The Fourth of July in Falk’s Bend, Missouri, made pretending nothing ever changed almost possible, Margie Olsson decided. All it took was a dollop of stiff determination and a generous application of wishful thinking.
Even the arguments remained the same.
“Told you we’d be late.” Her brother Joe wrenched open the hatch to their restaurant’s minivan, the tight muscle in his jaw sending his mustache twitching.
Most of the townsfolk had finished migrating from the parade route to River Edge Park and claimed their favorite picnic table or stretch of ground. Now they swarmed the softball field and concession stand, ready to enjoy the town’s 132nd annual Independence Day game.
Unperturbed at Joe’s grouching, Dad hefted the massive pan of beans. “Why rush to sit and stew in a long line of cars? It’s not like anyone would take our table. Plus, we can take our time unloading.” With that, he trundled off to the large brick grills.
Joe’s frown sharpened into a scowl that would do one of their Viking ancestors proud. “We could always try getting here early!” he growled at Dad’s back and dragged out the largest ice chest.
Margie choked off a laugh. Some things had remained absolute over her twenty-four years of life: Dad would never arrive early to any event and Joe would always fuss like a mother hen.
“At least you have a sunny day for the game.” She patted Joe’s shoulder. “Cooler than last week, don’t you think? I don’t think we’ve had a more sweltering end of June.”
Joe nodded woodenly. “I got the rest. Go on and find Grandma and Grandpa. Looks like Mom got them here on time.” He waved her off, as if she were still a preschooler tagging his heels. This, with his being ten years older, was a familiar feeling.
As soon as he turned his back, Margie scooped up the smallest ice chest and followed him to their table where Grandpa and Grandma Olsson’s wicker picnic basket waited.
Unfortunately, facts trumped determination and wishful thinking. Not everything in Falk’s Bend remained the same. The Heller family’s traditional table stood conspicuously empty, as did the Frost family’s table. Being spared the inevitable awkward encounters should be a relief, but the gossips would surely set to talking again, and the misery flashing over Joe’s face lodged a knot in her throat.
She fell in beside him as he returned for the next load. Should she ask now? The timing wasn’t perfect, but she had him alone. A glance over to Dad found him gabbing with the four elderly Mills brothers, who thrived on checkers and gossip while supervising the assorted dishes simmering on the grills. Over at the gate, a tall man in a white shirt paused, and rubbed the back of his neck as he scanned the confusion of tables, until Bert Mills hailed him over. They all shook hands like old friends, so maybe he was the grandnephew expected down from Montana.
Margie blew at her bangs. Cooler weather was debatable. The heavy air clung like a steamy second skin and the flags, bunting, and bows draped the park as perky as wet laundry.
“Hey, Joe, I was thinking, I’d really like to get back to work on Monday.” She winced at her blurt. Although Aunt Ida handled the staff schedules and Dad was the official boss, Joe ruled the family’s restaurant these days and he’d be the hardest nut to crack in her effort to return to normal life.
“Aw, Margie, we agreed you’d use the time to rest up and write and start when Amy headed back to school in August.”
“Come on. At least part time. I’m totally fine now. I miss working—” She stumbled over a rough grass tuft.
Joe steadied her, his face strained and gaze darting over her. “You all right, sweetie? Maybe you should just take it easy today.”
Oh, that snapped her last straw. “I’m fine! I’m weary to pieces with hearing ‘Take it easy.’ Dr. Saylor said no restrictions. I can do what I want. When I want. Anything!”
“Hey, Margie? Joe?” Her best friends Debi and Baxter strolled up beside Joe.
Joe planted his hands on his hips, another lecture looming. “Margie, I know, but—”
She crossed her arms against the chill surge of shame at losing her temper in public and her throat tightened. “No! Enough! You’ve got work to do. I’ll see you after the game.”
Grumbling under his breath, Joe stomped off.
Baxter dropped his bag on the table and stooped to kiss Debi quick and hard. “Hon, I’ll go on help Joe unload. See you at the bleachers.” He winked at Margie and loped after Joe.
