Sunday, August 30, 2015


Can Matt convince Caroline to trust him before he loses everything he loves…again?

1st Chapter:

Matt plopped quick-drying spackle over a crack in the wall and smoothed it with the trowel. The steady cadence of plop, swish, scrape blended with the easy rhythm of country music that drifted across the room and eased his frustration.

He watched Paul lift a bucket of spackle and dip his trowel, and he wondered how the kid—his nephew—had ended up on his doorstep three months ago.

Because Eydie’s back in rehab again. Will it ever end?

He glanced through an expanse of dirt-splattered bay windows that opened over the battered front porch, affording an impressive view of sleepy-dawn breaking over the tawny pasture beyond. Horses grazed in the cross-fenced field, their heads bowed in search of late-winter grass to supplement sweet feed. At the far end of the field, his house sat nestled among a grove of shade trees, and beyond that a low-hanging thunderhead rolled across the sky like an angry, steel-gray tide.

“Storm’s headed this way.” Paul dragged a hand through unruly black hair and tossed a glance at Matt. His eyes, dark and tired, said he’d slept no better last night than Matt had. “I should call Andie and tell her to put the horses in the barn.”

“And wake her whole house?” Matt shook his head. “I don’t think so. Come over here and finish spackling while I fix the lock on the front door. I’d like to get this done before the rain hits.”

“Don’t think that’s gonna happen.” Paul took the trowel. “Hear the wind picking up?”

“I do, but it’ll be a while before the hard stuff blows through.” He could smell the sweet, dank scent of rain, though. The wind swayed, moving restlessly around the house like a thief trying to find a way in. Upstairs, a broken shutter drummed against weathered clapboard siding.

“Whatever.” Paul dipped the trowel into the bucket of spackle and plopped the mess onto a fissure in the wall. “I don’t understand why we’re fixing up this house, anyway.”

“Because I promised Nora…and when I make a promise I keep it.”

Paul frowned. “But she’s dead, so how would she even know whether or not you kept your promise?”

Dead…the single word carried such power. Matt’s stomach soured, and his voice turned gruff in the early-morning chill. The heat was cranked, but the ancient pump did little to slake the cold edge. He could kindle a fire in the broad stacked-stone fireplace that filled one wall of the living room, but he didn’t plan on hanging around long enough for it to matter. Church service was due to start in a few hours, and he planned to be there...Paul, too.

Matt grabbed the hammer from his tool box and turned to face Paul. The kid’s flippant attitude had a way of getting under his skin. He sucked a deep breath…in…out, and gave himself a little pep talk.

Calm voice…keep your cool. Remember, he’s watching you, learning from you.

When he spoke, his voice was steady. “If I didn’t keep my promise I would know.”

Paul shrugged. “Like I said, whatever.” He smoothed spackle over the crack and grimaced at the radio. “Can we listen to something else? This so-called music is putting me to sleep.”

“I’m waiting for the weather report.”

“I can give you the weather report—it’s gonna rain—hard. There, can I change the station now?”

“No. Spackle faster. Caroline and her daughter are due to arrive in less than a week. I want to have the cracks in the walls repaired and the rooms painted and ready for them to move in.”


“Nora’s niece. She’s coming from Chicago.”
Caroline’s spine screamed in agony as the Honda bumped over another rut in the two-lane country road. Angry clouds rumbled overhead, and the sky darkened to an oily blackness. The scent of rain filled the air and settled on her tongue. She gnawed her lower lip and squinted through eerie yellow-green darkness in search of the side road to Aunt Nora’s.

It’s been too long…and I’ve forgotten my way around here. Oh, why did Aunt Nora think leaving her old farmhouse to me was a good idea? And Aunt Nora...I can’t believe you’ve been gone nearly six months now…I miss you so!

Thunder shook the car and Caroline cringed, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. A glance into the rearview mirror told her Callie was sleeping soundly through the chaos. Her head of soft blonde ringlets slumped at an awkward angle, and the pink windbreaker tucked around her shoulders was rumpled and stained with grape juice.

Caroline swallowed hard and turned her attention back to the dark road ahead. Her voice was a murmur over the low hum of the radio. “Dear Lord, I need your help here. This car’s running on fumes, and Callie’s going to wake any moment. She’s going to be hungry and cranky and as sick of being held prisoner in this car as I am. So, have mercy, Lord. Throw me a bone.”

Wind swirled restlessly around the car as if to mock her, and the sky grew more ominous with each passing moment. Driving straight through the night while Callie slept had seemed like a good idea when she sped from Chicago…away from the memories that haunted her like a nightmare that wouldn’t let go. But now, twelve hours and five hundred long miles later, she wasn’t so sure.

Not that she could have stayed in Chicago another day…not with the court date looming. What if he…that heartless killer…was released?

