Aching for Annabell
by Josie Jax
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-68252-052-9
[ Amish Christmas Romance, FF ]
What the Amish beauty, Annabell, craves is a woman—Nicole, to be exact. But if Annabell allows her desires to rule, the two women will have just seven days before Annabell walks out of Nicole’s life forever…and marries an Amish man.
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Seven days before Christmas
Nicole Croft squinted and peered through the thick, falling snow. The dark splotch on the Missouri county road could’ve been anything, given the whiteout conditions and the storm clouds concealing the moon. But it sure as hell appeared to be a human skidding across the slick surface on all fours. Nicole conjured an image of the animated fawn Bambi “ice skating” across a pond.
And how ironic that “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” finished its last round of the chorus on the radio.
Nicole choked back a bark of wry laughter as she pumped the brakes and gritted her teeth, praying the ABS would stop in time before she ran over the idiot. “Oh, crap, crap, crap. I’m going to—”
Her four-wheel-drive pickup came to a skidding halt within ten feet of the person. She heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes. “Amazing.”
The motor rumbled, and the opening strains of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” came across the airwaves. Her shoulder twitched. The damn Christmas carol blared from the stereo speakers, mocking her.
“Stupid Christmas songs.” She punched the radio’s Power button, ridding herself of all but the blessed sound of the wind whistling around the truck. The headlights sliced through the blowing snow and shone on the figure. A woman. An Amish woman who just then lifted her head and stared into the headlights with one arm raised to fend off the glare. Though the bonneted woman appeared pale and “red-nosed”—Nicole almost laughed at the irony of that—Nicole still recognized her.
The wisps of blonde hair escaping the bonnet confirmed her identity.
Great. What was Annabell Kranz, the grown daughter of one of Nicole’s consignment customers, doing out in the middle of a blizzard, crawling across the road? Christ, was she trying to commit suicide?
Nicole glanced around, but she didn’t see one of their trademark black buggies in the ditch or parked along the shoulder. They frequented Cool Hollow almost daily, selling their wares and buying supplies, but never had she seen them out in weather like this. So then why was Annabell…?
No way. She wasn’t defecting, was she? Now and then, usually young Amish men seduced by the forbidden, progressive world outside their communities, would run away. More likely by the forbidden tits and ass showcased at some of the city strip clubs. They’d be out looking to hitch a ride into one of the larger urban areas nearby—Columbia to the south, St. Louis to the southeast, Kansas City to the southwest. Some, according to town gossip, even spoke of venturing to New York or LA.
But rarely had Nicole heard of an Amish woman fleeing on her own. Alone and in a blizzard, to boot. And since she didn’t know Annabell much past “Hello” and “Thank you for your business,” the woman could be doing just that—defecting.
Therefore, the plot thickened, which meant Nicole was in for a long night. She shook her head. “Shit. Why didn’t I take the other route into town?”
She threw open the door, climbed from the truck, and traipsed through the snow accumulating atop a glaze of ice. Frigid air blasted her face and shot into the neckline of her button-down shirt. She burrowed deeper in her coat. Ugh, she despised winter. The radio station had just reported temperatures would dip to seven degrees tonight. If her pebbled nipples and toe-to-head chill bumps were any indication, it had to be seven below by now.
She shoved at the long strands of hair whipping around her face and took a deep breath. God, she hated Christmastime. Nights just like this reminded her of that horrible evening three weeks ago when she’d fought with Quin…and it also made her think of the amazing night a year ago when they’d met in Columbia at a lesbian bar.
“Damn it, stop thinking about her.” Snow crunched beneath her boots, and white clouds of condensation puffed from her mouth. But sweat started to gather between her breasts and in her armpits. Hell with the cold. This unexpected aggravation had her blood pressure up. She strode faster, stomping her treaded boots on the snow-packed pavement. Yes, that’s what had caused this gnawing sense of irritation and a racing heart. She’d been having a perfectly pathetic, boring, self-pitying Thursday night, and now here she was being blindsided by some nutty lady on the loose like one of George Branch’s Angus cows out of its pasture on the edge of Cool Hollow.
Not that she’d had any plans for the night or anything. Nicole frowned. Yeah. That had all ended the second Quin had dumped her a few weeks ago. To “widen her horizons,” Quin had said. To get out of this “Podunk town” and return to Columbia where things excited her.
Nicole clenched her fists and resisted the urge to press a hand to her aching chest. Huh. That comment had hurt, and it had meant one thing and one thing only—the problem hadn’t really been Cool Hollow. It had been Nicole. She hadn’t excited Quin any longer. Nicole had lost her touch. Despite making love to countless women in her past—and thoroughly pleasing every last one of them—Nicole apparently lost her touch. She must suck at making love to women now. To Quin, for sure.
