Contemporary Sweet Romance

Finch's Crossing may be a small town, but when it comes to romance, big things can happen!

Finch's Crossing Books

Excerpt from Autumn

Autumn Cover

Chapter One

If steam really could come out of a person’s ears, Autumn Hamilton would have been a geyser. She was standing at the ­­entrance of the Town and Country Nursery, a yellow chrysanthemum in each hand, scowling as she watched the exchange between her neighbor’s granddaughter and the man who had come not only to take custody of her, but to extricate her from Finch’s Crossing. Five-year-old Heather Christianson, who hadn’t spoken a word since her parents died six weeks earlier, was pointing at a big pumpkin languishing in the field, still attached to the vine. The man, whom Autumn judged to be in his mid-thirties, and probably not too happy to be standing on the edge of a muddy pumpkin patch in his expensive Italian loafers, shook his head no.

 “We’ll get one later when we can come back with Nanna’s truck,” he said, loudly and slowly, the way people do when they are unaccustomed to speaking to children. “We have to buy Nanna’s apples first, remember?” Then he tugged Heather away from the pumpkins toward the pick-your-own orchard beyond. The little girl glanced longingly back over her shoulder at the pumpkins as she tripped along behind him.

Autumn was incredulous. How on earth could anyone deny a pumpkin, such a simple pleasure, to this tragic little girl? This was just another of many reasons why Ethan Fuller, the slick playboy lawyer from New York City, should not have custody of Autumn’s favorite neighbor’s granddaughter.

Shaking her head at the unfairness of it all, Autumn put the chrysanthemums she had purchased in her Jeep and was about to jump in and drive away when she suddenly changed her mind. Heather would have her pumpkin, she decided, and Autumn walked across the parking lot and into the pumpkin patch, not caring that her favorite red cowboy boots were sinking into the mud.

Jack Staub, who had owned the nursery, pumpkin patch, apple orchard, and Christmas tree farm for as long as she could remember, appeared by her side and offered to help her make her selection. Unable to gauge which pumpkin Heather had been enamored with, Autumn noticed a particularly unattractive specimen and spontaneously decided to purchase this mistake of Mother Nature for the man as punishment for his callous disregard of Heather’s simple wish.

“I’ll take that one, please,” she said to Jack, who was just a little surprised to see her make a decision so quickly. Jack had observed that whenever she bought something, she normally returned within a couple of hours—which was enough time for her to go home, arrange her purchases, change her mind, and drive back to the nursery.

“Which one?” Jack sought confirmation, because Autumn was pointing to the biggest, dirtiest, knobbiest pumpkin in the field.

She pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her jeans pocket and had it at the ready.

“You sure?” Jack asked. “It’s kinda lumpy.” He spun it around on its stem and showed her where it was already indented and where the pulp had started to leak out. “Let me at least take it inside and wipe it off for ya.”

“Oh, I’m positive,” she assured him. “And give me that small, cute, smooth, almost-perfect one there, too.” She wiped the little one off on her retro Charlie’s Angels T-shirt.

Autumn grabbed the big ugly pumpkin first, not caring about the dirt that came off onto her jeans, and Jack balanced the smaller one on top, which she held in place with her chin. For reasons Jack didn’t understand, but didn’t question, she insisted on carrying the pumpkins herself. When she exited the pumpkin patch, victoriously stepping into the parking lot, she shook her long dark hair out of her eyes as she surveyed the lot, looking for her target. There were only two cars in addition to her Jeep: an ancient silver Oldsmobile that belonged to Reverend Frye and a flashy, immaculate black Jaguar sedan. She grinned. She had found her target.

