Heartland Mistletoe

Chapter 1

 

 

Annie Wilson walked down the Prairie Rose sidewalk, carrying six grocery bags.

Since she’d bought Catherine Connelly’s house, right on the main street of Prairie Rose, and moved in with Gram and Pap, she’d been within walking distance of a grocery store for the first time in her life.

Turning right and crossing the street, she walked up the path to Miss Matilda’s house.

That was another advantage of being able to walk to the store. She could grab groceries for several older people in town. Only two of the bags she carried were hers.

She hadn’t really needed to go shopping, but Matilda and her neighbor Joe had both needed things today, so she’d made a run.

One thing she learned, the hard way, was that it was much easier to make several smaller trips than one big grocery run.

She could carry ten bags, but the bags didn’t always survive the trip.

Going around to the side door and knocking on it, she opened it carefully and stepped into Miss Matilda’s kitchen.

“I’m coming, Annie. I saw you on the sidewalk,” Miss Matilda called from the living room.

“You always do. And I wasn’t worried about it. I know where these things go,” Annie said, setting the bags down on a chair and rooting through until she found the one bag that was Miss Matilda’s.

She had the sugar put away, the milk in the refrigerator, and the bananas sitting on the counter before Miss Matilda shuffled out.

“Goodness, girl. You move fast,” Miss Matilda said, not going to the table but going straight for Annie, where she wrapped her arms around her and gave her a big, warm, maternal hug.

Annie returned it.

She’d lost her parents suddenly in a traffic accident, and Miss Matilda’s hugs reminded her of those her mom used to give.

Even if Miss Matilda was closer to her grandparents’ age.

She supposed the longing to have her mother back would never ease. Not that she was grieving still. She wasn’t. She had a peace in her soul, knowing where her mom was, knowing that her mother was waiting on her; she didn’t worry about that. But those assurances didn’t make her miss her mother any less. That’s where she had trouble being sad.

“I hope you can sit down and chat for a while,” Miss Matilda said, her hand on the table as she pulled out a chair to sit down herself.

“I’d love to, but I can’t. I have ice cream in Sam’s bag. I don’t want it to melt.”

“That man was always telling me I need to eat better, and now look at him. Ice cream.”

Annie grinned but didn’t say anything about Sam’s dietary choices. She didn’t get groceries for the older folks in town just so she could gossip about what they ate.

She did say, “I think, this is just my unprofessional opinion, but I think sometimes you have to balance what’s healthy with what makes you happy. I mean, come on, what’s the point in living to be one hundred if you eat radishes three times a day? There’s no fun in that.”

“Would it be better to die at fifty?” Miss Matilda said, playing devil’s advocate, just because she knew this was one of the places where Annie could be passionate.

“Maybe. If you die happy. If you die doing what you want. Isn’t that a person’s choice?”

“God only gave you one body. If you’re saved, the Holy Spirit resides in it. That makes your body the temple of the Holy Spirit. If you put holes or graffiti or junk food in it, it’s really not taking good care of the body God gave you.”

Annie wasn’t always sure she agreed completely with Miss Matilda, but she definitely wouldn’t argue. There was no biblical basis for her stand, while Miss Matilda had all the Bible in the world behind her. The body was the Holy Spirit’s temple. They were to take care of it and respect it as such.

But whether that meant she wasn’t supposed to eat potato chips or pierce her ears, she wasn’t entirely sure.

She always liked to err on the side of caution, though.

And she enjoyed talking about and studying nutrition.

She actually loved creating healthy meals and enjoyed cooking for her grandparents.

She gathered up her bags, saying, “The headline on the Farmers’ Almanac in the checkout line said that this was going to be a really bad winter.”

Sometimes the almanac was correct. Sometimes it wasn’t. Which was pretty much the way any weather report was.

“I agree with that. I can feel that in my bones this year. I think we’re going to be getting a lot of snow, and it’s going to be a lot colder than average.” Miss Matilda spoke as Annie walked to the door.

“I trust your bones as much as I trust any weather report. Call me anytime if you need something. I’m just a couple houses away. And I can be here in an instant.”

“I know. Since you moved in, I’ve taken advantage of your kindness more than I should. But it is nice to have someone who responds so quickly. Thank you for taking care of this old lady.”

