Welcome to the fourth chapter of a twelve-chapter story I am sharing on the blog. This is being shared with minimal editing, just for fun, but will be fully edited once it is complete.
You can catch up on chapters HERE.
If you would like to read more about the characters in this story, you can find full-length novels on Amazon for purchase or on Kindle Unlimited HERE,
The first three chapters of the first book, The Farmer’s Daughter, can be found HERE.
Once all the chapters have been shared here, I’ll be providing a free Book Funnel link to blog readers and placing the story on Amazon for 99 cents.
“Don’t be shy, Alex. Have some more of those mashed potatoes. I made plenty.”
It wasn’t like Alex not to have an appetite when he visited Franny, but today her encouragement to eat more only made him feel sicker. The idea of piling more food on top of what he’d already eaten, pushing it past the knots there, made him want to excuse himself and run outside to breathe in a couple mouthfuls of fresh air.
He kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for her to somehow get him alone and launch questions at him about when he was going to propose to Molly and why he hadn’t already, and where he was in his relationship with God.
He reached for his glass of water and drank half of it to try to settle his stomach.
“You okay, young man?” The older woman looked at him with lowered eyebrows. “You’re very pale today.”
Alex laughed, hoping she couldn’t hear the apprehension in his voice. “I’m fine. Dinner is great. Thank you, Franny.”
He’d long abandoned calling her Mrs. Tanner. Every time he’d tried when he had first moved to the area to live with Jason, she’d reminded him, “Family calls me Franny and you’re family now, so drop the Mrs., mister.”
Sitting across from him now in her small kitchen, she quirked an eyebrow. “You coming down with something? You been getting enough sleep?”
She reached out and pressed her hand against his forehead. “You don’t feel warm.”
“Franny, I promise. I’m okay. Just tired from work, that’s all.”
She didn’t look like she believed him, but she sat back in her chair and continued eating. He was grateful when Molly took the attention off him.
“Grandma, I can’t remember the story behind that Big Ben ornament on the tree. Didn’t Grandpa bring it back for you from London?”
Franny nodded. “He did. He visited there on his way to Germany for training before the war and picked it up in a little shop. He sent it home and said he couldn’t wait to be home to put it on the next year’s tree with me.” A faint smile pulled at her mouth as she looked over Molly’s shoulder into the living room. “He missed that Christmas but he was home for the next one to help Walt hang it.”
She pulled her gaze from the ornament and laughed softly. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to have a good cry. It’s a wonderful memory and I’m working on remembering the happy moments. My memories help to keep him alive.”
Molly reached across the table and squeezed her grandmother’s hand. “There are a lot of good memories for us all.”
Franny stood and took Alex’s empty plate, heading toward the sink. “So how is the old truck fairing. Does Bert think he’ll be able to fix it?”
Alex’s chest constricted. He cleared his throat and started to answer.
“He won’t answer his phone and he never seems to be in when I stop,” Molly answered instead.
Alex wiped his mouth with a napkin to hide a smile. Bert was doing his best to help keep the project a surprise and he appreciated it. He wasn’t sure how much longer the secret would stay a secret, though. Molly was a determined woman.
Franny picked up Molly’s plate next. “Well, I’m sure if it was bad news, he’d let you know.” She placed the plate in the sink. “Hannah tells me they’re going to make Aunt Dianne’s sausage balls to sell in the café in the next couple of weeks.”
Molly walked to the sink. “Yes, she is. She thinks the customers will love them. Now, you go sit. I’m going to get these dishes done for you before we leave.” She looked over her shoulder at Alex, talking before Franny could protest about her doing the dishes. “Dianne was Franny’s aunt from North Carolina. She made sausage balls and fudge every Christmas and would bring them up when she and her husband came to visit. You remember the sausage balls from last year, don’t you?”
Alex stood and walked to the sink. “I definitely do. They were amazing.” He reached for the stopper for the side of the sink in front of him. “Let me help you with the dishes.”
Franny gasped. “Oh my, Molly Tanner. You need to keep this man. Look at him. Offering to do dishes with you.” Alex turned to look at her and she winked. “Bet he’s just doing it to be close to you.”
She sighed as Alex shook his head, grinning, and turned back to the sink. “You know, I did want to talk to you two about something.”
