Autumn Hamilton stood at the entrance to the Town and Country Nursery, a yellow chrysanthemum in each hand, scowling. As she watched the exchange between her neighbor’s granddaughter and the man who had come to take custody of her, she grew angrier and angrier. Five-year-old Heather Christianson, who hadn’t spoken a word since her parents died six weeks earlier, was pointing at a big pumpkin languishing in the field, still attached to the vine. The man, whom Autumn knew to be in his mid-thirties, and probably not too happy to be standing on the edge of a muddy pumpkin patch in his expensive Italian loafers, shook his head no.
“We’ll get one later when we can come back with Nanna’s truck,” he said, loudly and slowly, the way people do when they are unaccustomed to speaking to children. “We have to buy Nanna’s apples first, remember?” Then he tugged Heather away from the pumpkins toward the pick-your-own orchard beyond. The little girl glanced longingly back over her shoulder at the pumpkins as she tripped along behind him.
Autumn was incredulous. How on earth could anyone deny a pumpkin, such a simple pleasure, to this tragic little girl? This was just another of many reasons why Ethan Rassmussen, the slick playboy lawyer from New York City, should not have custody of Autumn’s favorite neighbor’s granddaughter.
Shaking her head at the unfairness of it all, Autumn put the chrysanthemums she had purchased in her Jeep and was about to jump in and drive away when she suddenly changed her mind. Heather would have her pumpkin, she decided, and Autumn walked across the parking lot and into the pumpkin patch, not caring that her favorite red cowboy boots were sinking into the mud.
Jack Staub, who had owned the nursery, pumpkin patch, apple orchard, and Christmas tree farm for as long as she could remember, appeared by her side and offered to help her make her selection. Unable to gauge which pumpkin Heather had been enamored with, Autumn noticed a particularly unattractive specimen and spontaneously decided to purchase this mistake of Mother Nature for the man as punishment for his callous disregard of Heather’s simple wish. “I’ll take that one, please,” she said to Jack, who was just a little surprised to see her make a decision so quickly. Jack had observed that whenever she bought something, she normally returned within a couple of hours—which was enough time for her to go home, arrange her purchases, change her mind, and drive back to the nursery.
“Which one?” Jack sought confirmation, because Autumn was pointing to the biggest, dirtiest, knobbiest pumpkin in the field.
She pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her jeans pocket and had it at the ready.
“You sure?” Jack asked. “It’s kinda lumpy.” He spun it around on its stem and showed her where it was already indented and where the pulp had started to leak out. “Let me at least take it inside and wipe it off for ya.”
“Oh, I’m positive,” she assured him. “And give me that small, cute, smooth, almost-perfect one there, too.” She wiped the little one off on her retro Charlie’s Angels T-shirt.
Autumn grabbed the big ugly pumpkin first, not caring about the dirt that came off onto her jeans, and Jack balanced the smaller one on top, which she held in place with her chin. For reasons Jack didn’t understand, but didn’t question, she insisted on carrying the pumpkins herself. When she exited the pumpkin patch, victoriously stepping into the parking lot, she shook her long dark hair out of her eyes as she surveyed the lot, looking for her target. There were only two cars in addition to her Jeep: an ancient silver Oldsmobile that belonged to Reverend Frye and a flashy, immaculate black Jaguar sedan. She grinned. She had found her target.
It was all she could do to carry her load the twenty yards over to the Jag, the small, perfect pumpkin balanced precariously on top of the ugly one. She set the pumpkins carefully on the ground and tugged on the door handle of the front driver’s side door, but it was locked. Undeterred, she walked around the car and tried the front passenger door. It was open! She walked back around the car, retrieved her big ugly prize, and carried it gingerly over to the open door. She attempted to wedge the freak of nature in between the seats and the dashboard, but of course, it wouldn’t fit. So she just plopped it onto the seat, mud and knots and all. Then she put the small, perfectly rounded pumpkin on top, intended of course, for Heather. Autumn grabbed the seat belt and belted the bulbous orb in good and tight, and when she was convinced it was secure, she shut the door. She spun around and race-walked as fast as she dared toward her Jeep, not wanting to attract attention to herself and trying not to look like someone who had just defiled a stranger’s luxury car.
It was too late. The voice was deep and a lot closer than she expected.
“Hey you!” it boomed behind her.
She kept walking and pretended she didn’t hear him.
“Hey! You. Lady with the big pumpkin,” he said again. “I saw you break into my car with that dirty pumpkin.”
Autumn turned around, laughing, hands on her hips. “Really? Did you just call me a big dirty pumpkin?” This was more fun and excitement than she had had in a long time.
Then she felt two tiny arms wrap themselves around her knees and the weight of a little body sink itself against her legs.
The man was standing in front of her. “I saw you put that pumpkin in my car,” he said angrily. “You can’t deny it.”
She was still laughing. “I won’t,” she said. “Guilty as charged.” And she raised her hands in front of her, crossing her wrists, as if submitting to being handcuffed. “Call out the pumpkin brigade, throw me into the pumpkin patch, and let me serve my time, but first I have to say hello to this little munchkin.”
