The Farmer Legacy – The Prologue (Or, When Frannie Met Charlie)

Fran woke the morning after the wedding with her new husband Charlie wrapped around her. Six short months ago, she was single and working at the diner, and today she was a married woman. As she laid in bed that snowy winter morning, she smiled at the memories of how it all began…

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Chapter One

Frances Hutchins first met Charles Farmer in the small town of Appaloosa Plains. She was a shy middle schooler and he was a freshman in high school. At the time, the age difference was a big deal for Frannie’s father, Jake, who forbade her to see Charlie. He was, after all, two years older and a whole school level higher than his only baby girl. Charlie knew from the moment he saw her, however, that someday Frannie Hutchins would be his wife.

Time passed and Frannie entered high school as a freshman. Charlie was a junior by then and his interest in Frannie had waned. Though they had spent some time together the previous summer, Charlie became more interested in girls his own age. He liked Frannie but he believed she was too young for him. Besides, her father had demanded that Charlie not come calling any longer. Jake Hutchins was too much of an obstacle to keep their relationship viable. Wanting to respect her dad’s wishes, Charlie broke off the relationship. Frannie never knew why Charlie ended things so suddenly between them but after the initial sting of rejection, she didn’t give him much thought anymore.

Two years later, Charlie graduated from high school and joined the military. By this time, Frannie was little more than a fond memory. He had moved on and settled into the routine and regimented life of the military. Frannie was starting her junior year that fall and was beginning to be interested in the boys in her class. She dated one boy for a couple of months, but he quickly lost interest when a new girl moved into town. Frannie believed she loved Mark Acker but he shattered her heart into pieces right there in the cafeteria when she caught him kissing Crystal VanDyke. She ran home before school was even over, sobbing all the way home.  Penelope Hutchins, Frannie’s mother, had never seen her daughter so distraught and she was genuinely worried. And when Jake found out, he was right there to comfort his daughter, but also remind her that she was still too young to be so serious about a boy.

Just about a month after her break up in her junior year, Frannie’s father was killed on the job. Jake had been a firefighter at the station in town. On that day, it was a particularly difficult fire, involving every available firefighter at the station. The fire was relentless in its intensity, and Jake was attempting to rescue a young boy who had become trapped in the blaze. He knew time was running out before the boy would be overcome with smoke. When he reached the child, he removed his own breathing equipment and placed it over the child’s face. Jake broke a window and called for another firefighter to come grab the boy. 

No sooner had Jake handed the child to his coworker when the ceilings on the entire first floor gave way, trapping him in the burning house. His body was found badly burned inside the home after the fire had been extinguished. Penny and Frannie were devastated, but very proud of him for saving the boy’s life. At his funeral, the boy presented a flag to Penny and Frannie, with a dozen white roses, which were placed upon his casket. Frannie spent a whole month crying over her dad.  It was a very difficult time for the Hutchins family.

A year had passed since Jake’s death, and the Hutchins women were on the mend. Penny had resigned herself to living the rest of her days without the man she loved. And though she missed her father desperately, Frannie had dozens of friends with whom she spent most of her time. It was her friends who saw her through the lowest time in her life. She earned Valedictorian in her graduating class. Fran dedicated her valedictory speech to her father and the other brave men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to others. Penny wept and cheered for her only daughter, beaming with pride as she took her diploma and threw her cap. If only her daddy could see her now, she thought. He, too, would be proud.

A year later, Fran was working part-time as a waitress at the diner in town. After Jake’s death, any hope of college for her was gone. Despite her exemplary grades, she couldn’t qualify for scholarships so she worked in a menial dead-end job, putting food on the table for her and Penny and managing to save a little for a rainy day. 

Charlie was home from the military on leave to visit his family and went to the diner with his old buddies. He hadn’t been home for more than a day and had never given a thought to the young girl he met as a freshman all those years ago. But when he looked up from the menu Fran stood almost impatiently, her order pad in her hand, looking grown up and stunningly beautiful. At that moment he remembered their first meeting six years prior and why he had been infatuated with her. Her childish features had given way to soft, womanly qualities that, in all his travels, he had not seen before. His eyes met hers, and time stood still for a moment. It seemed an eternity as he tried to think of something smooth to say to her. Flustered, all he managed to stammer was, “Is that really you, Frannie?”

Fran hadn’t been called “Frannie” in years, not since her father had passed away. She tried hard to place the face, though she knew he looked familiar. Searching her memory, she suddenly realized she was looking at Charlie! She remembered the crush she had on him when she was a girl of thirteen years. Over the years she had forgotten him! But as she stared at him, Fran noticed his ruggedly handsome features, and she recalled why she loved him all those years ago. Lost in the memory, she stood until she realized someone was saying her name. “Frannie? Are you okay?” He was touching her arm, gently shaking her back to reality.

“Yes, yes, I am fine Charlie,” she answered, flushed with embarrassment. “I can’t believe you’re sitting here. I thought you were in the military?”

“I am,” he answered, “but I’m on leave until Sunday. Frannie, I have to see you. May I take you for dinner tonight, after work? Please?”

She smiled at the plea, suddenly amused. “Yes! I would love to go with you tonight!!” They made plans for dinner, and he would arrive at her home at six o’clock.

