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April In Bloom
By Annie Jones
Steeple HillCopyright © 2006 Annie Jones
All right reserved.
"Rootbound, Sheriff Muldoon. That's your problem." The spry old fellow standing in the open doorway swept the gray felt hat from his head, sucked his teeth and squinted hard. "Got no room to grow. And if you don't do something about it and quick, well, I ain't one to be a prophet of doom, but if you don't make a change soon, there'll be no hope at all."
Kurt shuddered as if a cold wind had overtaken him. The portent of a coming storm.
"Come on in, Moonie." He tried to sound gruff. Amused but gruff. "Tell me what's on your mind — not like I could stop you from it."
Unstoppable. Somebody would be hard-pressed to find a soul in Wileyville, Kentucky, who would argue with that description of Solomon "Moonie" Shelnutt.
The older gentleman took a few steps inside the sheriff's stuffy office and jabbed one gnarled finger at the potted plant bullied into a windowless corner beside cardboard boxes and outdated computer equipment. "That plant."
"What plant?" Kurt pivoted in his squeaky chair to eye the thin-stalked palm, its fringed leaves tinged with brown.
"That one." This time, Moonie motioned with his familiar hat. "Needs room to spread out. To stretch and grow and realize its full potential. Never going to happen if you keep it confined to this place."
Kurt blinked to ease theever-present burning in his eyes from the flickering fluorescent lights overhead and sighed. "I know just how it feels."
"I'll get my daughter April to come 'round and look after it for you, if you want." April, Moonie's stepdaughter, was hardly a girl but to the man who had raised her and done everything possible to keep her and her sisters with him even after their mother abandoned them, she would always be his "girl". Kurt respected and admired that even if the old man's suggestion made him cringe.
"No!" It startled even Kurt how sharp his refusal came out. But any contact between him and April Shelnutt was something he could not encourage in good conscience.
Not with April. Not now. Not ever. Not that there was anything wrong with the independent, unpretentious woman with the golden-brown braid and smile that could light a man's way out of the darkest despair.
He rubbed his forehead, as if that action could erase her image from his mind. Not that it mattered. Even if he succeeded in ridding himself of the memory of her face, the feelings she evoked in him would always remain deep within him. And that was where they had to stay. Deep within. For both of their sakes.
If it didn't hurt so much, it would be funny. The irony of it all. After so many years for both of them to finally find each other, only to meet in a time and place...
Impossible. It simply could not be. That part of Kurt's life was dead and over.
April Shelnutt was the one woman he could have finally chosen to make a life with. Problem was, she was the kind of woman who wanted a real life — marriage, a home and everything that went with it. Right out in the open where people could stick their big, fat noses in and start with what they'd call advice or, worse, support. Yes, they would be well-intentioned. Well, most of them would be but in the end, the result would be the same. Kurt would end up hurt and hurting the people he loved, those who should have trusted him most.
He could not let that happen. Not again. Not to April Shelnutt.
That was why he insisted that if they were to see each other, the relationship had to remain on his terms. For a while, April had gone along with his intense need for privacy. They had met in secret. Taken separate cars to "run into each other" at out-of-town restaurants. They never acknowledged each other much in public.
"Fine afternoon, huh, Sheriff?" she would murmur in passing.
"Yes, ma'am." He'd tip his hat and, in the shadow of the brim, sneak in a smile and sometimes a wink.
She'd walk away with an extra spring in her step.
He knew because he'd watch her in the side mirror of his county car.
If Kurt had his way, none of that would have changed.
But April's life had changed, and with it came the need to do what Moonie prescribed for the palm in the corner. She needed to stretch and grow, to break free of the confines of her old ways and find new directions that would allow her, at long last, to blossom.
Kurt couldn't blame her. He, of all people, understood the roles that loss and self-examination played in shaping life choices. The death of his wife, Carol, had certainly determined how he would live out the remainder of his days.
As an ex-army officer, the town's sheriff and a man of honor and faith, what choice did he have really?
He had to do the right thing for April, even if it was the worst thing for him. He had to stay as far away from her as possible. "Don't bother your daughter on my behalf, Moonie. It's, uh —" he gazed at the sad specimen struggling to survive out of its element — not unlike a certain career army man who had plunked down in his old hometown without any real sense of purpose " — it's just a plant."
"She won't mind. Got a servant's heart, that one. Good girl. Fix you right up, she would."
Kurt didn't doubt April's abilities for a moment. And being reminded of her again and again made him all the more terse when he wheeled his chair around and rested his forearms on the edge of his desk. "You sure you're in the right office, Moonie?"
The lines in the man's face deepened. His bushy white eyebrows inched downward. "What?"
"Well, if you've come to discuss agriculture, you want the county agent's office, not mine."
"Agriculture? No, sir." He laughed.
"Aggravation. That's what's on my agenda for today."
"Well, at least you're up-front and honest about it." Which was more than Kurt could say about a lot of people around town. "What is it you've come to aggravate me about today?"
"Me? I'll have you know, I ain't aggravated a soul in —"
Kurt cleared his throat. "Hours," Moonie finished, a slow, sly grin working across his face. "But seriously, son, I didn't come here to vex you none. I came to warn you."
Not what Kurt had hoped to hear. He edged forward, his eyes keenly trained on the man. "Warn me? About what?"
"That meddling bunch of the COCW, that's what."
"The Council of Christian Women?" Kurt didn't know whether to laugh or grumble under his breath. Either way he'd regret it. He didn't want to hurt the old man's feelings or break his commitment as a man of God and a town role model to keep his language clean. "What's the matter, Moonie? That wild gang of ministers' wives, church ladies and vigilante prayer warriors up to no good again?"
The man narrowed his eyes. "Worse."
"Instead of being up to no good, they are up to some good. And I have to tell you, that's when their kind becomes most dangerous!"
"Up to what?"
"Guess you ain't heard about the project then?"
"Yup. To mark this time leading up to Easter." He nodded toward the calendar.
"You know how some folks give something up at this time of year?"
"Well, this crowd has got it in their collective fancy, hairdo-ed heads that them that don't practice the service of sacrifice should go over and above and out of their way to do more, to give something back."
Excerpted from April In Bloom by Annie Jones Copyright © 2006 by Annie Jones. Excerpted by permission.
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