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Finally A Family
By Carolyne Aarsen Steeple Hill
Copyright © 2008 Carolyne Aarsen
All right reserved.
So this was the town Sam had scurried back to thirteen years ago.
Hannah rocked back and forth on her feet as she looked up and down the main street of Riverbend, studying it through the eyes of one left behind for this place.
The downtown boasted older-style brick buildings and ash trees lining the street, the first hint of spring in the fresh green misting their bare branches. Pleasant enough.
Even though Sam wasn't Hannah's biological father, she thought his nine-year relationship with her and her mother would have given him some permanent stake in their lives. But this town and his extended family had obviously exerted a pull stronger than they had because in the thirteen years he was gone he never came back for her, or wrote or even phoned. Two days ago, however, Hannah received the news from someone named Dan that Sam had passed away three weeks earlier. Dan had politely requested that she come to Riverbend for the reading of Sam's will.
Hannah glanced down Main Street and pulled a face.
This town was too small for this big-city girl's liking. Far removed from any major centre and with too many pickup trucks, Hannah thought, her attention drawn by a particularly loud red one making its way down the street toward her.
Hannah flipped open her cell phone and, though she'd had it on since she left Toronto, she checked her messages again.Nothing from Lizzie, her business partner, about how things were progressing on the purchase. Hannah had been reluctant to leave, but Lizzie had encouraged her, saying that nothing was going to happen in the next week, so here she was. She didn't need to meet with the Westervelds till tomorrow, but curiosity had her come a day early. Just to explore and familiarize herself with Sam's surroundings.
Hannah pushed back her own concerns as she drew in a long, slow breath, catching the tantalizing whiff of coffee blended with the distinctive scent of yeast and bread.
She rolled her stiff shoulders as the light changed, already anticipating the bite of the dark brew combined with a warm muffin. Or maybe a Danish.
A couple of young girls slipped past her and dashed across the street, waving at the driver of the noisy red pickup who had turned onto the main street and was parking in front of the bakery.
Then one of the girls bumped into a little boy coming out of the bakery.
The boy dropped his doughnut and his lip quivered as he looked at the treat now lying frosting-side down on the sidewalk. She hurried to his side and knelt in front of him. "Are you okay?" she asked.
He only nodded as she checked her pockets for loose change, but all that came up were a few nickels.
"Susie Corbett, get back here." A man stepping out of the fancy red truck called out to the delinquent girls.
The shorter girl with the curly blond hair heeded the summons and slowed her steps. The other kept running.
"I said now, Susie." While he barked out his demand, the man walked over to Hannah and the little boy.
"You okay, Todd?" he asked, though his gaze came to rest on Hannah.
His eyes, an unusual color of sage, fringed with thick, dark eyelashes, caught and held her attention. His finely shaped lips curved into a crooked smile emphasizing his hollow cheekbones. His expression clearly had one intention. "Thanks for helping," he said, the timbre of his voice lowering and, in spite of knowing what he was playing at, Hannah felt a lift of attraction.
"Back at you." She kept her smile aloof. No sense encouraging one of the locals on a quick visit.
She forced her attention back to the little boy. "Sorry, I don't have enough change for another doughnut," she said.
He sighed and nodded. "That's okay. Susie will pay," the man said as the girl came nearer. "Won't you, Susie? I think you owe Todd about fifty cents."
"Uncle Ethan," she wailed, but even as she protested, she dug in her pocket. "You won't tell Mom, will you?" she asked as she handed the money over.
"Of course I won't tell your mom, you little twerp. Just don't act like such a toughie." He made the letter V with his fingers and pointed them at his eyes. "Remember, I see everything."
Susie gave a nervous laugh. "Okay, Uncle Ethan." She took a few hesitant steps backward. "Can I go now?"
Uncle Ethan flipped his hand toward her in a dismissive gesture. "Shoo. Run along." Ethan handed the coins to the little boy, who took them with a quickly murmured thank-you and scooted inside the bakery.