Mirth sparkling in her blue eyes, Debi hugged Margie. “Well, well, there’s hope for you after all! I’ve never seen you back Joe down before.”
“He’s just…being Joe. I shouldn’t have snapped at him.” Margie groaned. The giddy spark at having stood up for herself fizzled. Thank goodness, her parents had missed her tantrum. Joe hadn’t been himself since breaking up with Stephanie and jumping down his throat was a dumb way to get his agreement.
“I’ve known you since the first day of kindergarten, and yeah, Joe means well, but let me tell you, that was one long overdue snap. I’m proud of you.”
“I just wish he’d stop hovering.” Margie peeked over her shoulder at the minivan. Baxter had Joe’s softball gear, and Joe hauled out the first large, food-laden hotbox.
“Maybe you ought to think about a place of your own. You need a change.”
“I’ve had enough change over the last year.”
Debi waved her hand in a stop-it motion. “A positive change. And, yes, I know all the reasons why you stay with them. Heck, I’d leave Baxter for your mom’s peach pancakes alone. But it’s something you should consider seriously.”
“I will. Someday.” Even moving out wouldn’t stop their loving, smothering concern.
“Why don’t we skip the game? I’ll crack open the pinot grigio and we can compare brotherly pet peeves.”
Margie laughed. “I think we’ve covered them all over the years. Go on. Catch up with Baxter. Let me jot some quick scene notes, then I’ll meet up with you all.” That was a complete fib, but her skin crawled with the need for some space.
Debi accepted her fib with a commiserating hug and headed for the ball field.
Margie escaped for her favorite place in the park, the huge old oak topping the low rise of land between the picnic area and the ball field, with a perfect view of the game and the lazy river. Oh, thank goodness, she had the shady homemade swing to herself. She settled against the swing’s thick rope, kicked off her sandals, and let out a heavy breath. Two sparrows squabbled and chased overhead through the shifting patterns of leafy shadow and sunlight. Drawing her bare feet up onto the heavy board polished smooth by years of bottoms and feet, she fluffed the skirt of her sundress over her knees. Determined to change her fib and mood around, she opened the story on her tablet and set to her note-making, resisting the urge to aimlessly edit.
Wild cheers jolted her attention to the game. Whoa. Seven innings already and tied at nine runs each. She sighed. Her missing the game would just give Joe one more thing to fuss over.
They all meant well, but when would Joe and everyone accept she was perfectly fine, better than ever, actually, and stop trying to keep her packed in cotton balls?
Patience, patience. All you can do is wait.
“Wait for what?” a quiet male voice answered.
Jolted, she sat straight, straddling the board to keep from falling, her heart zipping. She’d spoken out loud?
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” The man from the gate stood at the edge of the shade. “Just came over to check out this great old oak. I’ll leave you be.”
His soft, low voice, rich and warm as caramel, set every dormant feminine nerve on alert.
But who was he? Between growing up in Falk’s Bend and working at the restaurant, she knew everyone and their kin, or, at least about them. If he was a Mills, he must take after his mother’s family. He had the greenest eyes she’d ever seen set in a craggy, captivating face, and smile crinkles by his eyes and mouth. He was lanky and fit, but not so tall as Joe, and maybe older, late thirties. His sleek brown hair was neatly trimmed, his white polo shirt set off his outdoor tan, and more men should look as good in jeans as he did. Her gaze returned to those remarkable eyes of his, and something hot and bright leapt inside her.
He cleared his throat, as if he’d been waiting for a reply.
Holy moly. Heat flooded her. She’d been staring like an idiot. So that’s what all that being lost in a man’s eyes in romance novels felt like. Holy moly indeed.
Okay, pull yourself together.
“Hi, no, I don’t mind. Plenty of shade to share.”
“Thanks. Ah, the shade’s nice. Hot today.”
Oh, and warmer now here with you. She fanned a hand. “That’s July in Falk’s Bend for you. I should have brought a cold drink with me.”
“I’d offer you a drink, but all I have is beer, sorry.” He shifted his small six-pack cooler.
