Truckload of Love

Janice LaQuiere



Chapter One


 Fifty-four years old and the only item crossed off Mitch Schroder's bucket list was panning for gold in Wilson's Creek. He'd done that when he was ten. Before the stroke. Before law school. Before he spent his lunch breaks playing chess and listening to George Mannion's constant yapping.


Across the picnic table George flicked his newspaper straight. "Listen to this ad. 'Adopt a Grandpa– Gentleman seeks dependable family for caretaking and light housekeeping. Monthly wage and board. Call for terms.'" He rattled off the familiar phone number and peered around the edge of the paper.


Mitch avoided eye contact and stared at his knight. Of all the people who had to see the ad, why George?


George's low chuckle drifted through the summer shade and echoed off the buildings of Centerhaven town square. "What in tarnation crawled under your cap?"


Mitch snatched the paper from George's grasp and smacked it to the park bench. "I don't see what you find so funny. I'm planning a long missionary trip to Peru. I'm going to start checking off my bucket list. Besides, I'm a bachelor, I need the help." Or so it seemed. Between Miss Myrtle threatening him with some secret project in the hills and his planned mission trips what other option did he have? "Move your piece. I'm waiting." Mitch ground his elbow against the stone chess table.


George pinched his mouth shut with his fingers, but chuckles puffed out his cheeks.


"Would you stuff it?" Mitch glanced around at the other picnic tables. "Judge Carroll is eyeing us like a bullfrog after a fly. He already thinks I'm one jurist short of a quorum."


Mischief glimmered in George's eyes. "You telling me that it's not funny when a fifty-four year old man moves from bachelorhood into being a grandpa?"


Self-conscious, Mitch rubbed a finger along his twisted lip and across the frozen features of his left cheek. "So what's the big deal? You're a grandpa."


"I've been a family man for thirty-three years. And my granddaughter is no bigger than a frog's toe. You sound like you're after a grown family."


Mitch snapped his black knight against the hard surface of the board. "Family means stability. And if I'm going to be hiring someone, I want stability. She can keep house, and he can bush-hog."


"And all the little whippersnappers?"


The children. Of course, Mitch wasn't sure about children, but as the town's leading attorney he couldn't discriminate against them, only in his prayers did he ask for a nice young couple just starting out. "Will you hurry up and capture my pawn?"


Mitch's longtime friend hunkered over the board and studied his next move. The shadow of the courthouse stretched over them, and the building funneled a cool breeze their way. Sparrows flittered to the ground near a metal garbage can and chased a drifting piece of popcorn across the sidewalk. A light flow of traffic, mostly older pickups intermingled with a few family sedans, slowly motored through the square.


"Okay." George shifted his rook. "Your turn."


Mitch focused on the game.


"You know," George never could keep quiet, "you could always get married and make your family your mission."


Only George would have the audacity to mention marriage to him. Mitch raised his good right eyebrow, his concentration broken. "I've pride, you know. In case you've forgotten, I'm not much to look at." He bent his face away from his friend's scrutinizing gaze.


"You've too much pride. Sometimes you're all hung up on yourself."


Trust George to try and keep him in his place. Oh well, his pride didn't come completely unwarranted. He slid his queen diagonally across the board. "Checkmate."


"Would you look at that?" George twisted and leaned against the table.


Mitch turned his gaze to where George pointed with his chin. He watched a long white cargo van slowly turn the tight corners of the town's square and make its way around the block, before maneuvering into a parking space next to Casey's Coin Laundry. The two side doors burst open and a truckload of kids stumbled out.


George started laughing. "There you are. There's your family, 'Grandpa.'"


Mitch grabbed the paper and whacked his arm. "Will you quit it? Besides, that's not a family. It's a youth group outing. That's got to be a church van. Look at the out-of-state-license plates. They're probably headed up to Timber Creek Gospel Camp."


"Yeah, well I can't see 'church' written on the side anywhere."


Mitch growled in his throat. "If you don't watch it you're going to be choking on your good humor. I won't have any problem finding a family to help with the housekeeping. Now that the pickle factory has started hiring, there's a lot of new blood coming to the community. I'll find myself a nice young couple with a baby or two." Mitch swept the chess pieces into the box.


"No doubt about it. You always get what you go after. That's the attorney in you." George rose and scooped up his blue hardware store apron. "Are you trailing back to the store with me? Melinda brought some cookies from home. And Callie, my grandbaby, is there. It'd be good if you held her and—" George stuffed his apron in his arms and cuddled it like an imaginary baby. "It'll bring out the grandpa in you. What's that gluing stuff they do now-a-days? Oh, it's bonding--you can practice bonding. Besides, we can walk by and see who our new guests are. Give them a proper Centerhaven welcome and all. They might need directions to the camp."


Mitch stuck the cardboard chess box under his arm. "Maybe for a minute. I planned to run into the courthouse, but it's nothing that can't wait."


The two crossed the single lane of traffic and stepped up to the long white van. Mitch noted the Illinois license plate and a black-and-white I'd rather be sleeping bumper sticker.


George shoved his cocked thumb toward the sticker. "What did I tell you? Sounds like a stay-at-home-mom to me."


Mitch stopped and peered through the tinted window. "They have that thing loaded to the light bulbs."


A thin chime from the door of the Laundromat warned him of the vehicle owner's impending arrival. Let George get caught snooping around, he wasn't going to stay for an embarrassing introduction. He darted around the back of the van and ran smack into the rear cargo door as it swung into him. A throb of pain crossed his nose. He grunted and grabbed his face. Scattered sparks flashed in his vision.


"Oh! I'm so sorry." The silky voice sounded deliciously soft and low. "Did I hurt you? Here, let me look." Her hand touched his fingers. She almost met him in height, inch for inch.


He muttered and waved her off. He shook his head, hoping to clear it, and turned from her trying to hide his paralyzed features. "I'm fine. I should've been watching where I was going."


"Howdy." George barged into the conversation. "I'm George Mannion, owner of Mannion's Hardware. You must be new in town. Pleased to meet you."


            Mitch stepped away. He strained to hear her introduction but couldn't make out her words for the racket of kids that raced around him.


"You heading on up to the gospel camp north of here?" George practically shouted the question.


Six feet away, Mitch paused, and waited for the answer, but the honk of a car horn drowned out the woman's voice. George's sudden cackle set Mitch to wondering what she said, then again, maybe he didn't really want to know. He swiveled on his heel and strode across the square to his second-story law office.



Josephine McGee stared into the mirror at the reflection of the cheap motel room. Chocolate-brown bedspreads and pea-green carpet. Apparently, in some manager's mind cheap meant ugly. It pained her to see the baby lying with her skin touching the bed cover.


"Aunt Jo?"


Jo took the bobby pin from her mouth and fastened the final hair in place. "What is it, Logan?"


Her oldest nephew sat on the edge of the bed banging his feet against the metal bed frame. "We're not going to stay in this rat trap, are we?"


"Logan, watch your attitude." Jo stuffed her brush into her purse. Her brother Jeff married such a sweet woman, so why did the kid have to take after his father? The familiar ache clenched Jo's stomach. She missed Jeff and his wife Colleen, especially when the responsibility of raising their children threatened to overwhelm her. "I want you to talk better."


Logan crossed his arms and tilted his head, just like his dad. "That guy we met in town, he said we'd find a real nice hotel on the other side of the highway."


"We can't afford a real nice hotel right now. Your mom and dad didn't leave us much money, and we have to save it the best we can."


"What about the old cottage Mom always talked about?"


"We'll try and find it after my meeting." Jo smoothed a light layer of foundation across her cheeks. "But keep in mind, Logan, your mom hadn't been there several years. We don't even know if it's still standing, much less if it's livable."


"But it's still ours?"


"It's still ours. It just might need a little repair."        


The outside door flew open. With a screech, Katy Lynne charged into the room. "Don't let it bite me!" Her five-year-old voice rose with terror. "Aunt Jo, please don't let it bite." She flung herself around Jo's leg.


Jo fell against the wall and struggled to regain her balance. "Nothing's going to bite you." She reached down and ran her fingers through the girl's tangled hair. "Travis!"


The boy peeked around the doorjamb, his hands still behind his back.


"What's that you have?"


"Just a lizard." Travis moved his hand forward and popped up a finger.


Jo blew out a breath. A cappuccino would sure be nice. "Leave your sister alone. Put the lizard back where you found him, and go get Carl. He's too young to be in the parking lot by himself."


"Aunt Jo, Tess's diaper stinks." Logan wrinkled his nose. "Do you want me to change it?"


"I'll take care of it. Run down to the manager's office and buy me a local newspaper. Then tell the other boys to get ready to leave." Jo deposited Katy Lynne on a worn chair, its gold upholstery tattered at the edges. "Sit there while I take care of your sister." She handed the girl a broken granola bar and scooped up a canvas diaper bag.


Somehow, in her childhood prayers asking God to guide her way and give her children, Jo never thought motherhood would be so abruptly dropped in her lap. She always imagined it would come after marriage, one child at time. The image of a house on a hill surrounded by a white picket fence with a mastiff dozing by the fire gave way to struggles of trying to keep her brother's five children together while still earning a living. Instead of a mastiff, she had a little rubber ducky hanging from her key chain. And forget the house on the hill, she'd be content with a good job and rented living space. At least she had the children and they weren't with Bart, Colleen's uncle, and his live-in girlfriend. She wondered even now, how far he would go to try and get the kids.


Tess cried for attention, and Jo seated herself on the bed beside the baby. She leaned over and rubbed Tess's stomach through the yellow onesie. The baby giggled. Yet, a tear tickled Jo's nose, and she reached out with her tongue and licked the saltwater from her upper lip. A second droplet fell down and splashed on Tess's rosy cheek. Ashamed of herself, Jo wrapped her arms around the baby's soft body and pressed it against her chest. God blessed her with the ability to care for her nieces and nephews. She shouldn't be complaining. Not when the stinky squishiness of Tess's diaper forced her to handle the realities of life.




The stark white cement block building and the bright black of a new asphalt parking lot looked as out of place against the red-chert rock as a cow in a steeplechase. The metal sign depicted a caricature of a man in a straw hat holding a mammoth green cucumber, red lettering spelled out "Uncle Bubba's Pickles." Jo stared at the sign in amusement. So Centerhaven wasn't Chicago, it wasn't even Nashville, but had she really entered Cornfield County? She glanced around almost expecting to see Hee Haw's Grandpa Jones waving her in.


The company certainly needed a graphics designer, and there, Jo could help them. She pulled the van through the open gate, and parked near the entrance leading to the front offices. She turned toward the kids. "I shouldn't be long. You guys can each bring a book to read and I want you to wait for me in the lobby." Jo pulled down the visor mirror and applied a fresh layer of pomegranate-red lipstick. Lord, if this is your will. . . .. She grabbed her briefcase with her résumé and slipped out of the driver's seat, before unbuckling the baby's car seat. "Okay, guys. Say a prayer. We need this job."


The sun beat down on the blacktop, and Jo squinted her eyes against the glare. She felt like a border collie herding the kids ahead of her, and prayed that no one was watching out the window.


She slowed her step just enough to glance at her reflection in the tinted glass of the entry door. Her pantsuit didn't have the sharp lines she preferred. But after being packed away for a month, it could look worse.


A gust of cool air and a strong whiff of vinegar hit her face when she stepped into the foyer. Her eyes adjusted to the fluorescent lighting. Three metal chairs sat in front of a fake fichus tree, and the kids stuffed themselves into them.


To the left, she spotted the receptionist's sign against a thick glass window. A younger woman stared at her and pursed her lips around the tip of her raised water bottle. She didn't seem particularly busy.


Jo leaned up to the window. "I'd like to speak with Tom Mattison."


"I'm sorry?" The girl's voice barely squeaked through the thick glass. Jo stared at the silver plate in the wall which presumably housed a speaker. What did this company expect? Some armed bandits to pop up in the middle of Nowhereville and rob their receptionist?


Jo raised her voice and repeated her request.


The girl shrugged and shook her head.


"Tom Mattison!" Jo yelled through the clear wall. This wasn't the professional impression she hoped to make, but they drove her to it.


The girl's shoulders drooped and she plunked her water bottle on the desk. She swiveled her chair around and disappeared from sight. A minute later she appeared in the hallway. "That speaker hasn't worked a lick since they put it in. You sure were a picture screaming your head off. Now, honey, what can I help you with?"


Jo gripped the strap of her briefcase and steadied her voice. She eyed the girl's nametag. "Tracy, I'm here to see Tom Mattison. He's accepted me for the new marketing position. I'm a graphics designer."


"Awesome. But Tom's gone." Tracy shifted and twisted her finger through an oversized belt loop.


"For the day?"


"No. Tom is gone." Tracy stared beyond Jo at her reflection in the glass door.


"When will he return?"


"Tom is gone. Gone for good."


A flutter rose in Jo's chest. She must've misunderstood. She'd spoken with Tom barely three weeks ago. "May I speak with someone from marketing?"


"If you want to." Tracy disappeared into the office.


Jo checked the time and glanced at the children. "Katy Lynne take your fingers out of your mouth."

The soft squeak of rubber shoes against the tile floor echoed to her. She watched a man approach. His jeans and t-shirt testified to the casual dress of the office staff. Jo stepped forward and extended her hand. "Hi, I'm Jo McGee. I've spoken with Tom Mattison, who reviewed my résumé. He hired me for a position with the marketing department."


"Hmm." The man swept his hand over his wrinkled t-shirt. "Well, I don't know what to say. Tom resigned two weeks ago and moved to Oregon. All of the positions are filled."


