Christmas Pets and Kisses 2 is coming, and I'll be spotlighting first chapters from the 12 stories featured in the set. Christmas Pets & kisses 2 will release on October 11th, and is up for preorder now!
A MERRY MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS EXCERPT
Fran wished they would stop. Stop bringing casseroles. Stop saying stupid things like, “When one door closes another one will open.” Or worse, “Carl is in a better place now.” What did that say about the life Fran had attempted to create for them for thirty-five years—thirty-five years in which she assumed Carl thought he was in the best place possible?
Carl died. Period. Fran lived. Period. Nothing in between existed, and she wished everyone would quit trying to make it better or different. She stood at the kitchen window watching the rain drip down the glass, waiting for the drop to lose its tenuous grip and splatter on the sill and then disappear forever. That’s what happened to Carl when the idling tractor rolled down an incline and crushed him as he pulled on a tree limb to get it out of his way. Splattered right before her eyes as she watched helplessly from the back stoop of the house. And then he disappeared from her life. It’s what happens to everyone in some form. The drops continued to fall, and she turned away from the window.
She hated those thoughts on her bad days, so she pushed them aside. She needed to finish her work before her two guests arrived. Both the baking and the visits from Gracie and Jed always lightened her mood. The two young friends, ages ten and nine respectively, spent two afternoons a week at Fran’s while their parents worked. Both of them had become her adopted grandchildren over the past year, even calling her “Franma,” an endearing term that always brought a smile to her face.
Gracie’s mother Molly had just married Fran’s son Nick, and Jed was the son of one of Nick’s friends. Soon the two kids—her life preservers—would traipse into the house dripping with rain and laughing from their run after the school bus dropped them off at the end of the drive. Gracie and Jed, along with their parents, had been the thing that kept her going when her man lost his life tending to the farm they’d grown together.
The farm was outside of town in a valley surrounded by Johnson Mountain, named after her family by the locals. A creek ran through the back of the property, and it was there that Nick had built his home for Molly and Gracie, just as Carl had built this house for Fran and their children.
Fran worked at the coffee shop a few mornings each week, and she provided all the pastries for the shop every day. Her dark mood lightened even further when she thought of the owner, Cecelia Jones. They’d become very close, even though Cecelia was young enough to be Fran’s daughter, but she never noticed the age difference between them. The night before Cecelia had asked Fran to stand up with her when she married David Bellwood next week. Then the smile turned to a frown when she thought about who else would be at the wedding. What would he think of her after all these years? She pushed a stray lock of blonde—on its way to white— hair away from her eyes. Time to get a cut.
She went to the living room to gaze out on the mountains. Fog covered much of her view, but it moved across the landscape quickly, changing with each gust of wind. The rain had finally stopped. She stepped out to the front porch and saw a dog running up the driveway. At first, she thought it might be her friend Lacy’s dog, Willow. Its size and yipping bark resembled that of the little Shih Tzu. But as it came closer, she realized it had more black on its back and around its eyes. And this little fellow hadn’t been groomed in some time. Its hair was matted and hung over its eyes.
The dog ran up the front steps, running circles around Fran’s ankles, yapping and wagging its tail that stood straight up in the air. She tried to calm the hyperactive little thing by singing a lullaby she always used with Gracie and Jed. The dog slowed down and then sat at her feet as she knelt down to pet its scruffy head and pull long strands of dishwater white hair away from its eyes. She heard the rumble of the truck before she saw it and hoped it meant the owner of this mangy sweetheart had come looking for it. She turned its collar around to see if there was a tag but to no avail. A cherry red Jeep Cherokee pulled into the driveway, but stopped at the end. A man jumped out of the cab, calling for what Fran imagined to be the now quiet beast at her feet. The dog ignored the calls and looked up adoringly at Fran. The man hadn’t yet spotted them on the porch, so she waited. And then, as she watched him holler for “Chester,” she gasped.
Michael Bellwood. She shouldn’t have been surprised because she’d just been thinking of him attending the wedding of his son. She’d been dreading this moment while looking forward to it at the same time ever since she learned David, the publisher of Murphy’s new paper, was his son. She never imagined the meeting would occur on the steps of the home Carl had built for her before they married.
She watched him walk toward the house, still hollering for the dog, who seemed to have decided Fran was his new person. Then Michael finally looked up and saw her standing there. She could tell the same shock of recognition hit him just as it had her a few seconds earlier. She fussed with the hair she recently pushed out of her eye.
“Frannie? Is it really you?”
No one ever called her that except her first love. The first love no one in her life ever knew about. Now he stood before her, still handsome and tall. Her knees began to shake, and she grabbed the railing on the porch to steady herself. Hearing him say the name came as a caress to her heart and opened up a flood of memories gushing toward her as if the TVA had just opened the Hiwassee
“Michael.” One word, that’s all she could manage. Her throat felt constricted. She’d imagined seeing him a million times. After David came to town, she knew it was inevitable, but she never dreamed it would be here in Carl’s home. Even after David and she became friends, she never mentioned that she knew his father. No one knew that they had loved one another at one time.
She’d kept the memories of Michael separate from her life for so long that it jarred her now to see him here in full vivid light, not in her dreams. The years had treated him tenderly and with generosity, reminding her a bit of how George Clooney had aged. She sighed and pointed to her feet.