She almost said, “That’s okay, thank you.” Then Joe giving the big-brother worried eye and the unending “Doncha think you should take it easy? Are you sure?” filled her mind and clashed with Debi’s grinning advice, “You need a change.”
A fledgling thrill fizzed. Maybe he could be that positive change, for today at least. “I’d love a beer.” There! Mirth bubbled. How sad was her life these days that a beer with a stranger felt wildly adventurous?
The same doubting look as the bartender at Debi’s wedding last month narrowed her stranger’s lovely green eyes.
“I’m completely legal. Twenty-four. Twenty-five in two months from today actually. My wallet’s in my bag there if you’d like to card me.”
“Ah, not to be rude, but yeah, I should.”
Far from offended, she hopped off the swing, the sandy dust warm against her feet. She liked a sense of responsibility in a man. She fished her wallet from her bag. As she offered up her license, she spoke playfully, embracing this opportunity to be a little other than quiet, sensible Margie. “See, Marguerite Lauren Olsson, September fourth of the year perfectly legal. Or you could check with my dad, mom, brother, and anybody from town down at the ball game. Mr. Jansson, our police chief, is coaching first base. Although, my brother Joe still seems to think I’m five and should stick to milk and cookies. Acceptable proof?”
“Sorry. Just…” He smiled and cleared his throat. “You, ah. Well, you look…”
“Look like a kid. Happens all the time.” All the time. On the other hand, if looking like a kid now helped keep her looks as Grandma June had, she should count her blessings.
“Not a kid, ah…Sorry, Marguerite, one cold beer coming up. I’m Christopher Gordon.” He opened two bottles, a microbrew she’d never tried before, and handed her one.
“Thanks. Very nice to meet you, Christopher. You can call me Margie.” After taking a sip of the bright, fizzy lager, she held the bottle to her temple and enjoyed the icy chill for a moment. There weren’t any Gordons here in town, but he had to have family here. Why else would a stranger come to Falk’s Bend for the Fourth of July?
Laughter and cheers rang from the softball game.
“Sounds like they’re having a fun time over there. Why aren’t you there?” He nodded at the ball field.
“Why aren’t you? You’d be able to see better from the bleachers.”
“The shade feels good and I’ve got a fine view.” He sipped at his beer. His eyes met and held with hers, instigating all sorts of intriguing, unsettling ideas.
She eyed the long board of the swing seat. Room for two. Would he? Should she offer? “Visiting family for the holiday?”
What an odd answer.
He shrugged. “Mrs. Dodd, at the motel, told me I should come to the picnic. I just arrived last night and wasn’t sure, but she was, ah…”
“Irrepressible? That’s Miriam Dodd all right. No one’s a stranger at the Wander Inn Motor Court.”
A grin lit his face. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Would you like to share the seat?” She patted the swing and ignored her blush. This was her little adventure to enjoy. “The swing’s sturdy enough for two.”
Christopher was staring and couldn’t help himself.
She might not be a kid, but she’s still way too young for you.
He dragged his mind off the way her soft rosy mouth closed on the bottle. Marguerite. Margie. Olsson? He’d run into another Olsson when he first arrived. A friendly guy with an odd name, Mats, old enough to be Margie’s dad or grandfather. He could see some resemblance about the eyes. Margie’s wide, hazel eyes sparkled like a deep trout pool…
Snap out of it.
She was sure cute, though. With her fresh young face, he’d taken her at first glance for a college kid. Well, at almost twenty-five, she wasn’t long out of college. A fascinating line of white buttons ran from mid-calf to collarbone on her sleeveless, light blue dress sprinkled with red, white, and navy flowers. The same light pink polish sparkled on her bare toes as on her fingers. No rings. She wore her sunny brown hair caught up in a red ribbon bow, with curls escaping everywhere, and the desire to pull that ribbon and let down her hair was dizzying.
He swallowed hard. Yeah. He’d definitely been working too hard lately, because three sips of beer couldn’t account for how this cute slip of a woman made his head spin.
“If you sit on that side, back against the rope, it’ll be easier to chat.”