It was all she could do to carry her load the twenty yards over to the Jag, the small, perfect pumpkin balanced precariously on top of the ugly one. She set the pumpkins carefully on the ground and tugged on the door handle of the front driver’s side door, but it was locked. Undeterred, she walked around the car and tried the front passenger door. It was open! She walked back around the car, retrieved her big ugly prize, and carried it gingerly over to the open door. She attempted to wedge the freak of nature in between the seats and the dashboard, but of course, it wouldn’t fit. So she just plopped it onto the seat, mud and knots and all. Then she put the small, perfectly rounded pumpkin on top, intended of course, for Heather. Autumn grabbed the seat belt and belted the bulbous orb in good and tight, and when she was convinced it was secure, she shut the door. She spun around and race-walked as fast as she dared toward her Jeep, not wanting to attract attention to herself and trying not to look like someone who had just defiled a stranger’s luxury car.

It was too late. The voice was deep and a lot closer than she expected.

“Hey you!” it boomed behind her.

She kept walking and pretended she didn’t hear him.

“Hey! You. Lady with the big pumpkin,” he said again. “I saw you break into my car with that dirty pumpkin.”

Autumn turned around, laughing, hands on her hips. “Really? Did you just call me a big dirty pumpkin?” This was more fun and excitement than she had had in a long time.

Then she felt two tiny arms wrap themselves around her knees and the weight of a little body sink itself against her legs.

The man was standing in front of her. “I saw you put that pumpkin in my car,” he said angrily. “You can’t deny it.”

She was still laughing. “I won’t,” she said. “Guilty as charged.” And she raised her hands in front of her, crossing her wrists, as if submitting to being handcuffed. “Call out the pumpkin brigade, throw me into the pumpkin patch, and let me serve my time, but first I have to say hello to this little munchkin.”

Autumn went down on her knees so her face was level with Heather’s, and she brushed the girl’s blonde curls back from her face. The sadness in this little angel’s face was heartwrenching. She had known Heather all her life, from the first time her parents brought the tiny bundle to visit her Nanna Martha, and from all the long weekends and birthdays and Christmases since.

Autumn kissed Heather’s forehead and held her little face in her hands. “You okay, kiddo, considering?” she asked.

Heather nodded solemnly then turned to the man and stuck out her tongue at him with considerable enthusiasm, all the while still leaning against Autumn.

Autumn looked up at the man, not at all expecting to be taken in by his handsome features, and considered the flash of anger she had felt toward him for not buying Heather the pumpkin she wanted. His dark, wavy hair was controlled by a close cut, and his angry eyes were just as dark as his hair. He had the glow of health on his face, as if he had just returned from a Caribbean vacation where he played tennis and snorkeled all day. She got a closer look at his expensive, shiny loafers, now caked with dirt, getting secret satisfaction that he would very likely get the rest of his designer clothes dirty hauling the pumpkin out of the car.

She turned back to Heather. “Well, he can’t be that bad. I think he bought you a pumpkin after all.” Autumn grinned up at the handsome, perturbed man, then back at Heather. “It’s in his car. Go look for yourself. Yours is the perfect one on top of the ugly one. The big ugly one’s for him,” she continued, glancing back toward the man.

The little girl began a triumphant sprint toward the Jaguar, stopping to give the man an unexpected, reluctant, and dutiful hug. He seemed surprised as he bent down to hug her back. Autumn refocused on the man who was now holding his hand out to her, ready, apparently, to get down to business.

“I’m Ethan F . . .” he began.

“I know who you are,” she interrupted, rather rudely ignoring his outstretched hand.

He lowered his, but she couldn’t tell how offended, if offended at all, he had been by her refusal to shake. “Then you know I’m an attorney with Morgan, Gladstein, Hi…”

She interrupted again. “Morgan, Gladstein, Hirsch. Yes, I’m well aware of who you are, and more importantly, what you are doing here.” She glanced over at Heather, who had gotten the door to the Jaguar open and was trying to wedge herself into the seat next to the pumpkins. However, she had only succeeded in getting herself and the car’s interior muddy as she squirmed with joy, patting and caressing the pair of pumpkins.

