No Matter What: A Sweet Christmas Romance

"This is a great and amazing love story with loveable characters that definitely have you fall in love with them."  -Amazon Reader Review

Chapter 1

Stanton, Georgia
August 1955

Ellen Watson delighted in her two-year-old daughter’s sweet babbling beside her in the big double bed. Thoroughly awake, Ellen gave up on any chance of extra sleep. She turned toward Amy, pushing the child’s damp golden curls away from her face.

“Good morning, Amy Belle. I’ll be so glad when you can put all that jabbering into complete sentences and greet me first thing every morning. That will be a happy day when I hear you say Good morning, Mama…but you won’t have to learn to talk to your daddy.”

Not recognizing the sadness on her mama’s face or the loneliness in her eyes, Amy gave her mama a big smile. Ellen rewarded the child by pulling her into a hug. But not for long—the roasting heat in their dreary apartment without air conditioning didn’t invite much physical closeness.

Soon after leaving the wrinkled bed sheets, Ellen dressed her child in a sunsuit of tiny yellow and white stripes with shoulder straps crisscrossing her back. All through this morning ritual, Ellen continued her one-sided conversation. While feeding Amy oatmeal for breakfast, Ellen sipped her coffee.

Mealtimes with her child afforded Ellen bits of pleasure and time to gather her thoughts. Too often, however, her contemplation turned into daydreaming. She foolishly still expected her knight in shining armor to ride in on his white horse, rescue her, turn her life around, and make all her problems disappear.

A tear softly trailed across her cheek. No! She swiped at the tear. She wouldn’t allow any self-pity. God had blessed Ellen with this beautiful child and the opportunity to raise her the best she could. Being a mother without the child’s daddy proved difficult. Still, Ellen continually prayed that God would help her, provide for her needs. She gave the child’s hand a gentle squeeze and kissed it.

Raising Amy alone presented unexpected challenges. But all her twenty-one years, Ellen had never backed away from any problem, and she wouldn’t start now. Having her parents’ support would have made her circumstances easier. But she couldn’t change things. She could only try to make the best out of a bad situation.

When Amy finished her breakfast, Ellen wiped her face and hands, then set the child into a beat-up playpen in the living room.

“I’ll go get dressed and be right back. Mrs. Gregory paid me last night, so we’ll go to the grocery store for a few things.”

Later, Ellen pushed Amy in her stroller to the lobby of their apartment building. Regina, the manager, greeted them through the open door of her office, then left her desk to approach them. Her broad smile brightened every day as sunshine seemed to glow from every pore of her skin that reminded Ellen of creamed coffee. Her daily enthusiasm belied her middle age.

“Good morning, y’all! Where are you off to this early?”

“Going to the grocery store.”

Regina looked at her watch. “It’s almost time for the bus. I’ll walk out to the front with you.”

As they waited for a city bus, Regina chattered. “Do you have enough money to get what you need this morning?”

“Yes, ma’am. I won’t buy more than I need.”

“I know, but I had to ask. I worry about you and the little one. Don’t mean to intrude.”

“You never intrude. I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’ve been a life-saver, you really have—from finding me a place to stay here to checking on my baby and me. You’re a true friend.”

The bus chugged into the parking lot coughing diesel fumes, and stopped near them. Ellen picked up the baby, then Regina folded the stroller and followed Ellen onto the bus. Regina leaned the stroller behind the driver’s seat.

Later, inside the grocery store, Ellen moseyed around, pushing Amy in her stroller. Trips for groceries were one of few deviations from her daily caring for Amy and ironing for her neighbors whenever the baby slept. She didn’t need to hurry, and the store’s air conditioning felt wonderful on a hot August day.

Ellen heard a faint siren that seemed to get closer. She couldn’t see the front door, but the sudden commotion from that direction claimed her attention. In an instant, clamoring feet stormed down the aisle she crossed. Ellen glanced up in time to see three firemen in full gear of helmets, pants, coats, gloves, and oxygen tanks running toward her.

She hurriedly backed up, but the stroller remained in the firemen’s path. The first man glanced her way but didn’t look down to notice the stroller. Instead, when he neared them, he stutter-stepped to keep from barging into the stroller while the other two men continued their pace.

He reached out a hand to steady the stroller, and his other hand braced her shoulder so she wouldn’t fall. Their eyes connected for a brief moment. He looked toward the backs of the other firemen racing toward the rear of the market, then returned his gaze to her.

“Sorry,” he said, pointing in the direction the others had gone. He had no choice but to race away after them.

In the fireman’s absence, a vacuum surrounded her. Ellen shivered in the air-conditioned coolness of the big store. Staring to where the fireman had disappeared, she hoped—or imagined—he would reappear. What nonsense! Instead of gawking after a tall, handsome stranger, she should probably hurry to leave the store. Some emergency brought the firemen inside the building. She would be wise to get her daughter and herself out of harm’s way.

