Ellie Markusson’s heart pounded as she fumbled for her phone on the bedside table. Was it her mom? Had something happened to Grandma Pearl? She’d seemed fine that morning, but at her age anything could happen.
Her pulse slowed when the caller ID showed Burkhalter instead of Markusson but sped up again almost immediately. Why would her best friend call in the middle of the night? Maybe it was the baby. Clare was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child. Maybe she’d gone into labor and her husband Karl had been called away. That happened to ministers sometimes, didn’t it?
“Hello.” She was already plotting the fastest route from her friend’s house to the hospital in Eau Claire.
“Ellie?” Clare’s voice was high-pitched, on the verge of hysteria.
In the background, muffled shouts interspersed with a variety of thuds and bangs. “Clare, are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m at the food bank. You’d better get down here.” Her friend’s voice wavered.
Ellie stumbled out of bed and flipped on the light. “What’s going on?”
“It’s on fire! The food bank building is on fire, and I’m afraid it’s going to spread to Pearl’s.”
Ellie’s heart froze. The food bank operated by Clare’s husband’s church was located in the building next to Pearl’s Perfect Pies in downtown Pumpkinseed Lake. Ellie’s Grandma Pearl had owned and operated western Wisconsin’s most famous pie shop until she’d had a minor stroke a few years ago and Ellie had stepped in to run things.
She ran to her dresser and yanked open drawers, looking for something—anything—clean to throw on. She balanced the phone between her ear and shoulder and hopped on one foot while she stuffed the other into the leg of her second-best jeans. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Ellie grabbed her parka, jammed her feet into her Sorels, and raced out to the garage. She revved up her Jeep, threw it into Reverse, and thanked God the town was so small. She would be downtown in ten minutes— maybe eight.
As she approached the four-block-long business district, a glow lit up the sky, interrupted by plumes of smoke. Please don’t let it reach Pearl’s.
She pulled the Jeep into an empty space at the curb a couple of blocks away and ran toward the generalized commotion, her heavy boots crunching on the packed snow with each step. Three fire trucks—the entire fleet of the Pumpkinseed Lake Volunteer Fire Department—were parked in front of the food bank. Men in heavy, soot-stained yellow suits aimed hoses at the flames shooting from the roof at the back, and a small crowd of onlookers huddled on the sidewalk nearby.
As soon as Pearl’s came into view, Ellie’s breathing slowed a fraction. The building stood cold and dark, ignored by the firefighters. Thank God. If the pie shop burned down, Ellie would be out of a job, but Grandma Pearl might never recover.
Then she spotted Clare in the waiting group and jogged toward her. Clare’s long down coat barely stretched across the bulge of her tummy, and her dark hair hung in unruly ringlets beneath her knit hat. As Ellie approached, she took in her friend’s pale face, swollen eyes, and reddened nose.
She reached for Clare and hugged her tight. “Everything’s going to be okay. It looks like they’re getting the fire under control.” Scanning the onlookers, there was no sign of Clare’s husband. Surely he hadn’t let his very pregnant wife come out alone in the middle of the night. “Where’s Karl?”
“He sh…should be here any minute. He’s d…dropping Jacob off to spend what’s left of the night at his parents’ house. I’m s...s...sorry I woke you.” Clare snuffled then pulled off one mitten and fumbled in her pocket for a tissue. She blew her nose noisily. “You didn’t need to come down. The fire didn’t spread to Pearl’s, after all.”
Ellie lifted her gaze to the top of the building, where firefighters had reduced the columns of flame to a few flickers. “No, but the food bank…”
“I don’t know what we’re going to do.” Tears trickled down Clare’s cheeks. “The shelves were stocked for the holidays. So many families depend on us.”
Ellie gave her shoulders a squeeze. “Don’t worry. The town will come together. We’ll find a way. We always do.”
A firefighter in full turnout gear approached them. When he removed his helmet, Ellie’s brows drew together and her jaw tightened. Thick, black hair—curling and damp with sweat—brushed his forehead above sky-blue eyes, a crooked nose, and strong, square jaw. Tyler O’Neil, Clare’s brother, the unofficial Playboy of Pumpkinseed Lake. And even better looking than the last time she saw him, if that was possible.
