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And Baby Makes Five
By Debra Clopton
Steeple HillCopyright © 2006 Debra Clopton
All right reserved.
Samantha, bless her weird, little, mischievous soul, was up to no good.
Lilly Tipps knew this. She knew it all the way down to the tips of her water-retaining, swollen big toes. Trouble was brewing, and Samantha was the cause of it.
Scanning the icy darkness, Lilly scrunched her brow and absently massaged her tight stomach as another Braxton-Hicks contraction started building in its intensity. The false labor pains had been hitting her off and on for the past two weeks, but tonight...oohhh! Lilly took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. Tonight they were stronger than usual and it was all because of Samantha.
In an effort to ignore the pain, Lilly pulled her coat closed over her rotund tummy, flipped her collar up about her ears, then settled her red wool cap over her corkscrew curls. She concentrated on the task at hand as the pain, more of a nuisance than anything, peaked.
"I must admit, sweet baby..." she said aloud — she'd taken up chatting or singing to her baby early in the pregnancy. She knew it was a good thing to let her child learn her voice, and also, it was nice to have someone to talk to other than Samantha. "I'd trade my whole cache of banana Laffy Taffy and half my chocolate-covered peanut stash for a man to help search for Samantha." She inhaled deeply andlet it out slowly. "I'm so not wanting to wander around in this freezing weather looking for an ornery old donkey."
It was a little odd. Not everyone had a donkey cohabiting with them, and Lilly was finding that keeping the old girl home was a major job, especially for a single gal eight months pregnant and growing by the second.
Buck up, Lilly. You volunteered to take her on. "Yes, I did," she said into the wind as stinging prickles of ice misted across her bare face. It was obvious that Samantha had decided to take her aging little body up the road to her old homestead. It was also obvious that the only one to fetch her back was Lilly. Pregnant or not. False contractions or not.
So be it. Surrendering to her decision, Lilly waddled from the protection of the barn into the icy wind toward her truck. She sympathized with Samantha, she really did. Being forced to give up your home and move would be hard, even if it was only down the road. Lilly had been born and raised in Mule Hollow and couldn't imagine living anywhere else. Samantha needed to learn Lilly's home was now her home. Containing the donkey was an almost impossible task, since she was like the great Houdini, escaping constantly.
Lilly bit her lip in concentration. She had to find a way to keep her little friend home. It was for Samantha's own good. If half of what Lilly had heard circulating in Mule Hollow about the new owner of Samantha's homestead were true, then trespassing on her former stomping grounds could very possibly get Samantha shot.
Lilly at last reached her truck without mishap. The pangs had disappeared for the moment, thank goodness. Why couldn't these fake labor pains hit during the day while she was in her warm house designing her cattle sales catalogs? At least then she could stop and relax until they passed. But the pains had to start in the middle of the night, just like Samantha misbehaving. Lilly sighed, glad the contractions had given her a reprieve. She wrestled open the door of her ancient truck, then hoisted herself into the high seat, which was no easy feat with her small, roly-poly stature. Once up there, she had to rest for a second before she could proceed. After a few moments she caught her breath, twisted the key and, to her dismay, listened as the engine rumbled to life.
"Why, thank You, Lord, for Your steadfastness," she muttered. "I guess this is a sign that I truly do have to go on down there and get myself shot." Looking heavenward, she smiled. God knew her. They'd been building a solid relationship for the past few months and she realized she wasn't hiding anything from Him. He already understood the truck's reliability hadn't been priority this evening.
She was more afraid that if Cort Wells caught Samantha, he might tan not only her wrinkled hide, but Lilly's, too.
However, she wasn't about to let rumors color her views of the man. A person couldn't escape the gossip in Mule Hollow — where some towns had a grapevine, Mule Hollow had an entire vineyard. Mr. Wells was being discussed in the feed store and at the gas pump, especially the gas pump. Just yesterday, minding her own business pumping unleaded into her truck, Applegate Thornton and Stanley Orr stood not three feet from her, openly debating what would cause a man to have such a scowl etched between his eyebrows. That scowl was legendary, and though she'd never witnessed it, evidently it hadn't wavered during any of his dealings with the locals in the short time since he'd moved to town.
