Hunter Stone rides a bright future as an MLB star pitcher until a senseless accident steals his ability to throw a curve ball--as well as the life of an innocent child. Disgraced, he leaves Willow Lake in search of something to fill the void.
Maci Ferguson uses her gift of music to help children overcome trauma. Music is the balm that soothes her hurt and washes away memories with scars that refuse to fade. She fears she may never trust a man to love her...until Hunter returns to Willow Lake.
Can the two trust enough to allow God to work in their lives...and heal them both before it's too late?
Maci set her violin case beside the deck rail and turned her face to the breeze. She inhaled the sweet scent of the lilacs blooming along the river walk beyond the band shell. The day was unseasonably warm for early July, with temperatures soaring into the high nineties. The heat caused Maci’s senses to buzz as if she’d dipped her head into a beehive. From behind, she heard the clatter of fellow musicians as they began to pack up their instruments and clear the stage. What remained of the concert crowd quickly dispersed for cooler quarters. Red and white striped popcorn cartons littered the lawn along with crumpled soda cups. Already, the cleaning crew scurried to make quick work of the mess.
Maci leaned against the deck rail and blew a wisp of wavy red hair from her forehead as beads of perspiration dampened the nape of her neck. Summer was gearing up to be a real bear. This afternoon’s concert had zapped what was left of her energy after a full week spent counseling others, and she was thankful the sun had begun to sink low on the horizon, welcoming gentle hues of magenta and lavender. Even with cooling fans blowing into the orchestra’s pit, the temperature continued to lumber toward unbearable while humidity turned everything in its path to a limp dishrag. If it weren’t for the slight, gentle kiss of a breeze, she’d most likely melt. Thank goodness this was the last afternoon concert of Willow Lake’s outdoor series; the symphony was due to move indoors to the newly-renovated concert hall for next Saturday’s afternoon spotlight. Maci hoisted her violin case and glanced at the delicate silver watch on her wrist. She’d lost track of time; the sweeping second hand was proof as it inched toward a new hour. She’d best be on her way home. A generous stack of case files, the byproduct of what she considered her real job—music therapy—waited for her attention. Despite their beckon, restlessness caused her to pace the open deck that ran the length of the back stage. Though, between concerts and working, her schedule was so full she barely had time to breathe, lately she’d felt as if something was missing from her life, something—
“This heat is killing me.” Maci turned to find her friend Ali MacLaren— Hawkins, Maci corrected herself— approaching. She still thought of Ali as a MacLaren although she and Ryder had been married nearly a year. Blonde hair punctuated by strawberry highlights skimmed Ali’s shoulders as she swiped perspiration from her freckled nose. Her belly, round with pregnancy, made her labored walk more of a waddle.
“What are you doing out in this heat?” Maci quickly offered the bottle of water she clutched in one hand. Ali’s high-boned cheeks flared crimson. “You look like a teapot about to squeal.”
“With so much work at the inn, I’ve missed every one of your performances this season. I was determined to make this one—to cheer you on, Mace.” Ali splayed one hand across her belly while the other reached for the water. She uncapped the bottle, drew one greedy sip before continuing. “But, I didn’t bargain for this heat. Even the little guy feels it. He’s been awfully quiet today. I think he’s stretched out across my tailbone. It aches.”
“Maybe you’re in—”
“Bite your tongue.” Maci waggled a finger. “I can’t be in labor—not yet. I still have almost a month.” She forced a smile. “You sounded great out there, by the way. The best I’ve ever heard. It was…magical.”
“Thanks, but forget about the concert for now.” Maci took Ali’s arm and guided her toward a folding chair. “We have more pressing business to attend to. You should sit down.”
“I’ve tried.” Ali pushed hair back from her flushed face. “It only feels worse. And dizziness keeps coming and going like a tumbling wave, now joined by a nagging headache.”
“Dizziness…” Maci’s voice trailed off as Ali suddenly leaned against the back stage rail, the color draining from her face. Her breath came in short bursts. Maci rushed over to her side.
“He got delayed in Chattanooga while ordering landscaping materials for the inn—he won’t be back until later tonight.” Ali squeezed her eyes tight, and then opened them again as Maci placed a hand on her forearm. “I should have brought my sunglasses,” Ali said. “The light is killing me.”
