After years of living in fear of her husband, Amanda Banning has left him and moved to Mystic Creek, Oregon, for a fresh start. But she’s having a tough time providing for herself and her six-year-old daughter. Writing her secret yearnings on slips of paper and sending them into the wind helps her cling to the hope that things will get better…and that she can find happiness again.
Jeb Sterling has no idea that the handwritten messages he finds scattered across his land are the first hints that his life is about to change. Nor does he understand why he feels so compelled to help Amanda Banning and her daughter when a cold snap leaves them temporarily homeless. Maybe he’s inspired by Amanda’s courage or perhaps by her beautiful brown eyes. Either way, the man who once renounced love suddenly finds himself willing to do anything for the pair. Amanda seems to have given up on her dreams, but Jeb refuses to quit until he makes her every wish come true...
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A brisk November night breeze lashed the pines and bushes that surrounded Amanda Banning’s front yard. It caught at the strip of pink paper between her upraised fingers and whipped it away, tumbling it into the darkness. Amanda likened releasing the strip to sending messages in a bottle, only hers were sent on the wind, a practice born a month earlier out of isolation and the relentless silence after her six-year-old daughter, Chloe, had gone to bed. Amanda couldn’t afford a television, and the clock radio she’d purchased at Good As New on West Main had lousy reception. Amanda doubted the problem was with the device; rather, she suspected it was that her home was surrounded by too many trees. Occasionally, when atmospheric conditions were just right, she could find a station and enjoy some music that didn’t crackle, but mostly she picked up white noise.
The nightly silence had grown oppressive, driving home to Amanda just how alone in the world she was. Sending messages on the wind gave her a sense of connection with others, and a way to express her thoughts and yearnings instead of keeping them pent up inside.
She smiled and pulled her flimsy jacket close to hold the cold at bay. She didn’t really care if anyone read her notes. No one would ever know who wrote them, after all, and that was liberating. She could write anything she wanted, no matter how silly or serious. It helped, writing them. She wasn’t sure why, but it did.
Tonight her messages had been goofy. She’d recently walked with Chloe into the town of Mystic Creek and gotten a library card, which allowed her to borrow storybooks for her daughter and romance novels for herself. Why she felt drawn to love stories, Amanda didn’t know. She hung on the words written by authors such as Jodi Thomas, Susan Wiggs, Emilie Richards, and countless others. Nearly eight years in a nightmarish marriage should have forever banished romantic notions from her head. Maybe, she reflected, it was true that hope springs eternal in the human breast, because there remained within her a deep, aching need to be loved and cherished.
So tonight she’d written, I wish I could meet a man as kind and wonderful as the hero in one of the romances I love to read, someone who’d be a fabulous father to my little girl and make both of us feel safe. Normally Amanda wished for far more practical things, like enough money to pay her electric bill, but she was halfway through astory, and she was falling madly in love with a character named Jake. Amanda’s only question was, do men like that really exist? Her rational side always answered that question with an unequivocal no, but she couldn’t deny her yearning to think otherwise. Dumb, dumb, dumb. She’d be better off to believe in Santa Claus and strike the word man from her vocabulary. In her experience, man usually became manhandle.
Sighing, Amanda looked at the sky, hoping to see stars, but it was too overcast. Probably snow clouds. So far, she hadn’t found a snow shovel at any of the three secondhand shops she’d searched. She and Chloe would have to wade through the white stuff until she found an affordable scoop. Problem: Chloe had no waterproof boots. Why hadn’t she checked out the winter weather in Mystic Creek before she picked this town as their hiding place?
She shrugged and said aloud, “Because you couldn’t afford bus fare for two to anywhere else, and Mystic Creek defines the term out in the middle of nowhere. Mark will look for you in Olympia, Washington, not central Oregon.”
Blinking at the sound of her own voice, Amanda went back inside, locked the door, and fastened the chain guard. She didn’t believe the chain would keep out an anemic sparrow, but it might buy her enough time to grab the cast-iron skillet that she kept handy on the kitchen table. She made her rounds of the house, checking to be sure the back entrance and all the windows were locked. In Chloe’s room, she lingered to smooth her sleeping daughter’s dark hair, so very like her own, back from her forehead and bent to press a kiss to her upturned nose.
Chloe stirred in her sleep and cried, “No, Daddy, no! Leave Mommy alone! Don’t hurt her! Stop!”
Amanda’s heart twisted. Since she’d left her husband, Mark, Chloe’s nightmares had mostly abated, but every once in a while the child woke up screaming. Amanda sat on the bed and gathered Chloe in her arms. “It’s only a dream, sweetness. Daddy isn’t with us anymore. We’re far, far away from him. He can’t hurt us anymore.”
Chloe shuddered and hugged Amanda’s neck. “You were on the kitchen floor, and he was kicking you with his boots.”
Amanda recalled that night, and it troubled her that Chloe was reliving it in her sleep. “It’s okay. I’m fine. We ran away, remember?”
Chloe pressed close to Amanda’s body. Minutes passed before she drifted off to sleep again. As Amanda tucked Chloe back under the covers, she whispered, “Have sweet dreams, darling. Only beautiful, wonderful dreams.”
Beautiful dreams. That had become Amanda’s mantra to herself each night before she fell asleep, for she often jerked awake from nightmares, too, her heart pounding and her body drenched with sweat. She was coming to accept that no matter how far she ran, she might never feel safe.
Moments later, Amanda, still wearing her jacket, huddled on the worn old sofa near the single lamp to read more of her library book. Jake. She grinned as she drew a blanket around her for extra warmth. No man on earth would pick wildflowers and leave little bouquets on a woman’s porch as he had. Get real. But Amanda enjoyed losing herself in the fantasy anyway. It sure beat what she knew about reality.
Jeb Sterling swore under his breath as he trudged across his steer pasture, snatching up litter. Small pieces of pink paper decorated the grass, looking like overblown clover blossoms. They were everywhere. Why had someone chosen to toss trash from a car window in front of his place? Jeb took pride in his property and spent hours each summer at the business end of a Weedwacker. His fencing, made of metal pipe that he’d welded together, always sported immaculate white paint. The landscaping he’d done around his house could be featured in Better Homes and Gardens. He did not appreciate some jerk using his land as a garbage dump.
Stalking around the enclosure, Jeb grumbled aloud as he picked up the pink slips and crushed them in one hand. As he captured the sixth before it fluttered away, his anger changed to bewilderment. What the hell? Somebody had written a note on this one. Smoothing the damp, wrinkled strip, Jeb read aloud, “‘I wonder how much money I need to buy a decent used car. I don’t care if it looks awful as long as it runs. Walking back and forth to work in this cold weather is the pits.’”
Frowning, Jeb collected more pink strips from the pasture, then found a few more on his front lawn, and another in his driveway. He took the lot inside and sat at his custom-made dining room table, which he’d designed to seat twelve, twenty with inserts, similar to tables once common among large farm families.
Pushing a hank of blondish brown hair off his forehead, he smoothed the notes flat. I wish I could find secondhand winter boots for my little girl. I can’t afford new ones, and my boss says we’ll soon have deep snow. Jeb shook his head. Winter boots for a kid didn’t cost all that much. Or did they? Thirty years old and determined to stop counting birthdays, Jeb remained a bachelor and had no kids. He was not an expert on the cost of children’s apparel. Maybe one of his younger brothers or sisters would get married and start reproducing soon. Then Jeb’s parents might stop bugging him about settling down and providing them with a grandchild.
