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Small Town Love Story
Rebel Ink Press April 2013
When Rae Lockridge put St. Louis in the rear view mirror, she sought the small town life she always dreamed about. After settling into her job at the local library, she thought she was well on her way to realizing those dreams until she met Anthony Pichetti. The good looking jack of all trades fires her imagination. Their mutual attraction is filled with heat but according to her co-workers, he has a past and they advise Rae to steer clear. She follows her heart instead of their advice but her views of the small town are tainted by their gossip. As their relationship deepens, Rae holds back, uncertain if she's in the right place. Rae's preoccupation with city versus country creates some minor health issues and strains things with Anthony. When a life-threatening crisis strikes, however, she must make choices for the future - for both of them.
If she lived to be a hundred, like her great-grandmother, she would never forget that glorious autumn afternoon. That Wednesday defined perfection with a clear, deep turquoise sky that vied with flaming fall colors for attention. Rae loved autumn and claimed it for her favorite season. When the nights turned cold but the days remained warm with just a hint of a crisp cool, she came alive after the somnolence of summer. Something about the vivid shades, the hint of wood smoke carried by the wind, and the slower pace appealed to her inner self. Spring felt too capricious like a teenage girl uncertain of herself, summer always seemed too much like a society matron in full fashion foliage, and winter shivered like an old man who crept around the fireplace. Autumn, in contrast, offered a flamboyant gypsy spirit, beautiful color, and just enough wildness to be interesting.
Rae breathed in autumn like holy incense and delighted in the changing season with a pagan heart. At the local library where she worked, she brought the outside in with brilliant leaves of orange, yellow, gold, and red. She decorated bulletin boards with them and kept the blinds wide open so she could see the seasonal splendor in the small park down the block. Each morning she walked to work from her apartment, a few rooms tucked away in what was once a fine old family home, so she could revel in the autumn wonder. On this memorable day, she picked up her lunch bag and instead of retreating to the break room or going home, she strolled down to the park, delighted with Indian summer’s warmth.
She sat on a park bench, munching her turkey and Swiss, gazing up at the sky so blue and beautiful it hurt to see, and around with appreciation. Rae watched as a flock of geese patterned in a sharp v against the clear sky passed heading south, their plaintive call floating downward. A few squirrels scampered across the grass, collecting walnuts and hickory nuts to carry back to their nests for the coming winter.
Just as Rae polished a bright red apple and took her first bite, movement in the grass caught her eye. She glanced up and gasped, the piece of fruit stuck in her throat for a second. As she managed to swallow, her contentment vanished into a stark, sudden terror as she watched the large copperhead writhe in her direction. If she didn’t hate snakes, maybe the brown hourglass pattern against the lighter beige might be beautiful but all serpents, harmless or not, scared her even more than spiders. Her mind sprinted in three directions as she debated should she sit still, move, or stand up on the bench where she hoped she’d be out of reach should it decide to strike.
If she moved, she feared it might slither toward her with a greater speed because it moved faster than she could have imagined now. As her librarian’s mind tried to recall just how far a snake could strike, it gained ground until the space between it and her narrowed to less than two feet. Rae thought if she tried to stand up on the bench now, she might draw its attention or worse, fall onto the creature. In desperation, she looked around the park but on this fall weekday few people had leisure to enjoy the outdoors. Two senior citizens chatted near the street and a single mother pushed a stroller toward the swings.
By then, the copperhead moved so close she swore she could hear its skin whisper as it traveled across the grass and her mouth dried up like a mud puddle in the sun. A shadow fell across her and she whirled, startled to see a man dash past her toward the snake. Maybe he didn’t see it, but Rae had to warn him so she recovered her voice.
“Hey,” she yelled. “Watch out, there’s a copperhead right there!”
He didn’t turn around and she couldn’t be sure he even heard her but as she watched, he leaned down unafraid and grasped the snake behind the triangular head in one large hand. Then he caught the thrashing length with his other and captured it. Rae gasped, first with fear then with appreciation for his fearless skills. As he stretched it out, she gauged it to be at least four feet long, larger than she thought and she shuddered at how close it came to her.
“Thank you!” she called. “That was amazing. What are you going to do with it?”
The man looked up at her and grinned. “I’ll take him to my truck, toss him in a five gallon bucket with a lid, and drop him off in the woods before I go home tonight. Is that all right with you?”
Rae nodded. “Sure, unless you just want to kill it or something.
He laughed. “Aw, there’s no reason to kill it just ‘cause you’re afraid of it.”
She stood up, braver now that the snake was in his hands and under control. “How did you know I was scared?”
“I sat right over there,” he said, pointing back to where another park bench rested beneath the tall evergreen tree the city lit each year to kick off the holiday season. “I watched you and I thought for a minute or two you might panic and get bitten. So I came over to catch the snake before you got hurt.”