At the front of the store, the cashiers continued to ring up people’s sales, telling them a wiring problem back occurred in the meat department. Ellen chose the shortest line and waited to check out. She looked up at the round black and white wall clock mounted above the exit—just enough time to finish here and get out to the bus stop. After Ellen paid for her groceries, a bag boy picked the sack up and walked with her to catch the bus.

Outside, a fire truck stood at the curb, its bright red lights blinking. Amy pointed to the truck, wanting to explore. “Not now, sweetheart, we have to catch the bus.” At the bus stop, Ellen gathered Amy from the stroller and set her feet on the sidewalk. The boy put her grocery sack on a bus-stop bench and folded the stroller.

“Thanks, Billy.”

“Sure thing. Glad to help you.”

Shortly, the bus arrived, and with Billy helping with the stroller and groceries, Ellen finally sat for the short ride home, Amy bouncing on her lap. When the bus arrived at her apartment building, the driver carried the stroller off, unfolded it for Ellen, and retrieved her grocery bag.

“Thanks again, Jack.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Inside, Ellen waved to Regina in the office but didn’t stop to talk. She needed to get the quart of milk and carton of ice cream put away. Besides, Amy had become a little cranky on the ride home. So she parked Amy in her high chair while she put her groceries in their place. When she finished and turned to her child, Amy yawned and reached for her mama.

She lifted her from the high chair. “You ready for a nap, little one? Okay, that’ll give me a chance to get a piece or two of ironing done while you sleep.”

After settling Amy onto their double bed, Ellen set up the wooden ironing board nearby. She reached into a basket of clean clothes. Ellen preferred to iron pants but must finish every piece in the basket. She might as well blindly select something to begin—no time for favorites.

Ellen had ironed half of the first blouse when her mind wandered to earlier in the morning. The fireman’s face filled her mind.

She recalled the kindness in his eyes. The hand that reached out to steady the stroller. His hand that caringly brushed her shoulder to keep her from falling.

He’d said he was sorry—about what? Almost falling over them or not having time to spend with her? He appeared almost apologetic when he left to follow the other firemen—like maybe he wanted to stay with her. Still, his job prevented him from doing so. She felt the blush move over her face. So what? She’d never see him again. Why should she even imagine any man would want to spend time with her and her child?

After she’d ironed several pieces and placed them on hangers, Amy awoke, rubbing her eyes. Ellen turned off the iron and stepped away from the ironing board. “Hey there, sleepyhead. Feel better? Are you hungry?”

When Amy nodded, Ellen took her hand and walked the few steps toward the kitchen. She fixed them a light lunch—a jelly sandwich, banana slices, and milk for Amy and an apple for Ellen.

After they finished eating, Ellen said, “Let’s walk to the lobby to check the mail. Okay?”

Amy clapped her hands. “Go mail.”

Ellen had a mailbox near the manager’s office, just as each building’s resident did. Nothing of importance ever came for her except for the first of the month when the light bill arrived. But checking the box gave her and Amy something to do to help break up the monotony of their day. She wiped the left-over lunch from Amy’s face, and they headed for the lobby.

As she closed the empty mailbox door and dropped her key into a pocket, Regina left her office and joined them. “Want a cup of coffee?”

“No, thanks. Too hot for me to drink coffee.”

Regina filled her cup at the large urn on a table against the wall. “You have time to sit with me?”

“Sure.” They sat at one of the few scattered tables, and Amy hurried to the toys in a corner that would keep her occupied for a while.

“How was the shopping trip?” Regina asked.

“Just fine. Saw some things I wanted but can’t afford. Even picked up a magazine and almost put it in my basket. But I returned it to the shelf.”

“I’m sure sorry you can’t get all you want.”

“Thanks. We have what we need. Those little extras just catch my eye sometimes and tempt me.”

Amy walked up to their table, holding a red plastic firetruck she’d found in the toy box. “Truck,” she said and handed it to her mama.

“Yes, we saw a firetruck at the grocery store, didn’t we?”

The little girl nodded, excited. “Truck!” She grabbed the truck and returned to the toy box.

“You saw a fire at the market?” Regina asked.

“No, not a fire. But a firetruck waited outside when we left. Amy wanted to touch it, but we had to hurry to the bus.”

“No fire, though?”

“No, but there were firemen. One of them almost fell over Amy’s stroller.”

“He did, huh? Was he cute?”

Ellen dipped her head. “Regina, I don’t notice those things anymore.”

“Uh-oh, I think maybe you did notice this morning. Tell me!”

“It was nothing, really. Three firemen came running down the grocery aisle. The cashier told us about a wiring problem in the meat department, and they’d called in the emergency. Anyway, this one guy didn’t see Amy’s stroller.”

After Ellen finished telling Regina the story, she was almost breathless. Why did it excite her just to remember the encounter with the handsome fireman? Nothing could possibly come of it. Not ever. No man would ever pay attention to her again—no man would desire a widow and mother of a toddler. Maybe she’d dream about the fireman a couple of times. But nothing more.

Copyright 2021 Jo Huddleston 

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