“Is this Chester?” she asked, trying to keep her voice from quivering.
Michael laughed that same deep guttural laugh he’d had as a teenager that had sent thrills and chills up her spine back then, and as she was suddenly discovering, now.
“Yes, this is Chester, and I’m about to give him away to a good home. Interested?”
“I’ve got a few pets around here. Don’t think I can handle another.” She stared at him as he stood at the base of the porch steps. “Chester here looks as if he’s in need of a good groomer. And maybe some tags, if he runs away often.”
“He’s a rescue dog I picked up in Atlanta last week so I haven’t had a chance to do the things I should.”
“That’s nice.” Fran tried to think of something else to say. “I’ve thought about getting a dog for the house. I have a couple of farm mutts who prefer sleeping outside or in the barn. But ever since my husband died, I’ve thought a pet might keep me company.” Now why had she told him all that?
“I’m sorry to hear about your husband. David mentioned it when he told me all about his new friend, Fran. I knew it was you right away.”
Then she remembered her manners, the one that made her the hostess for many in the area. “How about a cup of coffee? Chester seems to have settled in.”
“Funny, I’ve never seen him this calm. You still have the touch, Frannie.”
She put her hands to her cheeks which started to burn with his comment. She still had the touch. He didn’t need to remind her of how they had touched one another all those years ago. Fervent, stolen, heated touches on the swing at his family’s cabin. Kisses, hot and passionate, and always ending in frustration for both of them when Fran pulled away and said insisted they stop.
“Fran? I said I’d love that cup of coffee.”
She forced herself back into the moment. He was really here. All six-foot-five of him, still handsome although gray sprinkled his hair as if paint had splattered from a brush. His brown eyes, the color of a fine leather, were now edged with the wrinkles of the past thirty-some years since she’d last seen him. He’d kept himself in fine shape. She patted her hair and smoothed down her blouse which she realized was still covered with the apron she’d been wearing when she came out on the porch.
“Of course, come on in. I’ve been baking so things are a mess.”
Michael’s presence in the house she had shared with the other love of her life worried her. It was perfectly fine to ask him inside. She was free to ask anyone to come into the house. She could even have an affair if she wanted. Was it still called an affair if neither of them were married? If they kept it from other people, which she’d have to do, then technically it would be an affair. She was being a silly old woman. Besides, from what David had told her, Michael had plenty of women even though he wasn’t currently married. What was wrong with her, thinking all these stupid things? She was seeing an old friend from nearly forty years ago. She wasn’t embarking on anything clandestine.
“I guess you’ve come back for the wedding next week.” She decided to keep the talk to the present. They didn’t need to stroll down memory lane. Too many bad memories there. Too many wonderful memories, as well.
“I’ve been promising David I’d come up to see what he’s been doing with the cabin after he was able to get it out of the clutches of my ex-wife. And of course, I wanted to see this paper he’s publishing. I didn’t think he was making a wise decision at first.”
“And I’m sure you wanted to meet the woman he’s going to marry.” Michael sounded cold and distant talking about his son, his only child.
“Yes, of course, to meet Cecelia Jones. Do you know her?”
“Very well. I help her out with her coffee shop.” She gestured around the kitchen cluttered with flour and baking equipment. “I bake all the pastries for Aroma Roads. Have you met her yet?”
“We’re having dinner tonight. I guess I get to meet her mother, too.”
“Sandra. You’re in for an interesting evening. Sandra is unpredictable.” Fran didn’t want to say much more. He’d find out in time what the infamous Sandra Jones had to offer. It wasn’t much. Fran hated the way she treated her daughter, again an only child.
“David told me your husband died here on the farm, so I take it that it was unexpected.” Michael still stood in the kitchen as she prepared the coffee.
“Yes. He was trying to get the tractor out to the back field, but a big limb had fallen the night before and blocked the road. So he left it idling while he moved the limb. He hadn’t engaged the brake fully and so when he went to get the limb out of there …” Fran stopped, the words catching in her throat. She hadn’t had to tell many folks what happened, and it sounded so gruesome. She grimaced and felt annoyance growing that Michael had invaded her home and memories.
“It’s okay, Frannie. You don’t need to say anything more. I’m sorry. You were married a long time.”
“Almost thirty-six years.” Tears threatened but she didn’t cry in front of other people so she took a deep breath and continued. She certainly wasn’t going to cry in front of this man. “But he was doing what he loved and he was on his land, something he loved probably more than he loved me.”
“I find that hard to believe, Frannie.” He came toward her then. “I’ve never forgotten you, so I don’t know how any man in his right mind would love a farm more than you. I found out the hard way that not all women are as pure and loving as you.”
She turned back to the counter. How dare he come into her house like this and say these things? He’d been the one to leave all those years ago, without a word, and after he’d asked her to marry him. Instead, she had heard he’d married Inola, a woman she’d hated and who had hated her. When Carl, a boy she’d known all her life, asked her out on a date soon afterwards, she accepted. And that was it. Carl was a good man, who loved her until he died. She had forced herself to forget Michael. But most importantly, she learned to love Carl.
Amazon Central: http://www.amazon.com/P.C.-Zick/e/B0083DPN4E/
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/%22P.C.%20Zick%22
Christmas Pets & Kisses 2 links: