DOUBTING HEART

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic


This was a challenge I was given some years ago. Write a short story around the caption: "Come on in, the coffee's hot!" Clare was a country girl, Paul was a city man. What could possibly bring
them together, and keep them that way?

Submitted: June 21, 2018

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Submitted: June 21, 2018

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Riding her beloved horse Jesse, Clare Mitchell let her mind wander back to happier times, spent here on her parent’s property.

  She’d left for the city five years earlier to complete her studies. When she graduated with a degree in agriculture, her parents travelled down for the ceremony. Little did she know when she kissed them goodbye, that would be the last time she would see them. Both died in a car roll-over on their way back, leaving Clare alone – and bitter.

  After the funeral, Clare decided that she couldn’t live among all the memories. She sold the livestock, closed the attached roadhouse and left Jesse in the care of a neighbour, before heading back to the city. She spent the next year waiting tables to pay the rent on a small flat she shared with a Uni friend. Clare felt angry and cheated. She missed her parents – and her best friend, Jesse.

  Her world was again shattered, when her parent’s solicitor called to inform her that there were outstanding debts and back taxes owed on the property. As sole beneficiary, if she could not pay the debt, the property and all assets would be sold, with an auction date already set for the following month. Clare was aware that her parents had struggled, but she had no idea that things were this bad. The solicitor was sympathetic, but there was nothing he could do. With no money of her own, Clare knew there was nothing she could do either.

She held back the tears. “I’ll be home by the end of the week.”

  To add to her already heavy heart, a storm was brewing as she headed out of the city toward home. Wind grew to gale force, threatening to blow her tiny car from the road and torrential rain soon followed. Her windscreen wipers worked hard to keep a clear view of the road ahead and she was relieved to finally pull into the property. Clare opened the house and a wave of melancholy washed over her. She lit some candles and made up her old bed. Climbing onto the high, soft mattress brought her some comfort and she finally managed to sleep.

  The stark morning light revealed how far the big house had fallen into disrepair. She wandered through every room, each holding a special memory. Happy family photographs, now covered in dust, adorned the walls and sideboard in the living room. Clare walked through the door that led from the kitchen to the roadhouse and could almost hear the sweet sound of her mother humming, and smell the aroma of her delicious baking that brought customers back time and again. She remembered how grown up she felt the first time her mother had allowed her to don a pretty apron and help serve the customers, something she’d continued to do until she left for university.

  Slowly, the idea began to form, then quickly gained momentum. Could she? Why not? Her parents had built the business from nothing – she knew she had to at least try! With new found determination, Clare felt a little better, and wandered outside to do what she had been dreaming of for the past twelve months. Squinting in the sunlight, she looked over at the fence that bordered the neighbour’s property. She ran across the clover-covered field, Jesse had waited long enough!

 

  Over 200 miles and another world away, Paul Sutherland blinked and tried to focus on the road. He’d crawled out of bed that morning more exhausted than he’d fallen into it. The dark circles under his eyes showed the truth. At thirty, his stressful marketing job and a fast, city lifestyle was taking its toll. He needed a break – now!

  Throwing some things in a duffle bag, he mentally tossed around ideas. A cruise? Holiday resort? His mind suddenly connected the need for relaxation with a memory. His family had shared a picnic when he was a kid. He remembered his mother spreading a blanket out by a stream, while he and his father fished from an old jetty. Without further thought, he jumped in the car and headed out to the country.

  Rolling down the window, Paul took a deep breath. Last night’s storm had sub-sided and the air was crisp and clean. He could smell damp grass and the sweet aroma of the wildflowers. A flock of sheep occasionally lifted their heads from grazing to watch him speed by. He relaxed and glanced at his watch, almost twelve. He would stop at the next roadhouse.

  After a few miles, Paul spotted something lying on the side of the road. He pulled over and got out to have a look. A large tin sign with red lettering against a fading background read, ‘Come on in, the coffee’s hot!” A picture of a cup, steam rising from its unseen contents, made his mouth water. He looked around and saw nothing but fields. Last nights winds must have blown it here from somewhere up ahead.