His chest tightened again. Oh boy. Here it came.
“I’ve been thinking about moving into Shady Pines, what do you two think about that?”
They both turned from the sink. That was the same community Molly’s other grandparents were living in.
“What’s got you thinking about that?” Molly asked, a plate in one hand and a dishcloth in the other.
“You two have me thinking about that.”
Molly tipped her head to one side. “What do we have to do with it?”
“Because one day I want to give you two this house.” She moved her gaze to Alex. “If Alex ever gets around to proposing.”
And there it was.
He glanced at Molly as warmth crept into his cheeks. Her cheeks were flushed as well. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again, took a breath, and tried again.
“That’s really nice Grandma, but there’s no rush. I mean, I don’t think this is something you have to do right away. I mean . . .”
He really should save Molly from this awkward moment but he had no idea what to say. He turned back to the sink like a coward and poured dish soap into Molly’s side of the sink.
Franny laughed softly “I’m hoping it’s something that I’ll need to think about sooner rather than later, but I’m sure I have some time.”
The elderly woman’s answer made him want to laugh and cry at the same time. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been thinking about how much he wanted to marry Molly. He thought about it often, daily lately. He simply hadn’t planned on any kind of proposal right now. For one thing, Christmas proposals were so cliché. For another thing, he didn’t have a ring yet. And third, Molly had been a Christian her whole life and he’d only just started to figure out a relationship with God. He wasn’t even close to being worthy of her or her family.
Molly laughed nervously. “Now, Grandma, you already got Jason married off. How about you work on another one of your grandchildren next?”
Franny snorted. “My other grandchildren are 13 and 16, except for Bradly and he doesn’t have any prospects right now. You, however, do and he’s a good prospect so I think you’re closer than the rest of them.” She sighed again. “But I shouldn’t be pressuring you. You two will get married when you’re good and ready. When you do, though, I want you to know that this house is yours. If you want it.”
He glanced over his shoulder briefly to see Molly kissing Franny’s cheek. “Thank you, Grandma. We appreciate it.”
The drive back to the farm an hour later was quiet to begin with until he finally cleared his throat. “Your grandma sure is blunt, isn’t she?”
Molly laughed and propped her feet on the dashboard, hugging her arms around her knees. “She definitely is, but she means well.” She raised her shoulders briefly and dropped them again. “Anyhow, the town tree lighting is Saturday. I don’t usually go but I thought it might be nice this year. You want to go with me?”
He was thankful she’d changed the subject. “Of course, I would. That sounds like fun. As long as you don’t make me sing carols.”
She smiled as she looked at him. “I’ve heard you sing in the barn. Don’t worry. I wouldn’t request you do that in public.”
He burst into laughter, pressing his closed hand gently against her shoulder. “Ha. Ha. You’re no Carrie Underwood either, Princess.”
She tipped her head back and laughed, reminding him of how perfect she was for him, how perfect they were for each other and how he really could see himself spending the rest of his life with her.
The shed smelled like paint and pain to Robert.
Paint as he painted the boards for the swing and pain as he realized he only had three more weeks to assemble the boards he had smoothed and shaped. Then there were those bolts. They still hadn’t arrived. Terry was busy calling other suppliers for him. Hopefully, it would all come together.
It wasn’t the end of the world if the project wasn’t completed by Christmas. He knew that. He could simply tell Annie what he’d been working on and let her know it would be finished when the bolts came in. He really wanted to have the swing done and hung for Christmas, though. He wanted to sit on it with Annie Christmas night, his arm around her shoulder, her side pressed to his, looking out on a snow-covered farm.
Finishing it was still the plan and he was going to stick with the plan until he absolutely had to admit defeat. For now, though, it was time to lock up the shed and head back to the house. There was a family dinner planned and then decorating the tree and the house. He and Jason had already cut down a tree and brought it into the house. Now his children, Alex, and Jason’s wife, Ellie, would help decorate it as part of an annual tradition.
Jason’s truck was in the drive when he pulled up and Alex pulled in a few seconds later. He greeted Alex, learned that Molly was on her way with Liz, and the two men walked into the house to chase away the chilly December air, grateful that temperatures had warmed a little at least.
Inside he pulled his coat off, gave Ellie a hug and then headed from the entryway to the kitchen to give his wife a kiss and hug as she finished up dinner.