After her shift at the diner, she raced home as fast as she could, beaming with joy and a little nervousness as she anticipated her date with Charlie. She spun and danced her way into the breezeway in their tiny home where Penny was awaiting her return home. 

“Well Fran,” Penny quipped, seeing her daughter’s obviously elated mood, “you must have had a good tip day today!”

“Oh, Mama,” Fran squealed, “You will NEVER guess who came into the diner today!

Penny thought for a moment, gave Fran a sly smile and replied, “The Reaper?”

“No, but good guess!” Fran laughed. Then her face turned serious. She sat down on the settee and patted the seat next to her. Penny sat, suddenly anxious. “Mama, do you remember Charlie Farmer?”

A sparkle of recollection lit in the older woman’s eyes. “Of course I remember Charlie. He was a nice boy from a good family. I still see his Ma around at the market from time to time. He went off to the military if I remember correctly?”

“Yes Mama,” Fran confirmed. “He was away for a couple of years, but he’s home on leave until Sunday. He’s asked me to dinner tonight and I said yes.” She lowered her eyes from Penny’s, a burning question on her tongue. “Mama, do you think Daddy would have approved?”

Penny’s eyes welled with emotion. She remembered all too well the bickering over Frannie and Charlie. She never saw the problem with their daughter seeing the boy. He was from a good family, the oldest of three, but the only boy. He was sensitive and treated his own folks with respect. That was good enough for her. 

But Jake, he was more in tune with what young men Charlie’s age were really after. He was a boy of sixteen once himself after all, and he was terrified his little girl would end up with someone just like him. He was being a protective father and Penny knew it, even if she didn’t agree. But Penny had observed the way they looked at each other and knew there was a connection there. She was as surprised as Fran when Charlie walked away without warning, though she strongly suspected Jake had something to do with it.

“You know, sweet pea, things are different now. You’re both older, and there isn’t a reason I can think of that would make your daddy object.” Penny could plainly see Fran’s excitement, but also sensed some dread in the tone of her voice. “Are you certain you want to go with Charlie, Fran? I sense some worry under all that eagerness. What’s bothering you, child?”

“Oh, Mama, stop calling me ‘child!” she snapped, instantly regretting the tone of voice. Her shoulders slumped and choked back tears of bitter regret. “Mama, I’m sorry,” Fran wept. “I didn’t mean to—”

Her mother hushed her, holding her finger to pursed lips. “Getting snippy isn’t like you, Fran. What’s really going on?”

Fran hesitated, wiping tears away as she spoke. “I’m nervous, Mama. There’s a part of me that’s always liked Charlie but we haven’t seen each other for so long. How do I know that he’s going to feel the same, or that he won’t end up like Mark…” Her voice trailed off, lost in a memory she’d rather forget.

Penny reached to touch her daughter’s shoulder. “Fran, I don’t think he would have offered to take you for a date if he wasn’t sure he wanted to see you.” She took Fran’s hands in hers and patted them softly. “And I don’t think it’s fair to Charlie to compare him to Mark, do you?”

“No, you’re right mama,” Fran agreed. “Charlie isn’t Mark, and he did ask me to dinner.” Her mind wandered mid-sentence back to when she and Charlie had spent time together that one summer. She was hurt that he stopped calling her so suddenly. “Mama, why do you suppose Charlie just stopped coming around when I was seeing him?”

Penny’s face softened, and she smiled. “I don’t know for sure, because he never told me so, but I think that was all your daddy’s doing. Charlie didn’t walk away because he didn’t care, sweet pea.” A subtle frown formed on Fran’s face.

“Why would Daddy do that, mama?” she asked. “Didn’t he know how much I liked Charlie?”

“Now, don’t be mad at your daddy, Fran. He only did what he thought was best for you.  Remember, you were his little princess.” Penny stood and pulled Fran up next to her and hugged her. “Go on and get ready for dinner. It sounds like you have a date with destiny.”

Fran swallowed hard and mouthed the word her mother left hanging in the air. Destiny.

Chapter Two

Charlie arrived at the house at exactly six o’clock, parked his father’s old sedan in the driveway and nervously approached the door. Dressed in his uniform, he looked very grown-up, even though he was the tender age of just twenty-one. Hesitantly, he reached for the doorbell and to his surprise, the door opened before he had a chance to ring it. Penelope Hutchins was standing on the other side beaming at the young man calling on her daughter.

“Charlie Farmer! Don’t you clean up like a shiny new penny!” She exclaimed almost a little too enthusiastically.

“Yes, ma’am, I suppose I do,” Charlie said sheepishly.

“Come on in and sit down. Fran will be down in a minute.” She showed the young man into the sitting room to the antique settee. She took a seat and patted the cushion next to her, motioning for Charlie to sit with her. “How have you been, Charlie? It sure has been a long time!  I bet you’ve been some pretty exciting places, being in the military and all.”

Charlie blushed. “Yes ma’am, I have. I’ve been all over Simville, even to Strangeville. Interesting village and people over there…” His voice trailed off and wished Frannie would come and rescue him.

Penny stared in awe of the young man. He was only twenty-one but he’d been places she’d only dreamed of visiting, like Starlight Shores and Pleasantview. She’d never left Appaloosa Plains and would likely never get the opportunity at this stage in her life. At once, they heard the sound of light footsteps padding down the stairs and turned their heads in time to see Fran descending the steps. Charlie’s mouth fell agape as if he’d seen an angel. Fran blushed as she reached the bottom step, her hands folded in front of her and shyly looked at Charlie. Her mother was beaming and mouthed the word “Destiny” to Fran once again.