She neared the now prone Annabell and grumbled under her breath, “I’m such a loser.” But still, how could anyone with half a heart break up with someone mere weeks before Christmas?
Yeah, well, screw Christmas. December twenty-sixth couldn’t get here fast enough. Just seven days away, and then maybe she could start to feel some relief.
A new year ahead, a new start.
Nicole stopped at Annabell’s side and gazed down at the black garb dusted with white fluffy flakes. Annabell had her head down now, buried in the fold of her arm. Her entire body trembled, and soft, muffled sobs tore from her throat.
Aw, man, just what I need. A sappy woman to have to cheer up. Well, what about me? I’m the one who needs cheering up.
“Hey, are you…are you okay?” Nicole dropped to her knees and set her hand on the thin shoulder covered by layers of wool cloaks or capes or whatever the hell it was these people wore. Tremors from Annabell’s shivering rippled up Nicole’s arm. The word “vulnerable” entered her mind from that first touch. Vulnerable and feminine.
And truly in a heap of trouble, given she was freakin’ sopping wet.
“Uh, you should probably get up out of the road. Traffic’s not heavy with the storm and all, but still, all it’d take is one car to—”
“P-please, ma’am. C-could you h-help me?” A soaked mitten pushed through the cloak and gripped Nicole’s hand. The faint German accent, along with the diamond-blue eyes glittering up at her like twin Christmas lights, sent an unexpected punch of awareness and heat to Nicole’s lower belly.
Nicole cleared her throat and focused on Annabell’s words instead. That “ma’am” shit made her feel eighty years old. It put the fire out, for sure. “It’s Nicole. Do you remember me?” Hopefully. “I’ve taken on some consignment pieces in my shop for your father. Hope chests, bookcases, rocking chairs, porch swings, and—”
“Yes. I…I remember. Nicole. Nicole Croft. You own Nicole’s Wooden Hews in Cool Hollow.”
Mmm, Nicole liked the sound of her name edged by the accent. She blinked. What in hell had happened to her? Was the storm messing up her brain or something?
“I would be f-forever grateful if you could g-give me a place to warm up b-before I continue on my…on my journey.”
Nicole drew her hand back and rubbed her forehead. Wow. She’d nailed it with defector. “Journey? You’re on a journey? On foot, and in this blizzard?”
The winds howled and ripped the bonnet from Annabell’s head. The strings remained tied at her neck, practically choking her. It exposed a separate black cap, but that too succumbed to the wind. Since it hadn’t been secured as the bonnet was, it went tumbling across the road and disappeared somewhere in the deep ditch. Ash-blonde hair had been wound into a bun at the back of head, and stray strands plastered her rosy cheeks. One lone tress got caught between her full pink lips.
Nicole’s fingers itched to remove it. Without thinking of the consequences, she scratched the need and took the bait. She brushed aside the soft lock of hair, aware of a curious tenderness and fascination she didn’t care to examine at the moment.
She snatched her hand back.
She had never lusted after this woman or any of the Plain people, for that matter. What the hell was up with her stupid gaydar senses tonight?
Stop it, Nic. Don’t go getting yourself wrapped up in another chick. Not yet, anyway. It’s too soon. Besides, this one is as straight as a yardstick.
She gave herself a chastising sigh. Relationship rebound syndrome. Again. Nicole clenched her fist and shook her head. She did it every damn time and swore she wouldn’t. Until the next hottie sashayed her way. Ah, but this one would never sashay. Sure had a gorgeous face, though, especially this close. But this time, Nicole would take heed and pay more attention to all those warning sounds dinging in her head like Christmas bells.
Wait. Nicole jerked her gaze toward town. It wasn’t holiday chimes going off in her head. The church bells rang, announcing their special December Thursday-evening services. It sat on the edge of Cool Hollow’s town square, tucked on the hill just across the junction valley. The village was all aglow and twinkly and bustling.
Not at all the way Nicole felt.
For sure not since she’d nearly barreled over Bambi and turned her into a road pizza.
Annabell nodded. “Ja. I…I am going to Columbia.” She bit her lower lip, and one honey-toned eyebrow dipped. “Or maybe Kansas City. I haven’t yet d-decided. It depends on w-where I can get a ride to.”
A car drove gingerly through the junction just down the hill, its headlights slicing through the thick snowfall. The flakes were getting fatter, falling faster, denser. Nicole shivered. And the temperature was dropping while Annabell lay here soaked to the bone.
“Kansas City? Do you realize how far that is from here? And you were hitchhiking there?”
Annabell nodded again. Her eyes brightened with hope, though a tinge of despair dimmed the edges. She grasped at Nicole’s hand a second time, sending a chill and another wave of quivering up her arm.