The car crested a hill, and a flicker of light on the horizon caught Caroline’s attention. Someone was awake in a house across the pasture. She wiped condensation from the bug-splattered windshield with the sleeve of her flannel shirt and squinted into darkness.

The car’s headlights caught a sign at the next intersection. Caroline gasped. Collier Road…the road to Aunt Nora’s house!

My house now…and Callie’s. Her heart stuttered as she struggled to train her gaze on the house and navigate the road at the same time. What were lights doing on? Who was there…and why?

Caroline’s belly knotted. Her hands trembled on the steering wheel. She prayed the gas tank held enough fuel to power the car as she eased down the winding road. Rising winds heaved the vehicle from side to side like a rag doll. A jagged bolt of lightning ripped the sky, followed by a roar of thunder that tossed her back in the seat. Bullets of rain pelted the windshield like machine-gun fire.

Please, Lord, guide Callie and me to the light.

The glow from the house grew brighter, illuminating the sleepy horizon. She followed the curve of the road and found the narrow entrance to a winding gravel drive flanked by dancing Bradford pear trees. Floodlights cast an eerie glow over the front yard, and rain blew sideways like a gush from a fire hose, blinding her. The familiar whitewashed farmhouse rose through the shadows like a winking sentinel with a peeling sunburn. A broken shutter slapped against a second-story window.

A pickup sat in the drive. Caroline slammed on the brakes. The car fishtailed, spitting gravel, and missed the pickup by mere inches before it sputtered a dying breath. Caroline heaved a sigh of relief, threw off her seatbelt, and swung around to check Callie.

“How on earth did you manage to sleep through that, baby?” Her breath came in gasps as she brushed hair from Callie’s clammy forehead. “The storm’s bearing down on us.”

Lightning struck a Bradford near the road. Its trunk erupted in a deafening crack followed by a shower of sparks. The acrid smell of scorched wood filled the air. Caroline shoved open the driver’s door and shivered as cold rain pelted and stung, and the wind whipped her long hair into damp knots. Heart racing, she threw open the back door and wrestled Callie from her booster seat. Shielding the child’s sleep-limp body, she slammed the car door and dashed through the downpour to the protection of the porch awning.

That’s when she saw him through the smudged front bay windows…the man inside the house—her house. Coffee-colored hair covered the collar of his rumpled navy T-shirt, and muscles grew taught as he swung a hammer at the door frame. Staccato pounding echoed over the howl of wind that swirled around her. He was big, tall…powerful-looking. She imagined he could do a lot of damage with that hammer.

Lightning flashed around her like strobes doing battle with the floodlights over the front porch. Thunder roared and rocked the ground, nearly knocking her off her feet. In her arms, Callie whimpered and squirmed through a restless dream. Caroline fumbled in her pocket for her cell phone and realized she’d left it on the front seat of the car along with her purse…and the car keys.

Caroline debated only a moment before grabbing an industrial-sized push-broom propped against a wicker rocker near the front door. The storm closed in.

She cradled Callie in one arm and hoisted the broom handle like a saber in the other as she kicked open the solid-wood front door. The element of surprise was all she had going for her.

The door slammed wide, and the man tumbled backwards from the force of her kick. The hammer flew from his hand. It bounced off the hearth and clattered across the scuffed wood floor behind him.

“What are you doing here?” Adrenaline had Caroline’s heart galloping. Suddenly her senses came to full attention, and the exhaustion from a twelve-hour drive through night-blackness fled.

“What the…” He scrambled to his feet. Wide blue eyes gaped at her from beneath plaster-speckled hair. His face was streaked with grease, and his paint-splattered T-shirt sported a gaping rip at the hem.

“Get away. Move back toward the wall.” She jabbed the broom handle at his mid-section.

He sidestepped and held up both hands. “Careful with that, Caroline.”

The sound of her name eased her fear down a notch. How did he know who she was?

“I said move back.” Caroline managed to hold her voice steady as she jabbed the broom at him again. A rush of adrenaline burned through her. “I mean it.”

“You’ve got this all wrong.” Shock flashed to realization. He shook his head as laughter rose from the pit of his belly, startling her. His broad shoulders shook with each breath. “You’re going to scare the kid, Caroline. Give me that.” He yanked the broom from her with one quick motion and tossed it to the floor behind him. “Good grief. Do you realize the danger in what you just did, barging in on me like that? If you really thought I’d hurt you, you should have gone for help, first.”

Her chin rose in defiance as she cradled Callie against her. “Maybe I have. Maybe when I spotted your truck in the drive I called the police, and they’re on their way right now.” She should have called them, had been foolish not to. The idea caused a wave of terror to crest, but she tamped it down and bowed up to her full height, which brought her only to his shoulder. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. I think you should leave. Now.”

“It’s storming out there, in case you haven’t noticed.” Rain crashed against the bay windows in torrents, and the wind wailed and moaned through the open front door. He motioned to a radio on the coffee table. “Tornado watches have been issued clear across the county, Caroline, and into Knoxville.”

