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.
“Then I had to rent a car and drive to Santa Rosa to get my truck. Then drive home.”
“Hey!” Beau called from the back porch. “You guys want the horses hitched up?”
Annie sat up again. “No, thank you,” she yelled back. “Can you please go away?”
“You guys making out in the hay?”
“Go away!” they both yelled.
“Jeez.” The back door slammed.
Annie lay back down. “Now, what do you have in mind?” she asked him.
“I had a plan,” he said. “I was going to tell you I love you, then seduce you, put a really nice flush on your cheeks, but I’m not sure I have the strength. I do love you, however. And a little sleep tonight might give me a second wind, so brace yourself.”
She giggled. “I have puppies to deliver,” she informed him.
“Aw, you haven’t done that already? I was so hoping we could just go home and go to bed…...”
“Why don’t I take you home to your house, then you can sleep and I’ll deliver the puppies. I don’t think you should be driving if you can’t roll over.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said, facedown in the hay. “You’ll see. Any second now I’ll perk right up.”
“You love me?” she asked. “What makes you think so?”
He couldn’t roll over, but he looped an arm over her waist and pulled her closer. “You are so under my skin, Annie McKenzie, I’ll never be a free man again. Pretty soon now you’ll probably want to say you love me, too. Hurry up, will you? I’d like to be conscious for it.”
She laughed at him.
“Say it, damn it,” he ordered.
“I love you, too,” she said. “I can’t believe you came back in the same day. Why didn’t you just call? Or come back and tell me you had a miserable time? You could have had your vacation and then told me.”
“Because, Annie—I realized if I stayed away from you, I’d be lonely. No matter how many people were around, I’d feel alone if I wasn’t with you.” He pulled her closer. “I wanted you to know how important it was to me, to be with you. I wanted you to know you were worth a lot of trouble. You aren’t something I can put off till later. You’re not the kind of woman I can send flowers to with a note to say how I feel—you have to be in my arms. I’m not looking for the easy way with you, Annie. I want the forever way. And I don’t think that’s going to ever change. Now can we please deliver the puppies and get some sleep?”
“Sure,” she said, running her fingers through the short hair over his ear. “Merry Christmas, Nathaniel.”
“Merry Christmas, baby. I brought you something. A diamond.”
“You brought me a diamond?” she asked, stunned.
He dug in his pocket and pulled out a plastic diamond about the size of a lime, attached to a key chain. “Our first Christmas Eve together, and I shopped for your present in an airport gift shop. By the way, when I get the real diamond, I don’t think it’s going to be this big.”
She laughed and kissed him. “You will never know how much I like this one.”
“Wanna show me?” he asked, hugging her tight.
“I will,” she promised. “For the next fifty years.”
“Works for me, Annie. I love you like mad.”
“You make my knees wobble,” she said. “Let me take you home so you can start wobbling them some more.”
“My pleasure.” He kissed her with surprising passion for a man dead on his feet. “Let’s go home.”