Aimee McClain turned the ignition a second time as she pumped the gas pedal. “Not today, dagumit. Not today!”
Click. Click. Click.
“Momma, is dagumit what we call Tank now?” Seven-year-old Luke hopped up between the front seats. “You’ve said it a bunch today.”
“Luke.” Aimee turned her head toward her son and wagged a finger.
He shrank against the seat, his lower lip jutted out as if his favorite toy had been pulled away.
“Mommy shouldn’t say that word either. I’m sorry for saying it.” Aimee acknowledged and turned back to the predicament at hand, mumbling under her breath. Dagumit spilled out in a whisper, and, a few other choice words she hoped Luke couldn’t hear…
“What’s wrong, Momma?”
Steam burped from the hood. Not a good sign.
“Tank’s tired, I suppose.”
A horn blared from behind them. The rearview mirror reflected what looked like a hundred irate drivers.
What am I going to do? She smacked the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. This made three times in the last month her ’78 Grand Wagoneer, Tank, had stalled.
Aimee swiped her palm across her brow. The sun bored stinging rays through the windshield, and her taffeta gown tightened against her sweaty torso by the second, stealing her breath. She stared across the hood as her lack of options flipped like a boomerang through her thoughts: no jumper cables, no tools, and no help.
She glanced at her watch. As Maid of Honor, she should have been at the church forty-five minutes ago.
“Luke,” she said through gritted teeth. “Hang tight. Fasten your seat belt.” She flipped on the hazard lights, gripped the wheel, and glanced in her side mirror. Cars edged around her, drivers and passengers alike gawked as they passed. Not one Good Samaritan among them.
“Thought you got Tank fixed,” Luke settled himself in the back seat.
Tears burned her eyes. “Me, too.” Aimee swallowed the tight lump blocking her throat, and shifted the gear to neutral. “You’ve done this once before,” she whispered and straightened her spine. Maybe not in heels and a formal dress, but how much different could it be? “It can be accomplished.”
Exhaling, she opened the door, set one high-heeled foot on the pavement and lifted the other from the brake. Tank rolled back in protest. She held tight to the doorframe while her other hand gripped the steering wheel. Struggling to find her footing, Aimee braced her hands and feet, and gave the old SUV a hard shove.
A deep voice rumbled behind her. “Excuse me. What are you doing?”
Startled, her ankle wobbled as she turned around. “I’m trying to get out of traf—” Her eyes traveled up a mountain of muscle, a long, lean form of the man who towered above her. Dark sunglasses hid his eyes while his mouth tipped into a smirk.
She tilted her head as she narrowed her gaze. Now, what could he find so amusing at a time like this?
He stepped closer.
Heart pounding, her hold on Tank slackened. The cantankerous heap jerked backward to shove her into the man’s boulder-sized chest.
Her face smashed into his sternum, and suddenly, his arms were extended on either side of her shoulders, boxing her in. Time froze as she fought to push herself away, as humiliation washed over her like a cold shower, yet at the same time, his deep voice reassured her.
“I’ve got a hold on it.”
He had Tank. The vehicle wasn’t pushing into her anymore, but – oh dear Lord – her face remained against the soft cotton covering his chest, her hands flat against his beating heart as if his presence was an aphrodisiac, and she was paralyzed by him. She inhaled, as if taking her very first breath. She hadn’t been this close to a man in three years. Three long years since her cheek had rested against the strong breastbone of a person who had the power to make things right. Three years since she breathed in the male scent, an indescribable combination of strength and tenderness.
When the man spoke, his low voice vibrated against her cheek. “I think it’d be a good idea if you got behind the wheel, ma’am.”
She pushed away and slid her hands across her soft taffeta gown. Reality returned as the moment, whatever it was, slid away. Cars passed them on the left, horns echoed across the distance. She eyed his shirt, hoping her makeup hadn’t left an imprint on him. Swallowing, she lifted her eyes, wondering how long she had clung to this stranger. Her back rubbed the arm rest of the driver’s door. To her left, his hand braced Tank’s door and the other hand pressed against the roof.
