The last thing Chelly Schul wants is to go home for the holidays. She left her hometown of Legend, Tennessee on a wing and a prayer two years earlier and hasn’t returned. Her leaving humiliated her entire family, particularly her sister Suzie, since she ran off with Suzie’s (almost-ex) husband.
Legend Police Officer Matt Branson values being alone. Even during the holidays, he enjoys the solitude. Dubbed the town hermit, he tells himself he prefers his “cave” to socializing. His friends say he still pines after “the woman who got away,” although he begs to differ.
All that changes the snowy day he pulls over the older model sedan speeding into Legend. His gut slams against his backbone as a tearful Chelly rolls down the car window and looks up into his eyes, and nearly melts his heart. But he remains stoic. Coplike. And gives her a warning and sends her on her way. But it shakes him to the core.
His high-school sweetheart is back in town. Chelly. The woman who sent him into his cave in the first place.
“Shit. I’m going home.”
Chelly Schul slammed the trunk lid down on her old Dodge Stratus and grimaced as the gas cap flew off and tumbled over the asphalt. Darn thing. The little door was sprung, and the cap never worked right after her tank got siphoned. That incident happened the first night she moved into her new apartment in Dalton Springs. Which occurred three months after the bank said they were taking her house. Which took place six months after her husband Cliff was killed in a traffic accident.
Nine months. Long enough to have a baby.
No, thank you very much.
One of hers was screaming from the backseat, already.
“Be there in a minute, sweet pea.”
She glanced back at the apartment and frowned. She’d had high hopes she could make it. But no. Didn’t seem to matter how far she tried to stretch the dollars; there wasn’t enough. Her gaze lifted to the sky behind the complex. It was overcast and gray, tinged with a pink early morning sunrise. A winter sky. The weatherman promised a white Christmas and the air smelled like snow.
The mountains rose in the distance, strong, sturdy and secure.
“Legend is over there,” she whispered. “Home…is over there.”
Strong, sturdy and secure. She supposed she needed that.
Only forty-some miles separated Dalton Springs from Legend, Tennessee. However, a chasm of hurt and past indiscretions stood solidly in the way.
She swallowed hard, and then swiped a tear from an eye with a gloved finger. Soon she’d have to swallow a whole lot more than spit. Pride. Yes, that was it. It had been years since she’d gone home. The last thing her sister Suzie expected to see this Christmas was her little sister Chelly on her doorstep, homeless and penniless, and dragging along two small kids—the ones she had with Suzie’s husband…er, make that ex-husband.
Yeah, she’d caused quite the small-town scandal. That disgrace even beat Polly Gruber running off with the preacher back in the forties. Didn’t seem to matter that she and Cliff were actually happy and loved each other. Oh, she knew the repercussions, running off with her sister’s husband. The whole town thought she was pond scum. Lower than pond scum, even. But Suzie had left Cliff and he was lonely.
Wasn’t entirely her fault, was it?
Cliff. He’d had to go and die and leave her in this mess, didn’t he?
No matter. Home was where she was heading—home to Legend—and for the holidays, no less. With no plans to return to Dalton Springs. Ever. Dalton Springs and Cliff were all in the past. A pleasant, distant memory.
Sniffing, she wiped another tear before it froze to her lashes.
She was about to tuck tail and head home to family. Like it or not.
Taking three brisk steps forward, she bent, snatched the gas cap off the parking lot and twisted it back into place. She rounded the car and got in, not tempted to look back.
“Come on, babies,” she said. “We’re going home.”
A brisk gust of wind kicked up against the cruiser, rocking it.
“Damn. Must be a helluva storm coming.”
Matt Branson turned up the heater and lowered the volume on the country music station he was listening to as he sat in the newest police cruiser the city of Legend, Tennessee owned. Nice vehicle, too. He did enjoy some perks with his job—since he was the only officer on the force to have actually graduated from college—even if he was sitting in bad weather at the edge of town trying to catch speeders. The other officers were homegrown and on the spot trained, but they were good ol’ boys and did one helluva job.
