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Authors: Jean C. Gordon

Small-Town Mom (6 page)

BOOK: Small-Town Mom
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* * *

Eli shielded the sun from his eyes and surveyed the figures at the top of the golf course hill. He spotted Jamie’s purple jacket right off. At least he thought it was hers. It was the same color as the coat she’d worn to their last meeting. The figure turned. Black curls peeked out from the sides and front of her multihued ski hat. A sense of satisfaction filled him. He knew it was her. He climbed the hill, surprised at how much he’d warmed at the minor exertion. He hadn’t thought he’d let himself get that much out of fighting shape.

As he reached the top, two smaller kids grabbed Jamie’s gloved hands and pulled her toward a toboggan. Evidently, along with the youth group teens, Jamie had Myles’s younger sisters to contend with, too. Good thing he hadn’t had any difficulty leaving the meeting. The guys had already worked out all of the details for the teen rifle course, and he hadn’t really been needed. Not as much as he was needed here.

“Hey, man.” Drew lifted a hand in greeting.

Eli joined him.

“The kids wanted to have toboggan races. I’ve had Jamie here setting up the heats and I’ve been clocking the finishes at the bottom. We’re taking a break so she can make a run with Rose and Opal. She’s okay with them using their saucers on the smaller run but didn’t want them taking the toboggan down alone.”

Eli nodded his agreement with her decision. “How many kids came?”

“About twenty. All the regulars and a few guests, older kids’ boyfriends and girlfriends. Lends a new dimension to the chaperoning.” Drew moved his head to the left to a lone couple snuggled close, waiting for the last round of racers to return with the toboggans.

“I can think of a whole lot of worse places for them to be getting close than sledding with the youth group. Why don’t I walk over and say hi?”

“You do that,” Drew said. “And I’ll go back to my station downhill.”

Drew was going to leave him here with Jamie? Well, here with her when she got back up from her run with her daughters. After a second of ridiculous and unfounded apprehension, reality clicked in. Of course. She’d need more help up here shepherding the teens and keeping an eye on her girls than Drew would at the bottom of the run. He whistled as he walked over to the young couple Drew had pointed out.

“Hey, Seth.”

“Hi, Mr. Payton.”

While most of the youth group members called Drew by his first name, Eli had stuck with the more formal address, since he was most of the members’ guidance counselor at school.

The boy loosened his vice grip on the girl’s waist and she lifted her head from his shoulder. “This is my girlfriend, Ava. She’s from Ticonderoga. I might have mentioned her when I was talking to you about college and stuff.”

Ava tipped her head toward Seth and her eyes narrowed.

Eli tamped down a grin. Looked like Seth was in trouble.

“He’s cool. I was sounding him out about our plans.”

The girl still looked skeptical. “Nice to meet you.”

“You, too. Are you having a good time?”

“Yeah.” She shrugged.

Eli remembered Seth’s plans. Drew was on the right track keeping an eye on them. The couple planned to move to Albany in the fall, where she had a scholarship to St. Rose College. Seth was going to work and attend the state university there part-time. Seth hadn’t come right out and said it, but Eli had a strong impression that Ava wasn’t going to be living in the campus dorms.

Ah, to be young and in love.

Too bad it rarely lasted. He hadn’t been much older than Seth when he’d been engaged. His former fiancee had had a couple of years on him. She’d been almost twenty-one.

A splat of snow on the back of his leg, followed by a high-pitched giggle, drew him from the couple and his musings.

“Opal!”

He turned as Jamie crested the hill. The cold had put a rosy blush on her cheeks and the sunlight kissed her flawless skin. She looked barely older than Ava did. But Myles had to be fourteen or fifteen. She must be close to his own age, thirty-eight. Unless she and her husband had been one of those young loves that had lasted. A sharp pang of jealousy pricked him, followed by disgust that he was jealous of a fallen comrade.

* * *

Jamie’s breath caught when Eli turned, even though she knew it was him. He was taller and had broader shoulders than any of the teens, and his posture shouted “in command.”

“Apologize to Mr. Payton for throwing snow at him.”

“You mean him?” Opal pointed at Eli. “I didn’t throw my snowball at him. I threw it at Rose and missed.”

“Opal!” Jamie gritted her teeth to keep the screech out of her voice. Eli didn’t need to think all of her kids were incorrigible.

“Okay, okay.” Opal trudged over and planted herself toe-to-toe with Eli. She tilted her head back and looked him in the eye. “Sorry my snowball missed my sister and hit you.”