That didn’t help, mother! Fran thought, her stomach in knots. Her hair was curled in ringlets, pulled back with a hairband that belonged to Penny when she was younger. Her dress was lilac in color, embroidered with white flowers and a white shrug draped across her shoulders. In her hand, she clutched a tiny patent leather purse and she smelled faintly of jasmine. She didn’t wear makeup but she didn’t have to. Her skin was dewy from nerves and her cheeks blushed all on their own.

“Wow,” said Charlie after a long pause. “You are breathtaking!”

“Thank you, Charlie,” answered Fran, blushing again from the compliment.

“Shall we go?” He asked as he offered her his arm to hold.

“Sure,” she replied and took his arm. Together they walked down the driveway to his car. He held the door for her as she got in, then walked around to the other side. Once he was in the car, he couldn’t stop looking at her. Her ginger hair, pale complexion, and adorable freckles made her look near perfect. She exhaled a sigh and said, “I can’t believe we are here together at long last.”

“Believe me, Frannie, this was the last place I thought I would be tonight. It has been so long since we were interested in each other and I know this sounds forward, but from the moment we first met I knew we would be together forever. Do I sound crazy?” He sat, waiting for her reply, almost not breathing while she thought.

“No, Charlie, you don’t sound crazy at all! I’m going to tell you something and it might make me sound a little crazy. I dated a boy in high school before my Daddy passed away. I won’t say his name, but he broke my heart. After that trainwreck, I never wanted to date again and I’ll admit I was really nervous when we met at the diner today. But all those feelings I used to have for you,” she paused to collect her thoughts, “as soon as you touched me, every feeling, every emotion came back and I realized that you have always been in my heart. I didn’t know it, Charlie, but I was waiting for you…” Her words trailed off, and she sat in stunned silence, wondering why she put her heart on her sleeve for Charlie to see. She immediately wished she could take back every word when she felt his hand on her face.

Charlie’s expression softened and he smiled at her. “I didn’t even realize how much I’ve always loved you until this afternoon. Frannie, I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward but I adore you and I want to be with you. I wanted to respect your pa’s wishes because I respected him and I understand why he never approved of me.” Charlie shrugged, then continued. “I thought I had forgotten you when in truth it was you I’ve always wanted.” He stopped to let his words sink in, mostly because he couldn’t say another word without fearing he was overplaying his hand.

Fran took Charlie’s hand and smiled. “I’m glad I’m not the only one spilling the beans today!” she joked, very relieved that her declaration was not only well-received but reciprocated. She was about to continue speaking when Charlie interrupted her.

“I know this is all unexpected and sudden. Yesterday, neither of us dreamed this would happen, but here we are. I will do everything I can to prove to you I am serious. I want you to know, Frannie, that I will go at your pace, at your comfort level. If it means I have to wait forever, please know I’ll do it and I’ll do it gladly.”

She smiled and chuckled. “Maybe we should go have dinner first. We can talk about forever over dessert.”

“Deal!” Charlie laughed. He started the car and pulled out of the driveway and toward the restaurant. He held her hand the entire way there.

Chapter Three

Charlie and Fran talked all night after their dinner date like they had never been apart. It was sunrise before they realized they weren’t even tired. Reluctantly, he brought her home and drove the old sedan back to the family home just down the street. Fran had never felt like this before. Her infatuation had grown during the night to full-blown love and his had, too. They learned they had so much in common, which was a total surprise to both of them. They also decided their two-year age difference was nothing to stop them from a full-blown romance. Fran was exhausted, but yet she felt like she could run around the world with all her energy. She opened the front door to find her mama waiting for her.

Meekly she stepped inside. “Hi, mama!” she said like she was not the least bit late. 

“Good morning sunshine!” Penelope Hutchins beamed at her daughter. “I bet you’re a tired little girl, aren’t you?” 

“Oh, you have no idea! But I feel like I don’t even need to sleep when Charlie is around!” Fran glowed in the newness of love, not feeling weak or weary at all but refreshed and renewed. 

Penny smiled at her daughter. “I want to hear all about your date, but first I want you to get some rest! Off to bed with you!”

“No argument here, Mama,” Fran yawned and stretched. She suddenly felt the sleepiness of the long night settle upon her and she wondered if she could drag herself back up the steps she had descended just twelve short hours ago. 

“Sweet dreams!” Penny yelled to Fran as she closed her door, stripped down and changed into her nightclothes and nestled into bed.

At two-thirty that afternoon, Fran was awakened by the honking of a horn and the sound of her name in the front yard. “Frannie! Come on, love!” Charlie called to her through the window. She quickly changed her clothes and ran downstairs to meet him. “Well, where’s that lovely young lady I dropped off this morning? Hmm?” Charlie teased. Fran had forgotten to brush her hair and the look of sleep was still heavy in her eyes but she never looked more beautiful to him. 

“What are you doing, Charlie?” 

“Don’t you remember, darling? I wanted to take you to the lake today to spend some time together before my leave ends. Don’t you want to go with me?” As she fully awakened, she remembered he’d be there that afternoon to take her for a picnic and swimming at the lake. 