Half an hour later, they were all sitting around the table, and he found himself looking at the faces of those he loved with emotion catching in his throat. Liz’s little girl Bella giggled and clapped her hands at the end of the prayer, and he couldn’t help agreeing with her joy. Annie was one of the best cooks around. He couldn’t wait to dig into the mashed potatoes to his right and the fried pork chops on a plate in front of him.
Jason reached for the pork chops and Alex reached for the mashed potatoes, which reminded him he had to move fast with these two around. They might clear the whole table of food before he was able to help himself to one morsel.
Thankfully that didn’t happen and before long it was time to decorate the tree, which could start only after slices of Annie’s apple pie were cut and cups of cocoa and coffee were poured.
Molly held out a hand toward her brother. “Jason, hand me that garland over there.”
Jason held up a hand, palm out. “We need to get the lights on first. Slow your roll.”
“Did you untangle them even?”
“I’m doing that now, as you can see.”
“Let me help –” Molly took a step forward.
“No, you’ll just confuse me. I’ll get them untangled by myself.” He jerked his head toward the kitchen. “Go get the stool so we can start from the top and work our way down when I get them straightened out.”
Molly huffed out a sigh and headed toward the kitchen for the stool while Robert sat in his chair and smiled. Just like old times. Arguing and bickering. Eventually, though, there’d be laughter and peaceful quiet as they all sat to take in their handiwork and let the spirit of Christmas wash over them.
Ten minutes later Robert had just taken a bite of his pie just as Molly started screaming. Screaming wasn’t usually part of the decorating. He jumped to his feet in time to see a furry creature leap toward Molly, scurrying across her shoulder, and down her back to the floor.
The blur of brown took off across the carpet then ran up the back of the couch, clearing it of Annie, Liz, and Ellie who all uttered horrified cries and squeals of their own. Liz snatched Bella off the floor and Robert watched the squirrel jump to the floor, spin in circles a few times and then dart out of the living room into the kitchen.
Jason burst into laughter as Robert followed the terrified creature. “I guess we should have checked the tree for occupants before we brought it in.”
Robert found a broom and opened the back door, searching for the squirrel. In the living room, the women were giggling over their reactions.
“I can’t believe I screamed like that!”
“Did you see that thing fly off me?!”
“Isabella looks confused.”
“Where did it even go?”
When he found the squirrel huddling under the table, he poked at it gently with the broom, which sent it scurrying not through the open door like he’d hoped, but back into the living room.
Molly squealed with laughter. “Here it comes again! Jason grab it!”
“I’m not just going to grab it! They carry diseases!”
“I’ll grab it.”
Robert shook his head and walked back into the living room with the broom while Annie opened the front door. The squirrel must have sensed the portal to freedom because he darted back and forth a few times across the floor in front of it and then outside onto the front porch.
Robert closed the door, and everyone dissolved into laughter again.
Annie wiped a hand against her cheek, clearing tears of laughter. “That certainly was a first. Is everyone okay?”
Everyone agreed that they were, and the decorating continued, with Molly, Jason, and Alex occasionally checking to make sure there were no more creatures still living in the tree.
Outside the window snow drifted down in large, fluffy flakes, hitting the ground and immediately melting. A white Christmas might not happen this year, but looking around the room at his family, Robert didn’t mind. There didn’t need to be snow on the ground outside for him to feel the warmth and love of his family inside.
Once again, he felt his throat thicken with emotion, grateful that he was still here to experience another Christmas season with his family.
After everyone had gone home, Robert slid his arm around Annie as they sat together on the couch in the colorful glow of the tree. Wasn’t it only yesterday that Molly and Jason were here with them, stretched out under the tree, looking up at it and talking about their Christmas wishes? Wasn’t it only yesterday that Robert’s dad was coming over to share with him his Christmas gift ideas for the kids with delight in his eyes?
So much had changed over the years. His dad was gone. The kids were moved out on their own.
He pulled Annie closer and tucked her head under his chin. At least he still had Annie with him, and the kids would be here on Christmas, along with their significant others, and his mom, brother, sister and their spouses, as well as his nieces and nephews. The house would feel full again. As full as his heart was now as he held on to the good memories and looked forward to making more this Christmas and beyond.