Heartland Joy

Chapter 1

How long had it been since he’d ridden on a grocery store cart?

Shawn Barclay watched as an older teenage boy, or possibly a young man in his early twenties, started at the back end of the parking lot, pushing his cart with one foot on the back bar and one foot pushing like a skateboard, gaining momentum as he hurled across the blacktop.

Shawn held his watermelon under one arm and slowed his stride just a little, grinning.

It was a good thing he’d bought a watermelon, or he might have been tempted to join the dude in a shopping cart race.

He and his brothers had done that more than once growing up, much to his mother’s disapproval.

Never in a lot that had been so busy, though.

It was unseasonably hot for October. October in Arkansas anyway.

That’s where Shawn had grown up.

But for Iowa?

It was his first day here, and he wasn’t sure.

Still, the watermelon would be a great lunch before he found the farm where his parents wanted him to help out over the winter.

The dude with the shopping cart must have done it a time or two because somehow he managed to tilt the cart up on one wheel and spin it in an entire circle before it thumped back down and he gave it two more giant pushes with his leg.

Shawn’s smile had slipped however, because a woman, her cart laden with groceries, hurried out of the store, glancing at the dark, billowing clouds rolling in from the west.

Shawn didn’t think it was going to start pouring in the next five minutes, but maybe the woman wanted to get home and have her groceries unloaded before the storm started.

Regardless, she wasn’t paying attention to the dude on the cart, and the dude certainly wasn’t paying attention to her.

He’d developed a little bit of an audience, and he seemed to be playing to them, swerving the cart into screeching S turns before he grinned at the folks standing, watching, then shoved with two more big pushes before he rode the cart with both hands in the air.

It was at that point that the lady hurrying out of the store must have heard the commotion and jerked her head around in the direction of the dude on the cart barreling toward her.

Maybe she could have avoided a collision if there hadn’t been so many groceries in her cart.

She yanked back on the handle; her frame, though slight, seemed strong and agile.

Iowa was a lot different than Arkansas. Flat for one.

The sky was huge, not hidden by any mountains and very few hills. It was farm country, just like Shawn had come from in Arkansas.

Still, it wasn’t home, although there were plenty of people in Arkansas just like this woman in front of him: short, no-nonsense haircut, and despite her predicament of being directly in the way of a barreling cart, she definitely wasn’t a maiden in distress, seeing the danger and working to avoid it rather than standing like a deer in headlights, waiting to be rescued.

Still, Shawn could never resist even the idea of a damsel in distress, and he ran forward, dropping his watermelon and grabbing hold of her cart, adding his weight to hers for a second or two while the dude riding toward them, finally aware there were other people in the parking lot, put all of his skills to work to try to avoid the imminent collision.

Maybe if Shawn had gotten there just a second earlier, they might have been successful.

As it was, he hit the front right corner of the cart, jerking it with enough force to spin it and throw the woman and Shawn to the right as the cart swung left.

Shawn might have been better off if he hadn’t run to help at all, since he ended up landing on top of the woman, getting both feet tangled in the wheel of the cart, and tumbling to the ground.

“That didn’t quite go the way I planned,” Shawn muttered as the woman moved under him, grunting just a little.

He unwound his long legs from hers and stood, the jeans he wore protecting his legs from any scrapes although the palms of his hands burned from catching himself on either side of her.

The lady, on the other hand, didn’t make out quite so well. He could see a scrape on her upper arm and some blood on her wrist. As she rolled over, both of her knees were scraped because of the knee-length skirt she wore.

He offered his hand. She grasped it, and he pulled as she leaned back against it, wedging her feet on the blacktop and stretching to her feet.

“Thank you,” she said, glancing at her cart which had stopped a few feet away before brushing herself off.

The dude who’d hit them came back with his hands in his pockets, having gotten his cart stopped. “I’m sorry about that, Bridget. I didn’t see you there.”

“It’s okay, TJ,” the lady said, looking at the brush burn on her arm which had to be burning, even though it wasn’t bleeding profusely.

Shawn did a double take at the woman. “It’s okay?” he asked incredulously. “The dude just ran into you. Aren’t you…like, angry?”

The woman turned her head and narrowed her eyes, almost like she was angry at him for suggesting that she should be angry. “Why would I be angry? No one got hurt.” She moved her eyes over him from top to bottom. “You look like you’re fine…are you okay?” She asked that last question like it just occurred to her that he might have been hurt.

“I’m fine, but you’re all scraped up. It’s because the guy was careless. Showing off.” Shawn swept his eyes around the parking lot where TJ’s admirers had been gathered. They’d dispersed now, and no one was in sight.

“He was just having fun, and I’m glad he was able to.” She gave Shawn another side glance before she moved her gaze to TJ. It wasn’t a look of affection, exactly, but more the look of someone who’d known someone for a really long time. “How’s your mother doing?”

