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Pain shot through Ben Jacobs's cheek. He sat up in bed and cupped his hand around the wound. After blinking several times to orient himself, his gaze locked on a brown-haired toddler holding a small red fire truck. His nephew squealed with delight then raced out of the room as fast as his chubby legs and feet would allow.
Releasing a groan, Ben flopped back in bed and rubbed the spot Ronald had clobbered. He just had to hit the bone, didn't he?
He glanced at the alarm clock on the bedside table then hopped up again. It couldn't possibly be seven o'clock. He'd set the alarm last night. He remembered doing it. Growling, he grabbed a worn pair of jeans and an old work shirt out of the closet and threw them on.
Without a doubt, his older brother, Kirk, had already fed the animals and checked on the apple and peach trees. Had probably even taken a look at the pumpkin patch.
October was a busy month for the Jacobs Family Farm in Bloom Hollow, Tennessee. Schools brought their students on field trips to enjoy the activity center and petting zoo and to pick apples and pumpkins. His parents' bed-and-breakfast, gift shop and small café had been extra busy this season, as well.
He pulled the comforter up over the pillows at the top of the bed. Knowing the bed wasn't made well enough for his sister-in-law's liking, he shut the bedroom door, all the while expecting a good tongue-lashing from her later that night. Biting back bitterness, he made his way to the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth.
It wasn't Callie's business if he made his bed or not. He was a grown man. Besides, he and his brother had lived together in this house for several years before Kirk and Callie got married. Ben hadn't planned to return to Bloom Hollow and his family's farm, but he hadn't had a choice. And he hated being stuck here.
Finished getting ready for the day, he walked past his twin nephews' room. His old bedroom. Though he loved the boys, it still felt like a knife twisting his gut every time he saw his old room painted a pale green and covered in elephants, lions, giraffes and other jungle animals. The living room was worse. Ruffled curtains. Flower-covered throw pillows. And Callie had some weird fetish for teddy bears. A guy couldn't sit anywhere without some furry critter with a tag hanging from its neck staring at him.
"What time is she supposed to get there?"
Callie's voice drifted down the hall. Ben nodded to her as he walked into the kitchen, opened the cabinet and grabbed a granola bar. He gulped down a quick glass of milk. He'd eat the bar on the way to the barn.
She continued her phone conversation. "Don't worry. I'll come over and make sure everything looks nice."
Ben opened the back door. Callie grabbed his arm then lifted her pointer finger for him to wait a minute. He glanced at the kitchen clock. Fifteen minutes had already passed, and he was anxious to help his brother and Dad. Especially since he and Dad weren't on the best of terms.
"Okay. I'll see you in a few minutes, Jane. Bye now."
She shoved the cell phone into her front jeans pocket and turned to Ben. She wrinkled her nose and lifted her shoulders. "I need a favor, Benny."
Even at twenty-four and as a college graduate, whenever Callie called him by the name she'd given him when he was just a kid, he couldn't help but smile. "What?"
"I need you to watch the boys."
"Jane Williams, you know the elderly lady I kind of watch out for? Well, her great-niece is moving in with her today, and Jane's blood pressure has been high, so she hasn't been able to clean the house much, so she asked me to help ."
Ben lifted his hand. He really didn't care about the details of some lady in town. "Where's Mom?"
"She already left for a doctor's appointment. He wants to check her sugar levels again."
"What about Pamela?"
"On her way to school."
Ben bit back a growl. "Callie, I can't. I gotta help
Kirk and Dad."
Callie shook her head. "I called Kirk before I talked with Jane. They're fine. They've finished most of the chores, and "
And his dad probably thought he was the biggest mess-up on the planet. Kirk had always been the epitome of a perfect son, working hard on the farm, saving money and going to church. His sister, Pamela, had had a hard time when her husband left her with two small children and she had to move in with their parents. But she'd always worked hard, saved money and gone to church. Now she was back with the girls' dad and about to graduate college with an accounting degree.
Then there was Ben. Mike and Tammie Jacobs's baby. His parents' church friends' warnings echoed through his mind. "Quite a pistol, ain't he?" and "Mark my words. That one'll give you grief."
"So, will you watch them?"
Ben blinked away his thoughts and focused on Callie.
She stuck out her bottom lip. "Please."
"Sounds like I don't have a choice."
