It had felt good putting his restless muscles to work but Rennie was glad for the lunch break. Seeing Marge and Lila finally return from the diner with lunch was a welcome sight indeed. While his daily runs had allowed him to stay in shape (not to mention sane), they unfortunately had not prepared him for this kind of physical exertion. He definitely was not cut out to be a lumberjack. Well, at least not every day, anyway.
Sitting on the tailgate of his truck with his legs dangling off, he smiled to himself as he took another large swallow of iced tea. At least he was faring a good deal better than Grant and Henry. The two of them were opposite him over on the front stoop, breathing heavily and sweating profusely. And they would have been in far worse shape, had Marge and Henry’s son, Rance – who was now over at the church taking a look at the bell tower – not shown up. He may have struggled physically, what with his new below-the-knee prosthetic and all, but his training as an army engineer sure came in handy.
Rennie definitely had to hand it to the three them. They’d been working hard both on the top of the maple and on the damage it did inside the house. In addition to that, it was getting hot in there, what with the power still being out and the summer sun continuing to rise in the clear blue sky. At least the portable generator he’d brought was able to power some fans while they worked, in addition to the refrigerator and their power tools. Fortunately, all that was left for them to do, now that the tree had been removed, was to temporarily patch the holes to keep out the weather and critters – which shouldn’t take too terribly long.
Rennie, meanwhile, had been working on the outside and was glad for Josie’s suggestion of sunscreen. Since they still had the big oak leaning on the garage to do, it was most likely they’d be working out in the sun all day. And it definitely wouldn’t do for either of them to get charbroiled in the process. Josie had been a trooper, though, cleaning up debris and pulling away branches as Rennie lopped them off with the chainsaw. At times, it was tough to concentrate with her so near. But then he reminded himself of the very dangerous and deadly tool in his hands and he was back focused again.
He let out a deep sigh and set the empty glass on the tailgate next to him. “How did my life suddenly get so complicated?” he wondered to himself. Twenty-four hours ago, his immediate future was clearly laid out before him. Get to Nashville. Move into the apartment above his sister and brother-in-law’s garage—at least temporarily. Spend the summer getting settled and vying for visitation rights in the divorce settlement. Once fall came, it would be back to the classroom to finish his doctoral work at Vanderbilt with, perhaps, a little studio session work along the way.
“Nowhere in that plan was there mention of a raven-haired beauty with striking blue eyes and a mesmerizing smile,” was his amused thought, as he watched the object of that very thought walk past him and into the house. “In addition to a soon-to-be ex-wife,” he reminded himself, “I now have a girlfriend.” He simply shook his head. The first he’d seen coming for well over a year now, but the second was going to take a bit to get used to. “And what’s Izzy going to say when I tell her about all this?” Rennie chuckled. He had to admit, though; it felt good to actually be wanted for a change.
The energetic whine of an approaching four-wheeler, however, disturbed his contemplation like a pesky mosquito hovering near the ear. Turning his head, he watched as the ATV pulled up and its slim rider hopped off and walked toward the house. Rennie knew who it was right away, her red hair being a total giveaway – though it had been a few years since he’d last seen her. She had to be ... what ... twenty, twenty one now? Rennie slipped off the tailgate and stood up. The young lady’s eyes lit up and her face broke out in a huge smile when she saw him.
“Ren!” she cried out, as she sprinted over and wrapped her arms around him in a spirited hug, not unlike her father.
“Oof,” he grunted and then chuckled. “It’s good to see you, too, Megan.”
Grant looked up just in time to see a rather attractive young lady in jeans and a tank top dismounting an ATV right in front of the house. He surmised from the striking red hair and fair skin with a good deal of charming freckles, that this was likely a daughter of the local preacher. Oddly enough, Grant was not the least bit surprised to see her eyes widen in delight when they fell upon Rennie’s frame, nor when she called out to him familiarly by the name Ren, instead of Andy. Even her giving the guy a passionate hug, like she’d known him for years, did not faze Grant one bit.
“Nope,” he reasoned to himself, glancing over as the two of them began to talk. “After the last twenty-four hours, I don’t suppose there is much of anything that could surprise me right now.” Though he was curious how Rennie knew someone here in St. John – especially such a pretty someone – for a guy just passing through.
