A Cedar Cove Christmas
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“I’d rather go back to the apartment if you don’t mind.” It was hard to explain but the place felt like home to her now, at least for this one night.
“Fine. Just don’t lock the door. I’ll be there soon, so hold on, okay?”
She didn’t have any choice but to hold on. “Okay. But Mack?”
“You got it. I’m leaving now.”
“No sirens, please,” she begged, and Mack chuckled as if she’d made some mildly amusing joke.
Walking seemed to help, and instead of following Mack’s instructions, she paced the length of the barn once, twice, three times.
She noticed that the camel was watching her every move. “Don’t be such a know-it-all,” she muttered. She’d swear the creature was laughing at her. “This isn’t supposed to be happening yet.”
A sheep walked up to the gate, bleating loudly, and Mary Jo wagged her index finger. “I don’t want to hear from you, either.”
All the horses in their stalls studied her with interest, but the only one who looked at her with anything that resembled compassion was Funny Face.
“Wish me well, Funny Face,” Mary Jo whispered as she started back up the stairs. “I need all the good wishes I can get.”
Absorbed in the cycle of pain and then relief, followed by pain again, Mary Jo lost track of time. Finally she heard a vehicle pull into the yard. A moment later, Mack entered the apartment, a second man behind him. They were both breathless; they must have run up the stairs.
Mary Jo was so grateful to see him she nearly burst into tears. Clutching her belly, she walked over to Mack and said hoarsely, “I’m so glad you came.”
“How’s it going?”
“Any sign of your brothers?”
She shook her head.
Mack glanced over his shoulder at the second EMT.
“This is Brandon Hutton. Remember him from this morning?”
“Hi.” Mary Jo raised her hand and wiggled her fingers.
“How far apart are the pains now?”
“Still three minutes, but they’re lasting much longer.”
Mack turned to the other man. “I think we’d better check her before we transport.”
This was all so embarrassing, but Mary Jo would rather be dealing with Mack than any of her brothers. Mack would be impersonal about it, professional. And, most important of all, he knew what he was doing.
Taking her by the hand, Mack led her into the bedroom. He pulled back the sheets, then covered the bed with towels. Mary Jo lay down on the mattress and closed her eyes.
“Okay,” Mack announced when he’d finished. “You’re fully dilated. You’re about to enter the second phase of labor.”
“What does that mean?”
“Basically, it means we don’t have time to take you to the hospital.”
“Then who’s going to deliver my baby?” she asked, fighting her tears.
“It looks like that’ll be me,” he said calmly.
Mary Jo held out her hand to him and Mack grabbed it in both of his.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” he said with such confidence she couldn’t help believing him. “You can do this. And I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
“Admit it,” Mel taunted, “we’re lost.”
“I said as much thirty minutes ago,” Linc said sharply. He didn’t need his brother to tell him what he already knew.
“We should’ve gotten the Hardings’ phone number,” Ned commented from the backseat.
That was obvious. “You might’ve mentioned it at the time,” Linc snapped. They’d been driving around for almost an hour and he had no idea where they were. Mack McAfee had drawn them a map but it hadn’t helped; somehow they’d gone in the wrong direction and were now completely and utterly lost.
To further complicate matters, a fog had settled in over the area. It seemed they’d run the gamut of Pacific Northwest winter weather, and all within the last eight hours. There’d been sleet and snow, rain and cold. Currently they were driving through a fog so thick he could hardly see the road.
“Read me the directions again,” he said.
Mel flipped on the interior light, which nearly blinded Linc. “Hey, turn that off!”
“I thought you wanted me to read these notes.”
“You don’t need the light,” Ned told him. “I’ve got them memorized.”
“So where are we?” Mel asked.
“You’re asking me?” Linc muttered in frustration.
“Okay, okay.” Mel sighed deeply. “Fighting isn’t going to help us find Mary Jo.”
“You’re right.” Linc pulled over to the side of the road and shifted to face his brothers. “Either of you have any other ideas?”
“We could go to the firehouse and start over,” Mel said.
“Once we’re there, we could get the Hardings’ phone number,” Ned added. “We could call and let Mary Jo know we’re on our way.”
Linc gritted his teeth. “Fine. But have either of you geniuses figured out how to get back to the firehouse?”
“Ah…” Mel glanced at Ned, who shrugged his shoulders.
“I guess we can’t do that because we’re lost.”
“Exactly,” Linc said. “Any other ideas?” He was feeling more helpless and frustrated by the second.
“We could always ask someone,” Ned suggested next.