Judging by the handwriting, delicate and flowing, Jeb decided the notes had to be from a woman. Most guys he knew did a print-write thing.
The next note made him grin. I wish I could meet a man as kind and wonderful as the hero in one of the romances I love to read, someone who’d be a fabulous father to my little girl and make both of us feel safe. Jeb guessed this lady liked to read sappy love stories. His smile faded. Why did this woman and her child feel unsafe? And, hello, was he being targeted? He found it difficult to believe these messages had landed on his property by accident. Maybe this gal had seen him working outside and decided he looked like promising husband material.
No way, sister. Jeb wasn’t that desperate. His mother kept telling him the lady of his dreams would cross paths with him right when he least expected it. But so far that hadn’t happened, and Jeb was coming to accept that it probably never would.
Just then his dog farted. Jeb groaned and glanced over his shoulder. “Damn, Bozo, turn the air blue, why don’t you?”
A brindle Fila Brasileiro mastiff, Bozo had a dark brown muzzle and ears, with a gold body that looked as if it had been splattered with different shades of mud. The dog woke from his nap, yawned, and then shook his head, sending strings of drool flying from his flapping jowls to decorate everything within a three-foot radius. When Bozo was younger, Jeb had raced around to clean up the drool immediately, but then he’d read online that once dried, it could be wiped easily from surfaces or vacuumed up.
“If I ever meet the right woman, she’ll take one look at you and run screaming in the other direction. You know that, right?”
Bozo growled—his way of talking. Grinning, Jeb resumed reading the notes. My only weapons are a cast-iron skillet and a butcher knife hidden under my mattress so my daughter won’t find it. If my husband tracks us down, I pray that God will give me the strength to knock him out with the frying pan. I will die before I let him hurt my baby again.
Bozo let loose with another fart. Flatulence was a trait of the mastiff that Jeb had overlooked when deciding on a breed. Waving a hand in front of his face, he wished he could lend this poor lady his dog, not to torture her with the less-than-aromatic delights, but for security. With Bozo on guard, she wouldn’t need a heavy skillet for protection.
Jeb turned his attention to the next note. Damn, he thought. This could become addictive. He felt as if he were peering into someone’s heart. This lady clearly had an abusive bastard for a husband, was as close to flat broke as a person could get, and, to top it all off, had a little girl she could barely support.
Jeb wondered once again if she was targeting his land with her notes. He thought of his cantankerous old neighbor across the road. Tony Bradley, who farmed full-time for a living, had a heart of gold that he tried hard to hide. Time to take a stroll. If Tony had found pink slips of paper on his land, then Jeb could relax. Jeb didn’t like the idea that some desperate female had set her sights on him. Even if she had no car, she could walk by his land if she lived nearby.
Bozo went with Jeb to Tony’s place. Mastiffs needed plenty of exercise, at least a thirty-minute walk each day, which Bozo got by following Jeb around as he tended to his livestock. Extra walking never hurt—although he tried to make sure his mastiff seldom ran. That was bad for the joints and hips of a dog that weighed two hundred and thirty pounds; also, mastiffs could easily become overheated, even in cold weather.
With the crops all harvested, old Tony was in “winter” mode, when he repaired his equipment, fed his animals, watched TV, and worked crossword puzzles. Jeb found him tinkering with his tractor, an ancient John Deere that had lost nearly all its identifying green and yellow paint and was probably worth more as an antique than Tony’s whole farm was.
“Hey, Tony!” Jeb called out. “Got tractor problems?”
The old man resembled a stout stump with a two-day growth of whiskers and was dressed in tan Carhartt outerwear smudged with grease. He cast a cranky glare at Jeb. “Betsy never has problems. Kind of like a woman, son. All she needs is a little lovin’ to keep her motor tuned.”
Jeb drew to a stop near a front tire that was taller than his hip. Bozo chose that moment to shake his head and send drool flying. Just then, Mike, Tony’s red tri Australian shepherd, bounded out from under the tractor. The two canines sauntered off to take turns pissing on every bush in sight.
“What brings you over?” Tony wiped his hands on a rag so greasy that it only smeared more oil onto his fingers. “If you haven’t found a new cleaning lady and you’re wantin’ to hire my wife, you’re out of luck. Mike sheds like a son bitch and I’m sloppy, so we keep Myrna pretty busy.”
Jeb hadn’t started looking for a new cleaning person since his last one had quit. “I’m between jobs right now.” Jeb saw no need to elaborate. He and Tony had been neighbors long enough that the old man understood his on-and-off-again work schedule. Jeb had just finished a furniture order from a man who’d wanted a special Christmas gift for his wife, but otherwise it had been a slow season. “I figure I can muck out the house myself for a while. When the building market picks back up in February or March, I’ll send out some feelers.” He winked. “And I promise not to steal Myrna.”
Tony, a tobacco chewer, leaned sideways to spit. “Good thing. She’s got a hip goin’ out on her, I’m afraid. Hurtin’ her off and on.”
Jeb hated to hear that. Myrna was a sweet gal and only sixty-three, a bit young to need a hip replacement. “I hope she gets to feeling better soon. A couple of months back, my mom hobbled around from pain in her hip.” Kate Sterling’s version of hobbling was to limp at a fast pace. “She was about to see Doc Hamilton when the discomfort went away.”
“I see his partner, Dr. Payne.” Tony chuckled. “Signed on with him out of curiosity. If I was a young doctor with a last name that sounds like pain, I’d get it changed.”
“He may be young, but I’ve heard he’s good,” Jeb observed. “Maybe you should take Myrna to see him.”
“Damned woman won’t go. She’s too stubborn by half, my Myrna.”
Not sure what to say, Jeb whacked the frozen ground with the heel of his boot. Tony worshiped his wife and didn’t share personal stuff unless he was truly troubled.
“So what brings you over?” Tony asked.
Jeb fished a handful of pink strips from his coat pocket and extended the crinkled lump. “Just wondering if you’ve found any of these on your land.”
Tony squinted. “Son bitch. You gettin’ those, too? Got my Myrna in a tailspin, I’ll tell ya. She drives me half nuts tryin’ to figure out who’s writin’ ’em. Has me lickin’ my finger to test the wind direction.”
Jeb stuffed the notes back in his pocket. “I didn’t consider the possibility that they floated into my place on the wind. How many have you and Myrna found?”
“A good twenty.” Tony spat again, narrowly missing Bozo, who’d come to lie at Jeb’s feet. “I got my theories on it, if you don’t mind me sharin’. The writer is a female, and she’s lonely. Has no friends. Works as a cook somewhere and makes barely enough to scrape by. Also yearnin’ to find herself a man. In one message, she wished for Prince Charming to carry her and her child away on a white steed to live happily ever after.”
“Really.” Jeb recalled the note about the woman’s wish to find a hero. “She must be having a hard time of it.”
“And she’s probably uglier than a fence post if she’s that desperate.”
Jeb thought about it and decided Tony might be right. A beautiful woman didn’t normally have to search for a man to rescue her. Men stood in line to apply for the job. Not that Jeb cared if this gal was homely. She clearly needed a friend. He tried and failed to imagine having nobody to talk to. He’d grown up in Mystic Creek and couldn’t go into town without seeing someone he knew. He also had heaps of family here.
“Well,” he said, “I’m glad to hear the notes aren’t landing only on my property.”