Why, even the ladies at Heavenly Inspirations Hair Salon had mentioned it. If they noticed it then it must be something, because Lacy Brown, the owner, didn't like gossip at all and certainly didn't put up with it. Apparently she had said to the group that they all needed to pray about what kind of problem would make a man want to walk around glaring at people like that.
Lilly started praying. She prayed that Samantha would behave and they could sneak away without meeting the man. Of course, that wasn't very Christian. It was more of an all-out rebellion against her duty as one of His. She sighed. Hermit or no hermit, she still had to be neighborly. It seemed she was always failing at that particular portion of her renewed walk with the Lord.
Then again, the grannies had taught her well the many reasons to excuse bad behavior when it came to interacting with men. Two generations of grannies, plus her mother, who'd all had their hearts trampled by the men they'd loved, had no sympathy where a man's feelings were concerned.
Great-Granny Shu-Shu literally hated men. Granny Gab would have strung a man up by his toes and never shown him any type of common courtesy.
There was a time when the men of Mule Hollow practically walked across the street when her grannies went in for supplies. Over the years, because of the intervention of sweet-hearted Granny Bunches, who was really her great-aunt, they'd come to tolerate each other in order to live in the same small community. But still, all her life Lilly had been taught to believe the worst about men.
Old habits that ingrained were hard to break. But since her change of heart, her upbringing was no excuse to show bad behavior to her new neighbor.
Having let the engine warm sufficiently, Lilly rammed the heater lever to the on position, but made no move to engage the gears.
Of course... She paused, an idea blooming in her mind. It was late and Cort Wells would be sleeping like a normal person, unlike herself. She'd simply creep in, grab Samantha and scoot right back home.
The man need never know they'd been around. Surely he was snoring in a warm bed, totally ignorant of the world around him.
Okay. Okay, Lord. Sucking in a breath, Lilly squared her shoulders. No one could be all that bad. The man was a horse trainer, for goodness' sake, not an ax murderer. Why, as she kept saying, she should already have popped over there and introduced herself. He was after all her closest neighbor within ten miles.
If she'd been able to afford Leroy's place, then Cort Wells wouldn't have been her neighbor. She'd have been all the way out there, forgotten and blissfully alone, just the way she liked it. But you weren't able to afford the ranch, she thought, and now you have a new neighbor, and so be it, tonight or in the next few days, you are going to have to make his acquaintance one way or another. God would have her stretch past her own desire and reach for His purpose. That's what she'd been learning — that's what she was striving to do.
With that said, and before she chickened out, Lilly stomped hard on the gas pedal, grimacing when the truck lurched forward.
Again Lilly frowned, thinking about the ax-murderer portion of her imaginings about her ill-tempered, large, glowering grinch of a neighbor.
She was heading to his house in the dark of night. Truth was Cort Wells wasn't an ax murderer — thus far. But he hadn't met hairy old meddling Samantha.
Cort Wells figured his frozen ears were about as hard as a block of ice and ten times colder than ears had any right to be. His fingers were numb. His nose was colder than his dog's after a dip in the fishpond behind the barn. After three hours of hiding inside the horse stables, Cort also figured that when he tried to remove his boots, his toes would be stuck to them and he'd be too hypothermic to care.
He hated cold weather.
Texas wasn't supposed to have winters ten degrees below freezing, which was one of the main reasons he'd chosen to relocate here rather than somewhere in his home state of Oklahoma. That and the fact that Mule Hollow was next to nothing in population made it the perfect place for a guy like him.
Excerpted from And Baby Makes Five by Debra Clopton Copyright © 2006 by Debra Clopton. Excerpted by permission.
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