Midnight Deal – Once Upon a Time #4

MidnightDeal_300x454ISBN:  ISBN:   978-1-60088-668-3

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Felicity had the biggest crush on the youngest Princeton son back in school, until he left home for college and a privileged life she knew would never be hers.

Years later, Marcus Princeton returns to Everland to open his own veterinary clinic. He has no time for his father’s match-making schemes, until he meets an adorably feisty farmer’s daughter.

Felicity is struggling to keep her family dairy farm running. Bills are piling up, so a romance with the sexy new vet is impossible. And then along comes Rupert with an unbelievable deal. But is he her savior…or her downfall?

The Everland Gazette

Tragic Accident Injures Owner of Colbert Farm.

“All ready for the big day?”

Marcus Princeton looked up from the newspaper article he was reading to see his cousin, Richard, and brother, Maxwell, walk in the front door of what had become, with a lot of manual labor and major renovations, his very own veterinary clinic.

He smiled. “Doors open bright and early tomorrow morning. Just have a few final touch-ups left to do around here. Finally got the ad for a receptionist in the paper, too, and I’m hanging up fliers later this morning. I’ve already had a couple of phone-in inquiries about house calls for farm animals.”

“Sounds great.” Richard set a paper bag on the counter.

“There’s a big need for a vet in this area,” Maxwell added, “especially since the only one in Everland retired last year.”

That was the reason Marcus had decided it was time to come home. He’d spent years studying for one degree after another, but it was time to put what he’d learned into practice. A recent downturn in the economy and real estate had enabled him to land a small, two-story storefront, with room for a nice-sized apartment on the second level, at a fraction of what it would’ve cost just a few years earlier.

As much as he loved his family, moving back into his father’s mansion had never been an option, despite the old man’s wishes to have all of his sons back home. Marcus had been on his own too long to be comfortable living with anyone, even family. Especially family.

“What’s that?” he asked Richard, eyeing the paper bag.

“Sylvia’s way of welcoming a new neighbor to Main Street.” He pushed the bag toward Marcus. “She would’ve brought it over herself, but she’s busy with the morning rush over at the café.”

“Mmm, smells great.” He began to pull out container after container and chuckled. “Is she trying to feed the entire Princeton family?”

Richard grinned. “She’d feed the whole town if she could. My sweet little chef loves to cook.”

Marcus bit into a flaky, buttery croissant and moaned. “Oh, God, this is good.” It sure beat cafeteria food on campus or, worse yet, his own attempts at cooking.

Maxwell produced a bottle of white wine with a sly grin. “This is from me and Cindy.” No doubt it was made from grapes grown in the Princetons’ small, private vineyard. “I know it’s early in the day, but it’s never too early to celebrate. Welcome home, brother.”

“Thanks, Max…again.” He’d been welcomed home in a number of ways since he dropped in for a family dinner at the Princeton Estate to announce he’d closed on a building in the Market District. His surprise had left his chatty, opinionated father speechless for once in the old man’s life—a moment Marcus would always treasure.

Maxwell laughed. “Okay, I get it. No more well wishes. We’re just all very happy you’re finally home. It’s good to have the whole family back together after so many years.”

Richard snorted. “Yeah, if I came home, it’s about time you did.”

Richard had been sent to boarding school as a child, against his wishes, and had sworn he’d never return, but he had. When his father passed away, suffering a heart attack during a mine collapse, he’d come home to take over the family mining business.

Marcus grinned. “I’ve been here for a month.” He’d needed that long to get moved in and his new clinic readied for the grand opening. His older half-brother, Thomas, having done much of his own home renovations, had helped with some of the tougher repairs that were beyond Marcus’ limited construction abilities. But everything had finally come together, and he was as ready as he’d ever be.

“Yes, I guess you have,” Maxwell said, “which means you won’t be able to put Father off much longer. He’s hoping to do a little matchmaking.”

Marcus groaned.

“As the last bachelor in the Princeton clan, you had to expect it,” his cousin added without an ounce of sympathy. He was the latest to get engaged after Marcus’ brother, Maxwell, had tied the knot with Cindy. Even Thomas, the professed eternal bachelor in the family, had eloped not so long ago.

“Just because the marriage bug bit you guys in the ass doesn’t mean I’m ready to settle down. I enjoy dating, but I’m just now getting my career underway. I need to focus on that.” He looked at his brother. “What’s Dad planning?”

Maxwell shrugged. “Don’t know, but he has that look in his eye, so be warned.”

He swallowed another bite of his delicious meal and said, “Noted. I’ll be too busy with work to socialize in any of his circles anyway, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to evade whatever he comes up with.” He pushed a container of some kind of ham and cheese and egg fluff toward them. “Here, have some. I can’t eat all of this.”

They moved into the lobby area where they could each take up seats around a small coffee table. As Maxwell poured some wine in paper cups Richard had retrieved from a shelf near a bottled water dispenser, Marcus grabbed his newspaper and asked Richard, “How’s the investigation going?”