Tony laughed. “You’re safe. I haven’t asked our neighbors if they’ve found any, but you can rest assured, as many as we’ve gotten, you aren’t bein’ singled out.”
Jeb studied the clouds. “Looks like snow tonight.”
Tony nodded. “Myrna says there’s a bastard storm front moving toward us.”
Jeb ended the conversation the way he and Tony always did, by walking away. He and Tony said only what needed to be said. Polite farewells weren’t part of their repertoire.
* * *
Bozo lumbered alongside Jeb’s left flank. Three rounds of obedience training had paid off. Well, mostly. Sometimes Jeb got the impression that Bozo believed the obedience classes had been for Jeb. Nevertheless, the dog had good manners and mostly did as he was told. That was a good thing. Mastiffs could be difficult if not properly raised.
When you owned a mastiff, being in control was important. Bozo was gentle and well socialized, so his protective nature rarely showed itself. Early on, Jeb had made the mistake of leaving Bozo at home while he was out on a job, and the dog had eaten his sheep shed. Jeb had come home to half-consumed planks and a collapsed roof lying willy-nilly on the ground. Marble, his Lincoln ewe, had stood in her pen baaing because her shelter was gone. Now Jeb rarely left Bozo alone. He was afraid his house might be targeted next. Bozo wasn’t a bad dog, but he could be destructive when he got lonesome.
Lonesome. Jeb stopped in front of his log-and-timber ranch home and gazed off in all directions. Somewhere out there, probably within pitching distance, a very lonely woman was writing messages and tossing them into the wind. The thought bothered Jeb. He didn’t care if she was the homeliest female who’d ever breathed—if she needed a friend, he’d happily apply for the job. Nobody deserved to be so unhappy.
As he climbed the inlaid paver steps leading to the front door, he glimpsed yet another pink slip tangled in a holly bush. Curiosity got the better of him. What did she have to say this time? He pricked his thumb retrieving the note. Sucking on the injured digit, he read the damp missive. I wish I had a friend. I’d make chocolate chip cookies, my favorite, and hot chocolate, and we’d sit at my table to talk. I need to talk. Nobody special required. I just need to have a conversation with another adult. I see people at work, but that isn’t the same.
Jeb turned to gaze into the distance once again. Where are you, lady? The wind in this country gusted in all directions, coming in from the south during the late afternoon and evening. The sudden shifts made message tracking an inexact science. Huckleberry Road, where he lived, ran parallel to Bearberry Loop and Elderberry Lane, where most of the residences sat on one-acre parcels. Why Elderberry was called a lane, Jeb didn’t know. It was nothing more than a dirt road that never got plowed or graded unless a neighbor took the initiative.
Once inside, Jeb sent his baseball cap sailing toward his handcrafted juniper coat tree. Missed by a foot. Tomorrow he’d have to dust the hat off because it’d be covered with dog hair. Contrary to what he had implied to Tony, he wasn’t keeping up with the cleaning as well as he’d like. He was fussy about his house.Thanks, Mom. Kate Sterling was a meticulous housekeeper, and she’d passed on at least some of her obsessions to every kid. Jeb had inherited the kitchen and bathroom manias; he had to have a sterile place to cook and to brush his teeth. Now the rest of the house was going to hell, and that was starting to bug him, too. Cleaning spree tomorrow, he decided. He’d knock it out in about four hours and be good for another couple of weeks, if he could teach Bozo to stop shedding.
“Fat chance of that.” He reached down to pat his dog’s head. “That lady needs a dog to talk to. You’re all the company I need.”
But as Jeb prepared dinner—he loved to cook—he had to admit that as great a listener as Bozo was, Jeb rarely went a day without talking to other adults. His mom called daily. His two sisters, real chatterboxes, bugged him about three times a week. His three brothers called fairly often—even Jonas, who was away at college. And, of course, his dad, Jeremiah, rang him occasionally.
Guy conversations were simple, no chitchat required. How you doing? Good. Just calling to check in. All’s fine on my front. How about you? I’m fine. After that, the call usually ended with, “Love ya.” Jeb appreciated the brevity. That wasn’t the case with his mother and sisters, who had to fill him in on friends, gossip about a neighbor, or a great sale at Macy’s in Bend. He hadn’t minded the time Sarah had called him crying because her hair was striped with green. Jeb had found that interesting, a dye job and weave gone bad. What the hell was a weave, anyway? And why did Sarah, who had perfectly nice hair the same toffee color as his, feel a need to streak it with different shades of blond or red that could come out the wrong color? Jeb preferred to go with what God had given him.
Jeb began chopping vegetables for a stir-fry. He tossed chunks of raw carrot, celery, broccoli, and cauliflower over his shoulder to Bozo, keeping the onions and garlic for himself. Bad stuff for dogs. Something about causing their bone marrow to stop producing red blood cells.
Behind him, he heard Bozo gnawing on the safe stuff. Dinner preparation was their time. He’d been feeding the dog vegetables since he was a pup, and he’d become a greenie gobble gut. Not a bad thing, according to the vet. Jeb made a quick pot of rice in his electric pressure cooker, whipped up some broth gravy, and took a seat at the round kitchen table to devour his meal while Bozo crunched on his evening kibble.
Afterward, Jeb tidied up the kitchen and sat back down at the table with a measure of brandy to have a long discourse with Bozo about the mysterious writer of the pink slips. In between Jeb’s sentences, Bozo growled, his way of replying. Jeb followed the rules of polite exchange and didn’t speak until Bozo had had his say.
Their conversation ended when Jeb finished his brandy. As he and Bozo sauntered toward the downstairs master suite, Jeb said, “That poor woman needs a mastiff like you, one who talks. We’ve had a perfectly fine conversation.”
* * *
I’m dreaming. It’s just a dream, Amanda told herself, only no matter how she tried to wake up, she couldn’t. Mark. He’d locked his arm around her throat and held a partially loaded revolver to her temple as he described how her brains would look splattered all over the wall. The pressure against her larynx prevented her from speaking. All she could do was moan, quiver with terror, and pray the chamber would be empty when he pulled the trigger.
Click. The sound snapped Amanda to a sitting position in bed. The sheet was tangled around her legs. Her breath came in wheezy jerks. Perspiration ran in rivulets over her ribs. Even awake, she could still feel the strangling sensation in her throat. Oh, God, oh, God. She jerked at the bedding to free herself and staggered to the bathroom to empty her bladder. Not real. Only a dream. But telling herself that didn’t help her to stop shaking. Too weak to stand, she remained on the commode until the nightmare released its hold on her.
The house seemed oddly bright as she left the bathroom. She went to a living room window, drew back the curtain, and saw at least a foot of snow outside. Though her heart sank, she had to admit it was beautiful. The never-used mailbox, mounted on a post at the edge of the front yard, looked like a loaf cake topped with fluffy white icing. Because she lived at the end of Elderberry Lane, a dead-end road, no cars had passed, leaving the carpet of snow undisturbed. In places it lay in powdery drifts. The boughs of the pine trees drooped under the weight. It was a winter wonderland.
