Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Romance: Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 9

Continued from part 8, or you can start from the beginning.

John Pease turned up at the farm three days later, dressed in flannel, denim, and work boots. Walt heard footsteps down the barn’s wide center floor and stuck his head out of a stall he’d been clearing out.

“Walt?”

“Hey, John. C’mon back.”

“What’s goin’ on?”

“Murph’s out in the east pasture bringing one of the girls back. Doc Sutton is stopping by later to take a look at her.”

John leaned against the stall’s half-wall. “Do I want to know?”

“How’d’you feel about udders?”

“Bovine?” John grinned. “Not so much.”

Walt chuckled. “You here to work?”

“If you can put me to use.” John cast around the barn as if looking for inspiration.

“I’m walking the fence line by the Swift’s place this afternoon. I wouldn’t say no to company and an extra pair of hands.”

“Sounds great.”

Murph came around the side of barn door, leading one of the dairy’s sweet-faced Brown Swiss. They were his mother’s favorites—gentle girls with furry ears his mother loved to stroke as she crooned over them. His mom hadn’t been back once since the day after the funeral, when his cousins George and Charlie had come by to help move her things to Aunt Yolie’s house.

He ought to insist she and Aunt Yolie come out to the farm for Sunday dinner.

Who would cook dinner? He was pretty competent at the grill, but he’d stocked the freezer with an embarrassment of TV dinners since his mom left. He couldn’t make a turkey or a ham to save his life.

Who would eat it, anyway? His Pop’s had been the biggest appetite. For everything.

Molly and her lasagna flooded his thoughts. Slow down there, Fuller.

“Walt?” John was watching him, a mixture of pity and concern in his eyes.

Walt blinked. “Sorry, thinking about the vet bill.”

“Bullshit.” John’s tone was conversational. “I wish you were thinking about Molly Sanders, not something that makes you look like a kicked dog.”

John’s uncanny question caught Walt off guard. “What about her?”

“She’s pretty, and she likes you.”

His friend’s words unleashed butterflies in his gut. “Is that your law degree talking?”

“That’s my eyes talking.” John clapped Walt on the shoulder. “I don’t get my law degree until spring. You like her, too, if I still know you. Let’s take a walk and you can tell me what that’s about.”

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Romance: Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 8

Continued from part 7, or you can start from the beginning.

He didn’t say much, but Molly watched the way his smile played coy with his face when he snuck glances at her. Walt Fuller’s eyes might be windows to an old soul, but the fireflies in her belly flocked to the light that flickered in them when he got out of his truck in the dooryard.

“See that break in the fence ahead?” she said. “Take that. It Randy said we’re meeting up at the mill.”

Walt nodded, slowing the truck and turning onto the dirt road. They bumped down the frost-heaved tractor road that wound from Route 7 around the orchards to the abandoned mill, Molly wondering if he was thinking about the crackling atmosphere between them. Once the tidy rows of bare trees were behind them, she could see the glow of the bonfire through the woods beyond. A scattering of vehicles met them around a bend, and Walt stopped the truck.

He let out a long breath and pulled the key from the ignition. Molly touched his shoulder.

“Come on, let’s go.”

She paused for a beat when he let himself out of the truck. He’d surprised her, closing her door in her parents’ driveway; she wondered if he’d come around to get the door for her.

Her patience was rewarded. Walt opened the passenger door and offered her a hand. With her feet firmly on the ground, Molly looped her arm through his and led him towards the fire pit.

A chorus of greeting rose up from the knot of people around the already blazing fire. Molly felt Walt hesitate and squeezed his arm.

“Walt! Hey, man.” Randy Strickland got up from the log he’d been perched on. “Hey, Molls.”

“Hi, Randy. Thanks for the invite. Nice night for it.”

“Cold night for it.” Walt reached out a hand, the two men shook hands. “Been a while.”

“Yeah,” Randy laughed. “Think the last time I saw you, we were out at your place for a party. Summertime?”

“My mom’s fiftieth.” Walt filled in the information.

Randy’s grin sank. “Sorry about your old man. My folks didn’t mention it until I got back from school.”