“Well, if you know so much, then you must also know that you have no business interfering with me, or with Heather.” He spoke uncharacteristically haltingly, with the tone of voice he usually reserved for the first-year associates at his law firm, who sometimes needed prodding. He immediately wished he had made his point more judiciously. Less bossy.

There was something about this woman that made him nervous and intrigued him at the same time. He had never in all his years been this unsure in a conversation. One of the strengths that had made him such a successful lawyer was his gift for being an unparalleled conversationalist. He could talk confidently with anyone—CEOs, the richest of the rich, famous people from every walk of life, anybody, really, from any walk of life. But this woman’s boldness took him by surprise. It made her different for some reason, and he wondered if he would have the chance to find out why.

“Who said anything about interfering?” she asked mischievously. “I’m just trying to pay it forward, spreading the love, delivering gifts and goodwill to my fellow man. Just think of me as the Finch’s Crossing welcome wagon.”

“Uh, huh,” he said. “I could use a little less of your goodwill. And it looks like you could, too.” He pointed at the front of her Charlie’s Angels T-shirt, which was now covered in dirt with a large smear of orange pumpkin guts clearly visible.

Oh crud, the first new, young, handsome, successful man Finch’s Crossing had seen in about two decades and she’d already trashed her clothes in front of him. He must have thought she was such a country bumpkin. Pumpkin bumpkin, she thought to herself, almost laughing out loud. Oh well. He was the enemy, after all, swooping in to take Heather away from her grandmother.

“I don’t see what’s so funny,” he demanded of her and crossed his arms over his chest.

She did the only thing she could think of, which was to repay his initial attempt to shake hands by now offering her hand to him. He hesitated, but reached out and surprisingly, warmly took her hand. He didn’t shake her hand—he just held it for a second.

“Nice to meet you, Ethan Fuller,” she said, smiling, and he let go of her hand. “I’m Autumn Hamilton, Martha’s neighbor.” She turned to walk back to her Jeep before he could offer a response. The conversation was clearly over.

He wished now he had said more, had engaged her. What did she do? Was she married? What was her story? Compared to every other stranger he had ever spoken to, this one had practically rendered him tongue-tied.

After he watched her stroll across the gravel parking lot and slide into her Jeep, he whispered her name to himself, barely audible. “Autumn Hamilton.” Something about the feel of her name on his lips gave Ethan a little shudder. He didn’t know whether to feel good about meeting her, or to be afraid of her. Something told him it should be a little bit of both.

As she drove away, Autumn flashed on an image of Ethan Fuller, in his khaki pants with their razor-sharp creases, dragging the ugly pumpkin from his car onto Martha’s front porch, orange pumpkin goop dripping onto his loafers and silk shirt. Maybe even getting into his hair if he slipped on the gravel. Then she stuck out her tongue, as Heather had done just a few minutes earlier, and collapsed into schoolgirl giggles. It felt good to laugh. It had been a long time. But her happiness disappeared quickly, as it always did. She could only keep up the façade for so long.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Ethan stared after the annoying, presumptuous, gorgeous, pumpkin-giving woman as she drove away. What had just happened? He had been pranked and disrespected and made to feel like a shy schoolboy by a woman in a dirty Charlie’s Angels T-shirt, denim jacket, and muddy red cowboy boots. And somehow, contrary to his usual temperament, this really hadn’t bothered him at all.

He stood beside the Jaguar and thought his head might explode as he became aware of Heather pounding the world’s ugliest pumpkin with the keys on his key ring. She managed to penetrate the skin and send orangish liquid spewing across the kid leather interior of his car. She was a sly one, that Heather, and he was going to have to watch her closely. That hug she had given him a few minutes ago had been a ruse, totally staged to get his car keys out of his hand. In another life he firmly believed she had been a pickpocket. He patted his pants pockets to make sure she hadn’t lifted his phone or wallet.