If only she could stay inside and admire it. She turned up the thermostat to take the chill off before she woke Chloe for school. Half of the old baseboard heaters didn’t work, and twenty minutes later, the house still felt cold. Chloe was tiny and thin. Amanda hated to expose her to icy drafts. Somehow she would keep the child wrapped in a blanket while she got her dressed. Otherwise Chloe’s teeth would chatter as she ate her oatmeal and a roll that Amanda had brought home yesterday from Chloe’s school cafeteria, where she worked. Job perk. At the end of each shift, Delores, the head cook, allowed her helpers to divide the leftovers. According to her, some law made it illegal to feed the kids day-old food. The portions Amanda received weren’t haute cuisine, but they reduced her grocery bill each month, enabling her to make ends meet. Well, almost. The cost of electricity this month might break her.
As grim as their situation was, Amanda shoved away her memories of the nightmare and felt peace settle into her heart. At least Mark wasn’t a part of this snowy picture. No angry outbursts, no blows, no furniture being thrown, no holes in the walls. As icky as the weather might be, Chloe would feel safe while they ate breakfast.
Amanda walked to her daughter’s tiny bedroom, which she’d painted avocado, using what Landon Ramsey, the young owner of Sticks and Stones Building Supply, called a “residual” color. In regular-speak, that meant he’d mixed it for a customer who’d changed her mind and refused to purchase it. Amanda had figured she couldn’t go wrong at five dollars a gallon—at least Chloe’s room got clean walls. Amanda had decorated the room with thrift-store chic, buying curtains, a cute bedspread, and old throw rugs to cover the worn linoleum.
It wasn’t a little girl’s dream, but Chloe loved having her own bookshelf, purchased for a song at Second Time Around. The proprietor, a cute brunette with green eyes named Tally Tancy, didn’t look old enough to operate a business, but her store, which offered large and small used appliances, plus furniture, seemed to be thriving. Tally delivered anywhere in town for twenty dollars, always accompanied by her Rottweiler mix, Nita, who went everywhere with a fresh knucklebone clamped between her teeth. Though rickety and banged up, Chloe’s bookshelf had been dropped off for free, and it was now filled with books that had cost only a quarter apiece.
Flipping on the clown lamp on her daughter’s bedside table, Amanda leaned over to say, “Surprise, surprise, sweetheart. It snowed last night!”
Chloe blinked open her chocolate brown eyes, so very like Amanda’s own. With a squeal of delight, she scrambled from bed to peer out her ice-encrusted window. Amanda grabbed a blanket and draped it around the child’s shoulders.
“Isn’t it pretty?” she asked.
Chloe nodded. Then she frowned. “We still don’t have snow boots, Mommy. Our feet will get wet walking to the bus stop.”
“Nope! Remember those bread sacks I’ve been saving? They’ll keep your feet dry.”
Chloe shoved a hank of curly hair out of her eyes. “But, Mommy, nobody at school wears bread sacks for boots. My friends will laugh at me.”
“Got it covered.” Amanda gave the child a hug. “When we get to the bus stop, I’ll walk around to flatten the snow, and you can take the sacks off before the bus comes.”
Chloe reached up to touch Amanda’s cheek. “Are you going to wear bread sacks while you walk to work?”
Amanda suspected that she’d slip and fall if she tried, but she would wear them as far as the bus stop so Chloe wouldn’t worry all day about her mother wearing wet running shoes. “Absolutely! Maybe I’ll start a new fashion fad.”
Chloe giggled. Amanda left her to admire the snow while she gathered her daughter’s clothing. Then, working as quickly as possible, she helped her get dressed. Thanks to Mystic’s Good as New and the Vintage Boutique, the child had nice, warm outfits, and this coming Saturday, Amanda would walk with Chloe to town and buy her some snow boots at Charlie’s Sporting Goods, whether she could afford them or not.
* * *
Jeb was feeding his stock when he found two more slips of pink paper. Damn. This gal didn’t need a phone to be a chatterbox; she managed just fine with a pen. My little girl still has no boots, and it’s going to snow. I’ll keep her feet dry somehow. She’ll take sick if she sits in class all day tomorrow with wet feet. The next note read, Our heaters are awful. Half of them don’t work, and the house is like an ice cube. Jeb wondered what kind of heaters she had. Probably malfunctioning baseboard or wall mounts, neither of which would produce heat efficiently. Shit. Just what this lady needed—an electric bill the size of Bozo.
Jeb trudged through the snow with his meandering dog, who had to mark every shrub and fence post he encountered. More pieces of paper had caught on bushes and become frozen stiff. They’d drifted in last night, probably on the south wind. Jeb turned in that direction. A few other houses were located farther south on Huckleberry. Maybe she lived right on his road. Nope. He’d never seen a woman walking to work along Huckleberry.
While he forked hay, he pictured the surrounding terrain and the thoroughfares that ran parallel to one another. Trying to pinpoint where the woman might live, he voted for Elderberry. It curved toward the end, putting some of those houses directly south of his and Tony’s land. She apparently worked the day shift somewhere. Maybe he’d get in his truck tomorrow morning and cruise Elderberry until nine, keeping his eye out for a woman afoot. Was it beyond all possibility that she was a knockout?
Well, hell, I’m really losing it. His only consolation was that his neighbors were also curious about the message writer. He chuckled as he pictured Tony, at Myrna’s urging, licking his finger to test the wind. Jeb was tempted to do it himself. That isn’t happening. As curious as Jeb was about the woman’s identity, he wasn’t about to declare the pink slips of paper “finger-lickin’ good.”
The next two weeks passed quickly for Amanda. On Saturday after receiving her bimonthly paycheck and tallying her cash to make sure she could pay the electric bill, she took money out of her car fund and walked with Chloe into Mystic Creek to buy the child a pair of snow boots, pink if possible. After crossing Elderberry Bridge to the town center, which featured a fountain and was surrounded by shops, Amanda gave Chloe a penny to make a wish. As the child tossed the coin, Amanda sent up a silent prayer for a windfall, or even just a bit of good luck. Two wishes for the price of one.
Because of the cold, Amanda allowed Chloe to admire the natural pedestrian bridge only from afar; it was a gorgeous arch of moss-covered rock that over the centuries the rushing water had worn into a tunnel. Chloe loved the legend about the bridge, that when a man and woman met on its path, they would find true love. The girl wanted to visit the bridge every time they walked to town, hoping that her mother might meet the man of her dreams.
Not today. Amanda hustled the child along the south side of East Main, appreciating, as always, the antiquated two-story storefronts with either living quarters or extra storage on the upper levels. Most of the shops had unique names: Simply Sensational Fragrances and Beyond, owned by a lovely older lady, Mary Alice Thomas; the Shady Lady, which Amanda surmised offered sexy apparel and bedroom toys; and the Silver Beach Salon, operated by a young woman in her late twenties named Crystal Malloy, who changed her hair color nearly as often as Amanda did her socks. There were also the Pill Minder, recently purchased by Drake Mullin, who Amanda guessed was in his early thirties; Healthful Possibilities, run by Taffeta Brown, who looked about twenty-five; A Cut Above, another hair place; and catty-corner across the street from Charlie’s, Chopstick Suey Chinese Eatery and the Jake ’n’ Bake.
The slogan under Charlie’s store sign read, “If we don’t have it, we’ll order it,” and the interior of the building bore out that promise; the narrow aisles were crammed with everything imaginable. Amanda had to ask a young lady with sandy brown hair where the children’s snow boots were located. Once she found them, she zeroed in on the cheapest brand.
When they unearthed a pink pair in the right size, Chloe cried, “Molly has pink boots, too! Now we can be twins!”
Amanda was pleased. Even these less expensive boots would set her back, but at least they wouldn’t demolish her car fund.
