In addition to spiritual resources, Franciscan Media publishes inspirational Christian fiction. Below is an excerpt from The First Gift, a novel by Ruth Logan Herne.
“Gentlemen, this is going to be crowded today,” Jake instructed once he’d parked the car in a village lot. “Don’t run off, don’t misbehave, and don’t let me forget to buy some of Miss Kerry’s apples.”
“This is a long way to come for apples,” said Abe. “They must be really, really good ones.”
Jake kept it simple. “I expect they are. But there’s also some fun stuff to do.”
“I hear music!” Easier to please, Ben looked around, excited.
“When in doubt, follow the music.”
“Let’s do it!”
Sales tents lined the street and three sides of the small town park, but the organizers had given the prime spots to local farmers. Decorated wagons and booths rimmed the spacious parking lot, with a petting zoo on one side and wagon rides through a nearby orchard flanking the other end.
A band played on a raised portable stage, a dance company performed on a ground-level stage, and beyond it all stood Kerry.
Jake’s heart went tight. A broad farm wagon was pulled up along- side the booth, and an eye-catching display of apples, cider, and baked goods lined the wagon’s edge. Whitewashed counters and graduated shelving stood under the booth’s broad, red canopy, and the steam of a fryer plumed from the back, filling the air with the scent of freshly-fried donuts.
“Can we get cotton candy?”
“Can we go see the clowns?”
“Can we play on the straw mountain?”
“Yes, yes, and yes, but let’s check out the apple stand first, OK?” Abe rolled his eyes as if fruit ranked dead last on his list, but Ben squeezed his hand tighter. “Sure, Dad!”
One so easy to please and one who resisted any kind of change. Was this normal?
He started to ponder that but then locked the thought down.
It might be normal, but the boys’ lives had been abnormal with Lorelei gone, so normal became atypical by default. They didn’t have two parents to balance their equation. They had one somewhat stuck-in-his-ways father who got a little badgered by his own well-meaning mother.
But they were doing OK, and that was the main thing. He took each boy’s hand and began to cross the last leg of the people-filled parking lot.
Kerry looked up.
Their eyes met.
And then she smiled, and oh...that smile. As if he’d gone and done something wildly marvelous by bringing the boys up north to the festival.
He raised each boy’s hand slightly higher. “We heard there were some of the best apples and cider fry cakes this side of the Genesee River, ma’am, so me and my little partners here decided to take a little drive and check the evidence.” He raised his left hand higher. “This is Abraham Michael Slattery.”
Kerry leaned over the counter and stuck out a hand. “Pleased to meet you, Abraham.”
“Just Abe.” Abe let go of Jake’s hand and stuck his hands into his back pockets with all the swagger a five-year-old could muster. “My dad said these were the best apples ever.”
“Did he, now?” She slanted a smile up at Jake but shifted her attention right back to Abe. “Well, we don’t like to brag, but I think your dad is right. Here.” She held out a sample plate. “Honey Crisp and Crispins. See what you think.”
“I f-f-fink something sure smells very good!” Ben beamed a smile up at Jake, then at Kerry. “And I don’t f-fink it’s apples.”
“And this is Ben.” Jake palmed the littler guy’s head. “He’s got a soft spot for food.”
“Well, who doesn’t? And it just so happens you boys came at the right time because I need your opinion. Folks have voted these to be the best fried cakes in all of Western New York, but I want you to tell me what you think because your opinion matters a lot. As long as it’s OK with your dad.”
“We’re happy to help, ma’am. In any way we can.” He let his eyes twinkle into hers, and when her color rose, he figured he was doing all right for an out-of-practice guy.
“My ‘pinion matters?” Abe looked unconvinced but intrigued by the idea.
“Cross my heart.”
“Reawwy?” Ben wasn’t only persuaded, he was ready, willing, and able to jump on the bandwagon. He took a bite and grinned before he was quite done chewing. “I fink it’s the very best, yes!”
“Your good opinion is clutch, Ben. But Abe...” Kerry turned those baby blue eyes on Jake’s oldest son, and her look of concern was Oscar-winning material. Or she was being utterly sincere, and that was a prize-winner in itself. “I need to know what older boys think, too. If you need a little time—” She waved like she had all day, like they weren’t surrounded by throngs of people milling about, searching for goods, booth by booth.