Besides, it was Legend, right? The city force was small but reliable enough to handle anything that Legend threw at them. A domestic or two, a kid gone awry and of course, the speeders. Biggest trouble was the occasional tobacco smuggling, a few pot plants growing in the foothills, and once a homemade Meth lab run amok, but the county Sherriff’s department and the regional ATF guys took over those, mostly. Legend was little more than a 21st century Mayberry, R.F.D.
He hoped he was a lot more than a modern-day Barney Fife.
He’d left town a year or so after high school—had pretty much fled with his head hanging and his heart on his sleeve, if he remembered it accurately—and in a few years had himself a degree in law enforcement from Eastern Kentucky University.
Damn proud of that, too. So was his Mama. Because of that degree, and the fact that he brought all that new-fangled knowledge back to his hometown of Legend, he was pretty much top dog cop in these parts. Well, not counting the Chief.
So here he was. Waiting.
Of course, it wasn’t like he had a horde of family members at home. He probably wouldn’t even see his Mama until tomorrow evening at the Methodist Church candlelight service, and his sisters were all due to arrive very late Christmas Eve night with a passel of his nieces and nephews. They wanted to be home in Legend on Christmas morning, much to the chagrin of their husbands.
Other than that, there was no one.
Frowning, he shifted in his seat, pushed that thought out of his head, and glanced out the window. Lucky for him, the east end wasn’t the busy end of town. At least he wasn’t walking the downtown beat sniffing out shoplifters. Lit up like a roman candle for about three weeks, the town of Legend eagerly welcomed the shoppers and they came in droves. All that marketing about Legend had paid off the past year or so. He had to admit it brought some mighty strange folk out of the hollers.
So in a way, he was grateful not to be downtown. On the other hand, not a single car had ventured by in the last fifty-two minutes. The town council thought sitting out here was a wonderful idea. They needed revenue for the force, so they had passed a new ordinance lowering the speed limit in both directions. The guys on the west side were pulling them over right and left. He could hear that on his radio. The action on the east, however, was, well, non-existent.
Bored, he watched as small ice crystals formed in little pellets on his windshield. He let them pile up on his wipers and then swished them away. That kept him busy for about three minutes. He breathed on the window next to him and drew funny pictures on the glass, then smeared them off with a leftover fast food napkin, leaving behind ghostly images. He upped the temperature and turned on the defroster to keep the fog down.
Should a speeder happen to venture by, it might be good if he could actually see out his window.
Finally, he reached under the seat, pulled out a piece of wood, and dug deep into his pocket for his whittling knife. Not eager to get shavings and wood chips all over his new cruiser, he laid the napkin out on the seat beside him and started to whittle.
There. Perhaps this wasn’t so bad after all. He could sit here until the snow piled up and whittle, if he had to. Putting knife to wood was the one thing that kept him company for hours on end when he was at home—in his cave, as his sisters called it. He loved that cabin he’d built up on the mountains, though. Cave or not, it was his, and he had learned to be okay with how his life was turning out up there.
So okay, his social life sucked. He refused to call himself a hermit, although when not at work, he spent most of his time at home. Living a solitary life had both its advantages and disadvantages. Carving wood helped him keep his sanity.
Just didn’t do a damn thing for keeping his bed warm at night.
His knife hand stilled on the wood and his head jerked up. A vehicle raced in from the east, popping over the hill. He reached to swipe away the fog from the driver’s side window that failed to dissipate. The dark blue sedan whizzed by, and he quickly stashed his knife and wood under the seat.
Tucked back in the lane of the old Casey place, he pulled out from his hidey-hole, and turned on his lights and siren.
It wasn’t like Legend was that far away from Dalton Springs, but in Tennessee, country roads aren’t laid down in straight lines like they say a crow flies. Winding and narrow, the two-laner twisted through the foothills of the Smokies. For the most part, Chelly took her time while the kids napped.
It was when she pulled into Village Grove that she made her mistake.
