffering shouldn’t make her smile. That she should love everyone and not wish ill on anyone.

Maybe she was arrogant, but she thought, usually, she did a pretty good job on those.

Still, seeing West so overwhelmed with the crying baby and the clinging toddler and the yelling that was going on behind him, she couldn’t help it.

She smirked.

“I’d really like to send you away, because I don’t want to see happy people right now, but if you’re holding food, you can come in.” West’s eyes had narrowed, and while his words, spoken above the crying child, were not terribly kind, they did represent the type of relationship that she seemed to have with him.

Not hateful; they didn’t hate each other. But not friendly either. Kind of a jabbing, poking relationship.

Her smirk fell right in line with that, and his annoyance at her happiness was typical as well.

Apparently, West preferred to be around sour, grumpy people all the time.

She wasn’t going to go back and undo all the work she’d done just to keep West happy.

Plus, she highly suspected that he wouldn’t be happy anyway, no matter what she did.

He said he picked on her because she was like Pollyanna, but she thought it was her in particular, and not happiness in general, that he didn’t like.

“It’s hot. You can eat it right now.”

He stood back, allowing her plenty of space to pass and saying without words that she was welcome to come in as long as she stayed away from him.

Not a problem.

She walked past and stood in the living room, looking around and trying to figure out which direction to go to get to the kitchen, as the door clicked closed behind her.

She looked over her shoulder as West scooped the child that was clinging to his leg up in his other arm while trying to bounce the baby in his right.

“Follow me,” he said, not unkindly but not necessarily friendly either.

There were a couple of trucks and some kitchen utensils scattered through the living room as he walked past, taking a right and walking into the kitchen. No sign of the woman whose children they were, but the two small children that he wasn’t holding stood back against the wall, wide-eyed and staring at her, a stranger, walking in.

Her heart tore at their forlorn expressions.

“How’s their mother doing?” she asked, raising her voice to be heard above the crying baby.

“Not good,” West said matter-of-factly, turning and looking around at her as he said it, his face not giving away anything.

He had to be sad. She was sure he was, but he was definitely the kind of person that was not comfortable sharing his feelings. Happy or sad.

“You can set them on the counter.”

Poppy did, and then she turned, intending to tell him she had more casseroles in the car that she would carry in.

But her eyes hooked on the child in his arms. Not the baby who was still crying, but the little one who had been clinging to his leg. He had one dirty pudgy fist stuck in his mouth and was chewing on it like a nervous habit, which sent a pang through her chest that a one-year-old would even have a nervous habit. His other pudgy fist rubbed his eye like it was past his nap time.

Poppy didn’t have children of her own, but she’d spent plenty of time in church nurseries, among other things, and had a lot of experience with young ones.

She lowered her head a little, so she wasn’t looking at the child head-on—that seemed to be less intimidating in her experience. Then she smiled, not a full, big smile showing lots of teeth. That, too, seemed to intimidate small children. Just a little smile, and she ducked her head even more.

“Are you hungry?” she asked in a soft, sweet voice.

The child looked at her suspiciously, and then West’s eyes opened wide as the little boy took his fist out of his mouth and leaned his whole body toward her.

She didn’t bother to look at West to ask permission. They’d spent enough time in church and various activities bantering with each other that she felt comfortable with him, even if she didn’t think he liked her too much.

He wasn’t going to deny her taking a crying, fussing child out of his hand.

“It looks like it’s nap time for him?”

“Past,” he said shortly.

“Garrett pooped his pants.”

Poppy blinked and looked at the doorway where a serious, sober-faced boy with what appeared to be dried egg on his cheek stood staring at her.

She nodded. Okay. He seemed to consider that important information. She would too.

“Was that just now?”

The little boy shook his head at the same time West answered.

“No, I think Warren is saying that’s why we don’t have Gabriella down for her nap. Or fed. Because there was something more pressing that I needed to take care of than a screaming baby. Not that I would have thought that were possible.”

“Of course. Poop. Or fire.” She refused to allow the shudder that went through her to pull her thoughts in the direction they wanted to go. “A fire would be the only other thing that would be more pressing than a screaming baby.”

Poppy slanted her eyes at West, only half kidding. She’d never been able to exactly joke about what happened to her, but she wasn’t going to allow it to cloud her life. It would throw her into such a deep, dark depression she would never emerge.

Like her mother.

West snapped his fingers and pointed. “I hadn’t thought of that. But you’re right. Fire would be worse.” He seemed to think for a second. “In the house fire. Out of the house fire, not more urgent.”

“Yeah. We could let the barn be burned down. As long as there aren’t any animals in it.”

“There are. But unless I could find someone to watch the children, I wouldn’t take that chance.”

Okay, she didn’t like the idea that someone would have to choose between saving the life of an animal and saving the life of a child, but she did agree that the children were more important.

“You take care of her.” She nodded at the baby, who must be a girl, even though she had a blue sleeper on. “And I’ll feed these guys. If that will help.”

West eyed her. He didn’t look relieved exactly, almost skeptical, maybe.

Yeah. Their relationship hadn’t exactly been super friendly.

Not her fault, Poppy told herself.

“Appreciate it,” West said eventually, holding the baby in the crook of his arm as he rooted through the cupboard, she assumed looking for a container of baby formula since she saw the old one lying at the top of the overflowing trash can.

“All right, boys,” she said, drawing out the word “boys.” She was pretty sure from what she’d heard at church there were three boys plus the baby. “Let’s get our hands washed, and we can sit down and have some lunch.” She made a goofy face at the boy in her arms. “You guys hungry? I have mashed potatoes.” She said “mashed potatoes” the way she might have said candy bars, because in her experience, kids love mashed potatoes.

The one in her arms stared at her along with the older boy West had called Warren.

This might be harder than she was expecting.