“I’m fully aware of that.” Callie whimpered and squirmed in her arms, and Caroline ached under the weight of her.

The child’s eyes fluttered open. “Mama, is there gonna be a tornado?”

“No, baby.” She smoothed damp hair and kissed a clammy forehead.

“But Mama—”

“Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep now.” Caroline shot the guy a look. “Nice going.” She stuffed a trembling hand into the pocket of her jeans, as if reaching for her phone. “I’m going to speed-dial the police right now.”

“Fine. You do that.” His voice challenged as his gaze narrowed. “The number’s nine-one-one.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “But why don’t you lay the kid on the couch first before you drop her?”

“Because…” Caroline recognized the flowered loveseat near the fireplace as the one she’d spent lazy teenage summer afternoons sprawled across, poring through Aunt Nora’s expansive collection of novels. She sighed and drew her hand, empty, from her pocket. Her voice rose with a simple plea. “Look, I don’t know what you’re doing here, especially at this hour of the night, but you’d better leave. I know the neighbors across the way, and I’ll get them.”

“It’s practically morning now.” He laughed again. “And you’re a week early, Caroline. Did you drive all night? What are you doing out in this weather?” Taller than her by more than a foot, he took a step toward her, and she stumbled back, drawing Callie tight to her chest. His deep blue eyes inched over her as she shivered. The width of his shoulders filled the doorframe. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

The words struck with more force than the clap of thunder that rocked the house. Lightning danced through the open front door, and rain splattered the hardwood floor. Caroline watched him reach for a denim jacket that had been tossed across the fireplace hearth. He smoothed the fabric and draped it over Callie. “The kid’s shivering.”

“How do you know my name…or that I’ve arrived early?” The jacket smelled like hay and damp earth mingled with a hint of clean aftershave. Caroline tucked the edges around Callie’s shoulders. “Who are you, and how did you get in here?” She glanced at the splintered door frame, frowned at the gaping hole in the oak door where a handle and deadbolt should have been. “The lock’s broke. Did you do that?”

“Relax. Take a breath before you hyperventilate.” He kicked the door closed and took the broom from the floor to prop it against the wall. Then he sauntered across the room to pick up his hammer before turning back to face her. “I’m Matt Carlson. I’m your neighbor from across the pasture, and Nora asked me to take care of a few things around here.”

“She did? But she’s been gone…”

“I know how long she’s been gone.” He took a tentative step toward her. “Would you let me help you with the kid—”

Caroline scooted back. “Her name’s Callie.”

“Right.” He took another step forward, his voice low and smooth. “Would you please let me take her? You look like you’re about to collapse.”

Caroline held her ground, but loosened her grip on Callie and nodded slightly. “Just to the couch, OK? And put the hammer down, first.”

Matt nodded slightly, tossed the hammer into the tool box, and gathered Callie into his arms. She nestled her head against his cotton T-shirt. “There you go. That’s better, sweetie.” He laid her on the couch and tucked the jacket around her shoulders.

“Did you say your name is Carlson?” Caroline kept her eyes on him. His touch seemed safe and gentle as he slid a throw pillow beneath Callie’s head, yet she couldn’t be too sure. “But the people across the pasture were…”

“Older. I know.” After readjusting the jacket over Callie, he stood to face her. “My grandparents used to live across the pasture. They retired to Knoxville a few years ago, and now I live in the house. I was a friend of Nora’s. I knew you were coming, but I thought it wasn’t until sometime next week.”

“Change of plans.” Caroline eyed the tool box. “So what’s with the hammer, and why are you intent on beating the door frame?”

He laughed again, and kicked the toolbox closed. Metal clattered as the clasp engaged. “Over the years weather splintered the wood. Nora never bothered to lock her doors, but she figured you might feel differently. So she asked me to take care of it, and a few other things, before she…passed on.” His voice lowered, and a hint of sadness shadowed his eyes.

“How did you know Aunt Nora? She never mentioned you. Why did she ask you to fix the door…and other things? Why—”

“Whoa. One bullet at a time.” He held up a hand. “My grandparents were Nora’s neighbors for years, and I helped her from time to time when I came out to visit. And then when I moved in year before last, Nora and I became friends and I began to help her more.”

“Oh, wait a minute.” Caroline ran a hand through damp hair, pacing. “She did mention you just before…she mentioned you might…” The floor blurred as tears filled her eyes.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Caroline. Nora was a beautiful soul. She’s going to be sorely missed.”

“I-I know. I’m sorry for…blubbering. I’m just very tired.” Caroline’s throat tightened. The sound of her name on his lips unnerved her. “If you don’t mind leaving now—”

The thud of footsteps drew Caroline’s attention to the doorway. “Uncle Matt, I found the hardware to fix the door in the basement, where you said it would be…” A boy Caroline guessed to be about fifteen, tall and lanky with huge blue eyes and coal-black hair, strode into the room. He took one look at Caroline and stopped in his tracks. “What’s going on?”

