Here is the last sneak peek to Autumn Love! Grab it now. If you haven’t read the prologue yet, you can catch up on that first.
Thirteen Years Later
“Argh,” Ali said, wanting to bang her head against the marker board. “I always run out of ink in the middle of writing down the homework.” Budget cuts meant she was going to have to go buy her own markers rather than use the ones left over from last year. As if she didn’t have enough things to spend her money on.
“I guess that means there’s no homework tonight, Ms. Rogers,” one of her fourth graders said.
“Think again, kiddo. Let’s see how well you listen. I want everyone to read chapter three in your history books and complete questions five through twenty on page nineteen for math.
“It’s only the third week of school,” another kid complained. She remembered those days but didn’t care. She was the teacher now and she got to assign the work, not do it. It felt wonderful to be an adult.
“That’s why you’re only getting two subjects for the weekend. You should be happy you didn’t get any homework that first week.”
The bell rang and everyone jumped up as fast as they could and ran for the door. She remembered those days too and couldn’t really blame the kids. When she was their age, this time of year she was waiting to get off the bus and start working at the orchard. It never felt like work to her back then, climbing the trees and picking apples to put in the store.
Since it was Friday afternoon, she had no plans to stay late. She would have if any of her students needed some extra help, but they lit out of the room like Wile E. Coyote was chasing the Road Runner.
“Any plans this weekend?”
Ali turned to see Corrie, another fourth grade teacher, enter the room ten minutes later. Corrie was about five years older and had been here since she graduated from college. Lucky duck got a job right away, unlike Ali who had to spend the past three years subbing while she worked on her master’s at night.
“I’m going to run to the outlets in a few minutes and then go to my mother’s for dinner. She sounded anxious on the phone, so I’m thinking she’s getting overwhelmed this year. I probably shouldn’t have started to talk to her about the haunted house yet with it still being mid-September.”
It was Ali’s responsibility to design and set up the orchard’s Halloween haunted house, but she always talked it over with her mother. She wondered if maybe she should have waited since her mother had been preoccupied lately.
“I can’t wait to see it,” Corrie said. “I remember going through it when I was growing up. I had my first kiss behind the barn there after I ran screaming from the place and my date thought that would be the only way to get me to stop.”
Ali laughed. “Did it work?”
“I stopped screaming, but the kiss wasn’t all that memorable.”
“Yet you’re telling me about it right now?”
“Only because it was the first, not because it was any good.”
“Well, I’ve got a few things up my sleeve this year. My mother never does much with it other than make all the gory bloody things. I’m not sure what is going on with her, but I’ll figure it out.”
“The retail therapy beforehand will help,” Corrie said.
“It will. I’m in desperate need of clothes, but I was waiting to see what was left of my first paycheck.”
It felt nice to know she’d have a steady check now, not just to be relying on when she was called in to sub. Then again, the orchard was packed on the weekends this time of year so that was always a nice income she could put away.
“Let me know if you find any deals.”
“Will do,” Ali said, grabbing her bag and purse and rushing out.
She walked out to her old beat-up and abused car that had barely gotten her through college, let alone the past few years, but there was no way she could afford a car payment prior to this year.
Even now, she was waiting until her old Honda died before she’d sign her name on any dotted line. Her student loans were bad enough and made her want to burst into tears when she saw that money vanish each month.
She made the short drive from Glens Falls to Lake George to get some shopping done. She would have loved to land a job in her hometown, but anything under a thirty-minute commute was gravy to her, so half that time was like a full turkey dinner that she stuffed herself silly with every Thanksgiving.
Today happened to be her lucky day and she was loaded down with bags, thrilled with all the sales she’d hit, when she looked down trying to juggle them in her hands. She must have drifted a bit on the sidewalk because the next thing she knew she was running into a wall and landing flat on her butt with her bags flying everywhere.
Her face turned red, her butt probably matched the color, but when she looked up she saw it wasn’t an actual wall she hit, but rather a man. A tall built man. Woohoo, lucky day indeed.
“You should watch where you’re going,” he said, a ton of humor in his voice.
“Sorry. I was adjusting my loot and my feet just had a mind of their own.”
He reached down and offered her a hand to pull her up, then grabbed some of her bags. “Guess you hit it big today.”
“I did. Again, I’m sorry.” He had the kindest brown eyes she’d seen in a while and they were staring right at her.
“No worries,” he said and there was a lengthy pause. Was he going to ask her name? Her number? She glanced at his hand and didn’t see a ring, not that that meant anything. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. Thanks again for helping me up.” He handed her back her bags he was holding and when their hands touched she felt a spark strong enough to make her fingertips sizzle.
“Okay. Well, have a nice day,” he said. She was positive he’d felt the spark too, but he just nodded and walked away.
She sighed deeply and started to walk back to her car, turning her head to see where he was going. Into the Reebok store. Did she need some workout clothes? Not really, and she wasn’t in a position to even consider it. Bummer. Oh well, he’d probably think she was stalking him.
