PILGRIMAGE of PROMISE
a Miller’s Creek Novel – Book 4
C A T H Y B R Y A N T
Pilgrimage of Promise
© Cathy Bryant, 2013
Published by WordVessel Press
All rights reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Table of Contents
To my sons, Josh and Jase.
May you always cling to His promises and
may you continue to live by faith in His promises
for the benefit of those around you.
For no matter how many promises
God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.
~2 Corinthians 1:20a
Mona Beth lifted a hand to her aching chest and peered down at the only man she’d ever loved. Garbed in a light blue hospital gown, her gentle giant somehow seemed small and vulnerable amidst the towering machines which surrounded his bed. Though his eyes were closed in sleep, the wrinkle between his now-white brows revealed pain and suffering. She allowed her gaze to linger on every nuance of the face she’d memorized years ago, growing fear returning to gnaw at the last fringes of her unraveling hope.
Her heart leaped to its familiar position in her throat. Somehow she had to find the strength to make it through this valley, not for herself, but for Bo. He wouldn’t recover well or quickly if he spent all his time concerned about her. And the sooner he got better, the sooner they could go home to Miller’s Creek where they belonged—but only if they got a good report.
A nurse entered the room and sent a polite, close-lipped smile as she strode noiselessly toward the hospital bed. “How are you, Mrs. Miller?” She half-whispered the question as she checked the data on one of the contraptions Bo had nicknamed the green-eyed monsters for their tendency to glare an eerie green into the room at night while they tried to sleep.
“I’m fine.” Same old lie for the same old question.
Once she finished her routine duties, the nurse turned to face her. “You’re welcome to go to the cafeteria for breakfast, but you should know that Dr. Kumar will most likely be here soon. He usually makes his rounds about now. And please let us know if you need anything.”
“Thank you.” News of Dr. Kumar’s probable visit whisked away any appetite she might have had, not that she had much of one considering the tasteless cardboard the hospital cafeteria characterized as food.
The young woman departed as quietly as she came. Now the walls of the hospital room, completely devoid of any of the homey comfort to which she was accustomed, seemed to close in on her once more. A yearning sigh escaped. The place held not even one ounce of the charm of the home they shared in Miller’s Creek, and there was only so much more she could take of this antiseptic-smelling place.
Mona Beth meandered to the plate-glass window of the Baylor Medical Center hospital room. People scurried below, hurrying to the warmth of nearby skyscrapers, living their normal everyday lives. But for her it was just another icy-cold and dark day. Another day in a month of days confined to this darkened room—another day of endless waiting.
She rubbed at the headache building above her eyes. Dani and Steve had come to visit over the weekend, but with Dani expecting a baby and running the day care, and Steve tending to the business of Miller’s Creek and the ranch, they’d had to leave Dallas yesterday to return home.
Trish and Andy and the kids would be up next weekend, but a hospital wasn’t a good place for kids who needed to run and make noise and expend energy—kids who needed to play rather than watch their beloved Papaw grow weaker.
Lord, bring him through this. Heal him. Please don’t take him away from me now. You’ve already taken Cecille, and I just don’t think I can handle any more deaths in the family. Through tear-filled eyes she once more glimpsed the pain etched on Bo’s face as one of the green-eyed monster machines at the head of the bed continued its infernal beeping. Lord, I don’t want him to suffer, so if healing him is not part of Your plan… She squeezed her eyes shut, forcing tears down her face, unable to finish the prayer.
“You okay, hon?”
Bo’s whispered words shook her from self-pity, and she quickly swiped her face and stepped toward him, relieved to see him awake. “Of course. Just being a silly goose and giving into a little bit of a pity party.” She leaned across the bed rail and cupped his grizzled cheek with her palm. “Are you feeling okay? Any pain?”
He closed his eyes and gave his head a little shake. “Not too bad.”
“You’d best not be feeding me a line, you know.”