  He drove about a mile further, before the road suddenly forked. There were no signs. Left, or right? He checked the fuel tank, it was low. His stomach growled, and he quickly made his decision. Turning left, he drove another half mile or so, when the road narrowed to a path. “Damn,” he thought, “wrong decision!” He felt a familiar tension rise. Slowly, shrubs made way to trees and the red light on his dash indicated the tank was almost empty. Tension turned to panic. He didn’t see the horse until it was too late. It reared in front of him, throwing its rider to the ground. Paul swerved, and the car came to a grinding halt on impact.

  Winded, Clare lay on the ground for a moment trying to piece together what had just happened. What the hell was a car doing all the way out here? She got to her feet and dusted herself off, making sure Jesse was not injured, before peering at the man in the driver’s seat. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. Maybe he was a potential buyer, trying to jump the queue?

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing here?”

No answer.

“This is private property!”

As she walked closer, Clare could see the man, slumped back in his seat. He was dazed, and a trickle of blood ran from a small cut on his forehead, but otherwise he seemed to be ok. She prodded him with her finger.

“You are trespassing!”

The prodding brought Paul slowly back to his senses. The bonnet of his car was wrapped around the trunk of a large Pepper tree and steam hissed from an obviously smashed radiator.

“I--- I’m sorry,” he finally managed, “I took the wrong road at the fork, and I was almost out of –”

“Didn’t you read the sign?” she cut him off.

Paul’s head throbbed and he did not like this woman, with her sharp tongue and poking finger.

“There was no sign.  Maybe it blew down in the storm, like the one from the roadhouse.”

 “The roadhouse?” It was dark and raining heavily when Clare arrived last night, she hadn’t noticed.

  She studied Paul more closely. He was young, maybe thirty. Handsome, if you like that sort of thing, she shrugged off. Dark hair and dark eyes that looked as though they hadn’t slept in some time. She noticed his eyebrows were furrowed and realised she was staring at him. Blushing, she opened the car door.

“You’d better come with me”

Mounting Jesse, she held out her arm.

Paul looked terrified, he’d never been on a horse.

“I’m not getting on that thing!”

Clare half smiled, “Well, Mr. ----- what is your name?”

“Sutherland, Paul Sutherland.”

“You are hurt, Mr. Sutherland, and obviously in shock. Unless you want to walk almost two miles back to the house, I suggest that is exactly what you do.”

His legs were still shaky from the collision as he tentatively made his way toward them. Clare reached under his arm and helped him up. Feeling very unsure, Paul clung to her, making Clare a little uncomfortable. He tried to mask his fear with conversation.

“Is this your property?”

“At the moment.” She answered curtly.  

“Why is it so overgrown?”

She threw a look over her shoulder that made him shudder. Nope, he definitely did not like this woman.

  At the house, Clare cleaned and dressed his wound. With her face only inches from his, Paul couldn’t help but notice her striking features. She was fair, with pale skin and wide, blue eyes. She reminded him of the kewpie dolls he’d seen at the fairs. He had to admit, she was disagreeable, even down right rude, but she was none the less, quite beautiful. As she made coffee, Paul turned his attention to the house. It was quite ramshackle.

“Lived here long?”

“All my life, except for the last five years.”

“Oh?”

It was a question that begged further explanation, but she chose to ignore it. Setting down the cups, Clare informed him that the phone had not yet been reconnected, and she would ride over to the neighbour’s property and call the garage. He thanked her and they sipped their coffee in silence, until Paul could stand it no longer. He tried to fill it with idle chatter about last night’s storm, why he’d left the city and how he ended up here, but was cut off mid-sentence. From nowhere, Clare suddenly let her predicament gush forth, her parents, the debt, and why she’d come home.  Paul was at first taken aback, but listened intently, nodding his head every now and then.

“It’s not your fault.” He said, when she had finished.

“What?”  she looked up at him as though she just now realised he was there.

“None of this is your fault.”

Clare dropped her eyes again and began to cry, “You don’t understand,” she sobbed, “if I hadn’t left, they would still be –”

Paul placed an arm around her shoulder, “Do you think they would want you to blame yourself?”

