They say time heals all wounds…have the years taught them how to trust—and to love again?
Prologue / 1st Chapter:
Examine me, oh Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart. ~Psalm 26:2
Jadeʹs lungs burned as she scaled the security fence’s weathered planks. The seat of her faded jeans snagged on unyielding shards of lumber. Splinters bit into tender flesh as she tumbled inside the fence, into a nearly deserted parking lot. Her sandals slipped on loose gravel, and she went down hard on her hands and knees. Ignoring the pain, she chanced a furtive look around.
She ran through the aroma of waffle cakes dusted with powdered sugar. An enormous wooden roller coaster rose to kiss the sky. The ferocious roar of its racing wheels filled her ears.
A small crowd herded toward the coaster like cattle going to slaughter. Jade wove her way to the single-rider line where there was no wait. The coaster screeched into the embarking platform and Jade impatiently tapped her foot as riders hustled out.
She stumbled into a seat. Her hands trembled as she fastened a sturdy cloth seatbelt over her fluttering belly. A padded harness clamped across her shoulders and gnawed into her legs. Through tears, she stared across the tracks and drew in a single quivering breath.
The car hissed and jolted forward. Jade squinted against a breeze that slapped her face as the car rushed to the first breathtaking summit. The scent of lilacs hung on the air. Sighing in an eerie, breathless hush, the car hesitated at the top of the world.
Vertigo had her heart pummeling her ribs. Rushing into the first perilous freefall, air screamed past in a deafening howl. A vast palette of orange sherbet sky swirled together with the molten lava of enraged voices screaming inside her head—her mother storming at Hank, the latest boyfriend who had sponged his way into their cramped, pathetic trailer. Hank hollering right back, his menacing baritone enhanced by shattering glass and fists striking flesh.
Jade pressed her hands to her ears in an attempt to block terrifying memories as her mother’s pleading sobs weaved through the chaos.
The ride plunged and twisted like a serpent hunting prey. When it ended, Jade craved more.
She rode again. And again.
She longed to be mindless, to forget. Dips and turns blurred terrible images into a soup more easily swallowed.
Two weeks until high school graduation. Two weeks until I turn eighteen and leave for college. For good. A day of liberation. Nothing could hold her in this godforsaken town then. Not even the desperate needs of her mother.
Or her feelings for Shane.
She couldn’t explain the attraction she felt toward him. He was nothing more than a spoiled, privileged kid. He’d sucked her into his pathetic game, showing a little kindness when she’d tripped over her own two feet and dropped an armload of textbooks in the school hallway. He’d sauntered over long enough to help her gather them, his deep, sea‐blue eyes warming her like melted wax, before loping off with a girl dressed in a mini skirt cut up to here, paired with a low‐cut shirt designed to showcase her ample assets. She’d turned her nose up at Jade and laughed. And Shane, so helpful just moments before, had slung an arm over the girl’s shoulders and snickered, too.
Jade had dipped her head and refused to let them see her cry.
She seethed, her insides a pressure cooker ready to blow. She was going to go far, far away…as far away as possible from the insanity of life here. She was going to make something of her life, something so much better than this town could ever offer.
The girl rushed by on the coaster again. Shane recognized the hair—a guy couldn’t forget something like that—long, cinnamon hair that was just begging to have a strong hand run through it while he kissed the breath out of her. She rode with her head tipped back against the wind.
She appeared to be alone. Well, Shane aimed to change that. He had an hour before he had to meet Randy and the guys and head to Amber’s place. Her parents were gone for the weekend and the in‐ground pool waited. Cool water and girls in bikinis...oh man.
Before the boarding gate had time to open, Shane leaped over the rails and into the front seat of the arriving coaster.
Jade shoved him as the harness clamped down around them. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“How many times you gonna ride?” The coaster lurched and whined skyward once again.
“What do you care?”
Shane smirked. “Aren’t you bored yet…same dips and turns a dozen times now, and counting?”
“What’s it to you?” She shrugged with unbridled attitude. “Don’t you have somewhere to be, some party to crash or a fancy car to race?”
“Nah. I only have eyes for you, right now.”
“Right now? Well, I’m not interested.” Jade crossed her arms over the harness. “You’re just the proverbial bad‐boy wannabe, a legend in your own mind. Take a hike.”
“Kinda impossible at the moment.” He nodded toward the ground below, where objects grew magically smaller as they ascended the track. “Besides, there’s nothing wannabe about me. I’m the real deal, baby.”