Autumn went down on her knees so her face was level with Heather’s, and she brushed the girl’s blonde curls back from her face. The sadness in this little angel’s face was heart-wrenching. She had known Heather all her life, from the first time her parents brought the tiny bundle to visit her Nanna Martha, and from all the long weekends and birthdays and Christmases since.
Autumn kissed Heather’s forehead and held her little face in her hands. “You okay, kiddo, considering?” she asked.
Heather nodded solemnly then turned to the man and stuck out her tongue at him with considerable enthusiasm, all the while still leaning against Autumn.
Autumn looked up at the man, not at all expecting to be taken in by his handsome features, and considered the flash of anger she had felt toward him for not buying Heather the pumpkin she wanted. His dark, wavy hair was controlled by a close cut, and his angry eyes were just as dark as his hair. He had the glow of health on his face, as if he had just returned from a Caribbean vacation where he played tennis and snorkeled all day. She got a closer look at his expensive, shiny loafers, now caked with dirt, getting secret satisfaction that he would very likely get the rest of his designer clothes dirty hauling the pumpkin out of the car.
She turned back to Heather. “Well, he can’t be that bad. I think he bought you a pumpkin after all.” Autumn grinned up at the handsome, perturbed man, then back at Heather. “It’s in his car. Go look for yourself. Yours is the perfect one on top of the ugly one. The big ugly one’s for him,” she continued, glancing back toward the man.
The little girl began a triumphant sprint toward the Jaguar, stopping to give the man an unexpected, reluctant, and dutiful hug. He seemed surprised as he bent down to hug her back. Autumn refocused on the man who was now holding his hand out to her, ready, apparently, to get down to business.
“I’m Ethan Ra . . .” he began.
“I know who you are,” she interrupted, rather rudely ignoring his outstretched hand.
He lowered his, but she couldn’t tell how offended, if offended at all, he had been by her refusal to shake. “Then you know I’m an attorney with Morgan, Gladstein, Hi…” She interrupted again. “Morgan, Gladstein, Hirsch. Yes, I’m well aware of who you are, and more importantly, what you are doing here.” She glanced over at Heather, who had gotten the door to the Jaguar open and was trying to wedge herself into the seat next to the pumpkins. However, she had only succeeded in getting herself and the car’s interior muddy as she squirmed with joy, patting and caressing the pair of pumpkins.
“Well, if you know so much, then you must also know that you have no business interfering with me, or with Heather.” He spoke uncharacteristically haltingly, with the tone of voice he usually reserved for the first-year associates at his law firm, who sometimes needed prodding. He immediately wished he had made his point more judiciously. Less bossy.
There was something about this woman that made him nervous and intrigued him at the same time. He had never in all his years been this unsure in a conversation. One of the strengths that had made him such a successful lawyer was his gift for being an unparalleled conversationalist. He could talk confidently with anyone—CEOs, the richest of the rich, famous people from every walk of life, anybody, really, from any walk of life. But this woman’s boldness took him by surprise. It made her different for some reason, and he wondered if he would have the chance to find out why.
“Who said anything about interfering?” she asked mischievously. “I’m just trying to pay it forward, spreading the love, delivering gifts and goodwill to my fellow man. Just think of me as the Finch’s Crossing welcome wagon.”
“Uh, huh,” he said. “I could use a little less of your goodwill. And it looks like you could, too.” He pointed at the front of her Charlie’s Angels T-shirt, which was now covered in dirt with a large smear of orange pumpkin guts clearly visible.
Oh crud, the first new, young, handsome, successful man Finch’s Crossing had seen in about two decades and she’d already trashed her clothes in front of him. He must have thought she was such a country bumpkin. Pumpkin bumpkin, she thought to herself, almost laughing out loud. Oh well. He was the enemy, after all, swooping in to take Heather away from her grandmother.
“I don’t see what’s so funny,” he demanded of her and crossed his arms over his chest. She did the only thing she could think of, which was to repay his initial attempt to shake hands by now offering her hand to him. He hesitated, but reached out and surprisingly, warmly took her hand. He didn’t shake her hand—he just held it for a second.
“Nice to meet you, Ethan Rassmusen,” she said, smiling, and he let go of her hand. “I’m Autumn Hamilton, Martha’s neighbor.” She turned to walk back to her Jeep before he could offer a response. The conversation was clearly over.
He wished now he had said more, had engaged her. What did she do? Was she married? What was her story? Compared to every other stranger he had ever spoken to, this one had practically rendered him tongue-tied.
After he watched her stroll across the gravel parking lot and slide into her Jeep, he whispered her name to himself, barely audible. “Autumn Hamilton.” Something about the feel of her name on his lips gave Ethan a little shudder. He didn’t know whether to feel good about meeting her, or to be afraid of her. Something told him it should be a little bit of both.
As she drove away, Autumn flashed on an image of Ethan Rassmusen, in his khaki pants with their razor-sharp creases, dragging the ugly pumpkin from his car onto Martha’s front porch, orange pumpkin goop dripping onto his loafers and silk shirt. Maybe even getting into his hair if he slipped on the gravel. Then she stuck out her tongue, as Heather had done just a few minutes earlier, and collapsed into schoolgirl giggles. It felt good to laugh. It had been a long time. But her happiness disappeared quickly, as it always did. She could only keep up the façade for so long.