This difficult process of integrating Heather into his life, and he into hers, was not getting any easier, he thought to himself. But things would be different soon. By dinnertime tomorrow he and Heather would be in his penthouse in New York City for a brief “get-to-know-you” visit before she moved in permanently. His turf, his rules. It was the psychologist’s suggestion that they ease her into her new life slowly. Soon, he told himself, relieved, his life would return to some semblance of normal, or what he had come to think of as his “new normal.” He was still the ultra-successful trial lawyer with a luxury lifestyle and a gorgeous, incredibly successful girlfriend, Ellen O’Brien. Only now he would have a five-year-old girl in tow. How hard could it be?

As Heather went in for another chunk of pumpkin, Ethan sprang into action. “C’mon, Heather,” he said, holding out his hand, forcing a smile that came across mostly as a grimace. “Your grandmother will be wondering what happened to us. She wanted to make you an apple pie for tonight, remember?”

Heather ignored his outstretched hand and, leaving his car keys next to the wounded pumpkin, crawled into the back to buckle herself into the child safety seat Martha had insisted he use every time Heather was in the car. The seat left indentations on the leather seats, and that made him crazy. He couldn’t help but notice that Heather had now transferred mud and pumpkin goop onto the backseat of the car as well. He watched, screaming inside, as she wiped her hands on the back of the passenger seat. He put the bag of apples next to her and tried to kiss her on the cheek, but she pulled away from him and crossed her arms over her chest. At least she’d stopped hitting him, he told himself, as he slipped behind the wheel and pointed the Jaguar back toward Martha’s.

He glanced over at the pumpkin again and couldn’t help but smile and think about Autumn Hamilton, who had, for whatever reason, taken it upon herself to trash the inside of his car with this horribly disfigured gourd. It was sinking in just how gorgeous she was. He had never seen such pure porcelain coloring, made all the more remarkable in contrast to her long dark hair and shining azure eyes. As his mind wandered to how she looked in her form-fitting jeans, he suddenly remembered Ellen. Long, cool Ellen, who was waiting for him, somewhat impatiently, back in New York.

As they drove home, Ethan tried to talk with Heather, knowing it would be a one-way conversation. It didn’t matter. The psychologist had said Heather would start talking when she was ready. The worst thing he could do was ignore her. And he wasn’t supposed to ask questions or try to trick her into speaking.

“So, Heather,” he began, attempting to catch her eyes in the rearview mirror. “I think you like Autumn. It was nice of her to give us this butt-ugly pumpkin.” He reviewed what he had just said, trying to make sure it was a statement and not a question.

He saw Heather slide her eyes up to meet his in the mirror then abruptly look away.

“I guess that she must be nice if she gave us these pumpkins.” He really didn’t quite believe that statement, but was just trying to move the one-sided conversation along.

Again, the eyes slid into view, lingering on his a little longer this time, then disappeared. It was something, and he would take it. As recently as yesterday, when he spoke to her in the car she wouldn’t even look at him in the rearview mirror.

His cell phone rang, and he took the call, despite Heather’s disapproving sigh. It was the office. He had already been gone for a week. Some of his cases had to be reassigned, and clients were getting impatient. If he weren’t a partner, he probably would have been fired by now.

“Barry,” he answered more cheerfully than he felt. “How are you, buddy?” He had Barry on speaker, just in case. He couldn’t remember if Pennsylvania was a hands-free state.

“Don’t ‘how are you, buddy’ me, Ethan. Where the heck are you? I need your rear end back here right now.”

Realizing immediately that Heather should not be exposed to Barry’s anger and resentment, Ethan quickly grabbed his phone so he could take Barry Armstrong, one of the senior partners, off speaker. Lesson learned. Nobody on speaker when he was with Heather, just to be safe. Heather didn’t need to hear all that. Then he fumbled the phone onto the floor and swerved slightly as he pulled it back within arm’s reach with his foot.

“Sorry, Barry, ah, lost the signal for a minute. Can you hear me now?”

