Keene Emerson turned off his pickup and pushed the door open against the gusting Iowa wind.
The trailer park on the outskirts of Prairie Rose was barren and brown this time of year, just a few weeks before Christmas.
A few Christmas decorations were scattered through the area, but in order to stay where they had been placed, they had to be anchored quite firmly.
Most of them hadn’t been.
He slammed his door closed and stared for just a second at the trailer in front of him.
It might have been light blue at one point, but it was now a faded gray. The steps leaned awkwardly, and the small platform at the top of them didn’t seem to be attached to the trailer.
A swift swirl of apprehension surprised him, and he tightened his abdominal muscles instinctively, getting rid of it.
He hadn’t talked to Shelby Yingling much since they’d graduated from high school. She’d been a nice girl, smart, but the opposite of everything he was.
He wouldn’t have guessed that she would have ended up like this, though.
A single mom with three small children living with her mother in a trailer park, and from what he’d heard from the folks at church, working two jobs to try to make ends meet.
He strode up the rickety steps, hoping the small, wobbly platform held his weight, and knocked firmly on the door.
The church had donated lumber and material to add a room onto the back of her trailer. Since her husband had taken off two years ago, her mother had come to live with them, and according to the ladies at church, Shelby had been sleeping on the couch all that time, giving her mother her bedroom.
Another gust of wind rustled the brown leaves of corn left in the field adjacent to the trailer park.
Keene couldn’t hear whether there were footsteps in the trailer or not, so he knocked again.
There was no car parked next to the trailer, but even if Shelby were working, her mother should be home. At least the ladies at the church seemed to think someone would be home since this was the time they’d told him to come out with the lumber and also with the Christmas packages that had been donated for the children.
He had lived in Iowa his entire life, so the cold, biting wind was not a shock even as it seeped through his jacket and curled around his neck.
After the heat of the summer, the chill of winter always took a little bit of getting used to.
If he was going to put this addition on, he’d be working in the cold wind, so he willed his body to hurry up and get acclimated.
Raising his hand to knock for the third time, not wanting to take the load of lumber that was on the trailer hooked to the back of his pickup home to his farm, he said a quick prayer that someone was home as his hand came down to rap on the door.
Before it hit the cheap material, the door pulled open, and a woman who looked like she’d just gotten out of bed, stood in front of him.
Her hair was wild and in complete disarray around her face. One side of her cheek was red and creased like she’d been sleeping on it and it had wrinkled up under her head.
She wore what looked like long underwear, and her feet were bare.
“Do you need something?” the woman said, her eyes blinking like she still hadn’t quite woken up and was trying to figure out what in the world someone was doing standing at her front door.
“I’m Keene Emerson,” Keene said, hesitating for just a moment before holding out his hand. It seemed like a formal gesture, considering the lady’s attire, but it made the fact that he didn’t seem to be wanted a little less relevant. For some reason. “I’m here from the church. They had talked to you about the addition that they are going to put on your house?”
The woman looked at his hand, her eyes widening just a touch, before she seemed to pull herself up. Her hand came up, warm and rougher than he would have guessed, slipping into his.
“I’m Shelby Yingling. Used to be Shelby Henniger. I knew you from high school.”
He nodded. He figured that’s who she was; although, sometimes it was dangerous to make assumptions, and he hadn’t wanted to do that.
“I’m sorry. I forgot all about the room the church said they’d be donating. That was this summer when someone had approached me about it. Are you here to see where it’s going to go?” she asked as though she hadn’t heard or processed his earlier statements.
Her brows were drawn over her eyes, and he opened his mouth to answer her, but his own gaze kind of got caught on those eyes.
Blue, a sweet, light blue. Like the sky in September. A sky with no clouds, no haze, just a brilliant, true blue. Somehow, they were penetrating.
He gave his head a mental shake and pulled his hand away from hers. Her hand had almost as many calluses as his, and it was disconcerting, especially coupled with her eyes.
He almost laughed out loud at himself. Her eyes were disconcerting. Whether or not he was touching her hand.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t in charge of calling you, I was just in charge of bringing it. So, no, I’m not here to talk about it, necessarily. I’m here to deliver the materials that have been purchased.” He paused. “But I’m probably the one who’s going to be building it, so if you have time and want to, we can certainly talk about what you’d like done. Although, I’m not starting today.” He added that last bit just so she wouldn’t be confused.
Dorothy, one of the older ladies at church, had wrangled his assent to take her granddaughter out this evening.
Keene hadn’t been too interested, but Dorothy had been insistent. Keene hadn’t wanted to say a firm no because he’d known Dorothy all his life and she was a sweet, kind lady, whom he respected. Even though he highly doubted he was going to hit it off with Lacey, who was from Linglestown, a larger town to the south, and daughter of the mayor there. From what he understood, she was used to the finer things in life.
He loved finer things, but that wasn’t his life.
Still, a commitment was a commitment, and he wasn’t going to be starting any additions today.
Shelby looked around, squeezing her eyes closed, almost as though they were sore, and then shaking her head, she turned back to him. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure what time it is.”
Keene pulled his phone out of his pocket. “It’s almost three o’clock.”
He had probably an hour he could spend here before he had to go home and get the barn work done so he’d be cleaned up in time to pick up Lacey at seven.
He’d suggested going out much earlier, but apparently that’s not the way it was done. At least in Lacey’s mind, because the five o’clock he’d suggested had made her gasp.
“Okay.” Shelby nodded, like she’d come to a decision. “If we can be quiet, because Perry is still sleeping.”