She looked at him through moist eyes and saw genuine concern in his. Suddenly feeling very comfortable with him, she told him the rest of her story, how she planned to reopen, and would hopefully be able to arrange to pay off the debt.

  She took him through to show him the roadhouse. Paul’s imagination could see the place abuzz with customers and, caught up in her excitement, he heard himself ask, “Can I help?”

“Why? Why would you do that?” She was shocked.

Paul looked at her tiny frame, her tear stained face, with a jawline set in determination, and answered honestly, “I don’t know.”  

  Although his car was ready a few days later, Paul stayed for three more weeks. Rising early and retiring late, they both worked every moment in between. He was tired, but it was a good tired, not the mental kind he was used to. They managed to have fun too, like the innocent flick of paint that escalated into a full-blown paint fight. He’d laughed, a big, bellowing laugh that he’d never heard before.

  He lay in bed thinking about everything. All was ready for tomorrow’s grand reopening. He heard soft humming and got up to investigate. Peeking through the kitchen door, he could see Clare, busily baking for the following day. He found himself mesmerised but her gracefulness, her beauty … and it struck him like a thunderbolt … he had fallen in love with her! He tip-toed back to bed. This was not good, not good at all! They were chalk and cheese, city and country, it could never work. He decided then and there that he would leave right after tomorrows opening. After all, hadn’t he already done more than anyone could expect? Rolling over, he spent the rest of the night chasing elusive sleep.

  By mid-morning they’d had a few customers, by lunchtime the tables were almost full of hungry travellers. Clare watched Paul clear a table. He really was a fish out of water, but she found it endearing. He’d done so much for her and she was truly grateful. She refused to admit, even to herself, that it had become much more than that. When Paul was ready to leave, they hugged as friends, but the goodbye kiss lingered a little longer.

  He was home, back to his life, back to his job, but his mind kept returning to Clare. After a few weeks he decided to call her.

“Mitchell’s Roadhouse.”

“Hi Clare, it’s Paul.  Just calling to see how you’re doing?”

“Hello Paul, I’m fine.” Her voice sounded flat.

“And the business, still going well?”

“The business is great. That’s what makes it harder.”

“Makes what harder? Clare, what’s going on?”

“I failed, Paul.”

He could hear the tremble in her voice.

“What? How? If business is good, --”

“The bank won’t wait for their money. The auction goes ahead next week as planned.”

Paul felt his stomach drop, “I’m sorry, Clare. I really am.”

“Oh well, I gave it my best shot.” She tried to sound convincing, “Thanks again for all your help, Paul," her voice broke, “goodbye.”

“Paul felt sick, “Goodbye, Clare.”

  Clare sat in the kitchen, unable to watch the proceedings outside. She could hear the auctioneers booming voice, as each precious item went under the hammer. Even placing her hands over her ears could not drown out the sound of the last item for sale – Jesse! She heard the thud of the hammer.

“Sold at fifty dollars!”

Fifty dollars! Clare found the prices of everything that sold insulting. She took a deep breath and went outside to hand the keys over to the new owner.

  The crowd was dispersing, and Clare could see Jesse, being led by his new owner. A moment later, she saw the face of the young man leading her – it was Paul! She stared in disbelief as he handed her the reins.

“I didn’t get everything,” he proudly announced, “but I managed to get most of it!”

“You – you were bidding?” she stammered.

“Yep,” he stuck out his chest, “got some real bargains too.”

“The house?” she asked, incredulously.

“Yes indeed.” He smiled, smugly.

Her face darkened with anger, “You son- of a bitch!” she snapped, “How long did you plan this? From the very beginning?”

Pauls eyes widened in surprise, before he let out that bellowing laugh again. She wanted to strike him!

“Since two a.m.  this morning!” He smiled. “That’s when I jumped out of bed to get here in time.”

Clare was bewildered.

“I want to stay here, Clare. I want us to run this place together.”

Her mind was trying to make sense of it.

“You want me to be your employee?”

Paul laughed again, and put his arms around her,

‘No silly – I want you to be my wife!”

 

© 2018 Kim Bishop


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