He released the door long enough to flick his sunglasses to the top of his head. “Have we met?”
“No.” There was something familiar about him, but she couldn’t place it.
Jessa Ryan slid her award-winning articles and short stories across the table to Harrison Avery as if she were dealing a winning hand of high stakes Poker.
With a manicured finger – she’d chosen a glossy neutral color of nail polish, dedicated to exuding her professionalism while the pink undertone showed she was someone who took care of herself — Jessa pointed to her recent works one by one.
“This article covers the cost of hay in Bradenton County Tennessee. The farmers there had a price war a couple of years ago. This series won a few awards at the college level and by the community. This article revealed the poor health of the cattle on a neglected ranch just outside of Chattanooga. Once this ran in the Chattanooga newspaper,” she added with an arched eyebrow. “That ranch had a come to Jesus meeting with the local authorities.”
“Is that so?” Harrison picked up each article and leaned back in his leather office chair. His hair was so white it was no wonder the man had played Santa Claus at the mall at Christmas every year. The Avery Family also had Harrison sit in front of their Little Tree Market, the largest farm-to-table grocery store in the state, to hear wishes from children who accompanied their shopping parents. “Perhaps you should stop by the Little Tree Times and see if they are hiring a journalist.”
“Oh, yes, I could. I’m more interested in writing stories, though, which is why your ad appealed to me.” She tugged at the hem of her navy blue pinstripe jacket and tried to ignore the nausea bubbling. It was all she could do to restrain herself from reaching in her bag and grabbing the saltines she’d brought with her. The skirt was too tight and it probably hadn’t been a smart move to wear her Spanx today. The suction around her waist seemed to have aggravated her stomach.
Harrison continued to thumb through her articles, reading a little here and there. When he moved to her short stories, she pinched her lips and gripped the chair, praying she could hold in the contents of her stomach a little longer.
“Are you alright, Jessa? You look a little green.”
She lifted the sweating water bottle to her lips and took a gulp. Forget it. She’d known Harrison all of her life. She was eating a saltine. “I’m okay. Just a little hungry.”
He eyed her as the plastic baggy zipped open. She held the bag across his desk. “Cracker?”
“No thank you.”
“I skipped breakfast,” she quipped as she nibbled off the corner of the white salted cracker. In moments, she’d devoured two crackers which began to settle her stomach.
“I never like to skip breakfast, or any meal, when I’m at the old homestead. Your mother is a phenomenal cook.”
“Oh thank you. Mom would love to hear you say that. But Mrs. Millie is quite the cook herself. And her pies, they are the best.” Nodding at the compliment to his wife, Harrison shifted in his seat and picked up one of her short stories. “The Bird is about a little girl finding a bird’s nest full of eggs but no mother.” She uncrossed her legs and switched her weight from her right hip to her left, wishing she’d worn her pants instead of the skirt. “It was a finalist in four contests, and won two nationwide.”
“That must have been some bird.” Harrison grinned, “Impressive, Jessa. I know Buck and Sandra are proud.”
“They sure are.” But Mom and Dad didn’t know of all the time she spent writing new stories instead of studying human anatomy and physiology. She leaned forward with a smile.
He narrowed his gaze curiously as she bit into another cracker, chewed it, and hurried on with her spill. “When I heard you wanted to tell the Avery family story of how your farm grew to be the biggest vegetable producer in Georgia, well, I just knew I had to speak with you about considering me to write it.” Sucking in a breath, she tamped nausea down. “Why, I grew up on the farm. My perspective will be first hand as far as my knowledge of the daily process. I love the Avery Farm. It’s home to me.” She lifted her shoulders in a humble shrug. “And I love to write.” She bit into the next cracker, ignoring the crumbs that littered like dandruff across her skirt.
“You are an absolute delight, Jessa. You’re like my family.”
She smiled and lowered her head while keeping her eyes steady upon the elder Avery.
“But I’ve already hired Chip Donahue to write my biography.” He waved a hand in the air to express his nonchalance. “You know, we’ll talk man to man. There are ways I can express myself to him that I’d be too embarrassed, frankly, to convey to someone else… a family member. I’m sure you understand.”