“Now, that’s a silly question! I want to be with you forever!” 

He grinned from ear to ear, “Good! Now go on and get your things together. I’ll wait out here by the car.”

Penny went upstairs with Fran to help her collect some clean clothes to pack and grabbed an old blanket from the linen closet for them to sit on. She wasn’t at all distrustful of letting Charlie take Fran to the lake. She even doubted Jake would have opposed. She knew where this romance was headed and she was sure Charlie would be the son she never had before very long. Penny kissed her daughter’s cheek before she ran out the door. “Bye child!” she called behind her. “Don’t be too late, now!” She winked at Fran and mouthed the word “Destiny” to her again. This time it didn’t give Fran an uneasy feeling, but one of anticipation and longing.

Charlie drove them to the lake where they found a little clearing by some trees. He knew the area well. It was where he used to fish as a boy. He carried the picnic basket and she picked some wildflowers she found in the meadow along the way. She spread the blanket down on the ground and he set his bundle down on top of it. They sat cross-legged across from each other, and he took her hand. 

“Let’s just sit and look at each other,” Fran suggested, “because I have to pinch myself to know this is real!” 

Charlie chuckled at her. “If that’s what you want, love. Anything for you.” They stared at one another for what seemed like hours when Charlie touched her face softly. He leaned in for a peck on her cheek and kissed her lightly. She held his face between her hands and kissed him tenderly. They were both breathless and speechless when they pulled away.

“Let’s go swimming!” Charlie suggested. Her kisses lit a fire in him, and he needed to extinguish it before she noticed. “See that tire over there on that tree? Before I left, Rob and I tied that up for swinging and jumping into the lake. Let’s see how you can swing, girl!” Charlie bounced up, and Fran followed him. “You swimming in that?” he asked, noticing her cut off shorts and frilly button-down blouse. 

“No, smarty pants!” She retorted. “I’m going to swim in my birthday suit!” She noticed him staring at her in utter disbelief. She laughed and said, “Just kidding! I have my suit on under my shorts.” 

He shot her a playfully sad look and threw his flip-flop at her. “Not fair!” He teased as he watched her shimmy out of her shorts and blouse. “You don’t get to kiss and tease me like that without—” 

Fran cut him off and said, “Well, it’s a good thing the water is cold!” Charlie smiled smugly and thought to himself, Amen to that! Fran was wearing a suit that showed off her figure but left everything to his imagination. It was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen a woman wear and suddenly he was very grateful for that cold, early summer lake.

“You wearing that?” She teased, making fun of his cutoff jeans and ratty old sneakers. 

“As a matter of fact, yes I am!” he answered as he pulled his shirt off and tossed it toward their picnic blanket. 

“I’ll race you to that tire swing!” she shouted, getting a split-second head start on him. He started after her, not running nearly as fast as he could have. He liked the view from the rear and he was in no hurry to change it. She laughed as she reached the swing yelling, “I won, I won!” He ran right up behind her and hugged her. She melted into his arms as she turned around. 

“You look absolutely stunning,” he said, trying to catch his breath, not from running but from the sheer excitement of being with her. 

“And you, sir, need glasses!” She joked as she grabbed the rope and pulled the swing down. “Last one in is a rotten egg!” She yelled as she swung out over the lake and jumped in. The tire swung back toward Charlie and he grabbed it, hopped on and swung out, jumping in with Fran. 

“Oh, so now I’m a rotten egg, am I?” He laughed, giving her a splash. She swam over to him and embraced him, wrapping her legs around his waist in the water. 

“Charlie, what would you say if I told you I love you?” She asked, grinning, but biting her tongue at the same time.

“What would I say? Hmmm…” Charlie pondered. After appearing to think for a moment, he confidently replied, “Well, I love you more!” He kissed her and they stayed embraced in the water. He felt a fish nibbling at his toes but he didn’t care, and it didn’t hurt anyway. A meteor could have fallen on his head and he wouldn’t have noticed anything but how beautiful Fran looked at that moment. “Frances Hutchins, I love you to the moon and back, and I know now I always have.” 

She blushed but was quick to answer, “I’ve always loved you, too Charles Farmer.” With her still in his arms, he waded back to the shore and carried her to the blanket they had set out. She began to dry off a bit and warm up, as the water had been extremely cold. Charlie reached into the basket and pulled out two sandwiches, a small tub of fruit from the trees in his yard, a bottle of wine with two glasses and a small, brown box. Charlie sat down on the blanket across from Fran dripping wet and shivering from the cold water, held her hands in his and said the words he had rehearsed in his head since he saw her at the diner.

“Frannie, I love you and I have since the day I first saw you. I always knew that someday, you would be by my side for the rest of our lives. I was hoping that we could start that right now,” Charlie opened the small box to reveal his grandmother’s antique diamond engagement ring. Fran’s jaw dropped open and she started to cry, nodding her head while he slipped the ring on her finger. “Frances Hutchins, will you do me the honor of being my wife?” 

Her tears of joy gave way to laughter as she gazed at the beautiful diamond ring sitting on her finger. “Yes! Yes! Oh my! Charlie! I can’t believe this is all happening so fast, but it’s all so wonderfully perfect!” She flung herself at him and covered his face in warm, tender kisses. 