His arms were splattered hand to elbow in what looked like white paint, and he was the spitting image of Matt-with-the-hammer, except leaner and lacking the muscle definition. Caroline guessed it would come with age.

“Paul, this is Caroline Lafollette and her daughter Callie.”

“Oh, you’re from…

“Chicago.” Caroline finished. “May I have that towel?”

Paul tossed her the tattered towel he’d balled in his hands. “Uncle Matt said you weren’t coming ’til next week.”

A flash of lightning rent the sky followed by a roar of thunder that rattled the house’s front windows. Wind whistled through the hole in the front door. Callie whimpered and wiggled on the couch as rain gushed through the gutters to pool along the front yard.

“It’s OK, honey.” Caroline murmured and bent to kiss her forehead. “Mama’s here.”

Callie sat up and rubbed sleep from her pretty blue eyes. She yawned wide as the Pacific Ocean, then pressed a tiny hand to Caroline’s cheek. “I’m hungry, Mama, an’ thirsty.”

“Me, too.” Caroline sighed, and weariness settled in her bones. She rubbed a painful kink from her neck.

“I was going to stock the fridge for you…” Matt’s voice trailed off.

“There’s a cooler in my car, in the drive beside your truck.” She lowered her gaze. “We…almost plowed into your truck, just before we ran out of gas.”

“Mama.” Callie yawned again and tugged the hem of Caroline’s shirt. “My belly is rumblin’. Can I have some fruit snacks and juice?”

“Hop down and stretch your legs, sweetie.” Matt glanced out the window. “The lightning’s easing to the east, taking the angry clouds and downpour with it. In a few minutes I’ll go get the cooler.”
The small cooler peeked just out of reach through the front passenger window, but it might as well have been miles away. The door was locked tight and a scuffed brown leather purse—Caroline’s, Matt assumed—lay beside a set of car keys. He remembered Nora, and what she’d told him just before she passed.

“Caroline’s been down a rough road, Matt. Her heart’s been shattered. Help her get the house in order. Be patient.”

He knew all about shattered hearts. There were plenty to go around. It was an epidemic.

Matt dodged light raindrops back to the house. Dawn bathed the pasture in a milky-pink halo.

Through the expanse of bay windows, he saw Caroline take a second towel from Paul. She rubbed the rain from her hair and stretched her back like a cat—long legs and torso topped with a mass of caramel curls.

Flannel looks good on her.

The thought startled Matt, and he switched gears fast. The last thing he needed was to get tangled up with a woman. But she’d surprised him by arriving early. She must have driven all night long. And all he got for his attempt to help her was a door slammed in his face and a broom jabbed at his belly.

Talk about a rough road…

He’d take her to his house, make sure she and the kid had something decent to eat before Caroline fell asleep on her feet. Dark smudges shadowing her eyes told the story…the woman was beyond exhausted.

Yeah, he’d make them both something to eat, and then send them on their way, grab a shower, and head to church. He had enough on his plate, dealing with his misguided sister and trying to keep Paul on the straight and narrow.

He’d honor Nora’s wishes and help Caroline settle in here; that was all…that was enough.

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Saturday, August 22, 2015


Rancher Luke Morgan wants one thing—to coax city-girl Brenna home to Collins, Oklahoma.

