Martha Kelly watched as Jack Staub, Finch’s Crossing’s most eligible senior bachelor, opened the tailgate of his pickup truck and raked the load of gravel onto her already well-graveled driveway.
This was about as unromantic as things could get. Martha was getting tired of finding places to put all the gravel, mulch, and other nursery supplies she had bought from Jack over the past few months. The last time he delivered the mulch she had ordered, but didn’t need, she had to call Reverend Frye at the Methodist Church and ask him to take it off her hands. If he could find someone to haul the mulch away, the church could have it for the flowerbeds in the churchyard. Gracious, Martha had never had so much mulch in her life. When would Jack realize that she ordered truckloads of mulch and gravel she didn’t need, just to see him? Wasn’t it obvious when he delivered the last load of mulch, that the previous load had suspiciously disappeared without being used in the make-believe flower beds she had never dug out? How could he not wonder what she had done with it?
Like Martha, Jack was in his seventies, his handsome face leathered from years of being in the sun. His snow-white hair was impressively thick for a man his age. She couldn’t help but notice how nicely he trimmed his eyebrows. So many men his age just let them grow wild. He was lean and fit, from a lifetime of running the Town and Country Nursery, an immense operation on the outskirts of Finch’s Crossing, Pennsylvania, where he sold plants and grew pumpkins, apples, and Christmas trees.
“Awright, Martha,” Jack said, removing his work gloves to hand her a receipt. “That should hold you a while.”
That should hold you a while?
Martha couldn’t help but wonder what that meant. Was he trying to tell her to stop ordering supplies from him? Did he know what she was doing, and wanted her to stop? Gracious, she felt like a silly schoolgirl with a crush on the boy next door. She took the proffered receipt. “Thank you, Jack,” she said, trying to keep the hesitation out of her voice. “I think my driveway will make it through the winter with this load.” What else could she say? She had to save face, after all.
* * *
Once again foiled by Jack’s cluelessness, Martha went back into the house. Fall had definitely arrived in Finch’s Crossing and had made its presence known by the nip in the air and the leaves swirling down her driveway in a bright dance of yellows, reds and oranges. She typically loved the season, as it was a prelude to Christmas. In years past, she had enjoyed a full house over the holidays and baked enough cookies and pies to feed an army. She always began her Christmas shopping on Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, patronizing her friends’ shops in downtown Finch’s Crossing.
After Jack left, she puttered around the kitchen in the way that women who live alone do. She straightened the dish towels on the counter to the angle she preferred. They were a cheery yellow, but did nothing to cheer her that day. Stupid towels. She watered her African violets on her window sill and re-arranged the cookbooks on her counter. She filled the almost-full salt and pepper shakers and wiped down the clean counters.
Then she sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, and looked around the empty room. Until a few weeks ago, she had taken care of her only granddaughter, Heather. But now Heather was in New York with her new guardian, Ethan Rasmussen, and Martha was alone. And although Heather was doing very well following the death of her parents, Martha ached with the loss of Denise, her only daughter, and her son-in-law, whom she had loved like a son. The telephone call in the middle of the night from the state police had been heart-wrenching, and then the hours and days and now weeks that followed had been equally as painful, although the dust was starting to settle some. The small family had been on its way to drop Heather off at Martha’s house in Finch’s Crossing. Denise and Troy had booked a room at a resort hotel outside of Pittsburgh for a romantic weekend. They had gotten caught in a downpour and had pulled over on the side of the highway to wait it out. It was dark, and according to the police report, a truck had hydroplaned and clipped their SUV parked on the shoulder. Denise and Troy had been killed instantly. By some miracle, Heather, asleep in her car seat, had not been seriously hurt.
It was Heather who helped soften Martha’s deep ache. Knowing she had to be strong for her granddaughter gave her something to focus on, other than her desperate grief. And then Heather’s guardian was appointed, and Heather was whisked away from her. She looked out the window that overlooked the side yard, and was thrilled to see Autumn Hamilton, her neighbor and friend, emerge from the hedgerow that separated their properties. The Hamiltons had lived next to Martha for what seemed like forever, and over the years the neighbors had forged a path as they popped over to borrow sugar, deliver Christmas cookies, or commiserate a loss.
“Hi Martha,” Autumn greeted her from the kitchen door, “You have time for a cup of hot cocoa?” She held up a thermos and basket of cookies. “I need a break from painting.”
Martha knew very well that Autumn wasn’t painting that day, or any day. She hadn’t seen her artist friend in her paint-splattered overalls for weeks now. Good, she thought, maybe she could help Autumn with whatever was bothering her, rather than miring herself even further into her own sad thoughts.
They settled in Martha’s comfortable living room with its oversized sectional couch arranged in a U-shaped configuration around the fireplace, giving the room a snug, cozy feeling.
“I saw Jack Staub delivering more gravel earlier today,” Autumn said nonchalantly, as she poured them cocoa and offered Martha a cookie. “You must have a lot of outdoor projects going on,” she mused. “You sure get a lot of deliveries.”
Martha knew she was turning pink. She gestured around the living room, “Well, this is a big place, you know. Lots of grounds to keep up.” She paused. “Maybe it’s getting to be too big for one person,” she said softly into her mug.
Autumn admonished her. “Nonsense. And you’re not one person. You have Heather coming to stay with you quite often. Besides, you know you won’t ever sell this house. You couldn’t bear to be separated from me.”
“Well there you are quite right, my dear,” Martha answered warmly. “And speaking of you. Are you doing alright these days? I ask because it’s been a while since I’ve seen you in your painting coveralls. Used to be whenever I saw you in town or at the market you were wearing those ratty, paint-splattered old things, just dashing out from your studio for a quick shopping trip.” She kept her gaze on Autumn, who looked away. “Never mind, honey,” Martha said and patted her arm. “You’ll tell me when you’re ready.”
“How are you doing, Martha?” Autumn asked softly, changing the subject. “I know how much you miss Heather.”
There was a long pause. “I’m lonely,” Martha admitted, and after another sad, deliberate pause, she said again, “I’m just plain lonely.” Martha reached out and covered Autumn’s hands with her own. “Thank you, dear friend, for looking out for me. I hope you know how much it means to me.”
“I think there’s someone else out there who’d like to look out for you, too,” Autumn teased. “Every time Jack hears your name, he goes pink. I told him last week how much you love his sweet potato casserole. I wouldn’t be surprised if he brings extra to Christmas dinner, just for you. Remember last year, there were no leftovers. He knew how disappointed you were.”
“All right, now, let’s have none of that this evening. Only time will tell what’s going to happen on that front. It does no good to force together two people who don’t come together naturally. If it doesn’t unfold itself, then it wasn’t meant to be.”
To herself she wondered, what on earth can I do to move things along with Jack Staub? Lord knows I’m not getting any younger.