“You just made me the happiest man in the world!” He began to cry himself, not really believing the moment was real. They embraced and just held each other, both of them trembling, not from the cool air and colder water, but from excitement.

Chapter Four

Charlie and Fran returned home from the picnic at dusk and he walked her to the front door. Penny was anticipating their arrival. “Come in, come in!” She motioned to the newly engaged couple. “So, tell me all about your trip to the lake!” She sat on the edge of her seat, wanting to hear the details of their afternoon. 

Penny watched with delight as Fran told the story about their picnic, the lake, even the fish that nibbled on Charlie’s toes. She was giddy and animated, waving her arms around and describing every little detail. And when she finally came to the part about the ring and the big question, Penny’s eyes welled with tears of joy. She reached for her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes, winking at him. “Welcome to the family, Charlie!” 

“Mama, I thought you would be upset that we’ve only been on one date! Why are you so calm about all this? Did you know he was going to ask me?” Fran finally thought to ask her mother. 

“Well, child,” Penny explained, “Charlie asked for my blessing before he called for you this afternoon. He was here for about half an hour before he woke you. And it didn’t take a genius to figure out, now that you two are back together, destiny would be taking its rightful place.” Suddenly, Fran understood why Penny had talked about destiny. Even her mama had known this was meant to be, probably sooner than she had herself. 

“I’ll leave you two for a while. I’m in the kitchen if you need me,” Penny said as she walked from the sitting room. Charlie looked at Fran, deep in thought as he contemplated his return to base in the morning. Even though she suspected why he looked so pensive, she spoke anyway.

“Is everything okay, Charlie?” 

“Darling, tomorrow is Sunday, and you know….” His voice trailed off. He felt a lump rising in his throat and he swallowed hard, trying to fight it.

“I know. You have to return to the military in the morning.” Her lip started to quiver as she fought back tears. Funny, she thought, how this night turned from such a happy event to so somber. “I will be waiting for you patiently until you come back.” She paused for effect and continued. “Okay, maybe not patiently. How long will you be away? When is your next leave?” 

“I’m not sure, love,” Charlie answered. “I’m usually only allowed a few days every couple of months and sometimes I can’t make it home in time.”

“What about the wedding, though? Will you be able to have leave then?” 

Charlie tried to recall the policy on leave for weddings and the birth of children. “I am pretty sure if I ask ahead of time, it won’t be a problem. But I am requesting a transfer back to Appaloosa Plains as soon as I get back. The military is decent money, and the potential for advancement is too good to give up. In fact, I’m up for a good promotion when I return.”

“Can you really transfer?” she asked. “It would be incredible to have you close and not have to spend time away from each other. I suppose we’ll just have to make the best of our separation while we’re apart.”

“That’s my girl,” he smiled. “There is usually a post opening up as older guys retire from the force, so that is nearly a guarantee. I’ll only be a phone call or a letter away.”

“Well,” she warned, “you had better take care of yourself and stay safe. I refuse to lose you again. I might not… I’m not sure I could stand it.” Tears filled her eyes. 

“Don’t you worry, Frannie,” he reassured her. “It’s peacetime, and most of my time is spent in drills and training for something that won’t likely happen.” He smiled at her, wiping his own tears from his eyes.

Penny had cooked dinner and invited Charlie to stay. They ate together and talked about wedding plans, dates, and when he would be home again. They tentatively set a winter wedding date which would give Penny and Fran plenty of time to make arrangements. Charlie would be married in his uniform, so there was no need to worry about his clothing. All he had to do was show up and say “I Do!”

Fran walked Charlie to the front porch when it was time for him to go home. “I wish you didn’t have to leave, Charlie. I’m going to miss you so much,” Fran sighed. 

“I know, darling,” he answered. “But the time will pass before we both know it. You’ll be busy at the diner and planning the wedding, having a bridal shower with your friends, and getting wrapped up in all the things that go with weddings.” He smiled, relieved he didn’t have to deal with any of it. 

“Yes, and you’ll be off doing your drills and training. You’ll be having so much fun that you won’t think of me once!” she teased, but she knew better. His heart was breaking just the same as hers. “Just think, the next time you see me it will be for our wedding!”

“I can’t wait!” Charlie said. He kissed her goodbye and turned to go, holding her hand until distance broke their grasp. 

“I love you,” she said, tears in her eyes. 

“I love you more,” he answered. He couldn’t bear to look back because he feared he would not leave. Fran cried as he pulled away in his dad’s car, leaving a cloud of dust in the gravel driveway.

Penny, who had watched the departure from the front door, had tears of her own trickling down her cheeks. She stood at the steps waiting for Fran to come up, and she hugged her only daughter. “Are you okay, child?” she asked.

“No, mama, I’m truly not. I just want to go to sleep. I’m exhausted,” Fran yawned and sniffled. She dragged herself upstairs, Penny close behind. In all her nineteen years, she had never been this sad, but at the same time deliriously happy. Reaching her bedroom, she changed into her nightgown and climbed into bed. Penny, for the first time since Fran was much younger, tucked her in and kissed her forehead.

“Good night, my Frannie. May you dream of only good things tonight, sweet child.”