Chapter 1
“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” ~ Ecclesiastes 3:11  
Airplanes were for no place for sissies. 
The jet sidled up to the disembarking ramp and the roar of the engines died. Suddenly the air vent above Brenna stopped humming, too. She drummed her freshly-manicured fingernails on the seatback tray table while the cabin grew unbearably stuffy. Beads of perspiration danced between her shoulder blades. 
The seatbelt warning sign flashed off, and Brenna groaned as she massaged painful pins and needles from her thighs before rising from the cramped window seat. Lucky for her, her petite frame allowed for a bit of headroom even as she eased onto her toes to stretch annoying kinks from her back.
Through the window, a streak of sunshine peeked between a cluster of angry, dark clouds. Maybe the thunderstorm was finally—thankfully—beginning to ease. Who knew the sky would unleash a torrent of winds and rain that tossed the plane like a rag doll on a trampoline? Her heart raced with thoughts of a possible storm-induced nose-dive from the sky. A stream of classical music she’d loaded onto her iPod had calmed her through the chaos. 
Passengers scurried through the narrow aisle and a platoon of rolling suitcases clacked down the disembarking ramp—proof that she was truly on the ground.
Thank God we made it safely. I hope Lily isn’t very worried and tired from waiting through the delay.
 Brenna tucked the iPod and its earpieces into her purse and scooted toward the aisle. She stretched her spiked heels to their limit as she struggled to reach the suitcase she’d stuffed into a bin overhead. Her fingertips barely grazed the bottom edge of the overhead compartment; it felt empty. Of course, the suitcase had shifted during the flight. Hadn’t she placed it right above her seat? The turbulence must have pushed it a bit further down the row. She stepped up onto a seat cushion and delved further. She yanked on the first handle she touched. 
“Hey, I think you’ve got my bag.”
Brenna eyed the tall, dark-haired guy who’d swallowed up the seat in front of her during the flight and crowded into most of hers, as well, when he’d tilted his seat back following liftoff.
“Excuse me? “ Brenna dropped the bag in the aisle. It felt lighter than she remembered…and the leather looked a bit worn. The turbulence had really done a number.
It feels almost empty. I hope I didn’t forget my spikeheeled silver pumps…or Lily and Ryan’s wedding gift.
The guy cocked an eyebrow. “That’s my bag. I really don’t think the clothes inside will do justice to your figure. “
He propped a tan-colored cowboy hat on his head and took a long, slow sweep of her, toes to forehead. Suddenly the oddest feeling swept through Brenna. He looks so familiar.
“You must be confused. It’s…” She tore her gaze from his cobalt blue eyes to glance at the name scribbled across the tag. Mortification had her stuttering. “Oh-oh my, this isn’t my bag. Are you…Luke Morgan?”
He nodded and rubbed a hand across the stubble that covered his chin. Waves of dark hair escaped the confines of his hat. It swept over his forehead and curled at the nape of his neck. “Yes…that would be me.”
“But the bag looks…”
“Just like this one…I know. You must be…” He checked the tag. “Brenna Langdon?”
“Yes…that’s right.” 
“Thought so. You look just like I remember, only all grown up and…prettier.” His gaze swept over her and he nodded. “Yeah, definitely…pretty.”
“Do I know you?” Brenna’s face burned as hot as the skin beneath a layer of sweater she’d donned when the air conditioning early in the flight chilled her. But now the air was off, and she was hot…sweltering. Confusion crowded all rational thought from her head.
“You used to know me…before you moved away from Collins.”
Before Mama and Daddy died…before I went to live with Aunt Jean and Uncle Tom…before the world ended…
“Here.” He eased a bag that appeared identical— except a bit less road-weary—toward her. “I believe this is yours.”
“Well, then…” Brenna tucked a strand of strawberry-blonde hair that had come loose from her ponytail behind one ear. She reached for the suitcase. “Yes, it’s much…” 
“Heavier?” A grin made his blue eyes shine. “You might need a crane. I think you’ve got a stowaway hiding in there.”
Brenna laughed, and the tension that crept from her temples across her forehead eased a bit. “No…just the essentials.”
“Must be a laundry list of essentials. Let me carry that for you. I believe you’re heading my way.” He hoisted his suitcase onto one shoulder and reached for hers. “Lily’s wedding?”
His comment startled her. “You know Lily?”
“Sure do. She’s marrying my best friend, Ryan.” His smile slid over her, and the flash of heat turned to a shiver despite the unbearably sultry cabin temperature.  “Ryan called me as we were boarding. He told me to keep an eye out for you, and to give you a ride.”
“Why didn’t you…”
“Say anything until now?” He shrugged. “You had those earphones in, and when the turbulence hit, it looked like you were praying a direct line. I didn’t want to interrupt…figured we needed all the prayers we could get.”