“Will…will you take me there? I-I will pay you. I’ve…uh, saved my quilting funds for years, from the things I have sold at Quilt Shack across the square from your store. In fact, I probably have enough to buy a motorized vehicle if I desired to.” She gave an unladylike snort. It seemed so much in contrast to her demure mannerisms up until now, it nearly made Nicole chuckle. “That is, if I were allowed to have one. Or gain a legal license to drive one. But I’m not.”
“Look, uh, the storm’s getting worse. We can talk more at my place. I’ll get you warmed up like you asked, give you some dry clothes and some soup or something. Then, maybe when the weather’s better, I’ll run you to the bus station. How’s that sound?”
She set her hand on Nicole’s knee and squeezed. Her eyes sparkled, and her voice rose in a beautiful singsong tone. “Oh, would you? I would be ever so grateful. And as I said, I can pay you. I can—”
“It’s okay. You don’t have to pay me.” Nicole hooked her arms under Annabell’s and helped her to her feet. The scent of clean laundry flapping on a fresh spring breeze filled the space between them.
“Thank you, thank you. Oh, by the way, I am Annabell Kranz.” She stepped back, yanked up the bonnet and then the hood on her cloak, and frowned. “Soon to be Annabell Petersheim.”
Nicole led Annabell to the passenger side of the truck and opened the door, doing her best to ignore the sensation of the ground shifting and dropping from beneath her feet at the implication of those words. Soon to be.
“I…I know who you are.” Nicole guided Annabell toward the warm interior of the truck. “We’ve said hello to each other before, when you’re around town with your parents. And sometimes there’s another gentleman with you.”
Annabell peered around the edge of her cape’s hood, and her eyes narrowed. She gave Nicole a sweeping look, from cowgirl hat to her chest area buried under her thick coat. A rush of awareness fanned Nicole’s breasts. Her nipples puckered beneath her shirt. But the image of him, the man she’d seen Annabell with, flashed in Nicole’s head. It instantly doused the pleasant sensations.
“Ja,” Annabell said softly. “Yes. That would be my future husband, Josef Petersheim. I…I didn’t think you would recognize me since Father and Josef have conducted all the negotiations with you.”
Nicole nodded. She must’ve been too wrapped up in Quin to not have given Annabell more than a curious glance before. “Yep. I’ve done business with your…with the Amish many a time. Everyone in Cool Hollow is very familiar with seeing the buggies, the buying and selling and so on. Anyway… You said ‘soon to be.’ So you’re getting married, huh?”
Annabell stopped inside the open door, but she didn’t climb into the truck. She stood a few inches shorter than Nicole, her arms folded beneath her cloak, holding it closed at her breasts. Her slight body continued to shiver. Her teeth chattered as she spoke. “Unfortunately, y-yes. You see, I am a widow, and it is the belief of my parents and the people in my settlement that I would be better off married again.” Annabell hung her head. “But they do not know Josef Petersheim the way I do.”
Nicole’s hackles went up, as did her damnable protective urges, the ones that always seemed to get her in trouble when bigheaded idiot men started strutting their peacock stuff and making females’ lives hell. She longed to ask precisely how well Annabell “knew” this Josef dude, but instead, she said, “Congratulations. When is the wedding?” Nicole helped Annabell into the truck. The heat blasted from the ventilation system in the floorboards, affording Nicole another whiff of Annabell’s fresh fragrance.
God, her body felt soft and feminine in Nicole’s hands.
“In seven days. On Christmas Day.” Annabell settled onto the seat, held her nose high, and pulled her cloak closer. She stared through the windshield. Her profile, with the straight nose, plump lips, and delicate jaw, reminded Nicole of a princess in a fairytale. “It will be such a joyous occasion.”
Nicole shut the door and rounded the hood of the truck. That one word “joyous” had dripped with sarcasm. No doubt about it—this woman did not want to marry the Petersheim jerk. Nicole climbed into the truck and clicked the dial to raise the heater temperature to the max. “Can I ask you a question, Annabell?”
“Certainly,” she said, closing her eyes and seeming to bask in the blast of heat.
Nicole released the emergency brake, pushed in the clutch, and shifted into first gear. “If I’m not mistaken, you don’t sound very, um, happy about marrying this Josef fellow. If that’s the case, why are you still getting married? Why not just stay in Kansas City when you get there? Grown women don’t have to take that bull, being bossed around by their parents or men anymore. It’s the twenty-first century.”
Annabell gasped and swung her gaze to Nicole. She held a hand to her throat. A smooth throat, Nicole noted, one that would feel warm and silky against her lips…
“A respectable Amish woman does not ‘just stay in Kansas City,’ nor does she refuse marriage when it’s expected of her.” Her eyes were wide saucers of disbelief.