“Good night, mama.” Fran had barely gotten the words out before she drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Five

The wedding took almost five months to plan between the dress, the little church and Pastor Steven, the cake, and the reception. Money had been tight since Jake passed away. Penny and Jake married later in life than most of their friends, and though they had wanted a large family, they were only blessed with Frances. Penny stayed home with Fran and took care of their home and her small vegetable garden. She was happy to have that garden now as the fruits of her labor brought extra income at the farmer’s market downtown. With Frannie and Charlie getting married soon, she wondered how she would manage on her own again. Without Fran’s income, however small it was, Penny feared Jake’s pension wouldn’t be enough to sustain her and the house. 

Fran swirled around and swung out the hem of her dress, almost to the point it made her dizzy. “How do I look, mama?” she asked her mother, who sat in the chair at the seamstress’ studio. The young bride-to-be was dressed in the most beautiful wedding gown Penny had ever seen.

“You look like an angel, Fran. The only thing you’re missing is your wings.” Penny quipped. “Seriously, though. Charlie is going to be knocked out when he sees you in such a beautiful dress!”

Fran blushed. The closer the wedding got, the more excited and nervous she got. “Oh mama, you’re just saying that,” she blurted out. “I don’t have a halo either!”

Penny laughed. “You’re right, child. I’ll order one right away!” She stuck her tongue out at the bride, who was now full out laughing. “It’s good to see you happy, Fran. I can’t believe how quickly time has gone.”

“For you, maybe,” countered Fran. “For me, it’s been counting every month, every day, every hour, every minute until Charlie is home and we are married.” It indeed seemed an eternity, a lifetime ago since Charlie and Fran had kissed goodbye that cool, early summer night. Outside snow was falling with blizzard intensity. “Do you think the storm will let up before the wedding, Mama?”

“I hope so, but if not you’ll have the prettiest wedding in all Appaloosa Plains history!” Penny said. “Now, turn around again and let me see that dress!” Fran was all too happy to spin and show off. Debra, the seamstress, made the final adjustments to the gown and Fran slipped out of it and into her own clothes. To celebrate, the two ladies went to Fran’s diner to have lunch and collect her final paycheck. After this day, she was no longer employed at the Koffi Cafe.

Charlie’s plane came in a day early and he wanted to surprise her. His transfer to Appaloosa Plains had come sooner than he had expected and after the wedding, he didn’t have to leave. This would be his wedding gift to his new bride. He wanted to surprise her so badly he contemplated spoiling it but he was determined to make this special. He even surprised his parents with his early homecoming. After a hug from his mama and a good, firm handshake from his pa, Charlie rushed upstairs to shower and shake off the fatigue from his trip home. 

He dressed in his favorite old blue jeans and suede blazer, donned his well-worn cowboy hat and slid into his boots. There, he thought to himself, that feels a lot more like me. The spring in his step was clearly noticeable to his baby sister, Jenny. 

“Wow,” she remarked, “Not even a hello from my big brother. I see how you are!”

“Jen-Jen, get over here so I can give you smooches,” he laughed and began after her, knowing she hated it. She giggled and tried to run, but his long stride and longer legs quickly outpaced her. He caught her and gave her a huge kiss on her nose.

“Eww Charlie! Gross!” Jenny laughed. After the kiss fest and ensuing tickle fight, she stood almost indignantly with her hands on her hips. “Where are you going? You just got home!”

 “I’m going to see Frannie. I haven’t seen her in months and I miss her.” Charlie was so excited to be home, he couldn’t stop smiling.

“Be home for dinner! Bring Frannie if you want!” Charlie’s mom, Dolly, called from the kitchen. Her birth name was Faith, but she had been called Dolly since she was a little girl. 

“I’ll ask her, Ma,” Charlie called out as he walked out the front door and walked down the street to the Hutchins’ home. 

It hadn’t stopped snowing all day and it was bitter cold. Charlie didn’t feel any of it as he almost skipped down the white-covered street to the Hutchins’ home. Quietly, he tiptoed up the steps and rapped lightly on the front door. Inside, he could hear Frannie say, “I’ll get it, Mama.” The anticipation was killing him as she approached. When she opened it he greeted her with the biggest Cheshire cat grin.

“Hi love,” he said casually, trying not to show his emotions. 

“CHARLIE!” Fran screamed in delight. “When? How? Where? How long have you been home? I didn’t think you were coming until tomorrow night? Oh, who cares! Come here!” She grabbed for his hands and pulled him to her. She wrapped herself around him like garland around a tree and kissed him. “Oh, how I’ve missed you!”

Penny heard the commotion in the foyer and came running. “Charlie! My favorite soon-to-be son-in-law!” She hugged the boy almost as hard as Fran had and he discovered from whom Fran got her freakish strength. 

“Hi, Mrs. Hutchins. It’s good to see you,” Charlie replied.

“Mrs. Hutchins? Really boy, please call me Penny. We’re nearly family. After the wedding, you can call me Mom but only if you’d like to.” Penny was talking a hundred miles an hour. 

“Mama, can I have him back now please?” Fran patiently waited for her mother to be done greeting her handsome fiancé. 

“Oh, sorry Fran,” Penny said sheepishly. “I’ll finish my washing in the back and leave you two alone.” She turned and almost skipped away, a feat considering she was no young woman.

“Let me take a look at you,” Charlie said beaming with happiness. “You’ve only gotten prettier since I saw you this summer.”