“Oh, yeah.” The heat of a healthy blush warmed her neck. “I did get a little worked up when we hit that first rough patch.”
“I understand. Flying’s not really my thing, so I had a few tense moments myself. But the flight delay has thrown everything off kilter. Lily can’t make it to the airport to get you. She’s at the ranch because the wedding rehearsal’s just”—He checked his watch— “Two hours away.”
“The ranch? What ranch?” “I’ll explain on the way. We’re going to miss the rehearsal if we don’t hurry, and that won’t do, seeing as I’m the Best Man.”
“And I’m the maid of honor.” Brenna gnawed her bottom lip and frowned. The gloss she’d slicked on that morning had worn away hours ago. “Look, I hope you won’t be offended if I call Lily first…just to check.” A bit embarrassed, she lowered her gaze. “After all, you are a…stranger.”
“Not exactly.” He laughed. “But you probably don’t remember spending an afternoon at my place when we were just kids.”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t. I’m sorry.” And yet he looked so familiar. Why? She racked her brain and came up with nothing. The look in his eyes told Brenna that he certainly remembered.
“It’s OK, I’m not offended…well, maybe just a little. But I’ll get over it. You go right ahead. I’ll wait over there.” He motioned toward several rows of plastic seats in the boarding area, where a lone businessman surfed his laptop. “Come on over when you’re finished…checking me out.”
Brenna didn’t miss his double meaning. She watched him saunter across the room and drop both their bags beside a chair. Faded Levi’s hugged muscular thighs and the dark blue button-down cotton shirt accentuated broad shoulders and biceps he’d probably bulked in a gym. The clean scent of his aftershave lingered. How was that possible, when she felt like something the cat dragged in?
I’m sure I look it, too.
She dialed Lily’s cell number, and then smoothed the floral-print skirt she’d donned that morning. Brushing a hand over the soft fabric of her white cotton blouse, her hand paused as it reached the third button.
Is that a coffee stain? Ugh! She rubbed the fabric, but the stain was set. She’d certainly downed her share of bitter, muddy brew while she waited in the terminal for her flight to be called.
And the caffeine made her antsy…or was it the sight of Luke, leaning lazily against the wall like a rugged cowboy come to life. All he needed was some spurs and chaps… Brenna shook the image from her head.
Her sandals clicked across the tile floor as she paced the length of the terminal with her cell phone poised at one ear. On the other end of the line Lily’s phone continued to ring. The hour edged toward late-afternoon and already it felt like days had passed since she’d left Chicago. The plane should have landed an hour ago, but the storm had diverted them into a standby-and-circle pattern that devoured the time.  At least she’d made it here…to Oklahoma…home—or what used to be home. She’d sworn never to return—ever. If it weren’t for Lily and her wedding she’d be back in Chicago, working on that project Mr. Daniels wanted done by Monday afternoon.
“Brenna, where are you?” Lily’s panicked voice rushed over the line. “It’s nearly time for the rehearsal.” 
“I know. The plane just landed, thank goodness.” Brenna shifted the phone to her other ear and turned away from Luke’s gaze. “Look, there’s some guy here who says he’s supposed to take me to meet you for the rehearsal.”
“Tall…impossibly broad shoulders and eyes like dark blue crystals?”
Rena glanced at Luke and a tingle danced through her belly. “That’s a fair description.”
“So you’ve met Luke. He’s the second most handsome guy in Oklahoma…after my Ryan. Yeah, he’s coming back from a business trip to Chicago. Since you’re both on the same flight, Ryan asked him to give you a lift. So get in the car with him, Brenna, and hurry over here. We’ve got to fit your dress and go over details for tomorrow. There’s so much to do, and I’m a bundle of nerves. I need you.”
“OK. I’m on my way.”
Brenna pressed the end button and sighed. Across the room, Luke’s gaze followed her like a panther. His look annoyed her, because he appeared so…put together when she felt so out of sorts.
How do I know him? Why can’t I remember? She sighed and pressed a hand to her aching forehead. Her eyes felt gritty from lack of sleep. Who could sleep on a crowded plane that danced the tango through a thunder-filled sky?  He can, I guess.
She turned her back to Luke and searched for a restroom. Maybe a bit of cold water splashed on her face would revive her. Another cup of coffee would be even better, but this small airport was a far cry from O’Hare in Chicago…not a coffee shop in sight…not even a machine that dispensed the bitter brew. Already she missed the conveniences of the city. I shouldn’t have come here, even for Lily. If I remember right, nothing in this town is within twenty miles of the next place. It’s going to be a long ride…too much time to dwell on memories.  