Rae liked his voice, low-pitched but very male. She looked up at him, admiring his height that made her look small by comparison. He fit into his work worn, faded jeans as if he’d been poured into them and his simple T-shirt molded to his chest like it was tailor made. His sandy hair flecked with golden highlights that the sun caught and brightened touched the nape of his neck in back and his grey eyes noted her interest and stared back, with apparent enjoyment.
“Thank you,” she told him again. “I really appreciate it.”
“No problem,” he answered. “Let me go put this bad boy in the truck then I’ll introduce myself.”
She resisted an urge to tug her skirt down into place. “That’d be great.”
Rae watched him stride across the grass, his work boots eating up the grass in huge chunks, and thought he moved with both grace and strength. She wondered what he thought about her in her prairie style denim skirt, peasant blouse, a swirling sea of color, and her sensible Oxfords. Her auburn hair matched some of the fall leaves as it coiled into a tight bun held by a comb on the back of her head instead of tumbling down her back like a wild woman, the way she preferred it.
When he came back, he carried two cans of cold Pepsi and offered her one.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m Rae Lockridge.”
He extended his free hand to shake and she took it, aware of a fine and tangible force leaping between them, like strands of sugar spinning into cotton candy. Whatever magic it offered, it combined the same sweetness and heat and Rae thought he sensed it, too. His eyes lit from within and he smiled at her with a slow, easy smile making her breath catch and hold for a second.
“You’re my hero,” she said, then realized she still held his hand.
“Nope, nothing fancy like that,” Anthony replied. “I just did what needed to be done, it’s no big deal. You were having your lunch?”
“Yes,” Rae said. When he released her hand, she gathered up her trash and picked up the apple from the ground where she dropped it. “I do sometimes when it’s nice. I work over at the library.”
He must be familiar, she thought, because he glanced past the Episcopal Church and through the hedge toward the brick library building. “You walked over?”
Anthony smiled again. “Would you like a ride back? I know it’s not far but I could drop you off.”
“I’d love that, thanks,” she said. “Do we have time to drink our pop or do you need to be someplace?”
He sat down on the park bench and opened his can. “I’m my own boss so I can stay as long as I want.”
Rae tucked her skirt under her bottom and joined him. “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” he joked. “I’m a plumber mostly but I do a little heating and air conditioning work on the side, a few odd jobs, sometimes even maintenance. I’m in the phone book under Four-Ten Maintenance and our slogan is we’ve got you covered.”
She grasped the play on words and laughed. “Like a .410 shotgun, right?”
Anthony shot her an appraising look. “Yeah, that’s it exactly. I think you’re the first woman who ever got that. Does that mean you know a little about guns?”
Rae let a smile spread across her face. “No, it means I know a lot. Even though I grew up in the city, my daddy taught me to hunt and shoot with my brothers and cousins.”
“That’s great! Maybe I’ll take you hunting sometime.”
The very notion sparked inner embers into open flame within. Hunting might not have been her first choice, but Rae liked him and she wanted to get acquainted. If that required tromping through the early morning woods, she’d do it. Even if she got a thousand beggar’s lice on her jeans and ticks, she’d say yes.
“I’d like that,” she told him. “And I hate to break up the fun but I have to get back to work.”
As she spoke, the automated carillon pealed from St. John’s Episcopal Church next to the park and filled their ears with the sound of bells. That marked her tardy by a few moments already but Rae didn’t care at all.
“Sure, let’s go. I’ll still drop you off if that’s okay.”
“It’s fine,” Rae said. They walked down the path that divided the park in two, skirted around the flowerbeds near the entrance and across the street. Anthony led her to a scuffed up old Ford pickup and opened the passenger door so she could climb into the cab. Rae did with a glance at the covered five gallon bucket in the truck’s bed. Anthony saw where her gaze fell and laughed.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “That snake’s not going anywhere, I promise.”
“Thank you, Anthony,” she said as he stopped in front of the library. Rae lingered because she’d like to see him again but she didn’t know what to say without sounding too pushy. He solved the problem for her.
“So, I guess the library’s not open on Sundays?” he said.
“No, it’s not.”
“So you have the day off?”
Warmth suffused her face with color. She didn’t need a mirror to know when she blushed – she always felt it. “I do.”
“So would you like to have some fun?”
His grey eyes lit with a teasing light and Rae admired it. “Sure,” she said. “What did you have in mind?”
“I don’t know,” Anthony said. “We could go have dinner, see a movie or go to the corn maze over by the county high school.”
Rae grinned. She’d always wanted to visit a corn maze but since arriving to take the library job she hadn’t dared. One of the first things learned when relocating to the small town had been most people frowned on women going around alone. A trip to the supermarket or discount store or beauty parlor or even the library earned an invisible seal of approval but ladies prowling on their own at any event drew unpleasant stares. Gossip began in such a fashion, something Rae’s boss and head librarian Gregg Fox explained on her first day.