Jo's stomach flipped. "But. . . that can't be. He promised me a job. I even moved my family here from Illinois. What am I supposed to do?"


"I'm sorry. You should've called before you journeyed to these parts." The man's gaze worked its way over her blue suit and down to her shoes.


"Are you telling me there isn't an available position?" She couldn't keep the panic out of her voice.

"Um, come with me." The man led the way around the corner and into the receptionist's office. "Hey, Tracy, what job openings are still available?"


Tracy raised an eyebrow and scrutinized Jo's outfit. "Just factory work."


The man turned to Jo. "How's that sound? It'll keep you in food and clothes, until we have an office position available. Or at least, you and me can grab a bite at Missie's Bar-b-cue. Those kids out there are yours? They can come too. I'll give you an interview and jot down your info."


Goosebumps crept up Jo's arms. "No, thank you." A chill from the air conditioning sent a shudder through her shoulders.


His gaze remained riveted on her lips. "At least leave me your number, and I'll give you a holler if anything comes up."


"Thanks. I'll just check back in a few weeks." Jo stepped backwards out of the office and forced herself to maintain her composure until she collected the children. Their excited voices all started asking her questions, but she gathered their books and hurried them out the door. The sudden heat sucked the energy from her and the realization of their predicament hit her.


Katy Lynne tugged on her sleeve. "Aunt Jo, why are we leaving? Did you bring work with you?"


Jo kissed her forehead as she helped her into the van. Failure never hurt so bad.



Mitch's secretary rapped on his office door, but even his own Della Street couldn't hold back the enthusiastic entrance of Myrtle Peacock. Her oversized floral hat preceded her into the room as she strode in with a vintage elegance leftover from her days as a rising country music singer.

"Miss Myrtle." He started to rise.


"Mitchell." Her voice carried a command. "Now you just stay sitting right there. There's no call to get excited when you've been avoiding me this long."


Mitch rose and ushered Myrtle to a leather chair. "Now, ma'am, you know that I don't avoid my star clients." Though Miss Myrtle did call at the most inopportune times.


She arranged herself in the chair until the flowing sleeves of her blouse draped across her lap. "Did my manager wire you my papers?"


Mitch paused in his step. "Wire? Oh, you mean email?"


"Whatever it is they do now days. They come over wires don't they? I knew it wasn't that faxing business." She waved her hand and the scent of oleander floated on the air. "Did you get them?"


What he had read was a note of apology from her manager, Lonnie Henderson, politely explaining that Miss Myrtle insisted he be sent the attached information. He pulled up the email and clicked on the attachment, an engineer's rendering of— "A theme park?"


"You've looked at it then?" Miss Myrtle leaned back in the chair, apparently well satisfied. "It's not just any theme park, young man, it's Miss Peacock's Land of Clue."


Mitch adjusted his dark glasses, and for once was thankful his face couldn't betray his inner thoughts. Apparently the dimming star of his eccentric client was beginning to shine once again, if only in her own mind. Visions of trademark violations danced in his head.


But Miss Myrtle didn't sense his hesitation. "It will be a country music whodunit, based upon the lives of Miss Wells, Mr. Reeves, Porter, and the others."


A cautious response was the best approach. "And how do I assist you in this endeavor?"


"Why, I aim to set it up on Little Piney. You know Otis, bless his soul, he drank away his inheritance, but when he died he left me a hefty life insurance policy and thirty acres on Little Piney Mountain."


"Developing a theme park isn't exactly in my area of expertise. I'm a family law attorney."


"You are family to me. Ever since Otis died and left me a widow, you're the only family I've got. That should be good enough. And I trust you. Family trusts each other you know."


"But a theme park?"


"If Conway Twitty and Miss Dolly could each have one, I don't see what's wrong with Miss Myrtle Peacock having one. I need you to negotiate for the purchase of the remainder of Little Piney Mountain."


He made a note to check on the ownership of the land and determine the property values, a hilly timberland frequented with old cabins and hunting lodges. It was used mostly by the locals during hunting season, but there were one or two owners from out-of-state that he'd have track down.


"Wouldn't you rather just put your savings in a CD, something that will promise you a nice return?"


"Posh. That's for old people. I want to give back to my fans. I want to do something brilliant." She rolled the word on her tongue as if it carried a gem.


"'I'll look up these other owners this afternoon, and drive out to Little Piney later this week."


In one movement Miss Myrtle rose, she gripped Mitch's hand with her delicate long fingers. "Young man, you hide behind those terribly obnoxious glasses, but I always know I can count on you."

©Janice LaQuiere 2010