“Thanks.”

Molly snugged his arm against her to ward off the sadness she knew kept him company.

“There’s beer in the cooler over there.” Randy gestured at the circle around the fire. “Grab a seat.”

A girl with a wheat colored braid hanging down over one shoulder was playing a guitar and singing, with help from a couple nearby. There was space on a picnic table across the clearing.

Molly slid her hand along his arm, twining their fingers where they met. “Want to grab a couple of beers? I’ll grab some seats.”

Walt nodded, and made his way to the cooler on the tailgate of another pickup. He met her at the picnic table with two bottles of Labatt’s. Molly leaned against him when he sat, enjoying the way her head fit in the crook of his shoulder.

More cars and trucks filled in the makeshift parking, and the crowd around the fire grew. Someone left their car running, providing more music when the guitar-playing girl’s fingers got too cold.

Cora Atkinson and her tall, dark-haired date joined them. “Molly! I didn’t know you’d be here. You know John, right?”

“Hey, John,” Molly said. “John Pease, Walt Fuller.”

Walt’s posture shifted, she felt him relax. “We know each other.”

“Just a bit.” John dropped down next to Walt with an easy grin. “How’s the farm?”

Cora sat on Molly’s other side. “John’s parents live next door to the Cartwrights.”

Molly tilted her head, squinting at her friend.

“Walt’s Aunt Yolie?” Cora prompted her. “Walt’s mom moved in with her sister after Jed Fuller died.”

Cora went on, but Molly wasn’t listening. Next to her, Walt was deep in conversation with Cora’s boyfriend, more at ease than she’d seen seen him yet. His father hadn’t been gone a month, his mother had decamped to her sister’s—she knew from Janey that his sister and brother weren’t nearby.

No wonder he was so solemn, with only cows for company.

She leaned into him a little more, the layers of clothing between them warming from the contact. In wordless answer, Walt’s hand pressed against hers. A quiet gesture, but Molly’s heart felt it just the same.

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Romance: Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 7

Continued from part 6, or you can start from the beginning.

Walt had no idea how to dress for a bonfire at Randy Strickland’s parents’ farm, but he’d missed Molly enough during her remaining weeks in Saratoga Springs to say yes to going with her before thinking it all the way through. He knew Randy and his older sister Charlene; farm families were like that. Randy was a few years younger than he was, enough so they hadn’t been in school together. The Stricklands had a few dairy cows, goats, pigs, and chickens, but their main enterprise was found in acres and acres of Liberty and Northern Spy apples.

He zipped a sweatshirt over a Thornton Union High School t-shirt and laced up his cleanest pair of work boots, hoping they was the right thing to wear to a bonfire with Molly Sanders. By the time he made it out to his truck, he was glad of the parka, hat, and mittens he’d grabbed on the way out the door.

As he drove away, Walt realized he hadn’t left the farm—or interacted with anyone save Murph, the farm hand who was nearly as old as his father—in three days.

As old as his father had been.

The mental correction caught in his throat. Generally, he’d been content to get up early with the herd, see to their needs, spend the day marking off the never-ending list of chores the farm required, but he missed his Pop.

Anxiety rode shotgun on the drive south through town. What if he was making too much of Molly’s payphone calls from her dorm? What if he was making too much of kisses and Christmas trees and a lightness that warmed his grieving heart?

Molly Sanders was sitting on her parents’ front porch steps in the same bell-bottom jeans she’d been wearing the day they met. He noted boots and her pompom hat. Down vest, wool sweater, scarf. Desire shot through him, burning away the jitters. Before Molly, he’d dated a couple of girls in high school, but the farm was a demanding mistress. What this girl did to his insides was new.

She stood when he eased the truck in behind the Ford station wagon he now knew was her father’s. He liked the way her body filled out the ski sweater and vest, but more he liked her wide, easy smile, the dusting of freckles on her nose, and the laughter in her eyes.

“You’re on time,” she said as he jumped down from the truck cab to meet her.

The darkness outside the pool of light from a lamp over the Sanders’ garage was deep and cold. Walt could have stayed in that amber-white puddle of light forever, but his date had other ideas. She stretched up and kissed his cheek. “I like on time.”