Callie stood on tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "Thanks. I owe you one." She grabbed her purse off the counter. "I'll be back for lunch."
Ben gasped. "What? That's like four hours from now."
"Don't worry. I'll stop and get some fast food."
Before he could respond, Callie rushed out the back door. Ben turned and looked at his nephews, who stood in front of the television clapping their hands and swaying to some song on a cartoon program.
Half a year ago, he'd have never dreamed babysitting toddlers would have been in his future. He'd hoped to be with a big company in a city somewhere putting his electrical engineering degree to work. Instead, he'd spend the next few hours singing songs, changing diapers and filling sippy cups. Proof that God really did have it in for him.
"I think God has it in for me." Maggie Grant blew out a long breath as she accepted a welcoming hug from her great-aunt, Jane Williams.
"Nonsense." Aunt Jane released Maggie then adjusted the floppy straw hat she always wore. It had been summer the last time Maggie had seen her aunt and the hat had sported a long, yellow, flowered ribbon in honor of the season. This time a bright orange ribbon covered in black cats wrapped around it in celebration of the month of October.
"Where's that great-great-nephew of mine?" Aunt Jane smacked her lips together, and Maggie noted the bright pink shade painted on them. The same shade she had worn for as long as Maggie could remember.
Maggie cringed as she opened the back door of the midsize car that had seen many better days. After hours of crying, talking, vomiting and then more of all three, her carsick three-year-old son had finally fallen asleep a few miles outside Bloom Hollow. She hated the idea of waking him up. "He just fell asleep, Aunt Jane."
"Well, we can't leave him out here."
"Carry him in the house. We'll put him in my bed."
Maggie shifted her weight from one foot to the other. If only it were that easy. Petey gave her fits when he didn't get his full nap. She'd prefer to just camp outside in the car until the little guy woke up on his own.
Aunt Jane motioned to the house. "Come on, now. We don't want to stay out in this wind all day."
Maggie inhaled the slight breeze that kissed her face and gently feathered her hair. The temperature was ideal. Nonetheless, Aunt Jane wrapped her sweater tighter around her waist. Maggie couldn't argue with the woman. All she could do was pray Petey would stay asleep. If she was careful, maybe she could slip him out of the car seat, walk gently into the house and lower the two of them into her aunt's rocking chair.
"Maggie, dear, what's that in his hair?"
Petey whimpered and shifted in Maggie's arms as Aunt Jane scratched at a brown spot on his temple.
Maggie furrowed her brow. "I think it's vomit."
The older woman scrunched up her nose. "Oh."
"I told you God hates me. We spent ten hours in the car. Petey puked four times, I had to change a flat tire and I almost ran out of gas because I forgot to check the gauge before we hit the seventy-seven-mile stretch with no gas stations."
"You made it." Aunt Jane opened the front door of the house. "If you ask me, that shows He's looking out for you."
Maggie allowed her aunt's positive attitude to lift her spirits. She could use some rose-tinted glasses. Maggie had spent all of Petey's life wallowing in self-pity. Her young son deserved more than that. His father would have wanted more for him.
The loneliness and pain she'd pushed to the deepest recesses of her heart bubbled up, and Maggie swallowed the knot in her throat. Paul had died serving their country in Afghanistan when Maggie was seven months pregnant with Petey. He'd never had the chance to hold his son, and she'd never had the chance to say goodbye to the man she loved so desperately.
Shaking the thought away, Maggie followed Aunt Jane into the house. The scent of apple cider wafted through the air, and Maggie's stomach growled. Realizing it had been hours since she'd eaten, she hoped her great-aunt had something she could eat once Petey woke up.
Aunt Jane motioned down the hall. "Come on. Let's lay him down."
Maggie shook her head. "It's okay. I'll just sit in the rocking chair until he wakes up."
Her aunt clicked her tongue. "Nonsense. You're hungry. I heard your stomach rumbling."
Maggie's cheeks warmed. "He'll wake up."
"No, he won't. You'll see."
Frustrated, Maggie bit her tongue and followed her aunt down the hall. Aunt Jane folded the covers back then Maggie bent down and laid him on the bed. Please, God, don't let him wake up. Petey sat straight up, opened his eyes and stuck out a quivering bottom lip. Maggie reached for him, but Aunt Jane stopped her. The elderly woman patted his back.
"Lie down now, Pete. Your nap isn't over."