As Barry raged on Ethan saw the state trooper pass him, glancing at him as he drove by, then slowing and falling in behind him. Then the siren came on. So, Pennsylvania was a hands-free cell phone state.

Ethan pulled over to the shoulder and allowed himself one “dammit” and one restrained fist bang on the steering wheel. He glanced up at the rearview mirror to apologize to Heather for swearing and saw the flickering of a brief smile, actually more of a self-satisfied smirk, apparently at his expense.

 After the state trooper graciously released him with a stern, well-rehearsed warning, Ethan tried to talk himself down off the ledge that he seemed to have stepped out onto three weeks ago. Or rather, that he had been forced onto.

He had been devastated to hear of the death of his two dearest friends. He and Troy had been roommates at West Point and had served together in Afghanistan. After he left the Army, Ethan went to law school. Troy stayed in and climbed the military ranks, marrying Denise along the way. Despite their different career paths, they would always be soldier-brothers with a bond that only those who have served together, especially in combat, could understand.

Ethan and Ellen had attended Denise and Troy’s funeral in Finch’s Crossing and were getting ready to leave when an elderly gentleman had whispered something into Ethan’s ear. Ethan had followed the gentlemen back to his office, after suggesting that Ellen go back to New York, when he was told the conversation might result in him staying in the area for a few days.

Ethan had been stunned to learn that Troy and Denise had designated him as their daughter’s guardian in the event of their deaths. But he understood because of what he and Troy had been through together. Ethan could, of course, have relinquished guardianship. That was not unusual and fairly easy to do. And Heather’s grandmother was a natural choice to raise the little girl. Troy was an only child, so there were no aunts or uncles on his side to step in. Denise had a brother, but he was a Marine and spent much of his time deployed. In many ways, Ethan was an understandable choice, even though no one—not Martha, not Ellen, and not even the lawyer—would ever understand. He was the logical choice, except for just one thing. He knew nothing about how to raise a little girl.

Yes, his life would be forever changed from this point forward, but he could not in good conscience dishonor his friend’s request to raise his child. He could see how some might think Heather’s parents’ choice was crazy and illogical. But Ethan had made his decision, and as was his way, he would stick with it, no matter what. But it was time to get on with it. It was time to go back to New York, with Heather, and resume his life.

By the time they pulled into Martha’s driveway, Ethan had calmed down from his encounter with law enforcement. He was usually the guy making the officers sweat on the witness stand. He supposed it was just karma that this time he was in the hot seat, though he had been let off with a stern warning. He guessed that the conscious respect he always afforded officers—even when he knew they were not worthy of it—had something to do with the trooper going easy on him.

He unbuckled his seatbelt and turned in his seat to look back at Heather, ready to give her a warm smile and crack another joke about the pumpkins. Heather stuck her tongue out at him, again, unbuckled herself from the child safety seat, and was inside the house before he could even remind her to take the bag of apples in to her grandmother.

***

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, the 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, and knowing she had to be strong for her granddaughter did in fact make Martha stronger—stronger, in many ways, than she had ever felt, even though she had lived some seventy-two years.

Even before the funeral Martha had begun to plan for Heather’s permanent move into her house, getting Denise’s old bedroom ready with a thorough cleaning, new curtains, and clean sheets on the bed. She would keep Heather out of kindergarten for a while, and she’d have to find out what types of food Heather liked. Things had changed a lot since she raised her own children. There were so many choices of cereals and snack foods and drinks these days. It was overwhelming.

Adam Frick, Finch’s Crossing’s only lawyer, had asked Martha to come to his office after the funeral, without Heather. She had protested at first, reminding him that Heather was still in shock and hadn’t said a word since the accident. “I need to be there for her,” she had said.

“It’s important,” he had replied emphatically, and so Martha had asked her neighbor, Autumn, to watch Heather for a few hours.