“It’s just not the way it’s done here,” he told her.
“I’d love to see the corn maze,” Rae said.
“Great,” he said. “I’ll buy you a hamburger or some pizza, too. Tell me where you live and I’ll pick you up around eleven.”
She gave him the address of her simple apartment and he nodded. “I know where it is. I’ll see you then, darlin’.”
His casual endearment pleased her. Although Rae had one foot out of the open passenger door ready to disembark, she leaned back into the truck and tilted her face up for a kiss. Bolder than she ever dared to be, she said, “I’m looking forward to it. How about you seal it with a kiss?”
Anthony’s grey eyes sparkled. “I like your style, lady.”
Without another word he pulled her into his arms and obviously without caring who might see, he put his mouth down on hers. Rae loved to be kissed, but Anthony’s took the experience to a new level. Instant heat ignited between them and the way he commanded her lips demonstrated he was an expert. He possessed them, marking her mouth with ownership if just for the moment. Breathless, Rae pulled back as he grinned.
“See you Sunday,” he called as she stepped down to the pavement.
She nodded, smiled, and slammed the truck door. Rae’s smile wilted though when she saw Gregg, arms folded, foot tapping, waiting for her just inside the library door.
“You’re late,” he said, his voice sharp as she entered.
“I know,” she admitted. Better to confess than conceal, she thought. “It’s just a few minutes, though, and it won’t happen again.”
Her boss glared at her. “It’d better not. And if I see a repeat of your public display of affection, I assure you I’ll put you on probation if I don’t terminate your position. I can’t have my staff carrying on in public.”
Any other day Rae would have lowered her head and apologized again but it wasn’t happening today. This time, she met his baleful gaze with her own. “It was just a kiss, Gregg, for pity sakes. He didn’t even use his tongue.”
For a moment Rae thought her snarky comment pushed her boss over the edge. His face flushed with an unhealthy red and his lips moved in a silent sputter. Then he said, “That’s enough. I will not tolerate any more from you, Miss Lockridge. And although I can’t dictate what you do outside this library, I must warn you – Anthony Pichetti isn’t on my list of upstanding citizens. I’d advise you to steer clear of him.”
“Might I ask why?”
Gregg snorted. “He’s just not the caliber of young man I’d advise you to associate with, Rae. I’ve heard things about his family and his father died under strange circumstances. Besides, they live on the north end of town. If you were a Neosho native, you’d understand these things.”
Thank God I’m not if being from here would make me prejudiced and blind.
If she said anything more now, she might be out of a job so Rae restrained the words she wanted to speak. She gave her boss a brisk nod and said, “I have work waiting.”
“The tardy will be noted on your employment record,” Gregg said.
At the circulation desk, the head librarian looked askance at her. “Everything all right? Gregg seemed hacked.”
“He was but it’s fine,” Rae said with a forced smile. “Unless you have something else for me to do, I thought I’d catch up on shelving returned books.”
The woman old enough to be her mother offered a sympathetic expression. “Sure. I saw Anthony Pichetti bring you back from lunch. I don’t always agree with our boss, but Gregg’s probably right about using some caution.”
“Why?” Rae asked, her tone sharper than she intended. “Did he do prison time? Commit burglary? Or did he commit the unforgiveable sin of being born without a silver spoon shoved into his mouth?”
Her own humble origins, a factory worker’s kid from Compton Avenue in St. Louis, evoked her sensitivity toward any prejudice directed at social status. Most of the time she kept silent but now, Rae’s sense of justice had been riled.
“He did a little time in the county jail,” Brenda admitted. Crimson circles high on each cheeks indicated either anger or embarrassment. “It wasn’t anything big time, though. Some older kids beat the crap out of his younger brother and Anthony got booked for assault. I can’t remember if he was sentenced to just the few days he spent in jail or got probation. Other than that, as far as I know, he’s got a clean record. His dad committed suicide when Anthony would’ve been about eighteen or nineteen and his brother around fifteen. His sister had a baby without being married. Besides, there’s something off about his brother, something not right, but I’d rather not talk about it.”
Without asking, Rae gained a thumbnail sketch of Anthony’s family history. “It doesn’t sound bad to me. My family’s worse than his,” she said. “Thanks for the warning, though.”
Rae trundled the loaded book cart out into the stacks, fuming and putting volumes back on the shelves. At first, anger blinded her and she ran on auto pilot, putting each book where it belonged without conscious thought. Anthony Pichetti hadn’t been anything but kind and nice, she mused. He didn’t deserve the dirt apparently everyone wanted to dish out, either.
I like him…a lot. Anthony intrigued her more than any guy she’d met in the small town. Rae wanted to know more, to hear the true back stories behind the gossip and she anticipated their upcoming date with delight. Yeah, she liked Anthony.
But Rae liked his kiss even more.