When Hannah stood, Ethan looked at her again. This time she caught a hint of puzzlement in his eyes.
"Do I know you?"
Hannah laughed then. Any number of smart remarks came to mind, but his laugh answered hers before she could share any of them.
"That was as lame as a two-legged cat. Sorry." He scratched his head, rearranging his hair.
Weekend cowboy, Hannah deduced, taking in the long legs clad in crisp blue jeans and the polished cowboy boots.
"It's so hard to come up with original lines these days. All the best ones have been taken," Hannah said.
He looked as if he was about to answer with a smart remark of his own when a woman's voice caught his attention.
"Ethan. Wait up." A lithe blond woman came alongside him and slipped her arm through his. "I didn't know you were coming to town, handsome."
Ethan flicked his attention toward the woman, then back to Hannah.
Who, officially, was no longer interested. She had spent too much time with guys like Ethan. They encouraged women until things got too serious, then the men developed a sudden severe case of attention deficit disorder and moved on to another woman.
Case in point, Alex Deerborn.
She moved past him, the scent of coffee growing stronger and more tantalizing by the minute.
"So who was that?" she heard the blonde ask.
"I'm not sure, Jocelyn," he responded. His vague comment made her look back again. "Uncle Ethan" stared at her, a frown pulling his well-shaped eyebrows together, ignoring the woman clinging to his arm.
"I think I saw her."
Morris Westerveld lowered his newspaper and favored his son with a puzzled look. "Saw who?"
"Hannah Kristoferson." Ethan dropped onto the couch in his parents' house, balancing the plate he'd stacked high with the freshly baked peanut-butter-chip cookies he'd found cooling on the kitchen counter. He'd lived on the farm for the past few years, but he still dropped in on his parents in town from time to time. Though his father, the principal of Riverbend High School, hadn't done any work on the farm since he was in high school himself, Ethan often used him as a sounding board. Although his dad had never liked farm work or living on the farm, he humored Ethan by listening.
"Where did you see her?"
"I thought I saw her by the bakery after I gave Susie trouble for knocking Todd over."
"What does she look like?"
"She should comb her hair. I'm sure Janie didn't let her out of the house looking like that."
"I meant that Hannah girl."
Ethan took another bite. He had known whom his father meant. He didn't want to think about Hannah and why exactly his uncle Sam had been so insistent she come for a simple reading of a will that had been postponed against her arrival.
"She's tall. Long brownish hair, pretty thick. Curly. She was wearing some kind of bandanna over it. Brown eyes. Doesn't look much different from the picture Uncle Sam had in the house." Ethan added a shrug to the monologue as if to show his father that Hannah was simply an inconvenient blip on his radar instead of someone he'd been wondering about ever since he had first seen that picture.
Ethan didn't want to think about the implications of Hannah's presence and the questions that raised. He preferred to concentrate on the chewy cookies and the shred of comfort they gave him. A feeling in short supply since Sam's death.
Though Sam had been in the hospital for the past six months, each morning Ethan got up, he still expected to see his beloved uncle and farming partner standing by the stove, asking Ethan how he wanted his eggs. Each morning the pain was as deep as the day before. That had made it difficult to get the equipment ready this spring for a job that, of all the farm work, Sam had loved the most. Working the fields.
"She doesn't sound too remarkable," his father said.
"Nope." Ethan took another healthy bite. "Nothing remarkable about her at all."
And he was lying through the peanut butter chips filling his mouth. When he had seen the girl he assumed was Hannah standing on the street corner, her expression holding the faintest glint of humor, he'd been intrigued enough to slow his truck down for a second look.
When she had tried to help out his nephew, she struck a chord in his heart. And then he'd tossed out that lame question.
Do I know you?
He blamed his lapse on the hint of laughter in the shape of her arching eyebrows and her soft mouth. Brown hair flowing like melted chocolate over her shoulders and down her back had also added to his momentary brainlessness.
In spite of his rather uncharacteristically gauche question, he still wanted to go after her and ask her a few questions, which would have violated his hard-won rules for living.