“But it’s getting dark. The sun is barely above the horizon.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” Worry spiked as Maci eased in closer to Ali, handing her a treasured pair of Ray-Bans propped on her head. “Here, take my glasses.”
“Funny…” Ali reached for the glasses and slipped them into place. “Oh, that’s a little better. Thanks, Mace.”
“Now, come sit down. I’m going to give Ryder a call and tell him to make tracks back this way. You shouldn’t be alone, Ali.”
“Please, don’t do that.” Ali lifted the water bottle for another sip. “I don’t want to worry him.”
“Nonsense.” Maci pulled her cell phone from the pocket of her long, black concert skirt. “He’d be furious if you didn’t, and most likely skin me alive for not calling. I’m not willing to come under the wrath of his fury. I’d rather be sunk into a pressure cooker.”
“Well, when you put it that way...” Ali tilted her head, sighing as one hand returned to her belly. Her jaw clenched as she swallowed hard. “Is there something wrong with the sound system?”
“No. Nothing’s playing now. All I hear is the scuffle of the orchestra packing up and the work crew gathering trash. And, amid the chaos, a few clarinetists are practicing a handful of measures from Sonata Number Five that the director asked them to tweak. Why? What do you hear?”
“That high-pitched humming—sounds like mosquitos are swarming in my ears.” As if to emphasize, she cupped a hand over one lobe.
“There’s no humming, Ali.” Maci shook her head stiffly, her pulse racing just a bit faster as she switched on the cell phone, scanned her contacts and brought up Ryder’s number. She jabbed the call button and waited for the signal to engage, keeping one careful eye on Ali. Ali’s cheeks were suddenly white as the linens Maci had seen her use on Willow Inn’s guest beds. “I think you’re a little overheated, Al. I’ll get you to the car and crank the air conditioning so you can cool off. If you don’t feel better by then, we’ll head to the emergency room.” ‚
“I have an appointment with the obstetrician in the”—Ali paused, winced—“morning.”
Ryder’s voicemail engaged, and Maci spoke quickly. “This is Maci. Call me.” There was no need for more. She knew the urgency in her voice would relay the rest of the message. She set the phone to vibrate and slipped it back into her pocket.
“I’m so sorry, Mace.” Ali placed one hand beneath the mound of her belly and used the other to help steady herself as she staggered along the deck, leaning on the rail. “I didn’t come here to cause trouble—”
“Bite your tongue.” Maci grabbed her violin case in one hand and grasped Ali’s arm with her other. “Best friends are never trouble.”
“You’re right.” Ali’s breathing grew more labored with each step. “I think I’d better get home. I just need…a minute to rest.” The words rushed out in a gasp, punctuated by a groan as Ali stumbled forward.
“Ali! Oh, my goodness. Let me help you.” The violin case slipped from Maci’s hand as she rushed to throw an arm around Ali’s shoulders. Ali’s skin felt hot as smoldering embers when she pressed her forehead to Maci’s cheek.
“My legs are cramping.”
“Take it slow.”
“Everything’s spinning. I need to sit back down…” Ali slipped from Maci’s grasp and settled in a heap on the deck floor. “My head…” Her eyes rolled back, her cheeks white as a snowdrift.
“Easy. It’s going to be OK.” Barely able to breathe as alarm launched to full-on panic, Maci’s voice shuddered so her words came in a staggered rush. Her pulse hurtled and her hands trembled like autumn leaves as she dropped to her knees, cradling Ali’s head as it slipped back to thump the wood. Beneath the waning sunlight, Ali’s blonde hair fanned across the stained deck like a halo. “Stay with me.”
“I’m so dizzy. Something’s wrong…with the baby.” Ali’s eyes slipped close as her voice drifted. “Help me, Maci. Please…”
Hunter lifted a bottle of water to his lips and guzzled. The day was hot enough to melt the tar off a roof. He swiped a hand across his mouth as he drained the bottle and tossed it into a recycling bin along the river walk. A crowd had gathered in the grass surrounding the band shell, enjoying popcorn and sodas while they listened to the concert. The aroma of butter wafted, and a cacophony of sounds crowded the air as the symphony packed up their equipment and the grounds crew dug in to clear trash from the park. Around the perimeter of the concert quad, along the river walk, and across the parking lot floodlights kicked on, casting a milky glow over the grounds as dusk whispered. On stage, the male musicians were dressed in starched black tuxes while the women wore flowing, ankle-length black skirts coupled with long-sleeved white blouses. In Hunter’s opinion, the required concert attire was way too hot for a day such as this.
