Heartland Giving

Chapter 1

 

Esther McCartney pushed the grocery store cart in front of her, trying not to lean too heavily on it.

Grocery shopping had always been one of her least favorite chores, but not today. Today, she was celebrating the fact that she was actually in a grocery store.

It was the first time she’d been shopping in more than a year.

It felt like a huge victory, but she was already exhausted, and she hadn’t even made it to the checkout line yet.

Checking her phone, making sure she’d gotten everything on the short list that her sisters had put together with her, she took a deep breath and started toward the self-checkout, wondering how she was going to get everything checked out and loaded in the car when all she felt like doing was lying down with her face on the floor and resting for several hours at least.

For her first outing in months, she should have been content to drive to Prairie Rose and take a letter to the post office or something.

But no, she had felt so well today she volunteered to go shopping.

After her sisters had gotten over their shock and Candace had voiced her disapproval, they had helped her figure out what they needed.

As the eldest, Candace felt like she was in charge most of the time.

Mostly they were happy for her—even if they were a little worried too.

For the last month, Esther had started on a new diet and a natural supplement regimen, and it had helped.

To the point where she felt like she could leave the farm and run an errand like grocery shopping.

She had been overly optimistic and probably should have listened to Candace, who had suggested she not do something quite so ambitious for her first excursion to town in close to a year.

She hated it when her elder sister was right.

Especially when that made her wrong.

Panting like she’d run a marathon instead of walked halfway around the grocery store putting less than 20 items in her cart, she leaned heavily on the handle as she turned the corner to go left toward the self-checkout. At least at the self-checkout, she could take as much time as she needed.

But her judgment was off, and she cut the corner too closely, clipping the edge of a carefully stacked pyramid of chocolate sandwich cookies, and the entire thing came tumbling down around her and her cart.

It was bad enough to destroy someone’s hard work, but the noise reverberated so that everyone in the store was craning their necks to see what had happened.

Prairie Rose was a small town, and she’d already been stopped at least fifteen times by pretty much every shopper she passed, asking about her health.

It was one of her pet peeves of being sick, people asking her how she was. If she was well, she’d be doing a regular routine. Since she wasn’t, she obviously didn’t feel great, and she hated continually having to come up with words that didn’t sound too negative. Like yeah, I feel rotten, but I’m up anyway. Or yeah, I feel terrible, that’s why I’m on the couch.

Bending down to begin to pick up the containers of cookies that had fallen everywhere, she fought the fatigue and the nausea that weakened her knees even while her cheeks heated and embarrassment made her want to sink into the floor.

She wasn’t so desperate for attention that she needed to knock down a display so everyone in the store would stop and look at her.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll get it.” Tara, the teenage cashier that Esther had known since birth, panted as she hurried over, hot and sweaty, and knelt down to help.

“You can go back to your register. I’ll help. You guys are already shorthanded because of everyone having off to get ready for the Christmas parade tonight.” A deep voice, familiar, spoke just over Esther’s head.

It wasn’t one she particularly wanted to hear. Not when she was feeling like she could barely lift her hands and was kneeling in front of a huge mess that needed to be cleaned up.

“Are you sure, Monroe?” Tara said, relief in her tone but also a question.

“Yeah. I think we can stack these back the way they were without too much trouble, and that way the folks waiting in line won’t be mad at us.”

Tara nodded, giving Esther a smile and a wave before she hurried back to her register.

“Us?” Esther asked, the exhaustion in her voice making her want to cringe. “I don’t recall seeing you around when I knocked it down.”

“No one can ever tell the difference between you and your sister anyway. They’ll just think we were together.”

That was probably true. Candace, who had been casually dating Monroe for a while, looked almost exactly like Esther. Their personalities were completely different, but people often confused them, and when they were together, people asked if they were twins.

It really wasn’t what she wanted people to think, though.

But she did appreciate the help.

“What are you doing out anyway? Are you and your sisters so desperate for groceries that you’ll starve to death if you don’t show up at the store?” Monroe asked, his tone low, as they knelt together picking up the packages. She doing it much slower than he.

“You know I’ve been feeling better since I started on those new supplements. But I think I might have bitten off more than I could chew.”

She wouldn’t have admitted that to just anyone, but Monroe had been at their house a good bit because of Candace. Often, while he was waiting for Candace to get ready, he sat and talked to Esther.

Sometimes he’d come to visit her, just because.

He was pretty much the only one; Esther had been confined to the house for so long that people seemed to have forgotten about her.

“Moxie,” he said, using the nickname he’d started calling her after all the time they’d spent together while waiting for Candace to get ready.