Before leaving the store, Amanda insisted that Chloe don her new footwear, and she stowed the child’s school shoes in her ever-present backpack. Without a car, Amanda had learned that grocery shopping—or any other on-foot activity—required more carrying capacity than her arms alone could provide.
After leaving Charlie’s, Chloe pleaded with Amanda for a visit to the Mystic Creek Menagerie, a gigantic circular structure, once a sawmill but now converted into a mall. The center focal point was a slowly revolving roundtable restaurant. Chloe yearned to eat on what she called “the merry-go-round.”
“Not today, sweetie.” The prices at Dizzy’s Roundtable Restaurant, run by Tony Chavez, made Amanda dizzy just looking at them. “But buying snow boots does call for a celebration! How about lunch at Taco Joe’s?”
Chloe clapped her hands. “I love Taco Joe’s!”
So did Amanda. Eating there didn’t cost an arm and a leg.
As they once again crossed the town center, Amanda caught the delicious aromas drifting from Pecks’ Red Rooster Restaurant, Mystic Creek’s one fine-dining establishment. The owners, Chris and Kimberly Peck, had built the restaurant to optimize views of the creek and natural bridge, and though Amanda had heard from her boss that the Pecks were generous people, she doubted their menu prices reflected their largesse.
After a fun lunch at the taco place, with the owner, handsome young Joe Paisley, capping off the meal with complimentary root beer floats, they began the long walk home. As Chloe chattered, Amanda’s mind drifted. She was jerked from her mental meandering when Chloe said, “Taco Joe is really cute. Maybe someday you’ll meet him on the bridge!”
Amanda smothered a startled laugh. “Maybe so,” she said. But a man wasn’t really the answer to her problems. She was still married, a concept Chloe didn’t yet comprehend.
On the way home, Chloe’s new boots leaked. You get what you pay for. Still, the poor quality irked Amanda. Not that she could blame Charlie Ramsey. At least he carried items for those who couldn’t afford better.
On Monday morning, she stowed Chloe’s regular shoes in her school backpack and slipped bread sacks over the child’s feet before putting on the boots, hoping that the plastic would help keep Chloe’s socks dry as they trudged to the bus stop. She thanked God for small blessings when it worked.
* * *
A little over a week before Thanksgiving, on a Monday afternoon, Amanda was surprised when, just after lunch cleanup, a time set aside for the cafeteria team to do next-day prep, Delores announced that she was letting everyone off early.
“School is closing early, too,” she explained.
Amanda’s heart sank. Normally her shift ended well before Chloe, attending first grade in the same building, hopped on a bus, giving Amanda time to reach the drop-off point before Chloe did.
“The forecast says an ice storm will hit sometime tonight, with temperatures as low as minus thirty,” Delores continued. “Right now, freezing rain is falling on top of the accumulated snow, which is turning it to solid ice. It’ll be dangerous getting home, and I’m guessing if the storm actually hits, school will be canceled tomorrow.”
Again, Amanda’s heart took a plunge. She got paid only for the hours she worked, and received no health benefits. She couldn’t survive if the school stayed closed for long.
Mary Lou Hansen, another assistant, with kinky red hair and merry blue eyes, said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it that cold in Mystic, and I’ve lived here all my life!”
The gray in Delores’s brown hair, twisted into a French roll, gave testimony to the twenty years she had on her helpers. Wiping her hands on a chef’s apron that barely covered her belly, she fixed a solemn blue gaze on them and said, “Back in the eighties it got that cold, or at least close. Living in Mystic Creek ain’t for sissies.” She took her apron off and tossed it in the laundry basket. “Andy finished up early and has our car heating.” Delores’s husband was the school janitor. “Anyone interested can divide the leftovers. If the power goes off, you’ll have no way to heat them without a gas stove, but if you’re low on groceries, cold food beats nothing.”
Amanda wasn’t one of those lucky few who had a propane range, and she was always low on groceries. As she and Mary Lou began divvying up the food into containers that they washed and brought back each morning, she prayed the power wouldn’t fail. She and Chloe would freeze without electricity to heat their ramshackle rental.
As Amanda left the cafeteria with farewells and be-safe wishes, she dreaded her mile-plus journey home. My own fault, having to walk. She’d never told Delores or her coworkers that she had no car because she didn’t want them to feel obligated to give her rides. Amanda had also feared that she wouldn’t get the job if the school board learned she had no vehicle, so she’d lied on her application. It wasn’t really a falsehood; she had two legs that provided her with reliable transportation.
Freezing rain. Not only would it hurt when the bits of ice hit her face and bare hands, but it would also be cold. And slick. She absolutely could not slip and fall. Her tight budget left no room for an injury that would make her miss work.
Outside, Amanda hid in an alcove and waited until she heard Mary Lou’s vehicle leave the parking lot. A sense of urgency bubbled at the base of her throat, a need to connect up with Chloe, but she couldn’t risk being seen on foot.
When the sound of Mary Lou’s engine died away, Amanda stepped carefully out of her hiding place. The concrete walkway and the recently plowed asphalt, now covered in a sheet of ice, were so slick that she could barely stay standing. Oh, God.
Amanda picked up her pace as much as she could. Chloe would be frightened if Amanda wasn’t at the corner to meet her.
Thirty minutes later, Amanda crossed the East Sugar Pine Bridge. In the distance, she saw Chloe standing like a forlorn waif at the end of Elderberry, where the school bus had dropped her off. She waved and called out what she hoped was a reassuring hello.
“Stay right where you are, baby. I’ll be there in just a minute!”
Amanda was shuddering with cold by the time she reached her daughter, whose teeth were clacking like castanets. Grabbing Chloe’s hand, she guided the child over the slick ground toward the house, fairly certain that she looked like an inebriated ice skater to the many neighbors along Elderberry Lane.
After a long soak together in the ancient claw-foot tub filled with piping-hot water, Amanda dressed Chloe in double layers before putting on her own clothes. Then she grabbed blankets from her bed and led the way to the kitchen, where she wrapped the girl in worn fleece and deposited her on a chair.
Standing at the sink, Amanda gazed out at the frozen world beyond the frosty glass. Her heart squeezed with dread. She considered going to a motel, but that would cost money she couldn’t spare, and the conditions outside were too dangerous for pedestrians. If a vehicle spun out of control, she and Chloe might be hurt. The safest option was to stay put and pray that the power stayed on.
Just then, the small house filled with the deafening sound of sleet hitting the roof. Startled, Chloe jumped up, tripped on her blanket, and would have fallen if Amanda hadn’t caught her.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Amanda said as she sat down on an old dinette chair and drew her daughter onto her lap. “It’s only frozen rain.”
Chloe stared at the ceiling as if she expected it to collapse on top of them. “It sounds like marbles hitting.”
“Yes, it does.” Amanda raised her voice to be heard over the din. “I’d say it’s turned to hail. Hail can be as big as marbles, and it makes a very loud sound on roofs. Let’s have a snack and then we’ll sing songs so the noise doesn’t bother us.”
* * *
During the summer, when he had a vegetable garden to shield from frost, Jeb checked the Weather Channel on his cell phone daily, but he seldom looked at a forecast during the winter. He preferred to take whatever came and be surprised. His mother, on the other hand, lived by the reports and called him at about eight that evening.
“That was one heck of a hailstorm we got earlier,” Jeb said as a conversational starting point.
“That was only an appetizer,” Kate warned him. “Before the night is over, it’s going to get really bad. Is the heat lamp in your chicken coop wired to your backup generator? They’re saying it could drop to thirty below.”