Her tone left no room for arguing and to Maggie's surprise Petey flopped back onto the bed and closed his eyes. Aunt Jane pressed her finger against her lips and nodded toward the door.
Once in the hall, Maggie stammered, "I can't believe he lay back down."
"He's tired. Why wouldn't he?"
"Because he never does that."
"Hmm, you baby the boy too much." She reached up and squeezed Maggie's cheek. "Sounds like my niece might need me every bit as much as I need her."
Maggie bit her tongue again as she followed her aunt into the kitchen. She wouldn't mention the frying pan she'd spied on the nightstand beside Aunt Jane's bed. Before she'd decided to move in with her aging relative, Maggie's mom had warned her that Aunt Jane was putting things away in odd places.
Maggie's stomach growled again when she spied the platter of fried chicken and bowls of mashed potatoes and green beans on the counter. "Aunt Jane, you shouldn't have."
"I didn't cook all this." She lifted up swollen, wrinkled hands. "It's been quite some time since these hands have let me cook a feast like that."
"My friend Tammie Jacobs cooked it. She owns a farm a few miles out, and her daughter-in-law, Callie, takes care of me most days." Aunt Jane laughed. "When she ain't chasing after those wild twin boys of hers."
Maggie opened the cabinet and pulled out two plates. Memories of the women from her grandmother's small country church getting together to cook dinners for shut-in seniors washed over her. It had been a long time since she'd been part of a church family who looked out for one another. She hadn't forgotten about God. Of course, she still believed in Him, but she'd been busy caring for Petey and working at a local supermarket.
The doorbell rang, and Maggie jumped and pressed her palm against her chest. Please, Lord, don't let Petey wake up.
Aunt Jane clicked her tongue. "I bet that's Tammie's boy Ben. She called and said she'd forgotten to send the chocolate pie with our meal."
Maggie licked her lips. "Chocolate pie?"
Aunt Jane nodded. "She asked about your favorite dessert. I tell you, that woman is a gem. Almost as sweet as me." She cackled as she pointed toward the door. "If you'll answer the door, I'll find the salt and pepper."
Maggie chose not to comment when her aunt opened one of the drawers in the refrigerator. She made her way to the front of the house and opened the door. A tall, dark-haired man with piercing, deep blue eyes smiled at her, and she found herself swallowing a knot in her throat. After blinking several times, she opened the door wider. "Come on inside. You must be Ben."
He bit his bottom lip, and Maggie felt in her own body the blush that crept up his neck and cheeks. "And you must be Maggie."
He continued to stand there, and Maggie's heartbeat raced inside her chest. She motioned inside. "You can-"
Shaking his head, he handed her the pie. "I can't stay. Mom wanted me to drop this off to y'all." He tipped his head. "It was nice meeting you, Maggie."
She nodded in agreement then he hopped off the front porch. "Bye," she whispered, then straightened her shoulders to knock some sense back into her brain. She was simply exhausted. That was all.
Her aunt yelled from the kitchen. "I found the shakers. Was that Ben?"
"Yes," Maggie hollered back as she shut the door then peeked out the window to watch his truck drive down the road.
"Did he want to stay and eat with us?"
Maggie shook her head to clear her thoughts once more. She walked back into the kitchen and sighed at the sight of a warm, home-cooked meal. "No, he didn't."
"Well, all right, then. Let's say grace then get to eating." After prayer and filling her plate, Maggie stuck her finger in the mashed potatoes then licked it. Mmm, so good. Warmth filled her as she listened to her aunt chatter on about the people of Bloom Hollow. Moving to Tennessee might be just what she needed.
A cool seventy degrees and a cloudless sky, Ben Jacobs breathed in the perfect day for fifty kindergarteners to visit the Jacobs Family Farm. The Smoky Mountains swathed the backdrop of the farm in beauty and majesty. Rows of apple and peach trees billowed in front of the mountains, while vines plump with ripened pumpkins adorned the ground near the activity center. Though he missed the conveniences of the city, he couldn't deny the beauty of his home.
Kirk, Callie and Pamela's husband, Jack, had chased after the five-year-olds at the petting zoo and the activity center most of the morning. Having settled the kids at picnic tables, Ben knew mere minutes would pass before the kindergarteners would finish with lunch and grow eager to race to the pumpkin patch to pick out a pumpkin to take home.