“That must be one of your children?”
“Yeah.” Her brows came down again, and she shook her head a little, confused. “It’s weird that you know so much about me and I don’t know anything about you.”
“All I know is that you must have kids, because I have some gifts in the back of my truck that the church has donated for Christmas. I was supposed to deliver those as well. And I only know about the addition because I was commissioned to bring the materials out, and I’ve also volunteered to build it. As far as I know, I’m the only volunteer.”
He had known her name and was pretty sure they’d gone to school together, but that was about the extent of his knowledge. Other than her husband had left her.
“I’m sorry. I worked last night and didn’t get off until dinnertime today. I’m going back in this evening, and I was trying to catch a little bit of sleep.” She gave a humorless laugh. “I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m a little groggy.”
“It’s totally understandable. Especially if you worked last night.”
Those eyes looked up at him, and he almost lost his train of thought, but he grabbed it and continued on. “During harvest season, I’ve worked twenty-four-hour days and spent more than one long night in the combine. It really messes with your internal clock.”
She nodded, her face holding the look of someone who was relieved that the person she was talking to seemed to understand her.
The wind gusted again, and she crossed her arms over her chest. “You can come on in, although, please be quiet, and if you don’t mind waiting for a minute while I throw some clothes on, I can show you what they were thinking with the addition.”
“If you tell me where to put the gifts, I’ll unload the pickup while you’re getting dressed.” He hesitated just a moment before saying “getting dressed.” He supposed, technically, she was standing in front of him in her underwear. Even if it was long underwear.
It was a little disconcerting.
“Gifts? That’s right. I guess you did say gifts. Wow. I wasn’t expecting…”
Keene shifted uncomfortably, the platform under his feet wobbling worryingly, as her eyes seemed to fill with tears.
He hadn’t been around too many people who cried, other than the occasional upset child; in fact, he wasn’t sure he’d ever been around an adult who cried.
His hands started to sweat. And he hoped her tears wouldn’t spill. He wouldn’t know what to do.
Was it rude to stand and watch someone while they cried?
But he didn’t really know her well enough to even pat her back, let alone try to hug her.
Thankfully, she lifted her chin and said, “We can put them in my mother’s bedroom. As long as we’re quiet. Do you want me to help you carry them in?”
“No. I can do it, just tell me where to go with them and… Is it okay if I walk in with my boots on?”
He’d been to a couple of people’s houses who were kinda fussy about it, but he was wearing his work boots, which had to be untied before he could take them off, and it was a little more involved than if he just had sneakers or cowboy boots on. But he didn’t want to disrespect her house.
“That’s fine,” she said, shaking her head and waving her hand a little as though it was the least of her worries.
He almost smiled. Someone who had worked all night and through dinnertime and was going back in to work tonight certainly must have more important things to worry about than whether or not someone took their shoes off before they went in their house.
“Her room is down that hall right there. There’ll be a bathroom on the left, but just keep going. Ignore the bucket of water in the hall from the leaking roof. I haven’t had a chance to empty it. And you don’t need to knock on the door although it’s probably closed.”
“Do I need to hide them?” he asked, not wanting to spoil any surprises. Also taking note of the leaking roof. He should fix that while he was putting the addition on. “How long has the roof been leaking?” The words were out before he could stop them.
Her head jerked toward him at his last question, but it was too late to take it back.
“A while. I know I need to get it fixed.” She didn’t elaborate, but if she was working as much as she seemed to be, she probably didn’t have the time or the money. “As for the gifts. No. I’ll take care of them. Probably tomorrow I’ll take them out to the shed, but I need to make room for them first. Mom is shopping with Grace and Haley, and they’ll be back, but I’ll text her and let her know not to go in her room just in case she gets back before I’m done showing you around.”
“Sounds good.” He turned to go back out, walking carefully down the steps and making a mental note to himself that maybe he should get a few lengths of treated lumber and strengthen the steps so they didn’t wobble every time someone shifted on them. A couple of brackets might be helpful to attach them to the trailer as well.
Taking a look at her roof would probably be too nosy today, but when he was putting the addition on, he’d need to do some roofing anyway, so he could check it out then.
He pulled his phone back out of his pocket and pulled up the notes section, jotting a few words down and leaving it up just in case he needed to take notes when she showed him how to lay out the addition.
He hadn’t done construction for a living, but over the winter most years, he’d worked for his cousin’s crew when things got slow around the farm. Their laying houses was year-round work, but they obviously didn’t have crops to take care of in the winter. And his brother Elias typically did the maintenance on the farm machinery during that downtime.
It took three trips to carry all the gifts in, and he tried to be careful not to drag any dirt in with them each time. Shelby looked like she was up to her earlobes in work, and he didn’t want to add to her load.
There was something about her that just tugged at his heartstrings. Maybe it was the fact that she was working so much, or maybe it was those eyes, but he could hardly look at her and not want to help her as much as he possibly could.
Of course, that was partly his nature, which was why he was here volunteering to put an addition on a stranger’s home, or, if not exactly a stranger, someone he’d not talked to more than a couple times in the last decade.
By the time he was done carrying the gifts in, she had reappeared from the other end of the trailer, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and carrying boots, which she stuck on before motioning him to follow her back out the door.
The platform at the top of the steps was even more tiny and wobbly with two people on it, and he was more than a little concerned that both of them were going to end up in a heaping pile of rubble on the ground.
But they managed to make it down without it collapsing, and with a glance over her shoulder to make sure he was coming, she walked around the other end of the trailer.