She didn’t look at him, focusing on getting the mess cleaned up with her last bit of energy. If she had to let her cart sit in the store, she would.

His hand settled on hers, and he said, “Moxie,” more forcefully this time, and her hand stilled. She looked up.

“I’ve got this. You look like you’re about ready to fall over. Go on and sit down on the bench on the other side of the cash registers. I’ll get this, then I’ll get your groceries, and then I’ll help you out.”

“No. Really. I can do this.”

“Of course, you can. Eventually. But this is your first time out of the house in almost a year. You’ve already done enough. You’re going to hurt yourself or hurt someone else.”

She glared at him. Not wanting to hear the truth. But knowing he was right.

“All right, fine. You sit there. Let me do this. Then we’ll check out together, okay?”

She didn’t want her eyes to fill with tears. They weren’t sad tears or weak tears; they were frustrated tears. She had been healthy and energetic and active all of her life. Why was she so weak and tired now?

Trust me. Every trial is for a reason.

She closed her eyes and said a quick prayer—Help me, Lord—before she relaxed her hands, putting them in her lap while she knelt on the floor. Resting. While Monroe picked up everything.

She’d fought her diagnosis, fought the exhaustion, fought everything that had been laid on her, and she wouldn’t quit fighting, but at the same time, she could also accept that this whole trial was from the Lord. He wanted her to grow. Maybe to gain some compassion. She’d been trying.

“I would argue with you, but even if you give in, I can’t really help you,” she said, pushing the sour thoughts away, allowing her face to relax into a smile.

“That’s my Moxie,” Monroe said casually as his eyes lifted to hers and they shared a smile.

“When I feel better, I’m going to win an argument with you,” she said, but her words lacked the force that she wanted to have behind them.

“You keep telling yourself that,” he said, taking four packages in his hand and twisting them around, setting them down on the perfect pyramid he was building.

“You probably ought to slow down a little. You’ll have the manager here wanting to hire you.”

Monroe laughed. “Sometimes I think it would be better to work in a grocery store. I wouldn’t be gone so much anyway.”

Esther’s eyes popped open. She hadn’t realized being gone for long stretches of time bothered him. “I thought you liked touring the country?”

“I do. If I hadn’t gotten to work on my dad’s harvest crew, I wouldn’t have been able to see nearly as much of it as what I have. But I guess it’s always nice to come home to Iowa, and sometimes I do wish for regular hours and a regular schedule. Even though I love what I do.”

He slapped another four packages carefully on the pyramid, then lifted his eyes to look at her.

They had talked enough that she knew exactly what he was saying. He had always spoken in glowing terms about his job, about how much he loved the wide-open skies, the feeling of friendship and pulling together he felt on the harvest crew. How he loved working for American farmers, and what a sense of pride it gave him to see the beauty of the country and knowing he was helping to feed it.

She had always been proud in the same way of the jobs she had. Of the hog barns they had that produced meat to supply to the country. When she wasn’t being bitter and angry at her circumstances, she loved listening to Monroe talk about his experiences. Because she could relate—even if she did her part by just staying on their farm.

But she’d always been active and involved, and if she hadn’t been laid up, she might have fiddled with the idea of hiring on to a harvest crew and seeing what it was all about.

Her sisters had managed the farm for the last year, almost completely without her help, so it was pretty obvious to her that although three people made the work lighter, they weren’t necessary in order to run the farm.

A wave of dizziness made her sway, and her hand came up, grabbing Monroe’s wide shoulder.

His head turned immediately. His brows lifted.

“You look like you’re going to pass out.” He put the packages down that he held in his hand and turned to her, taking both of her hands in his and standing. “Come on. Can you walk to the bench?”

His words were gentle. There was no censure or impatience. His touch was almost tender, and she found herself standing without protest.

“I know it would embarrass you if I carried you, but that’s really what I want to do,” Monroe murmured, putting his arm around her waist and allowing her to lean into his strength.

“I can do it,” she said, hating the breathless gasps around the words and the empty feeling in her chest like she just didn’t have any strength or air while her heart felt weak and anemic.

Monroe didn’t say anything more but walked beside her as they passed the registers toward the bench.

Esther concentrated on putting one foot in front of another, but she didn’t miss Tara’s concerned glance as she looked up from where she was checking an elderly lady out.

“I’ll get the rest of those in a minute. I wanted Esther to sit down for a bit,” Monroe said, and Esther assumed Tara had given him a questioning glance.

She hated to be the center of attention in such a terrible way, but she also felt grateful that he was helping her over. He was right. She was on the verge of passing out. It would be worse to be flat out on the floor in the middle of the grocery store than it was to be helped to a bench.