Marcus’ aunt, Richard’s mother, had been arrested for poisoning his fiancée. Sylvia had survived and encouraged Richard to post bail for his mother, which he’d agreed to do, so long as she remained under house arrest in his childhood home. Not wanting his mother and fiancée under the same roof, Richard had then chosen to move out of the mansion that belonged to his mother and into Sylvia’s smaller home, which she shared with a passel of over-protective brothers. It was a temporary fix that made Marcus wince with sympathy.

“And the house-hunting?” he added before Richard could answer.

“Both too slow for my liking,” his cousin replied around a bite.

“I offered to let them stay at our place,” Maxwell said. “There’s plenty of room.”

“I appreciate it, but Sylvia really wants a home all her own and, quite frankly, so do I. The only time I have alone with her is when I can corner her in the supply closet at the café.”

Marcus chuckled. He and his cousin could both see eye-to-eye on that. Only Maxwell seemed able to live in harmony with the well-meaning, albeit nosey family patriarch.

Richard gestured toward the newspaper. “It hasn’t made the news, yet, but the police are investigating the town’s herbalist now, too, to see what part she played in my mother’s plans.”

“Who?” Marcus asked at the same time a surprised Maxwell asked, “Laveau?”

Richard nodded and took a sip of wine, but Marcus watched Maxwell. He knew his big brother well enough to recognize the tone he’d used did not bode well.

“You know her?” Marcus asked.

“Yeah, I know her.” Maxwell turned his attention to Richard. “What do they have on her?”

“Nothing at the moment. My mother says she got the idea from the herbalist. According to Mother, the poison was somehow supposed to magically affect Sylvia’s interests, make her want to leave town, wander off, or something like that. Instead, it damn near killed her. But she didn’t buy the potion from Laveau. She got it from some guy down at that bar in Lost Souls Swamp.”

“I can’t picture your mother in a place like that,” Marcus muttered.

“Me either,” Richard said, “but it just shows how desperate she was to break me and Sylvia up. How Sylvia can be so forgiving is beyond me, but I’m trying hard to not let what she did get to me. I mean, she is still my mother, and Sylvia keeps pointing out that she did what she thought was best for me.” He rolled his eyes. “She didn’t think a miner’s daughter was a good enough match for a Princeton.”

Maxwell gave him a supportive pat on the shoulder. “It’ll all work out, and remember, you’ve got plenty of other family here to see you through.” He took another bite of the coffee cake he’d been eating then added with a big grin, “And we all love her.”

Richard smiled. “Thanks.”

Marcus grinned. “And when he marries, he’ll have more brothers than an only child could ever want!”

Richard cringed. “Don’t remind me.” His lips twitched into a smile. “They’re not so bad, I guess.”

* * * * *

Felicity Colbert was feeling more cantankerous than a three-legged mule when she spied the shiny black car rolling up the gravel drive toward her home.

What now?

She’d already discovered a problem that morning with the old portable milking machine, which would have to be replaced if she couldn’t repair it. Until she could find a solution to that problem, she’d be spending most of her time milking by hand, a chore that would take her three times longer without the machine or her father’s help.

And, worse, she’d been pecked one too many times while gathering eggs. Fried chicken was sounding real good for dinner tonight.

With her arms wrapped around a heavy basket of fresh eggs, she used her foot to kick the chicken coop’s gate closed before the hens or rooster could get out, and headed in the direction of the driveway.

The gentleman who exited the car was a clean-shaven, older man with grayish white hair and a fancy, dark-colored suit—well-dressed, like a banker would be.

“You can just get off my property now, mister. We’re not buying or sellin’, and if you’re from the bank, you can go back and tell them they’ll have their money soon enough!”

Her outburst stopped the man one foot shy of the steps leading to the porch.

He turned and smiled at her, which only made her frown more. “With that much spunk, you must be Harry’s girl. My, I have to say you’ve grown up a lot since the last time I saw you in pigtails and ribbons.”

She stopped, adjusted the basket in her arms, and eyed the old man. “Who are you? And what do you want?”

Before he could answer, the creak of the screen door sounded, and her dad hobbled into view. “Well, I’ll be damned. Tanker? Is that you?”

The well-dressed gentleman grinned and headed up the stairs with a spry gait that defied his age. “Good to see you again, Harry.”

They shook hands and gave each other a backslapping hug that made Felicity chide her father. “Dad, you shouldn’t be up walking on that foot. You know what the doctor said.”

“Come on in,” he said to his guest before waving at her and adding, “That doctor don’t always know what’s best for a man, young lady. Set those eggs down and come on in here so I can introduce ya to a good friend o’ mine.”

With a worried frown, she carried the basket into the farmhouse, watching her father hobble on crutches into their small living room. He let free a loud sigh after he plopped back into his recliner.

“It’s tough getting old,” he said to his friend as she set the basket on their dinner table positioned like an island in the center of the kitchen.

“I heard about your accident.”

Her father grumbled. “Yeah, I’ll be back on my feet soon enough.”