Fran blushed as she always did. “You’re even more handsome than I remember.”

“Ma wanted me to ask you for dinner tonight. She and Pa wanted to see us together before the wedding.” Charlie pondered for a moment. “I told her I’d ask you but I don’t know your plans.” 

“Mama and I were going to have dinner together tonight but I’ll ask if we can postpone until tomorrow.” Fran hated to leave her mother alone when she had been so good to her this past few months. 

“No, it’s okay love. Ma will understand why you don’t come,” Charlie reassured her. 

“Are you sure, Charlie? I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot. Your family has been nothing but wonderful to me while you’ve been away. I really should repay the kindness—” 

Charlie stopped her. “It’s okay, love. Really.”

“Thanks for understanding. I’m all she has and I worry about her.” It was one of the things that Charlie adored about Fran: Her concern and love for her mother. Over the months between the summer and then, Charlie came to know his future mother-in-law through Fran. He, too, was concerned about her welfare after the wedding.

“What does tomorrow look like for you, love?” Charlie asked her. He had some last-minute details with Rob and the others, and the guys wanted to throw a bachelor party before the wedding in two days. 

“Mama and I are going to pick up my dress, then finalize plans for the reception and pay Pastor Steven for his services. After that, I’m free as a bird.” Her mind raced with all she had to do, things she didn’t tell him, like arranging for his wedding gift to be delivered and pick up his family’s flowers. 

“How’s about this? I’m very tired from traveling, and Ma wants me back for dinner. I’ll call you tomorrow before my bachelor party. Sound good?”

“Yes, it sounds wonderful. I still can’t believe you’re home early! I’ve missed you so much. Only two more days left in our countdown and we’ll be married!”

“I can’t wait, love!” Charlie replied. “Goodnight, Penny!” He yelled from the foyer.

“Goodnight Charlie!” Penny yelled back from the back of the house. 

Charlie leaned in and kissed Fran, and held up two fingers. “I love you.”

“I love you more,” said Fran and blew him a kiss as he left. She stood waving in the door as she watched him disappear into the snowstorm.

Chapter Six

Penny woke her daughter up on Saturday morning. “Rise and shine, sweet child!”

Sleepily, Fran rolled over and saw her Mama standing in the doorway of her bedroom. “Is it finally here?” She felt like a little girl waiting for Snowflake Day.

“Yes, child. It’s your big day!” Penny felt a little odd calling her now twenty-year-old daughter “child,” but it had become a pet name she didn’t want to stop. 

Fran hopped out of bed and stretched. “I don’t believe it’s finally here. Is Charlie’s gift all set up for him?” She had a brand new treadmill delivered to their home because there was nowhere else to deliver it. Charlie and Fran hadn’t really discussed where they would live after the wedding. She just assumed she would continue living at home until his transfer came through.

“It’s downstairs waiting for him with a big bow on it, just like you ordered.” Penny helped her pick the new equipment out. It might not have seemed like an appropriate wedding gift but it was something Charlie said he would need once the transfer to Appaloosa Plains had been completed.

“Awesome!” Fran replied. She had a card with a photograph of the treadmill in it to give him after the ceremony. 

“Come have breakfast. I made your favorite. Pancakes!” Penny called from downstairs.

“Coming, Mama!” Fran slipped a warm robe on and headed down for breakfast with her mother.

Meanwhile, at the Farmer house, things were just as calm and collected. Charlie didn’t need a wake-up call. His sisters were both so excited to be bridesmaids, they woke him with their squeals of delight. Their mother was busy helping them shower and with their hair. Charlie walked out to the kitchen where his dad was making breakfast. “Good morning, son. Happy wedding day to you!” 

“Thanks, Pa,” Charlie answered. He sat down with a plateful of eggs, bacon, homemade biscuits and preserves from Penny’s garden. Both families had gotten close during Charlie’s time away. Penny had given them jars of preserves from her garden, some honey from the bees she and Jake kept, and eggs from their small chicken coop. In return, the Farmers helped out with some of the wedding expenses. They, too, wanted everything to be perfect. 

About twenty minutes later Gracie, Charlie’s nineteen-year-old sister, came prancing into the kitchen to grab breakfast, her hair in rollers and dressed in a bathrobe. “Ooh, it’s chilly down here, Papa!” she exclaimed. 

Being a man of few words George Farmer simply said, “Yes.” He smiled lovingly at his older daughter. He loved his girls, but he didn’t relate to them the same way he did to Charlie. He taught his boy how to play catch, build tire swings, repair his old car, and shoot a gun. Now, he was watching his oldest take a wife and the next step to manhood. He was very proud of Charlie.

Minutes later Dolly appeared with Jenny, a giddy girl of seventeen who would be in her first wedding. “Thank you for cooking, Georgie,” Dolly said, already exhausted. Her girls were tiring her out. Even though neither of them were small children their excitement made them seem much younger than their ages. 

“You’re welcome Doll,” George replied. “I know this is a big day for these little screechers.” He sneered at his daughters.

“Papa!” Gracie exclaimed. “I’m not a screecher!”

“And you’ve just proved my point. Eat your breakfast, young’un.” George finished up washing the last pan and Charlie stood to wash his own dishes. “What time is the wedding today, Charl?”

“Noon sharp,” Charlie answered. He hated when his Pa called him “Charl,” but he knew complaining about it would change nothing. No matter, he thought. I won’t have to hear it much after the wedding. 