A gentle laugh eased out of him, forcing his previously- taut lips into a smile, a hint of the familiar twinkle returning to his dark eyes. “Now would I do that?” He searched her face. His expression sobered, and he lifted a hand. “Never mind. Don’t answer.” He grew quiet momentarily, and an unnerving frown landed on his forehead. “Bethie, I know we promised when we got married not to bring up the past, but I think it’s time.”
No! Every fiber of her being screamed the word in unison. That meant he was giving up. She leaned back to give him a hard stare. “Don’t you dare give up, Bo Miller. I just won’t have it. You hear me?”
The door swung open, and Dr. Kumar whisked into the room. Though small in stature, the Asian doctor’s constant motion and energy gave him a large presence. “And how’s Mr. Bo doing today?” His voice held just a trace of his native accent.
“Oh, fair to middling, I suppose.”
Dr. Kumar faced her next, the scent of his cinnamon gum floating to her nose. “And does Dr. Mama Beth concur?”
“No. He’s hurting and acting like the macho fool he can sometimes be.” She sent Bo a semi-teasing wink.
The surgeon laughed and moved to the other side of the bed to pat Bo’s hand. “You should know better by now, don’t you think?”
One corner of Bo’s mouth curved upward in a wry grin. “I keep hoping she’ll let one slide past.”
Dr. Kumar gave his head a shake, a smirk on his face. “You forget I’ve been dealing with your wife for a few weeks now. Don’t think there’s much chance of that happening.”
Bo grunted in agreement. “Me either.”
Mama Beth edged closer and swallowed hard, the question in her heart burning holes in her patience. “Any news?”
Dr. Kumar raised his eyes to hers, his smile disappearing. “Yes.”
Her pulse roared in her ears and dizziness descended at the doctor’s grave look. She gripped the cool metal bedrail and waited.
He pulled up a stool and perched on it, switching his intense dark-eyed gaze to Bo. “As you know, the tumor we removed from your stomach was very large. That’s why you were having breathing problems. It was pushing against your lungs. I’m honestly surprised you could breathe at all. “He paused to catch a breath. “We received the lab results earlier today. The oncologist wants to discuss them with you and should be here at any mo—”
As if on cue, the door opened and Dr. Wheeler strode into the room, his white tennis shoes squeaking against the tile floor. His head jutted out further than the rest of his lanky body, reminding her of an ostrich in mid-run. Round glasses perched atop a long nose on an even longer face. “Good morning. Sorry I’m running a bit late.” He shook all their hands and then took a position at the end of the bed, his arms crossed across his chest as he cradled a clipboard, his features giving no clue to the answer she both longed for and dreaded.
“I was just telling the Millers we received the results this morning and that you wanted to speak with them.” Dr. Kumar volleyed the comment to the other doctor.
“Yes.” Dr. Wheeler broke off all eye contact and launched into his spiel. “The tests reveal that you have a soft tissue sarcoma as we suspected. Unfortunately, it has progressed to stage four, which basically means there are cancerous cells throughout your body. You could take radiation and chemotherapy, but…” His words dwindled away as if he wasn’t quite sure what to say next.
Just like that. He delivered the news like it was a common occurrence. In his line of work, maybe it was. But it wasn’t common news to her and Bo. She pressed her lips together, blinked against threatening tears, and turned to her husband.
Bo’s face was the color of the ashes at the bottom of the fireplace back home. “What are my chances of recovery?”
Now Dr. Wheeler twisted his ostrich-like neck from side to side and shifted his weight as he peered into the space above the bed. “Well, that’s hard to say because it depends so much on the patient’s outlook and determination.”
“Just give it to me straight, Doc. I’m a big boy.” Bo spoke the words in a direct style, a carryover from his years in the military.
A deathly hush descended over them all as the oncologist stared at his feet for a moment, his lips pooched out. “It’s a long shot, Mr. Miller. I’ve never had a patient survive this type of cancer that has developed to such an advanced stage.”
A gasp fell from Mama Beth’s mouth and one hand instinctively clutched her chest. “So you’re telling him to just give up? What kind of advice is that?” Tears fell, unstoppable.