Keep your pride. Don't go running after any girl. Let them come to you.
This had been his mantra ever since Colby left him the day before their wedding because she suddenly decided she couldn't move onto the farm.
It took him four months to get over her, five months to use up all the envelopes that came with the thank-you cards and six months to decide he would never go running after a girl again.
"Hannah was supposed to be here by today, so that girl could easily have been her." MorrisWesterveld gave his newspaper a shake and dived into the news of the world again.
Ethan sighed and picked a crumb off his fingertip.
If that girl was Hannah, she would bring nothing but questions and potential trouble to the family andmore specificallyto him.
The family had all breathed a collective sigh of relief when Sam came back from Ontario thirteen years ago. Grandpa Westerveld, Sam's partner on the family farm, had been injured in a bad accident and Sam was needed. Ethan was sixteen at the time and chafing to quit school so he could work full-time with his grandfather on their family farm. Ever since he could throw a bale, Ethan had spent evenings and weekends and every holiday helping his grandpa.
Sam slipped back into the groove but never said much about the nine years he'd been gone or the woman that he'd been living with and her little girl. Nor did he ever get married.
After Grandpa Westerveld died, Sam, his son, took over the struggling farm, and when Ethan graduated from high school Sam took his nephew on as his new partner.
Now Sam was dead, after a six-month battle with cancer. And, per Sam's request, Sam wanted one Hannah Kristoferson and Ethan Westerveld at a private reading of his will, the reading to be put off until such time as one Hannah Kristoferson could be tracked down.
Though no one understood the reasons for Sam's unusual request, the Westerveld family all knew about Hannah and her mother, Marla, and their involvement with their brother and uncle.
Sam and his father had had a falling out and Sam had left, determined to make it on his own. He started hitchhiking across Canada and got as far as Toronto, where he met Marla and Hannah at a Laundromat. Hannah was three. He dated Marla for a time and then moved in.
During Sam's stay in Toronto, the family kept up a regular communication with Sam. They all wrote and phoned. When he returned, he never mentioned Marla or Hannah. The only reminder of those lost years was a few pictures and some homemade cards, and the cheques he sent Marla Kristoferson every month.
When Sam was admitted to the hospital, he asked the family to try to find Hannah so he could see her before he died. By the time they finally found her, Sam had been dead and buried for three weeks.
Ethan pushed himself off the couch. He didn't need to give Hannah or her mother any more headspace. He had too much work to do and too little time to do it in.
Hannah paused at the entrance to the acreage to check the name on the sign: Dan and Tilly Westerveld. She put the car in gear, took a calming breath and turned down the driveway. The tall spruce trees lining the driveway could have been welcoming or sinister, depending on one's mental state.
Right now, echoes of Hansel and Gretel were teasing her memories. Though Hannah was pretty sure no tempting gingerbread house complete with wicked witch lay at the end of the graveled driveway, a sense of foreboding still surrounded her as she drove.
The driveway gave one more turn and then opened up into a large open space, also surrounded by spruce trees. She slowed, then turned toward an area she presumed was a parking lot. It was occupied by a small white car and the same bright red truck Hannah had seen her first day in town.
Hannah locked the car and, as she slipped the keys into her purse, took a moment to look at the Westerveld home. The house was large, all shades of cream and brown, and set off by a heavy fieldstone foundation.
Contemporary, imposing and probably expensive. The house had two wings connected by a thirty-foot-high section composed of glass, creating an abundance of natural light.
Dan Westerveld must share Sam's love of gardening, from the look of the large landscaped lawn broken up with clumps of shrubs and flowers. Beyond the house Hannah caught a glimpse of a fountain and a gazebo flanked by flower beds.
Spikes and a few patches of green broke through the dirt. She would love to see this place in the summertime, she thought with a tinge of disloyalty, letting the peace and quiet of the place surround her.
Excerpted from Finally A Family by Carolyne Aarsen Copyright © 2008 by Carolyne Aarsen. Excerpted by permission.
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