The swing’s supporting branch, ropes, and long, heavy board looked old, but sturdy. He sat carefully. The swing swayed and sank under his added weight. Another cheer rose from the softball game. He chuckled at the timing.
“So where are you visiting from?”
“I live in Los Angeles at the moment.”
“Oh, California. I’ve never been there. It must be fantastic living where you can have an orange tree in your garden.”
Margie could read him a spreadsheet with that shy sweet voice and he’d be rapt. He gave himself a mental shake. “Yeah, if I had a garden, I’d like that—well, I live in an apartment on the seventh floor, there’s barely room on the balcony for my tomato plant and some herbs.”
“I love to garden.” Her sharp breath slid into a sigh.
He raised a brow. “Something wrong?”
“No, not anymore. Long story.” She sipped at her beer and smiled brightly. “So, if you’re not exactly visiting family, what brings you to our little town?”
Why was he here?
Pull it together, Gordon, or she’ll think you’re an idiot.
“I had a meeting yesterday with Kevin Sorensen, the lawyer for Reba Falk’s estate. She was my great-grandmother. I needed to sign some papers and get the keys and all. Now I have to decide what to do about the house and contents.”
“Your great-grandmother was Reba Falk? You own the Falk house now? Wow. Then Loretta Falk must be your grandmother. That’s wonderful!”
Wonderful? Sorensen had mentioned the house had been vacant and boarded-up since Reba died six years ago and had seen better days. What was wonderful about having to deal with a rundown property in this tiny, middle-of-nowhere town?
“Yes, Loretta was my grandmother. I never knew about Reba. I gather from Sorensen some family falling out occurred long before I was born, but she left everything to Grandma Loretta, and after Sorensen sorted through and tracked family down, apparently I’m the heir. I could have handled everything by mail and phone, and let Sorensen make the arrangements to put the place up for sale, but I figured, what the heck, I could make the time, and I admit I’m kind of curious to see where my dad’s family came from.”
Her pretty eyes widened with dismay. “You’re selling it?”
Why was that? “I don’t need a house and being a landlord doesn’t interest me.”
“Have you seen the house yet?”
“No. I haven’t had a chance. Had to work this morning.” Only, after hours of number crunching, he’d conceded working indoors was a waste of a sunny Saturday and national holiday. Mrs. Dodd’s invitation to the picnic offered an easy option to escape his rut.
“Ah, you missed the parade down Main Street then.”
“There was a parade?”
“Oh, yes, it’s a major Fourth of July tradition here, with the high school marching band, Apple Queen float, and all.”
The town had definitely decked out to the max for the holiday. Patriotic bunting and crepe paper bows slathered the park in splashes of red, white, and blue. Fourth of July in Falk’s Bend belonged in a Norman Rockwell painting.
The loudest energetic cheer yet rose from the softball field.
“Sounds like the game is over. That was fast. They’ll finish cooking now, we’ll stuff ourselves silly and talk for hours, and then the band will play and the fireworks over the river will finish the evening. We’re very proud of our fire department’s yearly display.” She glanced around, frowning lightly. “Now, where did I kick my sandals to?”
“I see one. Hold on, I’ll grab them for you.” He rose from the swing.
He retrieved and set the pair of girly white sandals by her feet. Heck, even her pink-polished toes were cute. He sighed to himself. Since when did feet interest him? Dave might just be right when he ragged on him about needing to get a life.
“Thanks.” She slipped into her sandals and stood. She was taller than he expected and that pretty dress of hers now showed off some real nice curves to her slim figure. “Would you like to sit with my family? There’s room enough at our table.”
Margie or Mrs. Dodd? Easy answer there. “Sure. Thank you.”
As he followed Margie, the noisy tide of softball fans flowed into the picnic area.
“Oh, look! There’s my brother Joe and my best friends, Debi and Baxter Hayes.” She waved. “Here I am.”
A mustached, broad-shouldered younger version of Mats Olsson with sweat-plastered blond hair and wearing a dusty, navy blue T-shirt emblazoned Falk’s Bend Fire Department and grass-stained baseball uniform pants waved back. “Hey, Margie, ready to eat? I’m starving.” Then his gaze locked on Christopher and his warm grin snapped into an icy scowl.