She and Ethan Fuller, one of Troy’s friends she had only met briefly a few times, sat in front of Adam’s desk. They both watched as the lawyer unfolded some papers and began to speak, telling her that she would not be Heather’s guardian. She thought it must be a bad dream.

“That’s impossible!” she cried, at the same time that Ethan said, “Oh my gracious. Are you sure?”

“I’m afraid it’s true,” Adam said solemnly, knowing neither of the two sitting in front of him quite believed him. “After Heather was born Denise and Troy came to my office and asked me to draw up their wills, and they were very specific about their intentions. In the event that anything happened to both of them, Ethan was to act as Heather’s guardian.”

“But, why?” Martha pleaded, her voice shaking. “Did they leave a letter for us explaining their decision? I don’t understand!”

Adam shook his head. “I’m sorry, Martha. And there’s nothing I can do to change this. Their wills are airtight.” He paused and then looked at Ethan. “Unless Mr. Fuller decides to give up guardianship and transfer it to you, which he has every right to do.”

Ethan was shaking his head, and Martha couldn’t tell if he was in shock or if he was indicating that he wouldn’t give up custody. In fact, he was shaking his head in disbelief and to say he would not shirk his duty to Troy and would honor his wishes and assume guardianship of Heather.

Martha and Adam looked at him expectantly, and he lifted his head to meet their eyes.

“If Troy and Denise asked me to look after Heather, which apparently they did, I have no choice but to honor that wish. I am not sure why they did, but they must have had their reasons for choosing me.”

Ethan continued, talking to Adam, but glancing sideways the whole time toward Martha. “This is a shock to me, too. But what am I supposed to do? I simply cannot not do this. Troy was my very best friend, and he has made this request of me.”

He turned back to Martha. “I can only imagine how much this hurts you, how you must feel that this makes no sense,” he said gently.

“You have no idea how much this hurts me,” Martha snapped. “First I lose my daughter, and now you are going to take my only grandchild away from me. You’ll be too busy in New York to look after her properly, and she’ll be away from the people she knows and loves. This is just wrong.”

“Martha,” he said gently. “I’m not taking Heather—she was entrusted into my care by your daughter and son-in-law. For whatever reason, they wanted her to be my responsibility. And I’m not going to vanish with her. New York is only a few hours away. I will make sure you see her a lot. I promise. I know how much Heather loves you. I know how much you love Heather.” Ethan had no idea if what he was saying were in fact the right things to say. How could anyone know how to react in a situation like this?

Now, looking out the front window at Ethan hefting a gigantic, misshapen pumpkin out of his Jaguar, getting dirt and pumpkin juice all over his car and his clothes, Martha’s rage at him for refusing to relinquish guardianship of Heather, and her disbelief that Troy and her only daughter Denise had not trusted her to raise Heather, dissolved into general sadness and disappointment. And fear for Heather. Genuine fear. Heather obviously didn’t like Ethan in the least. She shot him dagger looks at every possible opportunity. But Ethan had engaged a child psychologist near Finch’s Crossing, whom he, Heather, and Martha had seen four times now, and he had another counselor lined up for when they returned together to New York City. He had hired a nanny and enrolled Heather in a private school near his apartment. She sensed that his meticulous planning and his logical approach to problems and decisions had helped make him one of New York’s most successful trial lawyers. But none of that would help him raise a devastated little girl. She grudgingly admitted to herself that he was doing all the right things and taking the situation very seriously. Martha just wished she could understand why he was doing this to them, why he hadn’t relinquished custody. That would have been the most logical thing to do, the kindest thing to do, the only reasonable thing to do. Family belonged with family. Heather belonged with her.

Martha was grateful that Ethan had let Heather stay with her as he tried to figure out how to arrange, or more accurately, rearrange, his life to accommodate the little girl. But now he was back to take Heather away from her for the first time, for a long-weekend to acclimate her, and him, before she made the permanent move. Martha desperately hoped that in time he would come to his senses and change his mind.

 

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