Where My Heart Belongs

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Of Dinner and Strangers

: Of Dinner and Strangers:

Woken by the sound of her father’s alarm clock, Jeannie sat up in her bed but she strangely didn’t feel tired as usual. Checking her own clock, she couldn’t believe the time but decided to get up anyway. It had been a while for her to get up at the crack of dawn.
Her room hadn’t been touched ever since she had left; even her old outfits and boots were still in the wardrobe, neatly cleaned, ironed and hung up. Above the dresser hung old pictures of her friends and medals from the shows she had attended as a teenager. Even the old dream catcher that Lorna, Joseph’s wife, had made for her. She touched the eagle feathers carefully and let them glide through her fingers as she fondly remembered the day she and Lorna had found them. It was during one of the many hikes her god-mother had taken her on when the ranch was too busy for young legs to be around.
After putting on her outfit Jeannie critically checked herself in the mirror. For the first time in months she felt like herself. No silly skirt and heels were pinching and twitching. Just her good old jeans, her favorite cotton shirt with rose embroidery on the chest and her worn out brown boots .She put her hair up in a ponytail as she nipped down in to the kitchen where her father already sat at the table. His coffee sat in front of him while he was reading the papers.
Bewildered that his daughter was already up and ready for action he looked over his reading glasses in disbelieve.
“Morning’?” he muttered confused as toast popped out of the toaster.
“Morning dad. I’m ready when you are. Anything special to do today?”
Thomas’ gaze followed Jeannie as she pranced through the kitchen and prepared their breakfast.
“You just want some toast or eggs as well?”
“Erm, are you okay? You are here for a visit you really don’t have to all this.”
Jeannie waved his words away with one single gesture. Before she replied she placed the buttered toast on the table and gave her old man a fleeting kiss.
“Don’t be silly dad. You can always do with another pair of hands here. So, what’s going to happen today?”
“Just the usual. We have to check on two Broom-Tails. Seems like they have gotten in a fight yesterday and one of them seemed to limp but wouldn’t let me or Joe come near it. Might be a bit more settled this morning. Other than that, well you could start with getting the horses out on the back field and clean out the boxes.”
“Alright then – But still, -eggs, yes or no?”
“Okay, before I get forced!” Thomas chuckled “Makes a change to my burned creations. By the way, the shirt looks much better on you then the stuff you were wearing yesterday. Just sayin’”, he commented under his breath while going back to his papers.
The hours ran by in a flash. After getting most of the horses out on to the field Jeannie had her hands full with cleaning out their boxes and the Tack Room. It was in dire need of a good clear out. The smell of saddle polish threw her back in time and reminded her of all the hours she and her brother had spent as children helping with preparations for the horse shows. They had gotten on so much better back then. Before she knew it, lunch time was already looming. Her father appeared in the door and watched his youngest daughter. Her hair was all messy and dirt covered her cheeks. A sight he truly had not expected to witness any time soon and realized how much he had actually missed seeing her like this.
“You’ve been busy Jean” he said observingly “You have earned your lunch. Come, pack up and meet us outside”
Jeannie nodded with a smile and replied; “See you in two Dad”. She quickly tidied up after her and straightened her hair before she walked over to the porch.
Lorna had brought some cold meat, rolls and lemonade for them and had placed it on the camping table which was in the yard under an old Oak Tree. Jeannie’s great-grandfather had planted it there when he had built the ranch as a young man. When Jeannie had been about six years had tried to climb it once and fell of one of the branches and broke her leg. Of all times it was during the summer vacations, which left her grumpy and housebound almost all summer, while her brother and sister were free to roam the fields.

Jeannie embraced the peace while she lay under the tree with the sun shimmering between the branches. Her hat pulled down in to her face to avoid getting sunburn. New York seemed continents away. A far away fading memory she had left behind, at least for the moment. She looked over the fields that stretched for miles up into the horizon and asked herself why it had taken her actually so long to take this step, when suddenly her cell phone rang. Everyone around looked up at her in anticipation and curiosity. But Jeannie didn’t give it another thought to check who tried to call. Thomas coughed to break the silence and took the opportunity. Jeannie was in such a good mode which made him more confident to tell her about the dinner plans he had agreed to for later that evening.
“Great work you’ve done kid” Jeannie immediately knew that he was up to something. He usually never said kid unless some uncomfortable news would follow. A little tensed Jeannie sat up straight and starred at her father expectantly.