He tugged at the collar of his navy Willow Lake EMS shirt, thankful for the short sleeves as he meandered around toward the back of the stage. His gaze scanned the river walk as his emergency radio crackled with a spattering of messages. Nothing important—everything seemed to be in order. After managing the streets of Chicago, he’d welcomed the much quieter pace of Willow Lake. It was good to be home again. Sure, the town had grown since he’d hightailed to the concrete jungle nearly eight years ago; shops lined Magnolia Street, blending old and quaint with new and flashy. His favorite hang-out was Dom’s Deli, next door to the bookstore named Posts and Pages. Dom’s toasted pastrami on rye slathered with spicy Dijon mustard was to die for. But, despite the growth, Willow Lake’s atmosphere had the same mellow flavor, which almost made him wonder why he’d once been so eager to escape. Almost. All the changes made it easy to feel like the past was merely an illusion—that he hadn’t once lost a baseball scholarship as well as his dream of playing in the major leagues. And that Josh MacLaren hadn’t died.
Hunter forced the thought away as he rounded the band shell and made his way across the grass. Just like Willow Lake, he’d changed, too. He wasn’t that person anymore—the one who’d coasted through the summer following high school graduation without a care in the world, looking forward to a full ride to Tennessee State, compliments of his gifted pitching ability. Life had thrown him a curve ball, and he’d struck out.
But now he was back at the plate, and this time he’d hit the grand slam he’d always dreamed of—just not in a way he’d ever imagined. The breeze kicked up, drying a line of perspiration that trailed across the nape of his neck and disappeared down his back like fingers skimming over his spine as he reminded himself he was no longer Hunter Stone, Willow Creek Warrior’s star pitcher and switch-hitter. That person had died along with Josh. Now he was—
“Open your eyes. Talk to me, Ali.” The sudden urgent, high-pitched voice was a knife slashing through the air. Hunter’s senses launched to full alert as he turned toward the deck at the rear of the band shell. Beneath floodlights, a flurry of black and white flashed against the brown of deck wood, followed by the flutter of a golden-red wave, like flames whipping in the breeze.
“Somebody call 911!” The voice was frenzied.
Hair prickled down Hunter’s arms as he bolted toward the commotion. His pulse kicked into overdrive while his heart launched into a double-time cadence. Without missing a step, he radioed for the event’s on-call ambulance to pull around and stand ready. As he reached the deck, he found a woman splayed supine across the wood, her pregnant belly a mountain rising to the dusk-kissed sky. A second woman knelt over her, shaking her limp body.
“Ali.” The woman with long, copper hair gave another shake with no response. “Ali, wake up.”
“Easy there.” Hunter nudged the kneeling woman aside. She was the source of the flames—her hair was the most startling shade of red he’d ever seen. “Her name’s Ali?”
“Yes. Ali Hawkins.”
The name punched Hunter in the gut. So, she’d married…
His gaze flew to Ali’s face. The growing, purplish bruise above her right eye had thrown him off. She must have bumped her head when she passed out. Her hair was shorter—a lot shorter—than he remembered, too. And, the added pregnancy weight distorted her features. That last detail—her pregnancy—got his EMT gears moving and launched him into action.
“How far along?”
"When is the baby due?”
“About three and a half weeks.” The woman leaned in, bathing Ali’s face in water from a bottle another musician had handed her, mindless of the dirt that marred her sleek black skirt. “She shouldn’t have come here in this heat. This pregnancy’s been hard on her, and she’s been so busy at the inn. I don’t know what she was thinking.” The woman’s eyes, the color of stonewashed denim, glistened with tears. “She was talking and then, in the middle of a
“It’s going to be OK.” Hunter should be immune to tears by now. He’d seen enough of them in his years running emergency services on the streets of Chicago. But, somehow hers managed to do a number on him. He dropped to his knees beside her. “Let me take a look.”