“No, you won’t,” Felicity said, walking up behind him to place a hand on his shoulder. “You’re going to stay off that foot and let the bones heal.” She looked at their guest. “The cow crushed five bones, and he twisted his ankle and bruised a hip trying to get his foot free. He needs his rest—”

“Rest! That’s all I’ve been getting ’round here. I tell you—”

“Aren’t you going to introduce me, Daddy?” she asked, interrupting her loveable but crotchety pa before he could get on a roll.

“Oh, right. Tanker, this here’s my daughter, Felicity.” He glanced up at her. “Felicity, this is Marcus Tancock Princeton, otherwise known to the Everland Eagles as Tanker.” Her father grinned. “The best damn left guard that ol’ school ever had.”

Their guest stood up and extended a hand toward her with a smile. “Your father was a pretty good quarterback, too, so long as I protected his blindside.”

She shook the man’s hand. “Pleased to meet you.” She’d heard of the Princeton clan. It was hard not to; they were the most powerful and popular family in Everland. She’d gone to school with his sons, though she doubted they’d remember her, since she was one full grade behind the youngest of the bunch, and he’d taken advanced classes that helped him graduate half a year early. But she hadn’t known her father was close, personal friends with the family patriarch.

“You may not remember,” her father said, looking at her with a grin, “but Tanker used to bounce you on his knee when you was no taller than a billy goat.”

“Sorry,” Mr. Princeton said. “It’s been too long, my friend…too long.”

As her father waved off the apology, she asked, “Why’d they call you Tanker?”

The man took his seat again and smirked at her father. “Let’s just say I used to hit hard once the football pads were on.”

“And he could drink anyone on the team under the table any day of the week.” Her father laughed, looked at Mr. Princeton, and said in unison with his high school friend, “Including the coach!”

Well, at least the man’s presence helped put her father in good spirits. He hadn’t laughed so much in months. More like years. Not since they lost her mother to a sudden heart attack when Felicity was eighteen. Her mother’s death was one of the reasons she’d stayed on at the Colbert Farm instead of heading off to college in the city. Her father had felt bad at first for not providing her with the means to go, but truth be told, she’d never been much for exams and classrooms. She preferred to learn through real life experiences, and what better way to do that than to dive into farming? She’d worked beside her father for as long as she could remember, and she couldn’t think of anything else she’d ever want to do.

She loved the land and the animals, the smell of fresh hay, and the wondrous sight of a newborn calf trying to stand for the first time.

Felicity had everything she could ever want right here on her family’s farm. If she could just get them through this rough spell, the future would be brighter.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s this about the bank needing payment?”

“It’s nothing,” she said hastily, taking a seat in her mother’s wooden rocker. Her father didn’t quite know the extent of their current financial difficulties, and she hoped to keep it that way until he was feeling better. There wasn’t anything he could do about it right now anyway, being that he was supposed to take it easy for another few weeks and let his foot heal. She picked up the newspaper and flipped to the comic strips and puzzles.

Her father sighed. “With the accident and all, we’re a little late with the mortgage.”

Felicity pressed her lips together. If it were just a little late…

“Is there something I can do to help?”

“Naw, naw. I appreciate the offer,” her father said, “but when we get the next shipment of milk turned in, we’ll be all caught up.”

Felicity didn’t have the heart to tell her father they’d be further behind soon because of the problem with the milking machine, but she didn’t want to worry him. Besides, now wasn’t the time to discuss it, not with company in the house. She’d think of some way to either get the money for repairs or a replacement machine. There was always the money from selling eggs at the Saturday market, and there might be enough in her savings to pay for an extra field hand to help out for at least a week or so, just until they could get the milk extracted, pasteurized, and sent to market. Hadn’t they hired on extra help during summers past? Young teenagers looking to earn a little spending money?

“Well, you know you can always call me, my friend, if you ever need anything,” Mr. Princeton was saying.

She changed the subject. “Dad, I meant to tell you earlier; Ida Belle’s getting bigger by the day. I suspect she’s gonna have her calf soon.”

“Good… That’s real good,” her father said with a smile and a nod.

“Oh? You going to need the vet out here? You know there’s a new one opening a clinic on Main Street.” Mr. Princeton’s smile was much brighter now for some reason she couldn’t quite fathom.

What was so exciting about a veterinarian?

With her father’s hospital bills and the mortgage issue, and now the problem with the milker, they didn’t need vet bills on top of everything else. “I think we can—”

“Yeah,” her father said, cutting off her reply. “Ida Belle’s one of the older cows in our herd, and she had problems with the last calf she threw. It might be a good idea to have him come out and check up on her.”

“Dad, I—”

“Felicity, you’re taking those eggs to the market tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” she said with little enthusiasm.

“That’s perfect then. Why don’t you stop by the clinic and see if he’ll make a house call out this way later this week?”

“Yes, sir.” She set the paper aside, got up, and headed for the kitchen with a muttered, “If you’ll excuse me, please.”

She’d better get on with the milking. Doing it by hand, all by herself twice a day… Just the thought of it exhausted her, and tomorrow she’d have to be up extra early so she could get the morning milking done before she went to the market.

Permanent link to this article: http://annaleighkeatonbooks.com/2014/09/midnight-deal-once-upon-a-time-4/

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