“Not a problem. It’s my pleasure. And my grandparents love it when you visit, so don’t be a stranger.”

Miss Matilda nodded. “The walk down the street does these old bones good. Although, I have to admit sometimes it feels a lot longer than three houses.”

Annie laughed, knowing that someday that would be her. But right now, she could walk forever. She even ran sometimes, just for fun. She didn’t have a problem with her leg strength and endurance. But because she was so small, her upper body strength was abysmal. She was terrible at baseball and had been a miserable failure the couple of times she tried tennis as well.

“Take care,” she said, walking out the door, feeling happy and light.

Doing kind things for others always made her feel good. And while she didn’t look at herself like some kind of saint because she was delivering groceries, she did think she was doing something worthwhile and helpful, which made her even more happy.

Crossing the street, which wasn’t busy at all this time of day, she walked up the walk to Sam’s house, not feeling quite so alone. Sometimes, especially this time of year, she wished she’d found that special someone to share her life with.

Sam was a little more aloof than Miss Matilda and met her at the door, offering her money for bringing his groceries.

Which she refused, of course, and had every time he’d done it. He still insisted on it. She supposed it was his pride.

Regardless, he refused her offer of help to put the groceries away, thanked her again, and she was back on her way.

She loved the little house that she’d bought from Catherine. It was perfect for her and her grandparents. Not too huge, but big enough for them to be able to live together and not feel like they were living on top of each other.

There were two living rooms, which meant that her gram could watch TV in one, and her pap in the other, and neither one of them had mentioned the word “divorce” for at least a week.

It had taken a couple of months for them to settle in, since they had lived an hour to the west of Prairie Rose all their lives, spending most of that on their farm.

But when Annie’s brother, Ferris, had gotten married to Meg McCartney and settled down on her farm right outside of Prairie Rose, they had been persuaded to leave the town they were living in and move so they were just a few minutes from Ferris and his family.

Walking up the three steps and opening the front door which she had locked, Annie called out, “I’m home!” before she closed the door and walked down the hall to the kitchen.

She couldn’t hear the TV and figured either one or both of her grandparents were watching it with the sound off and possibly sleeping in front of it. They often did that in the afternoons. It didn’t surprise her when neither one of them came to the kitchen.

Not that she needed help. She was quite capable of putting the groceries away by herself.

It did surprise her though, as she was putting the oatmeal in the cupboard, that she heard the front door open.

Figuring it could be Miss Matilda, who probably would have knocked at least before she opened the door, she listened for whoever it was to let the house know they were there by calling out.

No one did.

Odd.

Her eyes narrowed as her hand lingered on the oatmeal, wondering if the wind had blown the front door open. Had she not closed it tightly?

There was always wind in Iowa, but it hadn’t been bad this afternoon. Certainly not any worse than usual, and maybe slightly better.

Footsteps, heavy ones, sounding like a man wearing boots, came down the hall.

A sliver of fear cut through her, sharp pain cramping on her insides.

At least they were coming to the kitchen and not stopping at the living rooms. She at least might have a chance to protect her grandparents.

She hadn’t mentioned this to Miss Matilda, but the other headline she’d seen in the grocery store had been: Couple Murdered in Beds by Unknown Assailants.

There were always headlines like that, and she usually just skimmed over them and ignored them, but the heavy footsteps, the person who didn’t call out, someone just walking into their house, made that headline flash like a billboard in her mind.

In that split second, after she heard the footsteps, thought of the headline, and knew they were coming toward the kitchen, she tightened her grip back on the large brown container of oatmeal and pulled it back out of the cupboard while looking frantically around the kitchen for any other kind of weapon.

Seeing none, she crept to the side of the kitchen doorway, careful to stay out of sight. It was her responsibility to take care of Gram and Pap. If that meant she had to attack an assailant to try to keep him from murdering her grandparents as they slept in their easy chairs, she would do it.

She might be small, but she’d always made up for that in tenacity and bravery.

There was a small stool right by the doorway, one she kept there out of the way but ready to use when she needed it to get up to reach the higher cupboard shelves.

Being short had never been a blessing.

Except now. Because she had the stool there, and assuming whoever it was would be taller than she was, she stepped up on it, holding the oatmeal above her head, ready to bring it down on top of the assailant, hopefully rendering him unconscious or at least befuddled, until she could think of something else to do.