“Who are we supposed to ask?” Mel cried. “We haven’t seen another car in over half an hour.”
“There was a place down this road,” Ned said in a tentative voice.
Linc stared at him. “Where?”
“You’re sure about that?” Mel didn’t seem to believe him, and Linc wasn’t convinced, either.
“It’s there, trust me.” Ned’s expression, however, did little to inspire Linc’s confidence.
“I remember the name,” his youngest brother said indignantly. “It was called King’s.”
“What kind of place was it?”
Ned apparently needed time to consider this.
“A tavern?” Linc asked.
Ned shook his head.
“A gas-and-go?” Mel offered.
“Could’ve been. There were a bunch of broken-down cars out front.”
Linc didn’t recall any such place. “How come I didn’t see it?” he asked.
“’Cause you were driving.”
That actually made sense. Concentrating on maneuvering down these back roads in the fog, it was all he could do to make sure his truck didn’t end up in a ditch.
“I think I saw it, too,” Mel said a moment later. “The building’s set off the road, isn’t it?”
Ned perked up. “Yes!”
“With tires edging the driveway?”
“That’s the one!”
“Do we have a prayer of finding it again?” Linc asked his brothers.
Ned and Mel exchanged looks. “I think so,” Ned told him.
“Good.” Linc put the pickup back in gear. “Which way?”
“Turn around,” Ned told him.
Linc started down the road, then thought to ask, “Are you sure this King’s place is open?”
“Looked like it to me.”
“Yeah,” Mel concurred. “There were plenty of lights. Not Christmas lights, though. Regular lights.”
Linc drove in silence for several minutes. Both his brothers were focused on finding this joint. Just when the entire trip seemed futile, Linc crested a hill and emerged out of the fog, which made a tremendous difference in visibility. Instantly he breathed easier.
“There!” Ned shouted, pointing down the roadway.
Linc squinted and, sure enough, he saw the business his brothers had been yapping about. Maybe there was some hope, after all.
Linc had no idea how his sister had ended up in the boondocks. He wished she’d stayed in town, but, oh, no, not Mary Jo.
As they neared the building, Linc noticed a sign that said King’s. Linc could see his brother’s point; it was hard to tell exactly what type of business this was. The sign certainly didn’t give any indication. True, there were beat-up old cars out front, so one might assume it was some sort of junk or salvage yard. The building itself was in ill repair; at the very least, it needed a fresh coat of paint. There wasn’t a single Christmas decoration in sight.
However, the Open sign in the window was lit.
Linc walked up to the door, peered in and saw a small restaurant, basically a counter with a few stools, and a convenience store. He went inside and strolled up to the counter, taking a seat. Mel and Ned joined him.
Alarge over weight man wearing a stained white T-shirt and a white apron waddled over to their end of the counter as if he’d been sitting there all day, waiting for them.
“Merry Christmas,” Linc murmured, reaching for the menu.
This guy was in a charming mood.
“Whaddaya want?” the cook asked.
“Coffee for me,” Linc said.
“What’s the special?” Mel asked, looking at a sign on the wall that said, Ask About Our Daily Special.
“Meat loaf, mashed potatoes, corn.”
“If you want to order food, it’s gotta be takeout,” Linc told his brothers, although now that the subject had come up, Linc realized he was hungry, too. Famished, in fact.
“We do takeout,” the cook said, filling Linc’s mug with coffee that had obviously been in the pot far too long. It was black and thick and resembled liquid tar more than coffee.
“Is that fresh?” Linc risked asking.
“Sure is. Made it yesterday.”
Linc pushed the mug away. “We’ll take three meat loaf sandwiches to go,” he said, making a snap decision.
“You want the mashed potatoes with that?”
“Can I have potato chips instead?” Ned inquired.
“Say,” Linc said, leaning back on the stool. “Do you happen to know where the Harding ranch is?”
The cook scowled at him. “Who’s askin’?”
Linc didn’t want to get into long explanations. “A friend.”
Cook nodded. “Cliff’s a…neighbor.”
“He is?” Maybe they were closer than Linc had thought.
“Raises the best horses around these parts.” The cook sounded somewhat grudging as he said this.
Linc knew car engines inside out but didn’t have a clue about horses, and he had no idea how to respond.
Fortunately he didn’t have to. “You fellows interested in buying one of Cliff’s horses?” the old curmudgeon asked.
“Not really.” Linc hoped that wasn’t disappointing news. “We’re, uh, supposed to be meeting our sister, who’s staying at the Harding place.”
“We had directions,” Mel explained.
“But we sort of got turned around.”