He led her to the truck, and Molly Sanders climbed into the passenger seat like she’d been doing it all her life. He closed her door, and took the long way behind the truck bed, stopping to consider the way the flat flood light through the windshield turned her cinnamon curls into a halo.

His sister was right. He was a goner.

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Romance: Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 6

Continued from part 5, or you can start from the beginning.

Molly checked the laundry hamper twice before she loaded it into her dad’s station wagon. A carton of raw cranberries, a paper bag of popcorn, thread and needle pinched from her mom’s sewing box, some bittersweet and holly from the wild tangle of shrubs on their property line, and a Bing Crosby Christmas record. Molly wasn’t sure how Walt felt about music, but you couldn’t go wrong with Bing Crosby.

The moon was a low, snow-white crescent in a deep sky over the valley as she drove west out of town. Darkness came early in December, but the radio station out of Plattsburg was playing Christmas carols, and Molly sang along with enough gusto to hide her lackluster singing voice—and her twanging nerves.

It was five-fifty-five on the dot when she turned into the driveway at the Fuller’s farm. The dairy barn hulked in its own shadow, and the pastures rolled away into the night, a study in lonesome moonlight and snow. The house, in contrast, was lit up from within with a warm, steady light that brought an involuntary smile to her face. She stopped the car on the gravel and cut the headlights—just in time to realize Walt was up a ladder, leaning into the front gable, long cords of colored lights dangling from the ladder and a hammer slung from his hammer loop.

“Be right down,” he hollered.

Molly stood in the driveway, arms wrapped around her chest against the cold, while Walt put a nail in the peak of the gable, and hauled the lights into place along the roofline.

He climbed down, leaving the ladder in place, and crossed the front yard, chafing his gloved hands together. “Want to help me light it up?”

“Yeah.”

He led her to the outlet on the outside of the wall, tucked behind a rhododendron in the front garden and handed her the plug. She wondered if he felt the zing of an altogether different kind of electricity when her mittened fingers touched his bare ones.

The lights brought the house to cheerful life, and Molly clapped. “It looks great.”

“So,” Walt said, face alight with pleasure, “what’s the big surprise?”

“We’re going to make a popcorn garland for your tree.”

Walt carried her laundry hamper of supplies inside. Molly followed, shucking her coat and shoes by the door. Walt glanced at her sock feet.

Molly wiggled her rag-toe. “Keeps the dirt out. I might be a messy packer, but I hate dirty floors.”

He was a tidy bachelor, she thought, but whether that was due to natural inclination or lack of opportunity to make a mess, she couldn’t be sure. The wood stove was going in the parlor, and Walt set her basket down by the sofa. “I don’t have much, but I’ve got some Schaefer in the fridge.”

Molly opened the gingham tablecloth she’d wrapped around her offerings. “That’s not very festive. I brought hot chocolate.” She pulled out a large green Thermos, set it down on the coffee table, then dug back into the basket. After a brief search, she brandished a fifth of peppermint schnapps. “With a kick.”

“You’ve got a regular picnic in there,” Walt remarked, looking over her shoulder at the cranberries, the popcorn, and a foil-wrapped baking dish. “Is that a lasagna?”

“It’s my specialty.” Molly pulled out the popcorn and cranberries, then tucked the tablecloth around the dish. “It just needs to warm up. We can put it in when we get hungry.”

“Molly?”

“Or I can put it in now.” She pulled back one corner of the cloth.

“Molly.”

Walt’s voice had gone hoarse. In the same motion she turned and began to stand while he clasped her arm and tugged. She stumbled into his embrace. He wasn’t too tall; she liked where she fit into his body. “I’d really like to kiss you.”

His arms snugged around her and she rested her forehead against his nose, their breath mingling. “You definitely should.”

As first kisses went, Molly thought, it wasn’t so bad. If their teeth clinked and she giggled, if she wasn’t sure what to do with her hands, it didn’t matter. He tasted like mint, and when she didn’t shy away, his lips slanted against hers, and the oxygen in the room went hot.