She shrugged it off and continued on her way.
Ten minutes later she was pulling into the orchard and shutting her car off. She made her way to the bakery, assuming her mother would be working. “Hey, Mandy, is my mom around?”
“She’s at the main house right now. I think she’s done for the day.”
Mandy had been employed at the bakery for as long as Ali could remember. “Have you noticed anything odd about her lately?”
“Not that I can tell. Why?” Mandy asked, cleaning up now. The bakery would be open another hour and then closed along with the store for the day. Most people came out earlier on, not around dinner or after. Both her mother and Mandy would be at it bright and early baking in the morning for the weekend crowd.
“No reason. She wanted to see me tonight.”
“She probably just wants to talk about the fall season. You know as well as I do how crazy it is.”
“It is. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Ali turned and walked out, then made her way to the main house where her mother now lived.
Her mother and father had split shortly after Ali’s thirteenth birthday and her mother and she ended up moving in and living with her grandfather. The best years of Ali’s life were when she lived on this farm.
Ali could have come back here to live with her mother when she graduated from college, but she wanted her own space. It was probably a stupid decision on her part when money was scarce, but she’d had a taste of independence at college and wasn’t ready to give it up.
Not to mention her grandfather was no longer there, and it was hard for her to be in his house when he wasn’t, though she’d never admitted that to her mother.
“Mom,” Ali yelled when she walked in the back door of the old farmhouse. It needed some work, but neither of them was equipped enough to do more than paint or change a light bulb most of the time.
“In the living room, Ali.”
She walked in and saw her mother sitting in her grandfather’s old recliner. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone sat in that chair. But after her grandfather had died five years ago, her mother hadn’t had it in her to get rid of it. Secretly Ali was okay with that decision.
“Are you okay?”
“Come sit, Ali.”
“How come you’re in Grandpa’s chair?”
Her mother looked sad right now. “I need his strength.”
“Are you ill?” she asked quickly.
“No, no. Nothing like that.” Her mother took a deep breath. “I decided to sell the farm.”
“What? You can’t do that. It has to stay in our family. It’s supposed to come to me.” Was her mother losing her mind?
“Unless you’ve got one hundred and twenty-seven thousand and ninety-four dollars, it’s going to go to the bank if I don’t sell it.”
Ali didn’t know what to say. Her mother hadn’t been much better than her with money. “I don’t understand. We do well.”
“We do well for several months a year, but the business needs upkeep and money to run it year round. And I’m tired, Ali. I really can’t do it alone anymore.”
Ali felt her eyes fill. “I don’t want to let it go. It was Grandpa’s. I’ll work more.” It was her legacy, all she had left of the man that she’d looked up to so much in her life, but she didn’t want to say that and put any more of a burden on her mother’s shoulders.
Why hadn’t she noticed how tired her mother had been before now?
“I don’t want to either. I didn’t even consider selling it, though it’s been on my mind for years. But I’m struggling to make the loan payments and last year wasn’t a great year. You know how it is, crops can go bad and we can’t predict it. I’m terrified of another year like that. I was approached with an offer today. One I can’t refuse.”
“So it’s over with? Just like that. No time to have a final season? No time to try to find the money?”
This couldn’t be happening. She had high hopes for the haunted house this year. She knew she shouldn’t be having selfish thoughts like that, but it was the first thing that popped into her head. It was something she’d started with her grandfather and she held that close to her chest. Something she looked forward to every year.
“This will be our last season. The guy who approached me is kind enough to let us stay on as the owners until the end of the year because he wants to work alongside of us. He wants to learn the ins and outs of the farm.”
“So it’s someone who doesn’t even know anything about running a farm or an orchard?” That’s not a way to keep the farm alive!
“He’s a contractor. He wants the land and the house and the bakery. The orchard is a bonus, but he promised he’d keep the integrity of the business. He seemed genuine.”
Ali started to sniffle. “But it’s your bakery. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to retire. I told you, I’m tired. I’ll find some nice part-time job if I need to, or maybe I can stay on here part-time in the bakery. We haven’t gotten that far yet. But I’ll make an extremely nice profit on the sale of the farm and it will give me a lot of breathing room to make those decisions.”
“There is no talking you out of this?”
“No. My mind is made up. This is our last hoorah. Let’s make the best of it.”
Ali moved toward her mother’s outstretched hand and sat next to her on the chair.
“It’s what Grandpa would want. He wouldn’t be happy to see it the way it is right now, you know that. I can’t do it anymore.”
She looked at her mother’s tired eyes and knew she was right, but her heart was just breaking. “I understand. I just need time to adjust.”
“You’ve got your own life and career, Ali. It’s time to make peace with this. It was never going to be your life and you know it. You just wanted to hold onto it because it was Grandpa’s. I understand, but we can’t always hold onto something just because we want to.”
She knew, but a part of her was having a hard time letting go.