Margie blithely leapt into introductions. “Christopher, this is my brother, Joe Olsson. He’s the head chef at our restaurant and a volunteer fireman.”
Christopher offered his hand. Maybe a territorial big brother was no different than a hostile CFO. “Christopher Gordon.”
Joe plastered on a thin smile and shook hands with a hard don’t mess with me or my sister grip. “Pleased to meet you. Visiting family for the holiday?”
“I’m here on business. Mrs. Dodd at the motel insisted I should come to the picnic. Hope that’s okay.”
“Yeah, sure. Tons of food to share. Nothing’s open in town for you to eat elsewhere anyhow. Have to head over to Collingswood if you plan to eat out today.” Joe had the same bright hazel eyes as his sister, but his were as cold and unwelcoming as Margie’s were sweet and friendly and his grudging tone left no doubt Joe wanted him to make that drive.
An unfamiliar obstinacy filled Christopher. Damned if he’d bow out gracefully.
Margie softly touched Joe’s elbow. “And guess what? Christopher is Reba Falk’s great-grandson and Loretta’s grandson.”
Joe eyed him again and not so subtly laid an arm over Margie’s shoulders. “You? I thought I’d heard Sorensen had located an heir.”
“Whoa, really?” Baxter shook hands with enthusiasm. “Glad to meet you.”
The petite redheaded Debi was a cute match to her linebacker-big husband. “That’s so awesome. Having someone live in the poor old place after all these years will be great.” She took Christopher’s hand in a warm, brisk shake and nailed him with a sharp grin and intense blue eyes. “So…single, or married with children?”
Left feeling weighed, judged, and provisionally approved, Christopher couldn’t help a chuckle. “Single, never married. I won’t be staying. I’m only here to settle matters so the house can be sold and then I’m heading back to Los Angeles.”
Margie slipped free of her brother’s grip. “I invited Christopher to eat with us. Joe, you and Baxter better wash up quick and get to the grills. Keith’s waving for you to hurry.”
Baxter clapped a brawny hand on Joe’s shoulder and nudged him along. Joe shot Margie a torn look, and walked off stiffly.
“Margie, sweetie, there you are! Oh, hello again.” Mats Olsson arrived hand in hand with the woman who’d without a doubt given Margie her sunny brown hair and sweet smile. A stouter version of Joe, Margie’s dad had a quick smile and thoughtful eyes, deep worry lines, and dark blond hair liberally salted with gray. He turned to his wife and two couples accompanying him, “This here’s that great-grandson of Reba’s I was telling you about,” and dove into introductions.
Lars Olsson, Margie’s grandfather, resembled a Santa without the beard. “At least we know now Loretta didn’t come to a bad end. That’s a relief.
“Loretta was my dad’s mother.” Murky guilt stirred up by Sorenson’s first call lingered. How bad was it he never knew where Grandma came from, or anything about her family? Why hadn’t he ever asked? Yeah, he’d been a kid, but still…
Margie’s blonde and sprightly grandmother June looked young enough to be Margie’s mother. “Oh, my! It’s so good to meet you. Loretta was only nineteen when she just up and disappeared in 1948 and it’s always been a mystery.”
A shiver crawled up his spine.
“Until now, of course, since you’re here,” Carole, Margie’s mother chirped.
Christopher nodded, still troubled. “Probably will remain a mystery, unless there’s some answer left in the house. Grandma Loretta passed when I was eighteen. Grandpa Will, William Gordon, her husband, died when I was two. They had three sons, my dad, Nicholas, who was the oldest, and my uncles Bill and Wayne. My uncles never married and died in the service, far too young. We lost Dad three years ago and I’m an only child. So that’s how I ended up with the place.” His mom had been as astounded as Christopher at Sorensen’s news. Grandma had never talked about her past.
“Since Reba passed, Kevin Sorenson, Tim Olhouser, and a few others have been keeping the yard mowed and the mischief makers run off,” Mats said.