Her eyebrows drew together. “What’s my name, then?”
Shane’s stomach lurched into his throat as a dozen thoughts vied for attention. What was her name? Julie...Janelle...Jane...Jade! It was Jade! The car crested, affording them a terrifying, breathtaking view of the park back‐dropped by smoke‐hazed mountains. An earsplitting, convulsive squeal shook the track and the ground suddenly collapsed below them.
Jade shrieked. Pressed against his side she was feline, edgy, with a mysterious beauty accentuated by the deepest green eyes he’d ever seen. She screamed into the sky and Shane was overcome with adrenaline. He reached for her hand and twined slender fingers to his with all the cockiness he could muster roaring sixty miles an hour over a narrow wooden track.
Through wild dips and turns he held fast. When they finally skidded to a halt and the shoulder harness released, he leaned into her and did the unthinkable, even by his standards.
He pressed his trembling body against hers and kissed her. Sweet strawberry shampoo scented her hair. He swallowed the shock that welled up from deep in the pit of his belly and held on while she wilted, her lips yielding to his.
What am I thinking!
Jade shoved him away and pressed a trembling finger to her lips. She’d been kissed before, but never like this. Her insides were tangled spaghetti noodles.
“Shane Calkin.” His touch scorched her skin. He coaxed her into meeting his piercing blue eyes and grinned as if he hadn’t just kissed the breath from her soaring a million miles an hour with the wind shrieking like a tornado. “Pleased to meet you, Jade.”
He knows my name!
“I‐I told you I know who you are.”
Jade scrambled from the seat. His parents owned half the town. He probably thought he owned her now, too. “You cocky, egocentric—”
“Whoa.” He held up a hand. “Easy, there.”
“You wish.” She awarded him an icy stare accentuated by a slap across his smug face.
“Ouch!” A storm blew across his gaze as his hand came up to soothe the sting. “Hey, wait! I want to talk to you!”
“In your dreams.” Jade rushed down the exit ramp, away from the dark‐haired boy who’d awoken dangerous new emotions…away from the voice that was urging her to turn back.
She couldn’t go back. She was running away...toward freedom.
Toward her future.
Ten Years Later
Jade swung her car into the parking lot of Piney Grove Church. She was running late and that wasn’t good for her first day on the job as the new administrative assistant. Not good for any day on the job, but especially not the very first. But her mom had needed help taking her heart medicine, and the dryer decided to die at the last minute. Hence the slightly damp blouse that clung to the small of her back.
She hoped they wouldn’t hold her tardiness against her; she needed this job. She had bills to pay and an aging Honda that desperately needed new tires before the pitifully worn treads suffered a major blowout. How she made it back from Chicago last month she’d never know.
She swooped into a parking space, jostled her purse onto her shoulder, and reached for a travel mug of steaming brew. Sunshine blinded her as she slammed the car door with a hip. She hustled toward the entrance. Two minutes ’til eight. She might make it after all.
Thank God for Claire, who had sent her a heads-up on the job opening here when she’d learned Jade was coming home to Knoxville to care for her mom. Claire...a true friend through thick and thin.
As Jade hiked the stairs two at a time, a shadow crossed the glass. The door flew open with such force she went airborne. She shrieked and tumbled to the concrete walk below. Her purse vomited its contents as it flew in one direction and the aluminum travel mug clattered like gunshots. Hot coffee fell like rain. Pain sliced through her and shades of gray veiled her vision.
“Oh, sorry!” A deep male voice eclipsed the brilliant burst of stars that exploded in her head. “I didn’t see you coming. My bad.”
“Obviously. Ohhhh…” Jade drew in a ragged breath and shook her head to clear it. Footsteps pounded the stairs. A shadow fell over her as the guy stooped to perform triage. The clean scent of his soap mingled with spearmint on his breath as his hands brushed across her forehead and stroked her tender scalp.
“Are you OK? I don’t feel any lumps.” His touch was gentle. “Do you know your name? What day is it? Who’s the president?”
“Of what country?” The world was still fuzzy, but she heard the low rumble of laughter.
“Good one. Look, your palms are scraped. They’re bleeding. Let me help you up.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her as if she weighed no more than a feather. Spearmint wafted from his chewing gum. He set her carefully on her feet and the world came back into focus.
“Oh, no, my new shoes.” One of the sensible, low-heeled pumps she’d bought on clearance the day before was gone. She wiggled bare toes. Thank goodness she’d taken the time to slather on a bit of pink polish.