TJ already looked abashed, and now his eyes went to the ground. “Not good. I’m here to pick up her prescription for more painkillers,” he mumbled. Then he jerked his head at Shawn, who tilted his head ever so slightly in return, still jacked that the dude seemed to be getting away with being irresponsible and running into people and no one seemed to care. TJ pulled his hand out of his pocket and waved it in the lady’s direction. “I’d better go get it. Sorry again,” he murmured as he strode away.

The lady let out a deep breath, then turned to her cart, grasping the handle with one hand while she shook the hand with the scrape on her palm a little before touching the cart with it.

“You probably have some stones pushed up in there, and your knees are scraped up too. Do you have someone who can look at it?”

Shawn should just leave. The lady had been very clear that she was not upset, and she wasn’t going to make a big deal about it.

He appreciated the lack of drama. Some people made big deals out of everything, and it got tiring. But honestly, that dude should be held accountable. He could hurt someone else if he didn’t stop being so careless.

Of course, more than once Shawn had been the one riding a cart in the parking lot, and he had been enjoying watching the guy until he had run into the lady.

If he’d run into someone though, he would have spent a lot more time apologizing and making sure she was okay. But that dude acted like he couldn’t wait to get away from her.

“I’ll be fine. I do appreciate your concern. But TJ’s had a pretty hard summer since his mom and sister were in an accident. His sister didn’t make it, and his mom is having a difficult recovery.”

Shawn pursed his lips, feeling bad for TJ but not bad enough that he wanted to give him a free pass to run into anyone with a shopping cart.

Still, if the lady wasn’t angry, he would try to hold his own temper. “Oh. I see. I’m sorry, I guess you have the advantage of being a hometown girl. I’m new.”

“I know. I should have introduced myself. I’m Bridget Rallings.” She held out her hand, then kinda shrugged and looked apologetic. “You probably don’t want to shake since I’m bleeding.”

Shawn took the hand she offered, but instead of shaking, he turned it over and cradled it in his. “There are a couple of stones in there.” He looked up. “You never answered my question about whether or not you have someone to help you get them out.”

“They’ll work their way out. I’ll clean them good when I get home.” Her words wobbled a little, and she swayed, taking her hand out of his and grabbing a hold of the cart.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked. “If you hit your head, I didn’t see it.” His eyes scanned her body, looking for a bump he might have missed.

“I thought I was. My head doesn’t hurt at all. I just had a little dizzy spell.”

He glanced at the clouds. They were boiling on the western horizon but didn’t seem to be coming any closer, although there was an occasional gust of wind to dispel the heat that beat down from the sun and radiated out from the black macadam.

“Come on. I’ll push your cart. Tell me where your car is. Maybe you can sit down on the bumper for a minute.”

Her car wasn’t far away. They passed the watermelon he’d dropped as they walked toward it.

“As soon as I get you settled, I’m going back to grab that. That was my lunch,” he said, humor in his voice, as she walked slowly beside him, allowing him to push her cart but not having any more wobbles.

“I’m sure I’m fine. I don’t know what came over me. I guess I just lost my balance for a minute,” she said, almost seeming embarrassed that she wasn’t completely strong.

She got her key out and opened the trunk as they walked toward it.

“Do me a favor and sit there on the bumper for a minute. I’ll be right back.” He waited for her to sit before he turned and jogged back toward his watermelon.

It was cracked, and there was a puddle of juice on the parking lot underneath it.

He picked up the watermelon, careful to hold it so he wouldn’t get the sticky liquid on his hands. He had every intention of helping the lady unload her groceries into her car. But as he turned, he could see she was already back on her feet and unloading her cart herself.

He had a feeling he might not be wanted, but he couldn’t just walk away, so he walked over, laying his watermelon back down on the ground beside her car. He reached into her cart, pulling out several bags.

“Is there a certain way you want these?”

“No. I didn’t get any bread today, and we have our own chickens, so everything else can be put wherever,” she said, humor in her voice, which was a little friendlier than she’d been before. But still reserved. “Although these bags here,” she indicated the bags in the front basket of her cart, “are for Matilda, and I’d like to keep them toward the back.”

He didn’t say anything more but helped her with the rest of it. As she was putting the last bag in, she either lost her balance or had another dizzy spell because her body shuddered and she fell forward. Her shoulder hit the side of the SUV.

“Are you okay?” he asked, pushing the cart away and coming to her side, putting his steadying hand on her shoulder as she straightened.

“I think it’s just the heat. Maybe I turned too quickly. I feel fine.”

She sighed a little, and he felt compelled to say, “How about you sit down for a minute? I’ll share my lunch with you.” His eyes crinkled, although he was only half joking. He didn’t think there was anything seriously wrong, but sometimes a person just needed a few minutes to recover. He thought that was what was going on here, but in case not, he preferred she not get in her car and drive just yet.

His oldest sister, a surgeon, might have a different take, and if he felt like he needed a professional opinion, he wasn’t afraid to text her.

He had time before the farmer he was going to see was expecting him, and while he had zero intention of getting involved with anyone here in Iowa, he wasn’t opposed to making friends.

He wasn’t going to be staying long enough for anything more.