Nicole eased the gearshift into second, then third. She took a right at the junction and kept the truck at a creeping pace, plowing her way through fresh snow. The Christmas lights had been illuminated on the town square lampposts, bordering the courthouse in the center and circling all the pines and oaks lining the streets. A Santa and his reindeer arrangement, including Rudolph, glowed red and yellow across the snow on the lawn. A manger scene had been spotlighted on the Methodist church’s small yard, and all the busy shops around the square had their own windows and storefronts lit with holiday cheer.
Cool Hollow, Missouri, was and always would be home to Nicole, but at the moment, she wasn’t in the mood for Christmas cheer. In spite of the shoppers bustling from store to store in the blowing snow, she felt grumpy—Scroogy—especially after her bust-up with Quin, and then hearing those ridiculous words coming from Annabell’s mouth.
It made her even grumpier knowing that Annabell’s business was Annabell’s business, and that it shouldn’t affect Nicole one way or the other, especially since she’d just formally met the damn woman precisely ten minutes ago.
She punched the stereo button and rolled her eyes when “Silver Bells” blared over the speakers. For the first time ever, Nicole despised that she’d spent a thousand bucks on a sound system that rang out crisp and clear and cheerful.
Nicole turned the volume down, determined to ignore the song’s line about it being Christmastime in the city. She sent a sidelong glance at Annabell. “Pardon me for butting in where I don’t belong, but if that’s the way you feel, then why in the hell are you running away?”
Annabell folded her hands in her lap and lifted her pert little nose another notch. Beautiful. Hot. How in the hell was it that a woman in that kind of drab garb could be hot? Nicole squeezed her thighs together, surprised at the instant warmth that gathered there. She gripped the steering wheel, downshifted, made a turn. And took one more look at Annabell.
Goddamn it, she really was gorgeous, in a natural, innocent sort of way. With the colorful array of holiday lights acting as a backdrop for her profile as they drove along, Nicole could’ve mistaken her for an angel.
Her lips twitched. A Victoria’s Secret Angel.
Annabell chewed on her bottom lip for a few seconds, then replied, “Because, I… Well, you see, I…”
“Yes?” Nicole prompted, drawing out the s in the word just a tad too long for proper manners. Mmm, how she could imagine chewing on that lip herself, sucking it into her mouth, tasting her. If she wasn’t careful, her horny thoughts could go way further, imagining all kinds of things—kinky things—she could do to not only those lips but the ones between Annabell’s legs. Make her scream and moan and—
For God’s sake, she had to stop it. Right this fucking second.
“Oh, all right.” Annabell jerked her head to the left, and her gaze lit on Nicole like the spotlight that shone on the tinsel tree in Nicole’s furniture store window. “I’ve decided to take just one week before I marry for the second and last time in my life—just one, is all—to experience the modern, outside world. I need it. Just a taste. And I am certain I will be a happier and more fulfilled wife than I was…” She turned and studied all the decorated shops they passed. “Than I was the last time…”
Just a taste? Nicole shifted in her seat, attempting to lighten the instant weight of lust that filled her lower belly. She headed down the alleyway that ran behind her business and pulled into the small parking lot at the back of her building. When she stopped in front of the garage door that led into her woodworking shop where she crafted the furniture, cabinets, and trinkets she sold, she switched off the motor, cutting the holiday carol right after the shoppers rushed home with their treasures.
Ha-ha. She chuckled under her breath. Nicole had certainly arrived home with her treasure. She suppressed the urge to rub her hands together in glee, even though deep down, she knew this treasure box had a key she’d never be given the chance to use.
“Well, then.” Nicole climbed from the truck and tilted her head back, sticking her tongue out. She slammed the door shut and caught snowflakes in her mouth while she strolled around to the other side of the vehicle. Anticipation and the excitement of the possibilities with this unexpected turn of events fluttered in her groin and moistened her pussy in spite of the minuscule chance of anything going anywhere. She opened the passenger door and held out her hand. “Come on. Let’s go try and make you happier and more fulfilled—more than you were in your last marriage. Way more.”
Annabell stared agog at Nicole’s open palm. A full five seconds ticked by. The snowflakes became wetter, heavier, fell faster. In spite of the heat that clouded around her body from Annabell’s nearness, Nicole was certain the temperature had dropped a few degrees.
She was also certain this woman had a nail or screw loose somewhere. How could she have risked her life through frostbite and nearly being plowed over by Nicole’s truck, simply to “experience the modern, outside world”?
Well, whatever the most likely bizarre reasons, Nicole would find out before this night ended.
Nicole cleared her throat. “Um, we don’t have all night. It’s pretty darn cold out here, ya know?”
Finally, Annabell swallowed, removed one bulky glove, and placed her hand in Nicole’s welcoming one.
And damn if it wasn’t the softest, smallest woman’s hand she’d ever had closed inside hers.
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