“I’ll help you find it. Gee, your pants are torn, too.”
Her scraped knee peeked through shredded navy linen fabric. Irritation boiled to the surface. “You can let go of me.” She shook out of his grasp. “I need my shoe. It may very well be in Memphis, judging by how hard you slammed into me.”
“Hey, I’m sorry. You weren’t exactly looking where you were going, either.”
She paused to glance up at him. He stood a good foot taller than she did, broad‐shouldered with dark hair that was on the slightly‐too‐long side. As he brushed waves from his eyes, Jade gasped. She squinted into the sun and shook her head. She must be suffering from a concussion.
“Sh‐Shane?” He’d grown a little taller, definitely more muscular, and his face lacked the cocky expression he’d worn like a mask through their senior year. But she couldn’t mistake those eyes, stormy‐blue like the waters of Lake Michigan. They’d haunted her dreams for years.
He cocked his head to the side. Suddenly his eyes flew wide.
“Jade?” The sound of her name on his lips eased over her like warm pudding. The fact that he remembered her was just short of astonishing.
“What are you doing here?”
Jade took a giant step away from him and struggled to compose herself. She wasn’t a helpless seventeen‐year‐old anymore. She was almost twenty-eight and liked to think she had her act together, at least most of the time. “I’m trying to get to work, if I could only make it inside without getting tackled like a linebacker.”
His laughter filled the air. “It’s the linebacker who does the tackling.”
“Whatever. Can I get by now? I have to meet Carol. She’s waiting for me, and I don’t like to be late.”
“Seems you might have gotten an earlier start, then, so you wouldn’t have to be in such a rush. Rushing is dangerous to your health, you know.”
“So is shoving doors open without looking to see who you might plow over.”
“Point taken.” Shane retrieved her shoe from the nearby holly bushes, brushed clumps of dirt from the heel and handed it to her. “So you’re the new secretary here?”
“Administrative assistant.” Jade enunciated the words in case he was hard of hearing as well as a little slow to understand. She missed her job as a kindergarten teacher, but no point dwelling on it. Mama needed her now, here, so she’d come.
“Then we’ll be working together. I’m the youth pastor.”
Youth pastor...Jade’s heart missed a beat. Had Claire known this when she’d suggested the job? Surely to goodness not. She would have mentioned it...or maybe not. Jade blanched. Claire knew the turmoil of longing and resentment that ride on the coaster had caused. She’d never intentionally set Jade up like this...or would she?
“Excuse me?” Shane’s brows knit together. He crossed his arms, and his T‐shirt grew taut across well-defined chest muscles. No doubt he groomed his ego in the gym while ogling scantily‐clad women who perspired delicately over state‐of‐the‐art stair climbers and treadmills.
“How long have you worked here?”
He counted backwards for a moment. “Nearly three years.”
Uggghhh! She would have it out with Claire, for sure. The front door clattered open and a little girl came bolting down the steps. Her wheat‐blonde hair whipped in the breeze.
“Whoa, there.” Shane corralled the imp. He lifted her as she darted toward the road and swung her around.
She squealed. “But my bouncy ball!”
“It rolled beside the curb. Look.” Shane set her down and pointed toward the street. She noted the ball’s position then paused to peer up at Jade with expectant eyes, the same stormy‐blue as Shane’s. “Who’re you?”
Jade felt cold fingers creep up her spine. The similarity was striking, despite the contrast in hair color. So Shane had a child. He must be married. How could she expect any different? Nearly ten years had come and gone, after all. An odd sense of disappointment churned in her belly. “I’m Jade. I’ll be working in the office here.”
“I’m Susie. I’m five‐and‐three‐quarters.” She held up slender fingers in an attempt to demonstrate the number. “I’m in kindergarten. Carol said you were coming today, and that she’s going away soon. Will you keep a jar of candy on your desk like she does? I like the colored Lifesavers best, especially the green ones.” She rubbed her belly in large swirls and smacked her lips.
“That can be arranged.” Jade couldn’t help but laugh. She thought of the kindergarten class she’d left behind. Maybe she’d send the kids a postcard of the sun sphere downtown or the Star of Knoxville Riverboat. They’d like that, and maybe they’d learn a little bit about Knoxville along the way.
“I like you. You’ve got pretty hair. It looks like the honey Carol puts in her tea. Bees make honey, you know. My teacher told me that.”
“Thank you.” A flush of heat warmed Jade’s face. “I‐I’d better get going. I’m late.”