“Well, you see tonight, Lorna was going to”,
“Oh, leave me out of this Tom!” interrupted Loran as she poured more lemonade in to a glass.
Thomas sighed and wrestled for the right words. “Well, I thought it would be nice, now that we have everyone together, to have a family dinner.”
Jeannie’s heart felt as if it were pounding out her chest any second and almost didn’t dare to ask as she knew already the answer. “With we you mean the four of us, right?” she muttered and pointed at Lorna and Joe.
“Not quite. But they’ll be there as well”, Tom continued again and was interrupted by Lorna’s muttering “as buffers between the old cattle”
Tom gave her one understanding look to leave it be.
“Your brother and sister are coming with their families as well. They really are looking forward seeing you” Thomas added quickly as he noticed how Jeannie turned her head in a little annoyed.
“Really? I’m here for less than 24 hours and Josh and Susan have nothing better to do than giving me already lectures?!” Jeannie stood up and wiped the dirt of her back.
“Jeannie, you don’t know that. They haven’t seen you in a while and are really just here for a few hours. The kids are coming, too. You don’t think they would cause an argument with the little ones around?”
Everyone stared at Thomas with a more than defying look on their faces.
“Good then. If I have no say in this. I got work to do.” Jeannie quickly walked across to the big field and ignored her father who still tried to sweet-talk the dinner.
With a see you later and a wave she disappeared around the corner.
“That went well, didn’t it?” Lorna shook her head. “They could have waited at least a few days to let her settle in properly. Just saying, but what do I know?”
Thomas ignored her words by the best of his ability and followed Jeannie.
Again, her cell phone rang. Annoyed she grabbed it out her breast pocket and without checking for the caller she answered.
An excited voice shouted straight down the line.
“Where on earth are you? I have tried to get in to the apartment and you are gone?! I had to call the concierge to get someone to sort the lock out!”
“Excuse me Bradley? I told you I was going back home! Are you ever listening to a word I say?!”
“I thought you were joking! Who in their right mind would go to a deserted place like that! Come on, you have to come back. The office has asked for you already as well.”
Still stomping along the field Jeannie halted for a moment. “I took leave so don’t start with this. I need some time on my own.”
“Babe, if that is because of the other night, I can explain”
“Bradley, safe your breath”, Jeannie interrupted She was sick to the back teeth to listen to his excuses, “I had enough of you and your excuses for everything. By all means, you gave me enough to think about. That’s for sure!”
“Jeannie, please don’t do something silly.”
“What would that be, Brad?”
Silence for a moment.
“You know, I love you Jeannie?” he replied in the sweetest voice he could produce, sounding almost desperate, but Jeannie could see through his fake façade of idle intensions.
“Look Bradley, I really need time. I asked you before I left to leave me alone for the time be. And no, please don’t say anything now. Please, respect that. I will call you when I am ready”.
Jeannie hung up the phone and almost instantly it started to ring again.
Thomas had almost caught up with her had only heard snippets of the conversation which had left him with even more questions. As he approached Jeannie, she was prancing up and down the spot, ready to throw her phone as far away as she possibly could but pocketed it instead.
“What was that all about Jeannie?”
She barley was able to look her father in to the eyes. She didn’t want to lie to him nor did she want to burden him with the problems she had with her ‘boyfriend’, or whatever he actually was to her now. They both had pushed the inevitable in front of them for longer than it was good. Jeannie couldn’t even think when she last had seen him for more than just a work partner. This couldn’t be love.
“Just someone from New York who hasn’t understood that I am away for a while. Work, you know.” Jeannie tried to explain without giving too much away.
“Work,” Thomas mumbled in disbelief. “Jeannie, you should know by now that I know when you are hiding something.”
“Dad, it’s nothing honestly. Nothing I couldn’t deal with myself. So, dinner at 7 isn’t it?”
Quicker than he could say his own name, Jeannie pressed a kiss on his cheek and ran back to the stables. Why did she always had to confuse him like that he asked himself and tried to make his own assumptions why she had come home. With worry on his face that only a father could show, Tom looked after his daughter that stormed down the dirt track as she kicked up the ground with her boots which startled some of the horses that were grazing in the afternoon sun.