Jamie clenched her fists. The little girl’s tone clearly said she was sorrier she’d missed Rose than hit Eli.

A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth and his eyes twinkled. “Apology accepted.”

Jamie unfolded her fingers.

“Hey, you’re pretty big,” Opal said. “I bet you weigh a lot.”

Jamie lifted her gaze to the cloudless sky.

A deep full laugh rumbled from Eli’s chest and stopped Jamie’s reprimand before she could vocalize it.

“I mean,” Opal said, “you could make the toboggan go really fast. I thought Mommy could ‘cause she’s gotten so fat her favorite jeans don’t fit. But we didn’t go that fast.”

“Is that right?” Eli gave Jamie a once-over, his smile broadening.

She looked around to see if there was a snow pile nearby that she could bury herself in.

“Yeah, it was fun, but I would have liked to go faster.”

“Opal, that’s enough. Drew is signaling me to get the next heat of races going.” Well, he
was
motioning someone about something.

“Mommy! But I have a good idea I want to tell Mr….Mr….”

“Payton,” Eli filled in, obviously enjoying himself from the look on his face.

“Mr. Payton. I’m Opal Susan Glasser.”

“Nice to meet you, Opal Susan Glasser.”

Jamie sensed rather than saw the youth group members congregating behind her.

“You can just call me Opal.” She turned to Jamie, dancing from one foot to the other. “Mommy, can I tell him my good idea?”

“Go ahead.” At least she still had a modicum of authority.

“If you and Mommy and me rode the toboggan, we could really fly.”

“What about me?” Rose sidled up next to Jamie.

Opal bit her lip. “I guess. You’d add some extra weight. What do you think, Mr. Payton?”

“I agree. I think your sister would add some extra weight.”

“No!” Opal stomped her foot in the snow and laughed. “I mean about us racing.”

Eli’s gaze caught Jamie’s. The winter sun glinted off his steel-blue eyes, or was it a sparkle of humor? Jamie warmed. He was good with kids. But that was his job, wasn’t it?

“We just went,” Jamie said. “We’ll have to wait our turn again.”

“But Mr. Payton didn’t. He hasn’t had a turn. We could show him how to do it.” Opal reached for the rope to the toboggan.

Jamie pulled it back out of her reach. She wasn’t nearly as anxious as Opal to pile on the toboggan with Eli. She ran her gaze from his snow-crusted boots up his long legs to the navy blue ski cap covering his sandy brown hair. By himself, he’d take up most of the length of the sled.

“I’ll tell you what,” Eli said. “We’ll run the rest of the heats until we have a winner. Then, you and your sister…”

“Rose,” her older daughter filled in.

“And your mom can challenge the winner.”

Opal surveyed the teens gathered around them. “Good deal. We’ll win for sure.”

“Don’t count on it, squirt.” Myles walked up behind Opal and tugged her braid. He glanced from Jamie to Eli. A guarded look replaced his teasing grin.

“Hey,” Drew shouted from below. “What’s going on up there? Let’s get these races going.”

Jamie handed Myles the toboggan. “Okay, who’s up?”

The nine teens who had won their heats lined up a few feet behind the crest of the hill with two on the toboggans and the third member of each team standing to the side ready to push them off to a running start.

“Do you want to do the honors?” Jamie pulled a green bandana from her coat pocket and held it out to Eli. “The green flag. We’re improvising.”

“Ah, you’ve got this all organized.”

He pulled the bandana from her hand and gave her a lopsided grin that allowed her to ignore the surprise she’d detected in his voice.

“Is everyone ready?” she asked.

“Ready. Yes. Yo.” The teams each answered.

Eli raised the bandana. “On your mark. Get set.” He dropped the cloth. “Go.”

Opal and Rose jumped up and down. “Go, Myles! Go, Tanner!”

Drew raised his hands over his head as Myles’s toboggan flew by him first. He jumped off the toboggan and threw his hands in the air with a “whoop.” They ran another heat with Myles’s team coming in first again. It lifted Jamie’s spirits to see him having fun and enjoying himself.

“Come on, Mr. Payton.” Opal grabbed Eli’s hand as the teens returned to the top of the hill. “We have to beat Myles and Tanner.”

Jamie visualized them all crowded onto the toboggan, which seemed to have shrunk since she’d unloaded it in the parking lot. “You don’t have to do this.”