“Let me help you.” Shane knelt to gather the scattered contents of her purse. “We need to clean your hands. They’re still bleeding. And your knee can use some attention, too.”
She stepped back. “I know how to clean a scrape and slap on a bandage.” No way was she going to let him near her knee. She slung her purse over a shoulder and pushed past him. It was dangerous, the effect he seemed to have on her, especially since he was married, judging from the flaxen‐haired pixie of a girl who skipped down the sidewalk to retrieve her ball from the curb. “But thanks for the offer.”
“No problem.” He backed away, making room for her to pass. “And by the way, thanks for the coffee shower. It’s just what I needed to start my morning off right.”
A caramel stain splotched the front of his white T-shirt. “My pleasure, Shane.” She snatched her empty mug from his hands and strode up the stairs. So much for being on time her first day on the job, thanks to him. She pulled open one of the double doors and turned to glare at him. “Have a nice day.”
Air‐conditioning kissed her overheated skin while she let the door slam behind her.
“Look at me, Daddy! I’m a butterfly!” Cool water from a sprinkler drenched Susie. She shrieked and zigzagged through the backyard grass. Shane watched groggily from the deck. He had nearly nodded off beneath a warm late‐afternoon sun.
“Careful. Don’t step on Maggie.” The puppy’s coat glistened from a leap into the nearby kiddy pool he’d picked up at the store yesterday. She yapped and circled Susie’s ankles.
He sighed and settled back in the chair. The scents of freshly‐mown grass and wild onions danced around him. He’d managed to get the chores caught up...for now, at least. Susie had gathered the puppy’s chew toys from the yard while he’d trudged the mower through overgrown grass. Together they’d filled a graveyard of holes along the fence that Maggie had dug, and repaired a section of planks she’d gnawed through.
What had he been thinking to take on the responsibility of a rambunctious puppy when his plate was already overflowing? But Susie loved the animal and it wasn’t that much trouble…if you didn’t count her mangled sandals and the new throw rug the mutt shredded. And the picnic table’s seat she’d reduced to kindling. Shane had replaced the ruined wood, but not in time to save Susie from three painful splinters he’d had the pleasure of removing from her thigh.
“Daddy, look what I can do!” Susie stretched her hands skyward and flung herself into a wobbly cartwheel.
“That’s great!” Shane clapped and whistled. “Do another.”
She looked so much like his sister had at that age, except instead of a fraying, hand‐me‐down swimsuit, Reid had worn a designer cheer outfit. By the age of seven she’d run with an elite crowd. She’d juggled a strict schedule of tumbling and dance classes and had cheered for his little league football team, where rivalries and parents’ tempers ran hotter than the August sun.
Reid, like him, had felt the pressure to run with the in crowd, to excel at all things social. It had been her tragic un‐doing and nearly his as well.
“Daddy, wake up.” Susie crawled into his lap, a soggy, sweet‐smelling bundle of energy tugging him away from his daydreams: What’s Jade doing back in Piney Grove, and working at the church, no less? Where’s she been the past ten years?
And...why am I still hopelessly drawn to her after all this time?
“I’m not sleeping. I’m just resting my eyes.” “That’s what you always say.” Water dripped from the lopsided braid he’d clumsily woven down her back and splattered his grass‐stained T‐shirt. Susie had been with him for nearly five years now, and he still hadn’t mastered the art of braiding. Or Barbie dolls. Or matching sandals with shorts and frilly shirts. But he could play a mean game of Old Maid. And he could color inside the lines in Susie’s array of coloring books. He had that going for him, at least. “Can we take Maggie for a walk?”
Oh, where does he get the energy? Shane was exhausted to the bone, but he smiled despite the tiredness settling deep in his muscles. “After dinner. I made your favorite tonight.”
“Baked macaroni and cheese?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Susie squealed as he hoisted her, dripping and all, onto his back and trotted across the deck into the house. Maggie ran ahead, barking. “Now go dry off before I devour it all myself and leave you nothing but lima beans and carrots for dinner.”
“Oh, no, Daddy!” Her expression was pure mortification.
“Oh, yes.” He wrapped her in a beach towel, then patted her on the bottom and nudged her toward her bedroom. “Hurry.”
He watched her scamper down the hall, leaving a puddle in her wake. What had he done with all his free time before she’d come to live with him? He shook his head and prayed for strength to manage the overwhelming responsibilities swallowing the days ahead.