“Are you a doctor?” Her gaze skimmed his navy EMS shirt, scanning his name badge as tears spilled over to streak clear, porcelain skin. “Mr. Stone, don’t you think we need an ambulance?”
“Hunter Stone, and we had one on call for the concert. It was on its way back to the station when I radioed, but it’s turned around. It should be here any minute.” As if to affirm his statement, sirens wailed. A moment later the ambulance turned the corner and rushed down the street, its blue lights flashing. It jumped a curb and crossed the lawn, making tracks to the band shell. Seeing the panic in the woman’s eyes, Hunter made an effort to distract her before he had two patients on his hands. “What’s your name?”
“Help me here, Maci.” Hunter skimmed his fingers along Ali’s wrist and felt for a pulse…found one steady but edging toward a sprint. “Tell me everything you remember. From the very start.”
“Like I said, we were talking.” Maci leaned in, hiking up her long black skirt to free her legs. Hunter tore his gaze away from calves he was sure had spent plenty of time in a gym and focused on the patient. “The heat was getting to her, and she said she was feeling a little dizzy.”
Hunter gulped as he smoothed a hand across Ali’s forehead, down one cheek. Her skin was clammy but not overly hot. “What else?”
“Humming…she thought something was wrong with the sound system because she heard a high-pitched humming.” Maci shook her hair away from her face and cupped one ear with long, delicate fingers. “But there’s nothing like that. I don’t hear it, though. Do you?”
“No.” Hunter’s danger radar spiked as he performed triage, and his heart pounded with each new piece of information. He delved further. “You two are friends?”
“Has Ali had any problems with her blood pressure throughout the pregnancy?”
“None that I’m aware of. She saw the obstetrician a week ago, and has another appointment tomorrow.”
A week…Hunter knew from his training what kind of dangers could pop up in late pregnancy during the course of a week. This had all the signs of a classic case of preeclampsia. If that was indeed the case, the baby—and Ali—were in serious danger.
“Here comes the stretcher. We’ll get her to the hospital now.” Hunter turned from Ali as his coworker, Jared, approached, though he continued his conversation with Maci. “Have you called her husband—Ryder?”
“How do you know they’re married?”
“It doesn’t take a genius.” Carefully, Hunter helped Jared stabilize Ali. “I used to live here.”
“You know Ali?”
“And Ryder, too.” Hunter and Jared carefully loaded Ali onto the stretcher. Hunter was thankful only a few stragglers remained from the enthusiastic concert crowd. Nothing stuck in his craw more than a mob of gawkers. He turned to Maci. “We all used to be friends.”
“Well, Ryder’s—” Maci’s cell phone chimed and she checked caller ID. “This is him.” She answered in a flash. Hunter continued to work at the rear of the ambulance while she quickly relayed information. With Ali safely loaded and stabilized, they were ready to pull out. The quicker Ali got to the hospital, the better the chances for her and the baby.
“Wait. I’m coming with.‛” Maci grabbed her violin case and rushed to the rear of the ambulance as Ryder began to climb in. “I won’t leave her alone.”
“We don’t allow passengers in rescue vehicles.” Hunter eyed her performance attire. “Only patients.”
“You do today.” Maci marched past him, her chin tilted toward the sky and her blue eyes shimmering with tears. Hunter’s resolve turned to mashed potatoes when her lips began to tremble. “Like I said, she’s not going alone.”
“She won’t be alone.” He crossed his arms, struggling to maintain authority. “I’ll see she’s taken care of.”
“And so will I. Ryder’s coming from Chattanooga, and even speeding he’s going to be at least another hour. If Ali’s in labor she’ll need me there.” Maci’s teeth tugged at her trembling bottom lip. She clutched her violin case to her chest as the tears spilled over. “You look like a reasonable guy, Hunter. Give me a break and bend the rules a bit…just this time.”
The tears did him in. “Well, I guess it’s OK…just this once, though.” Ryder reminded himself it was Ali in the ambulance—not just a stranger from the street. He’d hurt her once, and he wouldn’t let that happen again. Maci was right—Ali would need a friend at her side if the doctors decided to take the baby—or worse. He sighed and nodded slightly toward the ambulance. “You ride shotgun. I’ll take up the rear.”
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