“Sorensen’s been very helpful. My plane was late coming in and he was kind enough to meet with me yesterday evening before he left for his vacation.”
Lars nodded. “Yep, he’s a good kid. He’s visiting with his sister in St. Louis. First time he’s been away since coming here to take over his granddad’s practice. He’s had his hands full ever since.”
“Tim’s around here somewhere. We’ll have to introduce you to him.” Stig, Mats’ brother, tipped up the brim of his cap as he scanned the crowd. Although leaner than Mats, he had their father’s jolly face.
At that, Margie’s family launched into introducing him to picnickers left and right. Christopher’s consulting business made people glaze over a bit with vague that’s nice comments, but they were downright rapt the moment they learned he was the missing Loretta’s grandson and that he’d inherited the Falk house. The number of times he’d heard variations on “Good luck, you’ve got your hand full with that place” left him wishing he’d asked Sorensen for details on the house and to email him some pictures.
A man whose name Christopher didn’t catch added, “Can’t tell you how happy everyone will be to hear young Sorenson found you and you’ll be taking over the house. And I can tell you the roof doesn’t leak anymore. Old Sorensen had that fixed after the bad storm we had three years ago damaged the roof slates on the east side.”
Lars nodded and popped the cap on a fresh beer. “Young Kevin shoulda taken over a few years sooner. Old Sorensen was slipping and too proud to retire or ask for help. Just wasn’t ever the same after his wife Clara passed. She was his only secretary, too. I imagine that’s why you weren’t found sooner.”
The sociable hailstorm of questions didn’t stop at Grandma Loretta and the house, but hit his job, marital status, life in California, hobbies, schools, baseball, football, NASCAR, and favorite pie, just to skim a few topics, leaving him as dizzy as if he’d been stuck on that whirligig ride over at the amusements set up for the kids.
Mealtime finally arrived, giving him the excuse of chewing to slow down having to talk. On the plus side, Margie’s grouchy brother was busy cooking at the grills, leaving Christopher free to enjoy sitting beside Margie, and sitting shoulder to shoulder kept him from staring at her like a fool.
Christopher had to admit this town served up terrific food. Apparently, every resident took this day as some unofficial cook-off challenge, not settling for the usual picnic fare of hot dogs and hamburgers, but offering up ribs and anything else that could be barbecued, fried chicken, every variety of casserole, salad, pickle, condiment, and dessert. By the time he was done listening to Margie, Debi, and Margie’s mother suggest what he ought to try, his taste buds were sated and his belly was groaning.
A lull arrived in the feast and talkfest, leaving Margie and Christopher momentarily alone.
After a delicate sip of her beer, she glanced at him shyly. “Hey, I have an idea. Would you like to see your house? It’s walking distance from here.”
“Really?” Once he’d conceded to the holiday and attending the picnic, he’d moved checking out the house into tomorrow’s plans. But he could use a walk to work off this meal.
She slipped off the bench, taking her beer. “You have to be curious, right? Grab your beer and let’s go.”
“Okay. Too bad I left the keys at my room.” At least a pound of keys, old and new, arrayed the key ring and he’d tossed the bulky collection in a drawer with the paperwork after the meeting last night.
“Well, you’ll know where it is at least.” She held out her hand.
“True.” As he stood and took her hand, the interest prickling through him had nothing to do with the house.
Oh, my. Whatever possessed her to hold hands with Christopher, Margie didn’t know, but the simple, careless act was enlightening.
Like Dad’s and Joe’s, Christopher’s hand was warm and big and filled with strength, yet wildly, interestingly different on so many levels.
And no confusing Christopher’s hand with Eddie’s.
Margie squashed down the clench of pain. That chapter of her life was closed.
She scanned around for Mom, or anyone beside Joe, to tell them where she was going to save herself explaining herself to Joe. The entire town filling the picnic grounds transformed the place into a boisterous sea of heads. She spotted Debi helping out at the dessert table.
“Hey, Debi. I’m going to show Christopher the Falk house. We’ll be back in a bit. “
Debi paused in slicing a blackberry crumb pie and gave thumbs-up. “Have fun!”