Bo reached over and latched onto her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Stop it, Bethie. The man’s just doing his job.” He turned his attention back to Dr. Wheeler, his hand still gripping hers. “How long do I have?”
“Three to six months with chemo and radiation.”
“And without it?”
“A few weeks.” The quickly-spoken words froze in mid-air and hung there like razor-sharp icicles.
Her lungs clamored for a breath in the room suddenly devoid of oxygen. A few weeks?
Bo’s eyes locked with hers and searched for a long minute. Finding the answer he needed somewhere in her expression, he turned back to Dr. Wheeler. “Let’s do the radiation and chemo.”
The two doctors exchanged a concerned glance before the oncologist addressed Bo. “The side effects won’t be pleasant and won’t buy you that much time, Mr. Miller. I’d advise you to reconsider.”
“I’m not the only one affected by this disease. My mind is made up.” Bo pinned him down with a steady gaze.
A violent flood of tears erupted to the point she could no longer see. Mona Beth plopped into a nearby chair and buried her head in her hands, her body racked with uncontrollable sobs. Two hands patted her heaving shoulders. Then the sound of retreating footsteps and a closing door let her know the doctors had left the room. After several minutes, her tears mostly spent, she rose and walked to Bo’s bed, carefully lowered one rail, and dodging tubes and wires, crawled into bed beside him.
He nestled her into the crook of his shoulder, rubbed her arm with his hand, and released a sound of contentment. “You fit just right in this spot, Bethie. Always have. Almost like God made it just for you.”
The tears resumed, but she angrily swiped at them and sniffled. “Then why is He taking you away from me?” Just having his arms around her soothed her in a way that nothing else could. And the knowledge that she might only have those arms for a little while longer was more than she could bear.
“This isn’t like you, Bethie.” His tone held gentle censure. “You’ve always been the one with rock-solid faith.”
Her throat cinched closed. Hadn’t she been faithful throughout her life? Hadn’t she endured separation from Bo long enough? And this was how her faithfulness was repaid? “It’s just not fair. I feel like I just got you back and now this.”
A breath whooshed from Bo, and his chest flattened beneath her head. “I know, sweetheart, but life isn’t fair. Trust me when I say that I’ve questioned God’s fairness on more than one occasion in my lifetime. But I’ve learned to be glad God isn’t fair.”
Incredulous, she pulled away, resting the weight of her body on one hand in order to peruse his face.
He released a soft chuckle. “Quit staring at me that way.”
“Like I’m from another planet.”
“Well, sometimes I think you are.” She laid her head back against his chest, the beating of his heart yet another reminder of all she stood to lose. “How can you be glad about God not being fair?”
“I think you already know the answer to that question if you think about it long enough.” The words were spoken firmly, and then he grew quiet.
One corner of her mouth lifted. Good gravy, but he knew her too well—knew her well enough to know that her tendency to live inside her head would take over and force her to think through his words. The room was bathed in a complete hush except for the steady beeping racket, like a clock ticking away precious seconds, she turned over the comment in her brain. It was true. God wasn’t fair, but He was always right, even in circumstances so monstrous they threatened to pound her into the ground.
Mona Beth carefully reached for a nearby tissue to swab her drippy nose. If God was fair, no one stood a chance. It was only His mercy that allowed another breath, another beat of the heart, the gift of salvation and eternal life. She released a shuddering breath. No, God wasn’t fair by human standards, but He had reasons for everything and could bring good out of even the most heinous trials. “Okay, you win.”
“Well at least you finally let me win one.”
In spite of her heavy heart, a sniffling giggle escaped. She propped the weight of her head on her hand, leaning on one elbow to stare into the soft brown eyes she loved so much. “You know me better than that. If you won, it’s because you won fair and square. I’ve never let anyone win in my entire life.”
His face wrinkled in merriment at her words. “Boy, do you have that right.” Bo’s features softened, and his eyes took on a distance which revealed a momentary journey to the past. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw you ride.”