Lorna had spent most of the day in the kitchen to get dinner ready. The house was filled with the most delicious promising scents one could think of. Chicken, sweet corn, yams and homemade bread, beans and wild berry pie were all waiting for them to be eaten. After such a hard day, they had worked up a pretty good appetite. Jeannie took a quick shower and jumped into comfy jeans and an old shirt she had found in her wardrobe and went downstairs to join Joseph who was sitting outside on the front porch. He was playing his guitar to pass the time until the others would arrive.
“Fancy a beer?” he asked, which she took with thanks.
The cool beer went down a treat. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountain and a cool breeze embraced Jeannie, cooling down her hot cheeks. She had spent too much time to overthink this evening, but secretly looked forward seeing her sister-in-law again. She loved Alice’s kind and open mind and had often wondered how the Prom Queen had ended up with her big brother. Alice’s natural gift of making everyone feel welcome and special was one of the many reasons Jeannie grew so fond of her. Her twinkling big blue eyes never saw the bad in the world and some might have thought her naïve, but that definitely was not the case. Her deep engrained trust and believe in the good had often helped calm down the fronts and there was not another person Jeannie would have accepted to be her brother’s wife.
Joseph noticed the car lights first as they approached the farm house and called for Thomas who had just appeared from the kitchen.
“Here we go Jean” Joe said encouraging as he got off his seat and gave his god-daughter a tap on the shoulder.
Quickly she downed the rest of her drink and stood there waiting with her dad. He stepped down the front porch to greet his grandson and -daughter as they jumped excitedly out of the parked car.
“Grandpa!” the four-year-old shouted as he jumped in to his grandfather’s arms. Parker was his father’s spitting image, with wild curly brown hair. Darleen took after her mother with her straight blond hair and calm nature. Easily Thomas lifted his grandchildren off the ground and carried them a little towards the house before he let go of them to say their hello’s to their aunt.
Jeannie fiddle nervously with the bottle that she still held in her hand, which Joe luckily noticed and grabbed it off her before they had climbed up the stairs.
“Aunty Jeannie!” the both of them shouted in unison and knocked Jean almost off her feet.
“Gosh, guys, you are getting far too strong for me! You still give the best hug, that’s for sure!” she joked as her nephew and niece wouldn’t let go of their favorite aunt.
“We’ve missed you so much”, Darleen announced with a serious affliction in her look only the seven-year-old was able to give.
“I have missed you, too. But I’m here now, so let’s focus on that.”
“Yeah, I for once agree with you sister. Why not focus on that.” The sarcasm in Joshua’s voice could not have been bitterer if he tried to. Tall he stood in front of his sister and gave her a stare which could have frozen blood. His best football death-stare he fancied when playing with his friends. The pale blue eyes were the mirror image of his father’s but he had inherited their mother’s unruly brown hair which was speckled in whites throughout. Jeannie tried her hardest to ignore his imposing figure. But true to Alice’s nature she pinched her husband in the arm. She wouldn’t allow any of these shenanigans to happen tonight and walked past him to welcome Jeannie.
“Jeannie darling, it is so good to see you. How have you been?” her hug was long and honest. The wave of her sweet perfume made Jeannie wish for a shorter embrace however.
“I’m well thank you. Was pretty tied up in New York but, how are you?”
“Oh, same old trying to look after these three” she smiled and turned in a little closer whispering “you know what your brother can be like. The bank seems to be his second home nowadays” she laughed and winked.
Before Joshua had any chance to talk to Jeannie their sister’s family appeared up the drive way. Jeannie sighed. She loved Susan but she was so exhausting sometimes. Ever since she had married the pastors’ son, she had turned in to this over-mom. Her sole aim in life had turned in to convincing her youngest sister that she had to settle down. Susan was adamant that one could only find true happiness if they’d have at least four children a Benjy and a husband to worship and adore. It was so frustrating. Considering that Susan had been the wild party animal of the trio before she met Martin. All of a sudden she made a complete turn-around of her life which wouldn’t be bad if she wasn’t imposing her believes and her views on to everyone else. Jeannie had to struggle the most. With her 31 years she had no children and no husband to show. And her accomplishments at work did not count a bit. Suzy would only snigger, shake her head and make a fuss about her baby being able to lift the head of the pillow.