Before too long, Grant heard footsteps at the door behind him and could see slender legs clad in denim come to a standstill on the stoop next to him. Tilting his head back, his lips slowly spread out in a wide grin. “This should be interesting,” he murmured, as he peered up at a rather sour looking Josie with her arms folded firmly across her chest.
“Yep,” he repeated to Henry, as Josie briskly made her way to Rennie’s side. “This should be real interesting.”
Henry just nodded, a mischievous glint in his eye and a knowing smile on his lips.
Josie’s eyes narrowed and her lips pressed together without realizing it. Likewise, her arms instinctively crossed in front of her.
“Who is she?”
Of course, Josie didn’t actually ask that out loud. One look at the girl and Josie could tell she was an O’Malley. No, what Josie wanted to know was: who was this girl to Rennie? She just didn’t want to seem like the jealous psycho girlfriend in the process, even though every fiber of her being was screaming at her to be that very thing. It was an odd, intense feeling, one she had never experienced to this degree before. But this O’Malley girl was being way too friendly with her Rennie. The blissful look of infatuation on her face, the frequent familiar touches, her standing so close and laughing so coyly.
“Oh, no,” Josie determined resolutely, “this has got to stop!” With that, she marched down the front steps and across the yard to them, fixing on her face a bright, cheery smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
As she approached the pair, though, Josie started to catch snippets of their conversation. Apparently, the two of them had been talking about Rennie’s oldest, Katie, which naturally brought up Helen and the matter of the impending divorce. The attractive young redhead was expressing her sympathy when she visibly noticed Josie walking up. Their eyes met over Rennie’s shoulder. And in them, Josie could see a look of curiosity change rapidly to one of concern and then sadness as the determined brunette took her place at her man’s side, placing her hand possessively in the small of his back.
The light in Rennie’s brown eyes, however, and the lopsided grin he gave her, as he placed his right arm around her, scattered her worries and insecurities to the wind like a child with a dandelion gone to seed. Whatever her problems with guys in the past – the constant games, the fooling around, and all the crap – Josie instinctively knew they wouldn’t be repeated with him. Rennie was so different from the usual cast of clowns she attracted, not to mention light years away from that idiot Jimmy. And why Helen decided to play “catch and release” with him, was a choice she would never understand. She was thankful for it, though. He was the real deal and he was a keeper.
Suddenly Josie had a measure of genuine sympathy for the pretty redhead watching the two of them. Whatever her history with Rennie, it was obvious to Josie that she was thinking along the same lines.
“And who wouldn’t?” She mused as she smiled back up at him. “But I’ve got dibs!” With a slight nudge of her hand in his back and a slight nod of her head toward the girl, Josie prompted Rennie to introduce them.
Marge and Lila really outdid themselves with lunch, and it wasn’t just Rennie that thought so. Everyone was raving about the mouthwatering roast beef sandwiches, with sides of French fries and coleslaw. And to top it all off ... they brought pie! There was banana cream, apple, cherry, and strawberry rhubarb, all with a bowl of whipped cream—real whipped cream, not the fake stuff. Rennie was in down home cookin’ heaven!
In truth, the ladies had prepared far more food than the six of them could eat – enough for a small army, actually – and were thrilled to see another mouth to feed in the form of Megan O’Malley. It didn’t stop with her, however. Before long, the whole front yard had become a veritable neighborhood picnic, with everyone from houses around contributing something from their still powerless fridges and freezers.
Rennie smiled to himself as he left Henry, his son Rance, and a group of his neighbors looking at the enormous gash left by the fallen maple. This is just real life in a small town, he realized. It’s by no means perfect but, when the chips are down, everyone pulls together. Sensing a light bulb just clicked on over his head, Rennie knew he needed to quick jot a few thoughts down.
Walking back to his truck, Rennie happened to look over at Josie. Most of the folks had already headed back to their respective homes, but Josie and Megan were still deep in conversation. He winced. He could only imagine what they were talking about. Megan had stopped by to pass along a couple messages from her Dad. Well, that and she wanted to say hi to him herself. Evidently Sheriff Frohm wanted to talk with him either this evening or early tomorrow morning about possibly helping out elsewhere. In addition, her father was hoping he’d stop by the church again and take a look at their pipe organ.