Margie led Christopher on the shortcut across the softball field over to River Road, and the scenic view of the river’s deep curving route that gave the town its name. One block north on Apple Street brought them up to her home, a tidy two-story house with crisp white siding and green trim. The garden beds she loved to work in bloomed with early summer vigor.
“That’s where I live with my family.” Her dog Penny woke from napping on the porch glider and raced to the fence, bouncing and wiggling with joyful whimpers.
“Nice house. Been there long?”
“All my life. My grandparents owned it, and then sold it to Dad when he and Mom married.” She patted Penny’s silky copper head through the fence.
“Really? I’ve lost count of all the places I’ve lived. Cute dog. What kind is she?”
“Some sort of spaniel mix, we think. Do you like dogs?”
“Yeah. Never had one though.”
She opened the gate and Penny bounded to her first for loves and then over to investigate Christopher, jumping against his legs.
“Sit,” Christopher ordered, firmly, but kindly.
Penny dropped to her haunches, vibrating with doggy joy.
Christopher grinned, and crouched down to scratch her soft ears. “That’s a good girl. Friendly, aren’t you?”
Oh, yes, she really liked his smile. “So, how many places have you lived?”
“Well, if I thought about it…Dad was in the Army, like Granddad, and we moved a lot when I was growing up. Let me think.” He pondered, stroking his hand over Penny. “Twenty different places, give or take, and four countries since I was born.”
“Wow. That must have been wild, moving around and going to different schools.”
“It had its pluses and minuses. Some schools were good, and I didn’t want to leave. Others, well, leaving was a good thing.”
“A good way to make lots of new friends.”
He shrugged and straightened. “How far is the house from here?”
“Just a few blocks over on Peach Street. Okay, time to go home, Penny.”
Penny bounced to her paws and raced to the porch, where she spun around with a sharp bark, as if to say, “I win! I beat you home!”
“Good girl.” Margie shut the gate and they resumed their stroll.
Two blocks further, she turned right on Peach Street and another two blocks along led to the huge old mansion presiding over the neighborhood in all its boarded-up, moldering glory.
A tower with round windows topped the fancy curved slate roof of the three-story home and made the Falk house the tallest building in Falk’s Bend. She’d always wanted to climb the tower and see the view out those windows over the trees. Her favorite part, a broad porch with elegant paired columns, wrapped around the whole house. The disrepair the once-beautiful house had fallen into was heartbreaking.
“Aw, hell.” Christopher’s face was grim. “I hoped everyone was kidding.”
“Sorry about that. Honestly, most of the falling down started long before Mrs. Falk passed. The church ladies fussed about Mrs. Falk living all alone at her age, but she did her shopping and attended church and seemed like she’d never die. It was a shock when she finally passed. She lived in that house until the day she died at ninety-nine, did you know? The Sorensons and neighborhood did their best to look after the property. She was eccentric—well, to be frank, she was a crabby old lady, and she wouldn’t let people help her. She terrified me when I was little. She loved her roses, though.”
Her fear hadn’t kept her from walking home the long way from school, just to see the roses in bloom. Then came the day Mrs. Falk caught her stealing a rosebud that hung over the white picket fence and ordered her up to the porch, smacking her cane with fierce taps against the top step. When Margie stammered out how she stopped by to admire the roses, Mrs. Falk had then taken her around the yard and taught Margie the names of every single rosebush, mellow and sweet, as if she was someone else than the screechy witch of an old lady. She’d had green eyes, too, all faded with cataracts.
He snapped a picture with his phone. “Okay, lead on.”
Margie opened the peeling gate, wincing at the screeching hinges.
The men may have kept the front and side yards mowed, but dandelions and crabgrass had conquered the lawn and the abandoned garden beds had gone downright wild. Time and neglect had reduced Mrs. Falk’s prized roses to sucker-choked, unkempt tangles of sprawling canes with only a few scattered blooms hinting at their former beauty. Vines of trumpet creeper, bright with orange flowers, twined over the porch rails along with the shaggy brown remains of last year’s morning glories.