Jeb couldn’t remember Mystic Creek ever having temps that low. “Mom, only a fool or a weatherman tries to predict Oregon weather. For an accurate forecast, look out a window.”
Kate Sterling made a disgruntled sound. “I mean it, Jeb. You need to get your livestock inside shelters, and if your coop isn’t hooked up to your generator, you should bring all the chickens indoors.”
Jeb gulped back a laugh. Only his mom would think to rescue his poultry. “No worries. I bought a generator that supplies all the outbuildings with emergency electricity. The animals and chickens should be fine.”
After Jeb told his mom good-bye, he considered calling Tony to make sure he was locked down for a storm, but then he decided that the old man had been farming too many years to appreciate advice from some young fart across the road. So instead of dialing his neighbor, Jeb thought of his message writer. Hismessage writer? When had he started to think of her that way? He looked out his kitchen window, once again wondering if she lived on Elderberry. She might be in for a cold night if the electricity went off. Jeb could only pray that didn’t happen—and that she had a strong roof. His had taken a real beating earlier.
Nothing on television interested him, so he coaxed Bozo from his hiding place under the dining room table and turned in early to finish the espionage novel he’d been plowing through. Hail resumed thrumming on his second-story roof, which, as loud as it was, created a soothing drone downstairs. After reading the last page, he judged the book to be so-so. Yawning, he tossed the paperback onto his nightstand and turned off the light. He smiled when he felt the mattress sink beside him under Bozo’s weight. The dog seemed to think Jeb wouldn’t notice that he had a sleeping partner if he waited for darkness before jumping up.
* * *
At a little after ten, the hail stopped, giving Amanda’s ears a rest. To stay warmer, she’d bedded down with Chloe on the sofa where the high-back cushions and padded arms offered more insulation than the beds. Nervy and restless because of the weather, she was driven from their warm nest to pace from room to room. At a window, she looked out at the silent, frozen landscape. There it was again, the feeling of being cut off from meaningful human contact. She slipped into the kitchen to write a few notes on pink paper, then braved the blasts of freezing wind on her porch to release her messages.
Afterward, she snuggled with Chloe on the couch to get warm again and retrieved her love story, drawing solace from Chloe’s small, toasty body. A few minutes later, the house went suddenly dark. From the kitchen, she heard the old refrigerator’s motor chug to a stop. Thank goodness Chloe is asleep. The pitch-blackness might frighten her. Groping her way to the kitchen, Amanda fetched the candle and matches she’d left on the table. She nearly lighted the taper but changed her mind. She had only this one, and she needed to use it sparingly. Careful not to trip in the dark, she pulled the blankets and comforters off both beds, and added them to the pile on the couch. With the power out, blankets and body heat were all they had to keep from freezing.
Within ten minutes, the drafty house became unbearably cold. Amanda collected more pillows, bath towels, and sheets from the linen closet to provide them with extra warmth. That helped, and clutching Chloe close against her, she finally fell asleep.
She had no idea how many hours passed before she was jerked awake by a loud popping noise in the kitchen, followed by the sound of gushing water. Oh, no. The pipes!
Shuddering, Amanda hurried to the other room. With trembling hands, she lighted the candle and squatted to open the cupboards beneath the sink, hoping she could stop the flood by turning off the valve. Her heart sank when she saw that the water was surging through a crack in the wall behind the curved PVC tubing. There was no way to turn off that gusher unless she ventured outside to the water main in the pump house. Problem. Her flashlight batteries were dead, and she had forgotten to get new ones. That left her with only the candle, which would be extinguished the instant she stepped outside. She’d be unable to find the water main in the darkness, and she might fall and injure herself if she tried.
Her first responsibility was to protect her child, which she would be unable to do if she went down on the ice and froze to death. After returning to the sofa, she concluded that the owner of this dump needed to address the problem. Fishing her cell phone from her pocket, she was relieved to see the screen light up and indicate a full charge. She dialed her landlord. All she got was a message machine. It was the middle of the night, after all. Then an awful thought struck her. Maybe he’s away to visit relatives over the holiday. Hopefully not. Thanksgiving was more than a week away.
She slipped under the covers and held her daughter close, praying that her landlord would call her back before the entire house flooded.
* * *
A loud pounding on the front door jerked Jeb erect in bed. Wearing only sweatpants, he cursed as he hurried to the entry hall. Tony stood on his porch, and typical of him, he bothered with no greeting when Jeb answered his knock.
“Power went out last night. We need to form a team and go check on our neighbors. Not everyone has generators or a backup source of heat.”
Jeb’s generator had kicked on automatically, and being located at the back of his house outside the laundry room, it hadn’t made enough noise to wake him. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and blinked. Judging by the pale hint of light on the horizon, the full break of dawn was an hour away.
“What time is it, anyway?”
“Five thirty and time to get rollin’,” Tony replied. “I’ve already called Pete. He’s got a woodstove for heat, so his wife won’t freeze to death while he’s out helpin’ others. And seein’ you without a shirt is bad for my self-esteem. I must’ve been in the back row when muscles were handed out.”
Jeb knew Pete, a fledgling farmer in his thirties. Chafing his hands, he invited his neighbor inside. “Can’t help how my upper half looks. What’s the temp out there?”
“Twenty below, and Myrna says it’ll be even colder tonight.”
Jeb shut the door. He was all for helping neighbors, but if he, Tony, and Pete meant to be effective, they’d need to divide the area into sections, gather emergency supplies, and keep in touch by cell phone in case one of them came up against a situation he couldn’t handle alone.
Over coffee that Jeb made quickly at his built-in coffee center, the two men discussed a plan of action. When Jeb was asked which road he wanted to take, he said he’d cover Elderberry Lane. Bad of him, he guessed, but if his message writer lived on that road, maybe she’d get her wish and find a hero standing on her porch.
Jeb found himself thinking of the woman often. She sounded so isolated. He had wished a dozen times that he could figure out which house she lived in and knock on her door to ask if she would make those chocolate chip cookies for him. He’d driven Elderberry a few times early of a morning, and he’d only ever seen a dark-haired woman walking her little girl to the bus stop. In the glare of his headlights, she’d looked too pretty to be the message writer, and her child had been wearing pink snow boots, which the composer of the notes said she couldn’t afford to buy. Nope. If a woman that pretty were in the market for a rescuer, she’d have no problem finding one.
Interrupting Jeb’s thoughts, Tony said, “Even though I had my diesel truck hooked up to a block heater all night, I had a hell of a time startin’ it this mornin’. Way I figure, even if we have only a team of three, we can drive some of our neighbors to relatives or friends who have backup heat.”
Jeb took a swig of coffee. “How long do you think this outage will last?”
“Could be days if another storm hits. Pete knows a guy who works at Mystic’s Lightning Bug Electric, and he says lines are down all over the area. They get one fixed, and another tree falls, and just the weight of the ice is snappin’ the wires in two.” Tony shook his head. “I’ve never seen it this cold. Myrna forgot a plate of brownies in our microwave. It’s mounted above our cookin’ range on an outside wall. Our house felt warm as could be, but when she found those brownies this mornin’, they were froze solid with frost on top. Without heat, some folks could freeze to death.”
The thought gave Jeb the shivers. “What’s our plan if we run across a neighbor who has no friend or relative in town with a woodstove or generator?”
“If we got room, which I don’t, we can put ’em up in our homes. Or we can drive ’em to a motel or B and B that has a backup generator. A last resort would be to call the cops. The churches will provide shelter, and the cops will know where to take people.”
Jeb could count the churches in Mystic Creek on the fingers of one hand. He guessed that when they ran out of room, the fire station, the sheriff’s department, and other public places would take people in.
The mention of shelters reminded Jeb of his livestock and chickens. “Before I can go shopping for emergency supplies, I have to tend to my animals. My truck will be overloaded, so I’ll leave Bozo in the laundry room. Not much in there he can eat.”
“Long as you’ll be gone, the doors might start lookin’ tasty to him,” Tony said with a chuckle. “Good thing you’re a woodworker. You can replace anything he chews up.”
* * *
Jeb donned shoe chains and thick outerwear before taking care of his animals. He knew that Charlie Ramsey would open up the sporting goods store early so people could get supplies. Jeb just prayed Charlie had plenty in stock.
Marble, Jeb’s frosted gray Lincoln ewe, met him at the gate of her pen. For a moment, Jeb thought his eyesight had gone haywire. The sheep looked lopsided. After entering the enclosure, he saw that Marble was as bald as an onion on one side from her flank to her shoulder. Say what? He walked her pasture and found where her mottled wool had frozen to the ice and been jerked out by the roots when she stood up. Ouch! Jeb led the ewe into her shed and put a sheep jacket on her, threw in fresh straw, and made sure the electric ring in her trough had kept her water from freezing.
En route to the barn, he nearly stepped on a gray mourning dove roosting in the snow. For weeks now, he’d seen a pair of doves on his land. Circling the bird, Jeb realized it had frozen to death. He wondered where its partner was. Mourning doves were monogamous, and he knew this bird’s mate would die of grief. Recalling how Marble’s wool had frozen to the ground, Jeb concluded that the dove may have gotten stuck in the snow. It saddened him to think of its mate left alone to face certain death.
* * *
With a hand gone jerky from the freezing air, Amanda tried calling her landlord again and still got his answering machine. At this point, she was inclined to believe he just wasn’t answering the phone. If so, he had a great game going, collecting the rent and spending nothing on repairs. She couldn’t afford to fix anything. When this was all over, she’d have to start looking for another place to live.
Above them, a loud cracking sound cut through the air. Chloe gave a start and stared at the ceiling. “Mommy, is our roof breaking?”
“No, of course not.” Amanda injected more certainty into her voice than she actually felt. She and Mark had lived in a few dumps, but the roofs had always held fast. “You know how this house creaks at night? I think this is the same thing.” Only much louder.
* * *
It took Jeb nearly an hour in town to buy emergency supplies. The backseat of his crew-cab pickup was packed with survival blankets, fuel and wicks for paraffin and kerosene lanterns, D batteries for flashlights, a few actual flashlights in case some people didn’t have one, hand warmers, candles, matches, miniature propane tanks for gas camp stoves, about three dozen energy bars, two of which he’d reserved for himself and tossed on the dash, and several cases of bottled water.
Only then could he begin checking on residents. Though he’d chosen Elderberry Lane as his primary route, he knew several older women who lived alone on Ponderosa. His mother hung out with them at the senior center, and she would expect Jeb to check on them since he lived so close.
He decided to start near the town center on Ponderosa, so his first stop was at Kay Brickle’s. The postmistress of Mystic Creek, she was short and stout with permed gray hair and a mouth that always seemed to be in high gear, mostly to spread gossip.
Trying to be polite, Jeb cut her off. “I’ve got no time to chat, Kay. It appears to me that you’re set up to weather the storm.” Jeb heard the hum of a generator outside. “Does that motor produce enough power to run your furnace?”
“Well . . .” Kay began most sentences with that word, drawing it out until it grated on Jeb’s nerves. “Of course it runs my furnace, and I’ve got a woodstove as backup. I’m not stupid like some folks I could name in this town.”
Jeb grew worried as he drove farther along Ponderosa. He got no answers when he knocked on the doors where he knew his mom’s friends lived. As he progressed from house to house, he saw bright illumination gleaming through the windows of Mary Melissa Dilling’s place. He thanked God for his shoe chains as he walked to her front porch. From inside he heard a chorus of voices and laughter. When he knocked, Donna Harris, who lived on the adjacent acre, opened the door. Her blond-streaked hair was feathered around her face to set off her merry green eyes.
“Hi, Jeb. Welcome to our ice storm party!”
Jeb peered over her shoulder to see Donna’s sister, Lisa Meekins, Ellie Kay Hathaway, Nancy Hayes, Michelle Nelson, and Thipin Jarlego gathered around a large round table. It looked as if they were playing cards.
“I just wanted to check on all of you,” Jeb explained. “I was getting pretty worried when no one answered my knocks.”
“Mary Melissa has a backup generator!” Thipin Jarlego, a petite blonde with blue eyes who looked younger than her sixty-five years, flashed a ready grin at him over her fanned cards. “When we heard this storm was coming, Judy Burr lent us her husband, Ralph. He blew out our pipes, filled them with safe antifreeze, and we moved in here, dogs and cats included. We’re snug as bugs in a rug.”
Jeb thought he counted five dogs and six cats, but there was so much activity going on that he might have missed a critter or two. He noted that Mary Melissa’s woodstove emitted a blast of heat. “You have plenty of wood within easy reach?”
“We put on shoe chains yesterday and loaded my back veranda with enough logs to last a week,” Mary Melissa assured him as she crossed the living room to give him a hug. Mary Melissa, whose friends called her M&M, was a short sixty-year-old woman with dark brown hair and eyes, and an attractive oval face. “Can’t believe you drove on those icy roads to check on us. Your mama and daddy raised you right.”
Donna patted Jeb’s arm. “No need for you to worry. The Burrs are fine, too, with their backup power, and Sheryl Moses, our young lady fireman—who’s available, by the way—winterized her house and is staying at the station in case of emergencies.”
Jeb ignored the matchmaking attempt. “How about Father John at the Catholic church?”
“The congregation put in a backup generator a couple of years ago that supplies power to the church and the rectory, so he’s fine. Probably calling around to offer other folks shelter. If people bring food and bedding, that church will hold a lot of families, and the church kitchen was designed to cook for crowds.”
“That’s good to know. I’ve only just started my rounds.” Jeb refused food, even though he was starving. “I need to get back out there. Tony Bradley is covering Huckleberry. I need to hit Elderberry. I think a lot of older folks live along that lane.”
Donna laughed. “Have fun with Lucy and Ethel Patrick.”
“Who?” Jeb had never met the women.
Donna’s smile broadened. “You’ll know who they are soon enough.”
As Jeb left the house, he heard one of the women say, “He is so stinkin’ cute. If I were thirty years younger, I’d snatch him up in a heartbeat. What’s the matter with the younger gals in this town?”
Jeb chuckled, forgot to watch his step, and almost did a butt plant on the ice.
* * *
Elderberry turned out to be the geriatric center of Mystic Creek. Jeb started at the more populated end where the road intersected with West Sugar Pine. He helped so many old people that only a few stuck in his mind. One memorable character was Christopher Doyle, a hunched old fellow who claimed he was ninety years young. At his next stop, Jeb found a sweetheart named Esther McGraw, eighty-one and still going strong. She had no heat, and her phone wouldn’t work because it ran off electricity.
“Newfangled gadgets!” she complained. Wobbly on her feet, possibly because she was weighted down with blankets, she led the way to her living room. “I’m worried about why my daughter hasn’t come to check on me. It isn’t like her.”
Jeb secured her house and drove her to her daughter’s. By two that afternoon, his day had become a blur. At some point, hunger forced him to grab a frozen energy bar, break off chunks, and hold them in his mouth until they thawed enough to chew.
He kept in touch with Tony and Pete by cell phone. They sounded as exhausted as he felt, and he was more than thirty years younger than Tony. During his rounds, he met many old people and a couple of younger women, Deb Kistler and Arlene Harmon, thirty-two and forty-one, respectively, who both had backup generators and looked after each other.
The gray gloom of dusk had descended by the time Jeb reached the end of Elderberry. A clapboard house sat back from the gravel thoroughfare, now overlaid with thick ice. He saw no tire tracks outside the garage and decided it must be a vacant rental. As he turned his truck around to head home, he noticed disturbed spots of snow in the front yard. Footprints. On the off chance that someone lived there, Jeb parked on the road and trudged through the white drifts to gain the rickety porch. He heard footsteps inside, and a moment later, a woman cracked open the door to peer out at him over a flimsy chain guard. All he could see clearly of her face was one brown eye, which regarded him with suspicion.
By then, Jeb had his introductory speech memorized. “Hi, I’m Jeb Sterling from over on Huckleberry Road.”
When he’d finished his spiel, she drew the door open a bit wider but didn’t disengage the chain. With a clearer view of her, Jeb realized she was the woman he’d seen walking her daughter to the bus stop. Saying she was pretty didn’t do her justice. She had a lovely oval face, a wealth of long dark hair, and beautiful coffee brown eyes. She wore a jacket with a blanket draped over her shoulders.
“My kitchen pipe broke last night and gushed water everywhere. I had no light to turn off the water main. Now the leak has stopped by itself. I think the line froze solid.”
Jeb guessed she had no source of heat with the power out. She looked halfway frozen, and her eyes conveyed a panic she was barely holding at bay. With temperatures predicted to plummet to thirty below that night, he doubted she and her child would survive. He didn’t want to inquire after her husband or ask if she had one. Those seemed like rude questions to hit her with.
“I can come in and have a look if you’d like,” he offered.
She made a gallant effort to conceal the fact that she was shivering. If the house was in as awful condition as the front porch, it probably had little if any insulation.
“I guess,” she replied, sounding none too certain that it was wise to let him inside.
“Great. I’ll go get my tools.”
When Jeb returned to the porch, the woman didn’t unlatch the chain to allow him entry. “How can I know for sure that you’re truly a neighbor?” she asked. “My little girl and I live alone. I may not be the brightest person alive, but I’m not so dense that I’ll let a strange man into my house without verifying his identity first.”
Jeb nearly retorted that he guessed she and her kid could freeze to death if she thought that was a safer option. But he wanted to be inside before he told her that she and the child would need to stay elsewhere for a few days. He saw fear in her eyes, the kind that ran so deep it obliterated a person’s good sense.
“Smart thinking,” he said instead. Drawing his phone from his pocket, he called the Bradley place, and Myrna picked up. He explained the situation and asked the older woman if she’d be kind enough to vouch for him. Then he slipped the phone through the crack of the door. “Here, talk to Mrs. Bradley. She lives across the road from me and has known me for years. Her husband is out helping neighbors, too.”
With quivering fingers, the woman grasped the cell phone. Apparently Myrna sang Jeb’s praises, because after returning the device to him, the young woman unfastened the chain guard and let him inside.
When Jeb stepped over the threshold into a small living room, he felt no rise in temperature. Shit. He scanned the living area and saw no woodstove, only electric baseboard heaters. A little girl with tousled dark hair was huddled on an old sofa with blankets and pillows piled over her. Her eyes, brown like her mother’s, grew as round as dimes when Jeb smiled at her. Hmm. A woman and girl, living alone, with lousy heaters. No tire tracks in the driveway, either, to indicate that this gal owned a car. Could she be my message writer?
His brows snapped together in a frown when he saw the thick sheet of ice that had formed on the kitchen floor. “You stay here, if you don’t mind,” he said to the woman. “I’m wearing shoe chains and won’t be as likely to slip.” He glanced down and saw that she wore only socks, one with a hole in the toe. “Chains really help.”
Upon entering the kitchen, Jeb saw that a wall pipe under the sink had frozen and burst. There wasn’t a whole lot he could do except find the water main and turn it off, which would prevent further flooding when things thawed.
He scanned the kitchen. His livestock had better digs. Even so, this woman had tried to make it into a home, with ruffled curtains at the window, red apple canisters on the countertop, a teapot clock on one wall, and cute magnets on the refrigerator. His gaze jerked to the table, where a pink tablet—a very familiar pink—lay next to a vase of fake flowers and an empty cast-iron skillet. Focusing on the stationery, he saw a stack of slender strips resting on top. No question; she’s my message writer.
This was no time to think about that. He had more urgent matters to focus on. “Ma’am, where is your pump house? I need to turn your water main off.”
She gestured with a hand that was faintly blue from the cold. “Out behind the garage, but if you do that, we won’t have anything to drink or be able to use the bathroom.”
Jeb knew that there was no way she would get a drop of water out of those frozen pipes. If it fell to below thirty tonight, this woman and her child could freeze to death. Her wary posture warned him not to say anything about that yet. He’d deal with relocating them when he returned to the house.
Amanda yearned to dive back under the covers with Chloe, but she couldn’t until the man left. No drinking water. No toilets. She studied her daughter, who had gone quiet. That worried Amanda. Chloe always chattered nonstop, falling silent only when she was asleep. Was the child getting hypothermic even as Amanda studied her? Panic rolled over Amanda. She couldn’t think what to do. Her brain felt as frozen as the water on the kitchen floor. Eyes dull, Chloe stared at Amanda. Present physically but disconnected mentally. Amanda felt the same way.
She flinched when the front door opened behind her. Her feet had gone numb in the damp socks, and she couldn’t trust her balance as she turned to face the man. He stood well over six feet tall and looked huge in a tan jacket almost the same tawny color as his hair, cut short and lying in lazy waves over his forehead. Chiseled features, a strong jaw, and hazel eyes. Standing with his feet spread and his knees locked, he exuded strength. She’d been on the receiving end of male strength often enough to be wary, no matter what his neighbor lady said.
“I don’t want to be rude and ask personal questions,” he began, “but this is a situation that leaves me no choice. Do you have a relative or friend in the area who has a nonelectric source of heat that you can bunk with until the power is restored?”
Amanda’s mind got stuck on “nonelectric.” She stared up at him, trying to think, but her gray matter seemed to be misfiring. “Pardon?”
His gaze sharpened on her face as he repeated himself. This time Amanda heard his question, but it took her a moment to answer. “No, I’m new to Mystic Creek, and I have no family here.”
He sighed. “Well, ma’am—” He frowned. “I’m sorry. I don’t recall your name.”
“Amanda Banning.” At least I remember that.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Catherine Anderson and Her Novels
“One of the finest writers of romance.”—Debbie Macomber
“Get ready for one magically heartwarming experience!” --Romantic Times
“Clever, emotional, and totally entertaining.”—Fresh Fiction
“Vivid descriptions, realistic family relationships, and a dash of suspense make this heartwarming, gently sensual romance a satisfying read."--Library Journal