Even though the girls’ tummies were full, she had not fixed herself something to eat that morning. Up all night packing boxes, eating hadn’t been a priority. Figuring out what to do with the rest of her furniture, and arranging to have the remainder of her things stored until she could get them, was first on her agenda. Most of her furniture was sold the day before. The cash would come in handy the next couple of weeks.
She’d sucked down caffeine in various forms all night. Hot, cold, it didn’t matter. But no food.
As she cruised into Village Grove, a town larger than Dalton Springs but smaller than Legend, her stomach growled, and she was getting tired.
The golden arches loomed a couple of blocks ahead. Did she dare?
A quick glance in the back seat told her the girls were still asleep. Katie, the oldest at nearly three, sat with her head cock-eyed and her neck crooked, her mouth agape and drooling. A thin shaft of fine baby-blonde hair was stuck to her face in her slobber. Fourteen-month-old Karly’s right cheek was pressed hard up against the sidewall of her car seat, her one shock of blonde sticking straight up like a Mohawk. She clutched a beat up Tickled-Pretty-Pink stuffed bear in her chubby little fingers.
Chelly looked back to the road, slowed, and pulled into the drive-through lane.
“Please let them sleep,” she whispered, wanting a few minutes more of peace and quiet. Pulling slowly to the speaker, she rolled down her window.
A screech and a crackle met her. “Take your order?” the young man bellowed.
“Shit,” she breathed and glanced back. Katie stirred. “A sausage sandwich value meal,” she said quietly, “large coffee, black.”
A scream went up from the back seat. Karly.
“Don! Don! Don!”
“Three-ninety-six, Ma’am. Please pull to the first window.”
“Dammit,” she hissed then smiled into the speaker. “Make that three of everything, please.”
“Don! Don! Don!”
“Except the coffee. Give me two juices instead.”
“Yes, ma’am. Nine-seventy-two.”
“Mom-meeee!” Katie shouted. “Karly woke me up! Oh! We’re at ‘Donald’s! Can we play?”
“Slide! Slide!” Karly bounced in her seat.
“No, girls, we are not getting out.”
Wails rose from the backseat.
Chelly sighed. “I have your food coming up. Hold on, girls.”
She moved to the window and waited, pinching her nose while the girls chattered and bounced and squealed in the back seat. Karly still wanted to slide, and now Katie was yelling for her biscuit. In the end, she retrieved her meals from the window, pulled over and took the girls inside to eat. They did, barely, and then ran off to play in the huge play place while Chelly rubbed her temple and watched from a small table next to the multi-colored ball pit.
Luckily, the play place was deserted. A quick glance outside told her why. Snow pelted down at a nice clip now. People must be staying in. Or they were in Pigeon Forge shopping.
She was getting a damn headache. Should get on the road soon, she kept thinking. Then she remembered she had to stop and get diapers before she got to Legend. There was a Piggly Wiggly at the end of town. She’d stop there.
One more stop. One more time getting the girls out, and back in, the car. Buckling, securing, tucking, finding bears, having snacks within reach, making sure straps weren’t too tight. Another shopping trip trying to avoid the “mommy I wants” and the “gimmee gimmee gimmees” while searching for diapers, and oh, yes, she also needed wipes.
Can’t forget to get the wipes.
All in all, she calculated that stopping at The Pig, as the locals called the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, coupled with the hour they would probably spend here at ‘Dons,’ her arrival back in Legend would be later than anticipated. Of course, no one was expecting her, so what difference did it make, anyway?
She rubbed her head more. Too damn tired. She really, really needed to get going.
And going she did. She rounded up the little boogers, made her trek through The Pig, and was headed into Legend from the east side of town when she popped over the hill near the old Casey farm. The snow was coming in sideways now, and she was glad to almost be at Suzie’s, even though her stomach was in a knot. She had no clue how her sister would react at her arrival.
She sighed. It had already been a long day and now…
Lights flashed in her eye from the rearview mirror, and a siren wailed behind her. The girls started crying again. She glanced up.
“Dammit! Dammit all to hell.”
Tears immediately sprung into her eyes. This, she did not need.