Ellie had known Tyler nearly all her life, but because he was four years older, she’d never known him well. To be completely honest, she’d harbored a secret crush on him for years, but she and Clare had never been more than minor annoyances, mosquitoes buzzing around the greatness that was Tyler O’Neil, Pumpkinseed Lake’s favorite son—the only local puck jockey to go on to the NHL. A knee injury might have ended his playing career, but it hadn’t put a dent in his local celebrity. He’d taken over the family construction business and grown it into one of the largest employers in town.
Their paths had rarely crossed in the past few years, which was fine by Ellie. The town grapevine provided more than enough information. Her friends, both single and married, carried on about Tyler as if he were God’s gift to the women of Pumpkinseed Lake instead of just a retired meathead hockey player. Although she had to admit he was easy on the eyes, over the years she’d heard enough double entendres about his ability to put the puck in the net to make her ears bleed.
Suddenly, Ellie realized he was speaking. And she’d been staring. Heat rose in her cheeks.
“—think it started in the motor of one of the freezers. The rear of the building and the roof have suffered significant structural damage. The interior of the main room and the shelves are intact, but there’s a lot of smoke and water damage. I don’t think you’ll be able to salvage much food.”
“But it’s only a week until Christmas,” Clare moaned. “And I’m so big I can hardly move.”
“I’m sure Karl and the rest of the congregation will help you pull something together.” Tyler wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, leaving a pale streak in the soot. “It doesn’t have to be fancy. People will appreciate anything the church can do.”
“Karl is so busy right now he doesn’t have a minute to spare.” As Clare contemplated the smoking building, her lower lip began to tremble again. “And it’s almost the end of the year. There isn’t enough money in the church treasury to rebuild.”
Her friend’s desolation broke Ellie’s heart. Clare was always so bubbly and upbeat. It hurt to see her crushed this way. “You have insurance, don’t you?”
Clare sniffed and nodded. “Yes, but there’s no way we can file a claim, get the money, make repairs, and re-stock the shelves in a week.”
Tyler stepped forward and put his arm around his sister. “I don’t want you to worry about a thing. Ellie and I will make this happen.”
He called me Ellie. He hasn’t said a word to me in ten years, but he remembered my name.
When he shifted his intense blue gaze to meet hers, she shivered. Maybe her friends were on to something after all. Tyler O’Neil had a way of making a girl want to say yes.
Besides, she couldn’t say no to the watery hope in Clare’s eyes. With orders for more than two hundred pies to fill in the next week, she had no idea where she would find time to do anything about the food bank, but she’d manage. She nodded and tried to smile. “Of course.”
Clare reached for her hand and pulled her close until the three of them formed a solid unit. “You two are the best. You’ve never let me down.”
Tyler looked over his sister’s head at Ellie. “We can get together around ten at Pearl’s for a strategy session.” One corner of his mouth rose in a half-smile just before he winked.She swallowed hard. What had she gotten herself into?
This story appears in the collection Small Town Christmas Tales.
You have me rooting for them already, Alison. But, of course, this all happens at Pumpkinseed Lake. Where else? Love it!
Oh dear, she's gotten herself into a pie of a mess--winks, and all. Great beginning to your story. I love these more and more every year.
This hero is HOT...and I'm not talking about the fact that he just came out of a burning building. Great opening, Alison!
Ah, gossip and a small town...love what it does to reputations. I wonder what Ellie's is...what has he heard about her? Great first third, Alison!
I was raised in WI so this struck a chord with me right away. Then add in a hero with an interesting face and reputations and, well, I'm hooked. Thanks for the story.
Thanks, Margo. This is one of those towns that just named itself for me. LOL Who knew there was such a thing as a pumpkinseed fish? But that's what research is for!
Vonnie, these stories do get more fun every year - fun to write and fun to read!
Jannine, as those of us from snow country know, there's nobody quite like a hockey player, right?
Rolynn, as you'll see even more in the next two installments, Pumpkinseed Lake lives up to every expectation of a small town.
Ashantay, I wanted to portray the special feel of that part of the country. I lived in the Twin Cities for 25 years and have fond memories of the small lake towns in western Wisconsin.
Ha, I adore the town name and the small town feel you've projected. Also, love the dilemma you've given the characters. Excellent start!
Thanks, Alicia. You gotta love small towns.
I loved this story, Alison. It's one of my favorites from your collection.
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