*****

Fran and Penny arrived at the church at eleven o’clock with Clara, Fran’s maid of honor and best friend. The bride’s room was already set with her gown and shoes. She had done her own hair, pulling it up into an elegant updo with a light rose headband. Penny helped her into her gown, and she did one final turn around. The fit was perfect, a satin, long sleeve gown with a full train and sweetheart neckline. It had an intricate lace pattern down the front in a faint off-pink color, beaded with small faux pearls. Her veil covered her face, and in back reached almost to the train. Her shoes were actually boots that were appropriate for a snowy, wintry white wedding but they were comfortable and perfect for the occasion. Shortly afterward Dolly arrived with Jenny and Grace, already dressed in their dresses. Penny helped the girls with their flowers.

Charlie was next to arrive with his father. They were already dressed. George had his best suit on, and Charlie was in his dress military uniform. His best friend Rob wore a white tux jacket with black slacks and the other groomsmen wore all black. George gave his son a few last words of advice and left to sit down in the sanctuary. With ten minutes to go before the ceremony began, all four guys went to the sanctuary to wait on Fran and her bridesmaids. At exactly twelve noon, the music began to play and the doors to the back of the sanctuary opened. 

Jenny was the first to walk down the aisle. Her dress was red satin, with cap sleeves and a full skirt. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and Penny had woven some flowers into and around the band. Next was Grace. She wore the same color dress, but since she was more of a tomboy than Jenny, it was a style that complimented her personality. Clara walked down the aisle next, accompanied by Rob, Charlie’s best man. Her dress was a beautiful red satin dress that looked more like Jenny’s dress than Grace’s, but she wore a white shawl around her shoulders like a shrug. 

Finally, the music changed to “Here Comes the Bride.” Fran appeared at the back of the church escorted by her mother. Charlie was totally blown away at how gorgeous Fran looked and promptly lost it. As Fran walked down the aisle, her mother at her side, Charlie wiped tears of joy from his eyes. He had never seen a more beautiful woman in his life and he was awed by her. Fran realized Charlie was crying when she saw him and she began to cry. Penny lifted the veil away from her face and kissed her forehead. 

“Who gives this woman to this man?” Pastor Steven asked.

“I do,” replied Penny, now wiping her own tears away. She had never been more proud of her daughter than at that moment. Before she turned to sit, she mouthed the word “Destiny” to Fran. And Fran smiled.

The couple exchanged vows and rings, said “I Do,” and kissed under a beautifully decorated wedding arch at the front of the small church. Pastor Steven pronounced them husband and wife, and the guests all cheered. The reception followed right at the common room inside the church house, complete with a cake, music, dancing and a buffet meal. George and Dolly toasted to their new daughter-in-law, and Penny thanked the Farmers for raising their son to be an upstanding young gentleman. 

After the couple cut the cake and had their first dance, Penny announced that she had a surprise for the couple. “First, I want to let everyone know that Fran and I appreciate all of you for coming,” she began. “As you know, Fran and I have lived in our farmhouse since the passing of my husband, Jake, who would have loved being here today. Frannie grew up there, and it would be an honor to see my grandchildren grow up there as well. What I’m saying, Fran and Charlie,” Penny continued, “is that I am giving you two the house. You can move in right away, Charlie.” 

Fran was flabbergasted. “But where will you live Mama?” 

“Don’t worry about me, sweet girl. I’ll make other arrangements,” Penny stated. “And don’t try to talk me out of this. My mind is made up and the deed to the house is in your names now.”

Charlie, who was completely floored by the generosity and sacrifice of the gift, chimed in. “You’re not going to go anywhere, Penny. You’ll live with us, in your house—”

Penny cut him off. “It’s your house now. But I won’t say no to the offer if you really want me.”

“Of course we want you!” Fran insisted. “It’s not acceptable that you give us your home and give up your claim to it. I won’t stand for it.”

“Neither will I,” Charlie agreed. “It’s settled. You’ll stay with us. And while we’re in a giving mood, I have a surprise for Frannie myself.” Charlie was bursting with excitement to tell her his good news. “Darling,” he said, taking her hand in his, “my transfer to Appaloosa Plains is completed. I am not leaving on Monday. I’m staying right here with you.”

“Really? You mean it, Charlie?” Fran’s eyes welled up with happy tears. All of this was too much for her, and she finally broke down. “I can’t believe it! Everything we’ve wanted, and it’s real. Someone pinch me!”

“I’ll volunteer!” laughed Rob.

“Oh no you won’t!” countered Charlie. “And I’ll fight you if you try!” Rob play punched Charlie in the arm and he hugged his best friend. “You know I’m joking about fighting but really, don’t touch her!” 

Charlie and Fran spent most of the afternoon on the dance floor, just holding each other and swaying to the music. The party started to wind down around seven, and everyone was gone home by eight-thirty that night. Charlie and Fran left the party and went to a quiet inn that the Farmers had given as a gift. The room was decorated with antique furniture and had a fireplace, perfect for the snowy night that it turned out to be. Charlie started a fire in the hearth, popped open a bottle of champagne and together, they watched the snow falling until the quiet hours of the morning, just relaxing and loving each other.

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 Up Next: Chapter One, Generation One