Susan was busy as she carried the one year old Jacob up the steps. His rosy cheeks glowed in the evening light while he drifted off to sleep at his mothers’ shoulder. While she staggered up the steps three year old Matthew jumped constantly in her way which was quietly stopped by his father. Martin and his oldest daughter Rachel greeted Jeannie warmly. She liked Martin a lot. Despite him being the soon-to-be- Reverend of Springwood Falls, he always kept his sarcastic cheeky ways. And the feeling was mutual. Martin was very fond of his sister-in-law and could never understand why his wife always had to criticize her. She would find the right path sooner or later.
They all had wondered why she so suddenly had come for a visit, but he obviously believed that she was on a mission. As Susan finally had the chance to greet Jeannie she gently pushed her brother out of the way and handed him her son to
so she could embrace her sister.
“Jeannie! Did you come alone?” True to form she had to ask Jeannine indirectly if she had brought the mysterious boyfriend of hers finally along.
“Yes, just my good old self Suzy.” With disappointment on her face, Susan let go of Jeannie and after a few more hellos and welcomes they were gently pushed towards the old dining table by Lorna.
While Martin said grace, Thomas looked up from his seat, taking in every little detail as he tried to make a lasting memory of this very moment. His whole family gathered together at one table. And so far, there were no casualties to be reported.
Joshua sat quietly on his chair. He glanced occasionally at his youngest sister from across the table. While she spoke, he emphasized his thoughts with grunts and sniggers. Jeannie tried her upmost not to get drawn in to his trap and kept telling them about her job in Manhattan and about the neon lights on Broadway.
“It is such a different lifestyle” Susan awed “I really could not imagine living in such a big City. A day trip to Lexington is more than I can bear. But mind me asking, you haven’t mentioned your boyfriend yet. What was his name again? Are you still seeing him?”
Jeannie wasn’t keen on answering and quickly stuffed her face with bread, making an apologizing gesture for not being able to answer.
“Suzy, you should know not to mention the b-word with our sister”, Josh snarled whilst glaring at Jeannie.
“Isn’t that so? It must be quite a pain clearing your schedule for someone else if you already struggle to pencil in time for your family throughout the year, mustn’t it?” he asked with the most disparaging smile he was capable off.
Thomas gave his son a hardened look.
“Enough Josh”
“It’s fine dad. Honestly. But I am glad, brother, that you understand the lengths I have to go through to find time for something else than deadlines and meetings. It is great working for such a prestigious marketing company, but it always comes with a price.”
“That has to be your family, right?”
Thomas dropped angrily his fork on the plate.
“I said it is enough Joshua!” Thomas voice rumbled through the room like thunder.
Jeannie rested her hand on her father’s. The last thing she wanted was to upset everyone especially him. He had looked forward to this dinner. Although Jeannie had her doubts this evening would go smooth this was not necessary.
“If you have anything to ask or say to me please refrain from doing that in front of the children if you don’t mind” Jeannie proposed “I am sure everyone is in agreeance that this should stay between us. There is no need to upset everybody equally.”
Jeannie had to swallow her pride, oh how she felt like yelling at Josh and tell him where to put his opinions. But the look on Alice’s face spoke volumes. It was bad enough that her father had to interfere in the first place.
Taken aback, Joshua nodded his head whilst pushing his chair back.
“For once we agree on something! I just need some water if you don’t mind.” He quickly grabbed the empty jug and disappeared for a while in to the kitchen. On his return he stuck to his word and kept quiet during dinner.
It was Joseph who came up with the idea for the three siblings to go down to the bar the next day. He thought it might be better for Jeannie and Josh to have Suzy as a buffer between them.
Susan had her reservations about it at first especially as the preacher’s wife. To be seen in a bar on a Thursday night was rather unorthodox but given the circumstances and after a short discussion with her husband she agreed to pick Jeannie up and used this as the perfect excuse not having to drink.
Thomas thought it a good idea as well. He knew how conscious Josh always was in public to keep his face in front of the community.
Relived Lorna started to tidy up after everyone had left. Thomas and Joseph sat outside having a well-deserved beer. Why couldn’t his children keep the peace for one simple silly night?!
A familiar melody on the radio made Lorna dance along the floor while she put the dishes away. Jeannie stood in the kitchen door for a while and chuckled when she saw her so carelessly dancing and thought about the million times she had witnessed her mother and Lorna doing just that at night after dinner.