“I’ve got time right now, I think.” He looked up to Jake for confirmation, and Jake nodded.
“Take all the time you need, son.”
The women in Kerry’s booth were smiling.
A few folks who’d gathered around the booth were smiling.
And when Abe took a bite of that delicious cider-glazed confection and grinned, it was like the whole group breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s good!” He held the rest of the donut in one hand and offered her a thumb-up with the other.
She waved her hand across her forehead in relief. “Phew! I was just that little bit worried, Abe Slattery, that you might not love these like I do, because when I make them on Mrs. Wilder’s back porch, I like to share them.”
“You make these?” Abe didn’t have to pretend to be impressed, because not only were the donuts melt-in-your-mouth amazing, the thought of someone making them close to home clearly delighted him.
“I do, and it’s the Gray family recipe, so I am sworn to secrecy, but yes, I can make these and share them with my Phillipsburg friends.”
“Hey, I’m from Phillipsburg!” Abe’s wide-eyed grin showed twin dimples. “That’s where we live!”
“It’s a small world!” Kerry smiled at him.
The boys looked happy. Genuinely happy, and Jake knew they needed to move on to show the boys the sights of the festival, even though he’d like to linger a while. See Kerry smile. Watch as they glazed the donuts in the back and brought warm, sweet trays to the front.
And then Kerry undid her apron, tossed it onto the back counter, and slipped out of the booth. “Jenn, I’ll be back in a few minutes, OK?”
“We’ve got this.” Jenn waved to her, then him. “Have fun.”
And there she was, with him, with them, and it didn’t seem to matter a whit that their skin tones didn’t all match, and when Ben wanted to climb the straw mountain but shied away, Kerry went right up there with him, while Abe led the way. They sat at the top and posed while he grabbed a picture with his phone, the three of them looking triumphant and happy in the bright autumn setting.
Old emotions swept him, but not bad ones this time.
Good ones. Good feelings. A mix of joy and pride and fun. He had to give her back to the booth a short time later.
The boys requested apples, more time to play, and begged for fried cakes. “Yes, but we’ll get the apples and donuts on our way to the car,”
he told them. “We’ll stop back and see Kerry and her family on our way out, OK?”
Abe was tugging his hand, ever impatient. Ben grinned up at Kerry, more easy-going than his older brother. “I’m glad you got to play with us.”
“Me, too.” She winked at him, then brought her attention up to Jake. “I’ll see you before you leave, OK?”
He turned back and caught her eye. “Yes?”
“Thanks for coming up here. For making the trip.”
His smile started from somewhere indefinable, somewhere deep inside. “It was an absolute pleasure, ma’am.”
His words pleased her, but that wasn’t why he said them. He said them because they were true, but when she flushed, he knew he’d done well. “See you later.”
“I’ll be here.”
It wasn’t a date like they’d planned. It was life unscripted. With two busy boys, sometimes spur of the moment worked best, and when they piled apples and fried cakes and cider into the car later, Ben grabbed his hand tight. “This was like the best day, Dad! Thank you!”
“You’re welcome.” He ruffled Ben’s short hair. “What about you, Abe-man?”
“The straw mountain was the best, and I’m probably the best climber there was today, don’t you think? Like fastest and best?”
Abe’s smug look reflected his competitive nature. Ben’s contentment mirrored his more chill personality. They’d both had fun, and Jake was pretty sure he’d impressed the girl, which made the day special for all three Slattery men.
He drove ninety minutes to see her.
Wait. Fix that.
Jake drove ninety minutes with two kids to see her. And then he hung out, let the boys play, bought them some great food, and headed home after saying good-bye.
He didn’t fuss, whine, or make her feel guilty about helping or being so far north.
She drove back to Phillipsburg late Sunday afternoon, happy. Jenn and Will had a crazy successful weekend, the family worked together to make that happen, and Jake Slattery had gone the distance when least expected.
Just thinking of that made her smile, because in her fun, make- believe world of romance, that was how it was supposed to be.
She liked it.
Excerpted from The First Gift, a novel by Ruth Logan Herne. To learn more about this book, click the image below.