The assailant appeared in the kitchen, just as Annie realized she should have grabbed the stool and hit him with that.

Too late. Maybe because she was kicking herself for not thinking and for having oatmeal as a weapon instead of the wooden stool, she swung with all her might, channeling all the adrenaline in her body into her upper torso to really make this blow count.

The oatmeal came down on top of a full brown head of hair and immediately split apart, scattering oatmeal everywhere.

She wasn’t sure what she thought the oatmeal was going to do, but that hadn’t been in her plan.

Nevertheless, she was already rushing to do step two, which was jumping down from the stool, grabbing it, and smacking the man in the face with it. Or wherever she could that might mortally wound him.

“What in the world—?” the man sputtered, brushing oatmeal off him and befuddled for sure, but definitely not hurt.

If this ever happened to her again, she needed to shove the oatmeal aside and grab a jar of honey or something.

Mental note for next time.

With the stool in her hand, she held it over her shoulder, focusing on putting all her strength into hitting him as hard as she could.

He wasn’t excessively tall, although taller than average, but he was also large. Substantial. Not a slender teenager, but a man with broad shoulders, and while she wouldn’t call him fat, he wasn’t skinny. Still.

Something about him looked familiar, and instinct made her pause just a second while his head came up, and his eyes, blue as the sky in summer, looked straight at her.

She stared at him, her mouth open, the stool raised above her shoulder, as memories flooded back.

She hadn’t gotten a great look at him the first time she’d seen him, because it had been dark that night, but the moon had been full, and she’d been able to make out the features of his face.

That was the night he’d tackled her in front of her brother’s house, tossing her into the bushes, scratching her face, and treating her like a burglar.

Kind of the way she’d just treated him.

Although he had walked into her house without knocking, without calling out, and…and she’d broken oatmeal all over him.

His eyes narrowed as he recognized her as well. “I guess you owed me the oatmeal, but I’m pretty sure if you hit me with that thing, you’re going to be one up.”

He held up the palm of his hand where two white scars were slightly raised on the pad of flesh at the base of his thumb.

Teeth marks. From her.

She twisted her lip, pulling it back, and slowly lowered the stool.

“I’m sorry. I—” What was she doing? Why was she apologizing? This was her house.

She straightened her back, shaking her head a little. “What are you doing in here? Why didn’t you knock?”

“What are you doing squatting in my sister’s house?” the man returned, just as forceful as she had sounded. “Just because the house is unoccupied doesn’t mean you can walk in and make yourself at home.” He looked around the kitchen, likely realizing she had really made it her home.

“This is my house. I bought it.”

“This is my sister’s house. This is where I live when I’m home from the harvest crew. Which is what I am now, and where I’m going to live, and you are in the wrong house.”

Then he looked around the kitchen again, maybe seeming to notice that the décor had changed slightly since the last time he’d seen it.

Catherine, apparently this man’s sister, had decorated the kitchen with lemons and geese.

Annie had redone it in a more modern look, with green and gray highlighting natural wood.

“You changed her kitchen?” The man…Lincoln. Lincoln was his name. He looked around, disbelief on his face. “You have taken squatting to a new level.”

“I bought this house from Catherine. I believe she is your sister, which is pretty much the only fact you have gotten right since you walked into this house uninvited.”

She emphasized the “uninvited.”

“You bought it from Catherine?”

“I did.”

“When?”

“Sometime between the last time you attacked me and now, when you walked into my house like a burglar intent on killing my grandparents and me in our sleep.”

The man’s face scrunched up. “I walk in unannounced, thinking it’s my right, and automatically you think I’m going to kill everyone on the property? You have way too active of an imagination.”

“I’m small. I can’t wait for people to announce their nefarious intentions before I act. I have to be proactive.”

“Well, I hate to ruin our perfect record of disagreement, but I agree with you, for the first time in our lives together. You are small.”

“I think my size is a personal subject that we should not be discussing.”

“You brought it up.”

She gritted her teeth, thankful she didn’t have to deal with this man on a daily basis. “Well, now that we have that straightened out, I wouldn’t want to keep you from whatever it was that you were going to do, so feel free.”

The man shrugged and walked to the refrigerator, opening the door.