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Saturday, August 15, 2015


A choice, a tragedy, and life-altering consequences...

1st Chapter:

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.
~Hebrews 6:19

“Hurry, Rena. We’re going to be late.” Kelsie tossed a tennis shoe across the room.
Rena caught it, but hesitated before slipping her foot in, halfheartedly tying the laces. “I-I think I’ve changed my mind.” Rena’s stomach turned over, the cereal she’d choked down for breakfast along with two cups of muddy-black coffee roiling unmercifully.
“You can’t change your mind.” Kelsie’s tone left no room for argument. “We’ve already committed to helping. We can’t let everybody down.” Another shoe careened toward her head, and Rena ducked.
She sighed as she slid an arm into her baby blue windbreaker. Kelsie was right.
She reached for the second shoe. “Remind me again why you roped me into doing this.”
Kelsie’s perky blonde curls bobbed as she paced Rena’s living room. “Because the church needs help building this house. They’re a good family, Rena. Their home burned to the ground and they didn’t have insurance. Plus, you’re good at slinging a hammer. In fact, you do it better than most guys I know.”
Burned to the ground. The words startled Rena. Her heart went out to the family. How could she just sit here and refuse to help when she had the means and the knowledge needed? Guilt nudged her as she zipped her jacket, staring into the distance before turning back to her friend. “It doesn’t hurt to have a dad who’s a builder. He’s taught me a lot. I even have my own tool belt, a birthday gift when I turned sixteen.”
“I remember. I was there.” Kelsie’s car keys jingled as she twirled them on a forefinger. “That’s one of the reasons we need you.”
“We? Who’s we?”
“Never mind.” She handed Rena a sack lunch she’d prepared and nudged her toward the door. “Go to the car.”
Kelsie plastered manicured hands over her ears. “I can’t hear you.”
Rena groaned, but opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. “OK. I’m going.”
The sun’s wispy magenta arms embraced an awakening sky as they drove toward the building site. Despite her growing reservations about getting involved in this building project, Rena enjoyed the beautiful backdrop of the Smoky Mountains at dawn. She’d always been an early riser and reveled in the solitude of daybreak while the rest of the world lay slumbering.
“Kyle and I are going to the movies tonight.” Kelsie yawned as she braked for a light. “He has a friend he’d like you to meet. I thought we could double date.”
“No!” She’d rather have a root canal without the anesthesia. No way was she going to get mixed up with another self-centered smooth-talker who thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. “I mean, thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested. You know my track record, Kel. It’s hopeless. Guys are off limits—for good.”
“Nonsense, Rena. You can’t hide forever. Eventually you’ll have to plunge into the dating world again.”
Rena cringed at the thought. “Plunge? I prefer to…wade.”
“No, you prefer to sit on the beach with your nose in a book, oblivious to all the guys passing by. Just think about it, will you?”
“I already have, and I’m just not interested. Thanks, but no thanks.”
Kelsie frowned. “Rena, the world is full of nice guys.”
“Sure it is. And maybe someday I’ll win the lottery and retire a multi-millionaire.”
“But you don’t play the lottery.”
“And I don’t date—at least not anymore.”
“We’ll see about that.”
They turned into the work site and staccato hammering filled the air as Kelsie parked her Honda beside a mud-splattered black pick-up.
“Let’s go.” Kelsie unlatched her seat belt and grabbed the sack lunches. “Daylight’s burning, and there’s a lot to do.”
Rena sighed and drew in the musty-sweet scent of freshly sawn wood. She wished she shared Kelsie’s enthusiasm. As she eased from the car, flakes of sawdust settled like new-fallen snow across the damp earth. They brought back fond childhood memories of the many times she’d accompanied her dad on building projects. Those had been good times, before he’d become semi-retired and turned most of his days to leisurely games of golf with his grizzle-haired buddies.
“Where’s the party?” Rena stepped over a bag of concrete mix. “This place looks like a war zone with no survivors.” Broken cinder blocks and torn nail boxes littered the ground.
“Kyle’s over there.”
At the far side of the block foundation, Kyle lifted a two-by-four into place, but it was the guy hammering beside him that caused Rena’s breath to catch. Dark, unruly hair kissed broad shoulders. The thin fabric of his navy T-shirt strained over a terrain of muscles as he struck each nail neatly into place with a single, confident blow.
His strength caused her heart to lurch and her pulse to quicken. Rena tore her gaze away. She’d seen enough guys like him in New York City—handsome guys convinced they were a gift to every woman within a five-hundred mile radius—when all they really excelled at was breaking hearts.
She tightened the tool belt around her hips and hop-skipped through an obstacle course of construction supplies toward the two-by-four frame, ready to drive a nail. The quicker she got to work, the quicker she could get out of here.
Suddenly the thunderous crash of a stampede filled the air. As she spun to look, Rena was tackled by what felt like a runaway freight train. The breath rushed out of her as she flew airborne, and then slammed to the ground. A finale of fireworks exploded in her head. She sputtered for air.
Footsteps pounded as someone sprinted over gravel and jumped pallets of brick. A deep male voice shouted, “Sammy, no. Bad dog. Sit!”
Stunned, Rena shook her head to clear the fireworks and came face to face with a massive, drooling dog. Jowls drawn to expose spiked teeth, he loomed as if he intended to devour her for breakfast. Her heart pounded and her cries ripped the air. “Help! Kelsie!”
“It’s OK.” The male voice slid over her like warm molasses as the guy who’d been helping Kyle set down the two-by-fours and then dropped to his knees beside her. “It’s just Sammy. He’s harmless.”