As a child she used to hide at the pantry door to watch them laugh and dance to their favorite music while the men were doing whatever it was. The fun and angelic smile of her mother had forever been ingrained in to Jeannie’s memory and now as she was standing there could see the shadow of her dancing along with her best friend.
Lorna spun a little too quickly around and slid along the tiled floor before she could grab a hold of the kitchen table. Both women had to burst out into laughter.
“YOU! What you hiding for?!” Lorna giggled as she threw a towel in Jeannie’s face.
“That was some move!” It took a few moments for them to calm down. Lorna motherly put a hand on Jeannie’s shoulder as she spoke.
“Your mother would have laughed just like that, you know.” Thoughtfully, Jeannie’s eye wandered to the floor.
“I guess. Yes, she would have.”
“My dear Jeannie. Something is troubling you. I can see it. You know, you can talk with me about anything.” Lorna noticed the tears Jeannie tried to hide with all her might. She had to conserve the little bit of pride that was left in her.
“Come, I make us hot chocolate. And then you can tell me anything you want. Yeah?”
Jeannie managed to produce a smile and helped grabbing the marshmallows from the pantry.
Soon they were both comforted by the bitter sweet taste of real silky thick cinnamon chocolate and melting whipped cream.
The moon stood slim against the clear sky and watched over them as they spoke.
“So, do you want to talk about it?”
Jeannie took another sip of her chocolate as to fill up her courage then took another deep breath.
“I messed up Lorna. Josh…”
“Please don’t say this! He is not right!” Lorna interrupted quickly.
But Jeannie insistently shook her head.
“I don’t only talk about Christmas Lorna. It is everything. I screwed up so many times in the past I could sit her until next year and wouldn’t be finished counting them all.”
Jeannie gazed up to the moon as if to find her script, words, anything that would make it easier to describe what she was feeling at that very moment.
Patiently Lorna waited for her to continue with her confession and sipped quietly on her chocolate before Jeannie stumbled on.
“I think all went wrong in New York. Sometimes I feel as if I am an alien. I know it must sound silly but it really..., I couldn’t be lonelier if I tried. I am not sure anymore where I actually belong.”
“But you have friends there, they love you!”
“Do they?” with a fleeting look towards Lorna, Jeannie continued
“Maybe they do. But maybe they only like the person I made myself to be. – Sometimes I hardly recognize the person in the mirror. You know I have never been a patient person. I kind of was hoping for this magical moment, stepping back in to my old world and everything would unfold. But somehow, I ended up with more questions and managed to create more problems. I have been away too long and now have to pay the price.”
“Jeannie”, for the first time Lorna was lost for words. She tried hard to find the right things to say, her eyes glistened with concern. ‘If only Lilly would be here’ Lorna thought. She would have found the right words to comfort her daughter.
“What about that man Susan was on about? I remember you mentioning him on your mother’s… I mean, are you not seeing him anymore?”
Jeannie snorted and turned to Lorna.
“You mean the man who vowed the heavens to me, yet couldn’t find his “inner call” to accompany me on the hardest day of my life?” Jeannie’s eyes sparked fire. The thought of his lame excuse made her angry now. Back then she was too distraught to understand. But now?! If not at her own mother’s funeral when else would she had been in desperate need of his shoulders – shoulders she once thought strong, seemed nothing more than a brittle façade
Their attraction to each other had clouded their true intensions form the start. Jeannie knew that now. They had fallen so fast for each other; he had swept her off her feet the time they first met. But it was far from love Jeannie knew that. Then there was the loyalty to her company. Brad was her colleague and together they made such an excellent team! How awkward would it be if they split? Where was this feeling she so longingly had waited for all her life? Why was it forsaken her to experience what her parents had shared? And why did she allow her ego to be stuck in this partnership and just accepted Bradley’s behavior as manly curiosity?
Lorna stood up, unfolded the old blanket she had brought and wrapped them both in it.
Motherly she gave Jeannie’s forehead a kiss. She herself had to fight away tears and with a lump in her throat she promised,
“We are always there for you. This I promise you. It doesn’t matter what mistakes were made. We are your family. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of faith to keep believing that things will turn out right in the end. But I believe. You will see. Don’t let anyone doubt yourself, not even yourself. Just listen to your heart. The Lord acts in mysterious was and he’s got a plan for you! Just have faith!”
For a while they just sat nestled together and gazed at the moon as it raced across the night sky like a lone ranger through the Prairie.

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