“Sure I do. I gave my word.”

Of course, he had. Jamie eyed the toboggan. She could sit in the front to steer and the girls could sit behind her as a buffer, with Eli in the back.

“Can I sit in front?” Rose asked.

“No, I want to,” Opal said. “She sat in front last time.”

“That sounds good to me,” Eli said. “You, Rose, your mom and me. How does that sound to you, Mom?”

Jamie searched her brain for a good reason to say no. “I don’t think so. Opal’s not big enough to steer the toboggan.”

Opal put her hands on her hips and opened her mouth.

“Agreed,” Eli said.

“But, you said.” The little girl sputtered.

“I did. You and Rose can sit up front and your mom can steer from behind you.”

The satisfied expression on Eli’s face said that he thought he had it all solved. Except his solution had her sandwiched between the girls and him.

“Hey, are you guys going to race or not?” Tanner shouted. Myles and their other teammate were already in place ready to go.

Both girls looked at her expectantly. “Come on, Mom,” Rose said. “It’s all right with me if Opal sits in front.”

“Okay, then.” Jamie relented. She was being silly. It was only a couple-minute ride.

Jamie lined their toboggan up parallel to Myles and Tanner’s and held it while the girls climbed on. She followed, leaving Eli as much room behind her as she could. He stood to the right, his hands resting on her shoulders. She craned her head around to signal they were ready and, when her gaze caught his, a spark of energy shot through her. The girls’ enthusiasm must be catching.

“Where’s the flag?” Seth called out.

“I’ve got it,” Eli said. He raised his hands from her shoulders to pull the bandana out of his back pocket where he’d stuffed it after the last heat.

She shivered as the light pressure lifted and wiggled a little closer to Rose.

“Mom, you’re squishing me.”

“Sorry. I wanted to make sure Mr. Payton had enough room.”

Rose peered around her mother. “He’s not that big.”

Jamie gripped the rope and stayed where she was.

“Here you are.” Eli handed the bandana to Seth and returned to them.

Jamie braced herself for him to put his hands back on her shoulders.

“All set?”

“Yes,” she answered without looking at him. Rose and Opal echoed her agreement.

“Then, let’s race.”

At Seth’s “Go!” Eli pushed them three long strides and scrambled on behind Jamie. As he wrapped his arms around her waist, she determined that, contrary to Rose’s assertion, she hadn’t given him an inch too much space.

Halfway down the hill, with their toboggan in the lead, a dog darted up the hill into Myles’s path.

“Watch out,” she and Eli shouted in unison.

Myles yanked the control ropes hard to avoid the dog and sent his toboggan in a trajectory straight for the front of theirs.

Fear paralyzed Jamie for a moment and a second too late, she pulled the left-side rope as hard as she could to steer them out of Myles’s way, but it wasn’t enough and the rope broke. Myles and Tanner were headed directly for Opal.

Chapter Five

E
li felt every muscle in Jamie’s body stiffen when she saw the boys’ toboggan careening toward them.

“The rope broke,” she screamed.

“Rose, grab Opal,” he ordered as he stretched his right leg and rolled all four of them off into the snow. The other toboggan smashed into theirs and continued down the hill.

Eli jumped to his feet. “Are you all right?” He offered Jamie a hand up.

She grasped it tightly, rose and shook off the snow. “I’m fine.”

Her words released the tension dammed up inside him. He stepped over and helped Rose and Opal up.

“Why did you do that?” Opal glared at him. “We were winning.”

“Opal, that’s no way to talk to Mr. Payton. He kept us from getting hurt.”

“I don’t care. He’s not our boss. He’s not Daddy.”

Eli didn’t know where that came from and, by the stony look on Jamie’s face, neither did she. All he’d done was keep them safe. He jerked his head away and looked up at the descending yellow-orange sun. What was with him? He was questioning his trained instincts because of a child’s accusation.

“Stop right there, young lady.”

He turned to see Opal stomping down the hill. Jamie started after her.

“Mom. Mommy.” The quiver in Rose’s voice and her use of Mommy drew both his and Jamie’s attention. The girl had sat back down in the snow. “My leg hurts like it did last summer at camp when my kneecap slid out of place.”

Jamie looked from Rose to Opal, who was now most of the way down the hill.

“I’ll go after her,” Eli said.

Relief flooded Jamie’s face. “Thanks.”

He looked over at Rose. A tear streaked one cheek.

BOOK: Small-Town Mom
13.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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