They kissed, openmouthed, unbothered by awkward hands, for a brief eternity. Full darkness filled in the shadows around the farmhouse, leaving them cocooned in warmth and light.

Molly caught her breath before it whooshed out in a nervous laugh. “We should heat up that lasagna.”

Walt pushed his hands into his pockets. “How ‘bout I go bring in the tree and the stand?”

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Romance: Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 5

Continued from part 4, or you can start from the beginning.

Saturdays meant Murph’s day off. Walt hadn’t thought about that in the heady rush of Molly Sanders’ call, which was how he found himself driving into the village mid-afternoon to drop off his cousin Rosie.

She hopped out of the truck with a wave, brandishing her wages for a morning’s work with the herd. “Thank for the ride, Walt.  And the cash.”

Thornton was dressed up for Christmas, garlanded and ribboned, piled with two storms’ worth of snow. He hadn’t given much thought to the holiday. Despite Patty’s insistence that he get a tree, it was easier, out in the quiet valley, to shove aside the idea of Christmas Eve without his parents. Years of carol singing while his Pop played his fiddle, of recitations of ’A Visit from St. Nicholas by the youngest reader—a position Walt had been happy to cede to Patty’s kids a few years back—erased in one shattering morning. His family had fallen apart, and Walt wasn’t sure where he’d fit when it put itself back together again.

The tree he’d cut was out in the barn in a bucket of water. Waiting for Molly’s arrival.

Walt pulled the truck over and got out, leaving the keys in it. The river was half-frozen, singing under the ice and warbling over the falls. The window display at the Ben Franklin wished him a Merry Christmas, the cheery bell inside the door welcomed him. Three steps inside the store, he found a pyramid of outdoor lights.

Flo, who worked the register, insisted on a paper bag for his purchases, and a candy cane for his pocket, as though he were still the child who’d come in for a candy bar on Sundays after church. He was still shaking his head when he very nearly collided with Molly on the sidewalk outside.

“Walt!” Her smile was dazzling. “Hey.”

“Morning.” Morning? Walt took a breath and started again. “Hi, Molly.”

“How are you?”

It was a question he’d heard from everyone who’d spoken to him since his father’s passing, one he’d responded to with an, “Okay, I guess,” to deflect actual consideration of how he felt. He figured most people didn’t really want to know. Somehow, from Molly’s lips the words didn’t seem like a pleasantry. It didn’t seem to matter that he barely knew this girl at all.

“Been better, but I’m looking forward to seeing you later.”

“I can’t imagine,” she said, sympathy shining in her eyes. “But I’m looking forward to it, too.”

They stood on the sidewalk in the clear December sunlight for four heartbeats—Walt counted them as they thundered in his chest—before Molly laughed.

“I have to get home. I promised my mom I’d pick up a few things while I was in town.”

“Oh, sure,” Walt said. His hand in his pocket crinkled the wrapping of the candy cane. “Do you like candy canes?”

Molly’s head tilted curiously. “Yeah.”

He produced the candy cane in his palm, feeling suddenly foolish. He really had no idea what he was doing.

“You’re sweet.” She took the cane from his palm; maybe he imagined her chilly fingers lingering there a moment.

He’d missed casual affection in the last couple of weeks. He did okay on his own, but his parents had been—his mother still was—an affectionate woman. Molly had just crossed the street and Walt drank in the way she looked, the icy spray from the falls billowing up behind her as she crossed the bridge.

“Molly!” She stopped, turning back. “Let me walk you to your car.”

Walt jogged across Main Street to join her.

“You don’t have to. I’m just parked there by the library.” She shifted the bag she was carrying to her other arm. “But I won’t say no.”

Walt shrugged and fell into step with her for less than half a block.

“This is me,” she said, stopping in front of a parked station wagon. They shuffled the bags between the two of them getting the doors open. Walt closed the car door for her, but not before he noticed a stack of travel guides stacked up on the seat.

He wondered how soon she was leaving. He imagined her with a crew of college kids like herself, shuffling on and off trains with huge packs and tourist maps.

She touched his arm, drawing him out of his reverie. “See you around six.”

To be continued…