The hayride wasn’t meant for pure enjoyment; it was calculated to wear out the kids who might otherwise stay up half the night. After the main course and dessert, the women headed to the kitchen for cleanup and coffee, while Grandpa, Annie’s brothers and the kids got out a variety of board games. That was when Annie took her leave. She had to go back to Nate’s house, gather up her Christmas puppies and make some deliveries.
Bundled up and on the way to her truck, she wandered around the house to the back. The moon was so high and bright it lit up the farm. The weathered barn in rusty red stood quiet. She remembered when it was teeming with life—cows, horses, goats, chickens, not to mention people. Every single one of the McKenzie kids had had big parties at the farm. Her dad would dig a hole and fill it with hot coals to cook corn; hot dogs would be turned on the grill, and Rose would put out a huge bowl of potato salad and deviled eggs to die for. The kids who came to the farm from town would run wild through the pastures, barn and woods. They’d swing from the rafters of the barn on a rope and fall into a pile of hay, ride the horses, chase the goats. She could remember it like it was yesterday as she looked over the rolling hills and pastureland.
Someday, she thought, my own children and their friends will play here.
She climbed up on the hay wagon and lay down in the sweet hay, looking up at the sky. It was clear, black, speckled with stars. At the moment the house was throbbing with noise, but ordinarily it was so quiet in the country you could hear a leaf rustle a hundred yards away.
The sound of a car approaching caused her to sit up, and she recognized the Dicksons’ truck, their nearest neighbors. Another country custom—people dropped in on each other, bringing homemade treats and staying for at least a cup of coffee. Of course the McKenzies didn’t go visiting when the family was home—there were too many of them. A second truck trundled along behind the Dicksons’—looked like the whole fam-damn-ly was coming over. She plopped back down on the hay, hoping to be invisible. Once they all got inside, she’d take off. She wasn’t feeling sociable.
There was only one person she wanted to be with right now. She hugged herself and tried to pretend his arms were—
“Annie? You out here?” Beau called from the back porch.
Don’t answer, she told herself.
But her truck was parked out front. “I’m looking at the stars, but I’m leaving in a second. What?”
“I just wanted to know where you are!” he yelled back.
“Well, go away and leave me alone! You’re scaring the stars!” And then more quietly she muttered, “Pest.”
Seconds later she felt the wagon move, heard it squeak and a large body flopped down next to her in the hay.
“Aw, Beau, you jerk!” she nearly yelled. She sat straight up, plucked straw out of her hair with a gloved hand and looked at the body next to her. Not Beau. Nathaniel lay facedown in the hay beside her. “What are you doing here?” she asked in confusion.
He turned his head to one side. “I came back to sweep you off your feet, but I’ve been either flying or driving or hanging around airports so long that I’m too tired to roll over, much less sweep you anywhere. And I didn’t get much sleep the night before I left, either.” He grinned. “Thank you very much.”
“You didn’t go?” she asked.
“I went. I made it all the way to Miami.”
“And came back?”
He yawned hugely. “I realized halfway there that I couldn’t go to the Bahamas without you, but they wouldn’t turn the plane around.”
She was quiet for a second. “You’ve lost your mind.”
“Tell me about it,” he said. “What have you done to me?”
“Like this is my fault? That you’re a lunatic?”
He yawned again. “I was normal until three weeks ago,” he said. “It’s amazing how many people fly on Christmas Eve. I couldn’t get a nonstop. I was up and down all day. I had to go from Miami to Lansing to Seattle to San Francisco. The last leg—I had to ride in the bathroom.”
“You did not,” she said with a laugh. She lay down in the hay beside him.