She led him up the cracked flagstone walk to the sweeping front porch steps. A porch like this called for rocking chairs, ice-cold lemonade, and a dog or cat or two sleeping in the sun.
As they stepped onto the porch, Christopher caught her arm. “Careful, some of the boards don’t look safe.”
Some boards were spongy, creaking under their steps, loud in the quiet afternoon, but on the whole, the porch was surprisingly solid.
Two panels of peeling plywood closed with a padlock hid the ancient screen doors and ornate arched double front entry. Oh, if he only had the keys. Would the leaded glass windows still be intact? They had once sparkled like cut glass jewelry and the screen doors had fanned out like butterfly wings on either side.
More plywood covered each window. Faded, cracked, and peeling pale yellow paint on the siding hinted at previous coats of white, green, and peach.
They reached the rear of the house. Christopher muttered a serious cuss under his breath. She didn’t blame him.
Vandals had paint-balled the boarded windows and doors. Beer cans, bottles, broken glass, and cigarette butts littered the flaking porch boards and trash lurked in every nook of the weedy, overgrown beds. Falk’s Bend was a nice town, but still had its share of bored kids looking for a little illicit thrill.
The crabgrass- and dandelion-choked drive led to the carriage house and small sagging barn, both structures boarded up, paint-splotched, and swathed with honeysuckle and trumpet creeper.
He finished his beer and looked around the littered porch with a clenched jaw, pacing sharply. “Hell, I suppose one more bottle here won’t matter at the moment. Might as well leave yours too.” He took her empty bottle and set the pair neatly by the back door. “Looks like chore one is trash bags and a shovel.” One more look around, and he shook his head. “I better make that a Dumpster.”
Margie touched his shoulder and had him turn away from the mess to focus on the view toward the river.
Here the picturesque natural beauty of the property began: the land sloped gently down past the ancient summer house and purple martin houses to the reedy pond where a duck flew in and landed with a quack, and stretched on through weedy tangles of wild blackberry and rogue saplings to the ancient apple and plum trees sagging with unripe fruit, and beyond to the river invisible in the distance, marking where the Engberg’s farm began on the far bank.
Appreciation softened his tense face.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? I fell so in love with this place when I was little and dreamed I’d live in a house like this someday.” Margie laughed. “Of course, in my dreams it was a bit less rundown.”
“I’d imagine so. Interested in buying?”
“Oh, if only I could, I would in an instant. I’m sure the property alone is worth far more than I can afford. It’s a huge piece of land. And the repairs and restoration…” Longing swelled. She sighed. Someone else would buy and live in her dream home.
Quiet fell between them for a while. Bees buzzed in the clover. Birds sang, chirped, and flitted. A hummingbird whizzed past. Two more ducks joined the first amid quiet bickering quacks. Dandelion fluff drifted by on an unfelt breeze.
A truck rattled down the lane, breaking the moment.
“Suppose we ought to head back…” Christopher turned, so close their arms brushed, but instead of retreating, he hesitated. Their eyes locked. Where dismay and frustration had filled his green eyes, want simmered. The heavy air electrified.
You need a change.
On a surge of bewildering crazy courage, she stretched up and kissed him. The brief brush of lips to lips left her shaken and her heart pounding, like she had just come up for air.
His eyes widened in his serious, craggy face.
No, oh, no. Blowing out a unsteady breath, she pressed a hand to her stomach. She’d carried her day’s adventure one impetuous step too far. Her heroines were the daring part of her. She’d never even kissed on a first date before, and this wasn’t even a date.
Before the apology fluttering in her mind could break free, he cupped her cheek and touched his mouth down on hers.
Thinking faded as feeling soared. His gentle touch sweet and fascinating, his lips warm and firm played over hers, unhurried in his caresses and enticing brushes. He laced his fingers into her hair, cradling her head in his hand. He tenderly nipped her lip and licked at her mouth, inviting her rather than taking.
She sighed, delighting in this lovely, reckless rush. Yes. Yes. Yes. Forget that they had just met. She could want again.
Gripping his shoulder, she accepted the heady invitation, and the kiss deepened into perfect.
* * *
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