“Oh?” Nodding, she tamped down her temper, mingling happily with her nausea, and began to slip the pages of her pithy articles and stories back toward her. “Of course, I understand.” But, Lord, she wanted to cuss, or cry, or both.
Friday, December 2, 1955
Ashford’s Market, Hickory Creek, Georgia
Susannah Sheridan needed a break. She’d stood in this same spot, behind the cash register, for the last four hours. She wanted to go home. As she stared down a line of customers waiting to check out, she glanced at her watch and let out a long, irritated sigh.
“I’m not paying you to stand here and look annoyed,” her boss, Larry Ashford, said as he whisked past, dressed in his red Santa suit.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
She met the gaze of an elderly lady waiting for the total of her purchase. Her concerned look seemed sincere as if Susannah could be honest with how she felt about the holiday. “I’m just not in the Christmas spirit, Mrs. Lott, that’s all.” She wanted to go home, where she could wallow in self-pity while her sister’s decorated the Christmas tree. They’d gabbed on and on about how enchanting Katherine’s wedding to Gil Hartwell had been. The wedding, according to her sisters, had been the most magnificent thing they’d ever seen.
Susannah shoved the trinkets in the cloth bag and tried not to relive that horrid wedding. Having to attend the marriage of her ex-boyfriend to her cousin was bad enough, but then there was Nick Mackenzie, present and standing in as best man. He’d been the one who matched them up! She thought he’d been her friend, but obviously, she was wrong.
The next customers came up. Good heavens, but the line was never-ending!
“I’m glad you all came in to shop at Ashford’s today.” She smiled as the customers paid for their groceries. Her tone was polite, but it held that edge of sarcasm her mother warned could be misunderstood.
Russell Mackenzie, Hickory Creek’s Sheriff and Nick’s uncle, stepped up next and smiled sympathetically at her. “How are you today, Susannah?”
She exhaled a snort as she rang up his sandwich and drink. “I’ve been better.”
“I imagine your family is gearing up for the Christmas Race, eh?”
The Christmas Race. Yes. Now that was something she was looking forward to coming. “We sure are, Russell. Frank has been driving well.”
“I heard one of NASCAR’s representatives was planning to attend. They’re expecting a big crowd down in Gainesville, that’s for sure.”
“Frank’s hoping this will be his shot to join NASCAR. I sure hope so. He drives too good not to be in that league.”
Russell grinned, “Seeing your brother drive makes me miss the sport.”
“Why aren’t you involved anymore?”
“Too fat,” he patted his round belly, “and not enough time to devote to it.” Russell took his bag and winked. “Well, good luck. I’ll plan to root for him from the stands.”
Susannah watched the kind sheriff leave the store. The Mackenzie’s were a well-respected family. His nephew, Nick, had gone to college and come home to join the force as a detective. Growing up, she and Nick had been friends. He’d always hung around with Frank. She’d admired him as one of Frank’s friendlier buddies, not one of them that usually picked on her for enjoying the things the guys did, like working on cars and racing them. Nick tended to take up for her if anyone tried to tease her.
Then Nick went to Korea. When he returned from the war, he and Gil Hartwell hung around more since Frank had married by that time. She and Nick picked up where they left off, always fast friends, and laughed easily. Then Susannah met Gil, and Gil asked her out. Gil seemed to be even more fun than Nick, and they shared a love of racing. Except Gil never wanted her behind the wheel. He wanted her cheering him on from the stands.
When her cousin Katherine Jones’ car broke down, Nick happened to be driving home from work, and he took her by Gil’s mechanic shop. Gil was able to repair Katherine’s car, and she claimed it ran better than ever.
Soon after Gil became a mechanic hero, he and Susannah went to dinner at her favorite restaurant.
She was especially excited because her friend spied Gil going into the jewelry store in town. Susannah just knew Gil was going to propose.
She continued to ring up customers and make small talk as her memory took her back three months earlier when Gil looked across the table at her. A piece of his blond hair fell against his forehead in a way that Susannah adored. When he smiled, his dark eyes took on flecks of gold. He held her hand as he looked into her eyes.