“Yeah, right.” She dipped her head and attempted to shield her face with the collar of her windbreaker as the dog buried his meaty snout in her tangled hair. “Just get him away from me.”
He frowned and gave the dog’s collar a yank. “Sammy, no. Bad manners. Bad dog. Sit. Stay.”
Rena gasped and fought to bring her breathing under control. She sputtered, “T-that’s not a dog. It’s-it’s a bear.” She scooted through damp grass to put distance between them. As if to mock her, Sammy followed. He sniffed her hair and then lazily licked her face, leaving a trail of warm, sloppy saliva across one cheek.
“Yuck, I’ve been slimed.” She swiped a forearm across the gooey moisture and tilted her head to stare into the most soulful pair of doggy eyes she’d ever seen. Now that she could breathe again, he didn’t seem so menacing. “What’s your name, big boy?”
“My name’s Cody.”
A nervous giggle erupted, and she covered her mouth. “I meant the dog.”
“Oh, right. Meet Sammy.” Cody offered a hand and she sat up cross-legged, brushing slobber-matted hair from her eyes while she waited for the dizziness to pass. “He’s a Saint Bernard who thinks he’s a toy poodle. He forgets he weighs as much as a truck.”
Calluses mingled with her clammy palm and reminded her he still held her hand. She quickly let go. “Haven’t you heard of obedience school?”
“For me or the dog?”
She wiped her hand on her jeans. “Maybe you should check into a buy-one-get-one-free program.”
“Point taken.” He grazed fingertips over each of her arms, searching for cuts, and then brushed a smudge of slobber from her cheek with his knuckles. Rena shivered, and turned away. His voice gentled. “You OK?”
She shrugged and buried her hand in Sammy’s thick fur. “I’ll live. Are you sure he won’t bite?”
“He’s toddler tough, I promise. The worst he’ll do is drown you in slobber.”
“Been there, done that.” Rena scratched behind Sammy’s ears and his tail swept wildly across the ground. A cloud of sawdust erupted. Rena stroked the dog’s fur and murmured, “Hey, Sammy, you’re just a big, playful baby, aren’t you?”
“He’s a stinker. Sorry he knocked you down. He’ll get a timeout when we get home.” Cody shook a finger at the mutt. “It’s the doghouse for you, buddy.”
“You’ll do no such thing.” Rena laid a protective hand on Sammy’s massive back. “He just scared me. There’s no need to punish him. I’m OK now.”
“Are you sure?” Cody grasped Rena’s hand again and helped her to her feet. The world swirled and turned gray for a moment before coming back to life.
“Yes.” She felt a bruise forming on her hip but dismissed the pain. She’d had much worse while living in New York. The realization was sobering, and reminded her she’d sworn off men for now…most likely for good. She tugged her hand from Cody’s and brushed blades of grass from the seat of her jeans. “Besides, I like dogs...most of the time.”
“Good thing, because Sammy likes to hang around the building site. He’s become a sort of…mascot.” Deep blue eyes studied her. Rena found herself dwarfed by his broad-shouldered, six-foot-something frame. She took a step back as he continued, “I’m Cody Jamison. And you’re...?”
She hesitated, but his gaze pierced her. The rush of her pulse was irrational, she knew, yet she couldn’t seem to bring it under control.
“Rena…” she finally murmured, and turned from him to Kelsie, who had sidled up to her. “We’d better get to work. It looks like a storm might be rolling in.” The breeze had picked up, and concrete dust swirled over the ground. Beyond the foundation, a row of willows danced.
“Well, OK...for now.” Cody reached for Sammy’s collar and grimaced as he jabbed a finger at the mutt. “Come on, you mangy beast. Go lay down. You’ve caused enough trouble for one day.”
They sauntered across the yard and Rena watched as Sammy chased his tail in a trio of circles before settling beneath one of the willows with his massive head nestled on two meaty front paws. Cody turned back to grin at her, and shook his head as if to say the dog would cause no more trouble.
She nodded. The whine of a circular saw pierced the air and exhaust fumes drew her attention as other workers arrived in a variety of pick-ups and sedans. Rena shook wooziness from her head as she reached for the hammer hanging from her tool belt. She wondered if her dizziness was caused by Sammy, or if Cody’s gentleness and humor had somehow dislodged a piece of the wall she’d so painstakingly erected to guard her heart.
She sighed as her gaze was drawn to Cody once more. Of course, it was the dog.
 Cody aimed for the nail and missed. He stifled an oath as the hammer grazed his thumb.
“That’s gonna leave a mark.” Kyle snorted. “Better keep your eyes on your work…instead of Rena.”
“You’re a real comedian.” He reached for another nail, held it in place and sank it with a single blow. “But she is…appealing.”
Kyle laughed. “I thought you swore off women.”
“I have…but there’s always room for adjustments to the game plan.”
“Game plan?” Kyle quirked an eyebrow as he lifted another two-by-four into place. “This isn’t football, my friend.”
“I know.” He glanced away from the lumber long enough to find Rena once more. The baby-blue windbreaker stood out among hues of brown and gray building materials, and her long blonde hair lifted in the morning breeze as she and Kelsie worked together to lay two-by-fours along the foundation. “She’s a friend of Kelsie’s?”
Kyle nodded. “Since they were kids.”
“Wow, she swings that hammer like a guy.” He whistled appreciatively. “Wonder where she learned that.”
“Why don’t you ask her?” Kyle handed him a nail. “It’s a good place to start.”
“I don’t know…maybe.”
“She volunteers at the rec center, you know, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe you could come out and help with the basketball program. Who knows, you might run into each other there, too.”
“Smooth way of roping me in to volunteer.”
Kyle grinned. “If it works…”
Cody’s gaze locked with Rena’s as she walked over to get another box of nails. She smiled slightly, and motioned to Sammy, who slept beneath a tree at the edge of the site. When she held up one hand and formed her index finger and thumb into the OK sign, he grinned and nodded back.
“The rec center…on Tuesdays, you said?” He turned to Kyle.
“And Thursdays, like clockwork.”