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MISTLETOE MEMORIES anthology - an ECPA best-seller!
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Reprinted in BYGONE CHRISTMAS BRIDES, September 2017
Schooley’s Mountain, New Jersey
December 22, 1868
THE HOME OF ECCENTRIC Essie Hasenclever was not an option for the child.
As the stagecoach rocked and rolled up the Washington Turnpike, Deputy Sheriff Ezekiel Norcross
winked at the three boys on the opposite bench, earning a smile in return. He then tapped the nose of little Irena next to him. She glanced away from the badge on his lapel long enough to exchange a grin.
On the other side of Irena, Polly Reid drummed her boot on the coach floor. Her troubled gaze focused on the gold streaks in the sky created by the setting sun. The nine year-old urchin’s shoulder-length blond ringlets hung loose under a dark blue glengarry with a red torrie on top and pink ribbons added to the red ones hanging down the back. Instead of being steeply angled atop her head like a Scotsman would wear it, the boat-like “bonnet” rested level on her head and low enough to reach her eyebrows. How it came in her possession, Polly wouldn’t say. Nor did she have even a hint of a Scottish burr.
The coach hit a bump in the road, and the children bounced on their seats. The boys laughed. Irena giggled.
Polly uttered an elongated “ugh.”
“How much further, Mr. Norcross?” she asked for the eighth time—and he was counting—since they passed Chester, five miles back.
“All the way up the mountain ridge,” he answered, even though in a quarter mile they’d be at their journey’s end.
Polly groaned. Her foot-tapping resumed.
Zeke smiled yet didn’t tell her he was only teasing.
Unlike the other children whom he’d had to coax responses from, Polly had jabbered freely during the three-hour ride to the orphans’ new parents and new life. Until now. The closer they came to their destination the more agitated she’d grown. Her lips pursed tight, hands clenched together and twisting. Not that he faulted her. Despite his external calm, his stomach was doing its own inner handwringing. No matter how persistent Essie Hasenclever was—and he fully expected the aged woman tobe—in offering to care for Polly, he refused to allow it to happen. His duty as a Morris County deputy, and as a man of God, demanded he protect all under his wings. Especially widows and orphans.
The court had charged him to escort these orphans to the potluck dinner at the German Valley Inn. Not to claim them for himself. Since the war ended, he’d dreamed of coming home to a passel of children. The boys as towheaded as he.The girls with dark brunette locks like their beautiful mother. Lately, every time he saw Marianne Plum, he’d think the reasons he had for not courting the reserved widow weren’t worthwhile reasons at all.
He gave his head a shake.
No sense fantasizing about a life he could never have.
“Stop!” Polly stood and banged on the ceiling. She leaned out the window and yelled to the driver, “Sir, I must attend to the necessary. If you don’t stop immediately, I will—”
“Whoa!” came from the driver amid the rattling and squeaks as the carriage slowed. Before it came to a complete stop, Polly yanked open a door, scrambled down the steps, then darted into the woods. James deRoses and the Adams twins looked beseechingly at Zeke.
“Do you three need necessary attending also?”
They nodded vigorously.
Zeke opened the door on his side of the carriage. “Get on with your business.” As they scrambled out, he looked down at little Irena Barimore. “And you, sweetheart?”
Holding her close, he climbed out and walked to the side of the forested road to where Polly had disappeared. If she’d been able to wait a few minutes longer, they’d have been atthe Inn just around the curve in the road.
“Polly,” he yelled, “I need you to finish up and come help Irena.”
“Might be a minute!”
“Better hurry. Bobcats live in these woods, and I can’t shoot what I don’t see.”
“Deputy Norcross?” the driver called out. “I am already behind schedule. Folks are waiting to be picked up at the Inn, and the Heath House will pay extra for this delivery if I get it there before seven.”
Zeke removed his watch from the pocket of his red plaid vest, the metal warm against his palm. Nearly a quarter to six. They needed to hurry before the valley was consumed by darkness. His black wool suit suited him well during the day, but once the sun set . . . . He wasn’t any more dressed for freezing temperatures than the children were.
“Go on,” he ordered, sliding his watch back in his pocket. “Leave the children’s luggage in the Inn’s coatroom.”
The driver tipped his hat. With a flick of his wrists, the horses resumed their path to the last stage stop before heading up Schooley’s Mountain.
Zeke patiently waited for the children to return. Instead of a ten-foot walk off the stage and into the Inn, now they’d have a hundred-yard one. Could be worse, he reasoned, with the temperature in the forties (or lower), instead ofthe pleasant upper fifties and no wind. He presumed all the children in the Highlands of New Jersey were praying for a white Christmas three days from now. While he’d known Polly Reid all of three hours, he knew she would soon start praying for snow, too, if she hadn’t begun already.
“Sorry about that,” Polly said, grinning broadly as her boots crunched the fallen leaves. “Ma says sharing your need to attend the necessary isn’t polite, and I tried not to, but I figured it’s better to spew your words than things that are not proper to mention.”
Proper or not, she had him there. She took Irena from Zeke, who pressed his lips together to keep from laughing.
“I’ll take Irena,” Polly said. “We will be back shortly.”
Then they were gone, into the woods.
THE VIOLIN QUARTET PLAYED. The people in the hall chatted. And Marianne Plum stopped shifting the order of the food on the serving table to look to the open double-door entrance to the Inn’s dining hall. She fanned her neck with both hands.
He was going to be late.
True, the clock had yet to strike six, the time the potluck was to begin, and no one else seemed bothered that the guests of honor had yet to arrive. But she knew Ezekiel. He was either early or late, never on time, and never consistently one or the other.
Marianne placed her palm on the bodice of her blue silkgown. Her heart raced, and she felt out of breath and a bit damp, which was either from the heat from the bodies filling the hall or in expectation of Ezekiel’s arrival. Likely the heat. After all, she and Ezekiel had spoken just a week ago when she had been in the General Store buying mineral water, and he had stopped in for a bottle, too. There had been no way he could have known she was there. Yet, they were there. Together. Unplanned.
Warmth swept underneath her skin.
“Stage!” someone yelled.
She turned to her friend, Ruth Schroeder, who was standing next to her and holding an apple pie that smelled more of cinnamon than apples.
“Oh dear,” Ruth muttered. “Why am I so nervous?”
“You are to meet the child you and Lemuel are adopting.” Marianne took the pie from Ruth and gave her a sympathetic grin. “Your life is about to change. Go wait with Lemuel.”
Ruth’s gaze focused longingly where her husband stood at the dining hall’s entrance, where Ezekiel and the orphans would soon appear. Yet she didn’t move.
Surprised at her friend’s uncharacteristic hesitancy, Marianne walked to the end of the serving table. She placed the pie on the table then noticed the trembling of her own hands. She wasn’t adopting a child. Her life wasn’t about to change, so she had no cause to be nervous or expectant or out of breath from anticipation. Yet she was.
And the curiosity of it all sent her fleeing into the kitchen for serving spoons.