Careful not to dislodge the red, white and blue rodeo banner that hung there, Bo Miller swung one leg over the wooden fence at the Miller’s Creek fair and rodeo grounds, shifted his weight, then pulled the other leg over and sat, resting the heels of his boots on a lower rung. What could be better than spending the fourth of July before his senior year in high school at the Miller’s Creek rodeo and fair grounds with his best buddies? By this time next year, he’d be off to college to get the education that would help him build the family ranch. He allowed his daydreams to take off and imagined himself wearing his letter jacket on a tree-studded campus with a pretty girl hanging from each arm.
He was shaken from his reverie as J.C. and Vernon settled on the fence to his right, while Coot huffed and puffed to his left, finally able to haul his more-than-ample weight over the top. The wooden rails creaked and wobbled beneath them.
Bo gripped the fence tighter and waited for the swaying to stop. “Man, Coot. Lay off the double-decker cheeseburgers at the Dixie Maid, would ya? Without football practice to keep your weight in check, you’re going to outweigh the rest of us before summer’s over.”
The rodeo speaker blared Buck Owens’ Act Naturally, as Coot patted his ever-growing pot belly. “Just more of me to love.”
All of them laughed, the sound quickly lost in the hubbub of the crowd. His best buddy Vernon McGee elbowed scrawny J.C., who probably didn’t weigh more than a hundred and twenty soaking wet. “What do you think, J.C.? Think we should place a wager on that?” He drawled out the words in typical fashion and then returned to chomping on his bubble gum.
J.C. grinned and ducked his head. “Nah. I might lose weight over the summer.”
Laughter again burst forth and J.C. turned pink.
“Always the diplomat, huh, J.C.?” Bo slapped him on the back to show he was just teasing. J.C. Watson, the son of Jeremiah Watson, the owner of the town’s only drugstore, never had an unkind word to say about anybody. They just didn’t make guys any nicer.
Satisfaction swirling within, Bo breathed in deeply. The tempting aromas of hot dogs, Texas chili, and popcorn mingled together, a good cover-up for the normal scents of the rodeo grounds.
The rodeo speakers crackled with static, and Coot’s dad’s voice boomed, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s now time for the barrel racers, girls’ division. Let’s give all the gals a hand as they make a trot around the arena.” A smattering of applause broke out, and a few people rose to their feet to call out encouragement to their favorite riders.
Vernon pointed toward the lead horse, a massive Appaloosa. “That’s the one I’m picking to win. Just look at those haunches.”
The animal kicked up dirt, and the hot Texas wind blew it their direction, quickly lining Bo’s nostrils with grit and a dusty smell. A reddish-brown quarter horse much smaller than the others took up the rear of the pack, and a low rumble of snickers erupted from the crowd.
One fellow, obviously operating with one too many under his belt, wobbled to his feet, pointing and laughing. “Is that the rodeo clown?” Those around him guffawed along with the rest of the throng, but quickly pulled the man to a sitting position.
The tiny girl atop the horse apparently heard the comment, because as she rounded the curve she peered up at him and pulled her horse to a stop. She stared him down a minute longer, and then brought a hand up to tip her straw cowboy hat before she resumed the trot. This only made the audience howl louder.
“Atta girl. Show him what you’re made of.” Beside Bo, J.C. muttered the words under his breath.
Bo’s forehead wrinkled beneath the brim of his hat. “You know her?”
“Yep. That’s Mona Beth Adams, Cecille’s little sister.”
“Cecille? The Cecille in our class who’s always hanging around making goo-goo eyes at me?”
“That’s the one.” He glanced at Bo. “And before long, everyone in this arena is going to know her little sister’s name.”
“What do you mean?”
J.C. nodded his head toward Cecille’s younger sister who now approached them. “You’ll see soon enough.”
“Hi, J.C.” The petite girl with long blonde hair flashed a brilliant smile as she passed.
“Hey, Mona Beth.”
“They grow ‘em a little small down on the farm, don’t they?” Coot trumpeted the words in his usual style and then dissolved into a fit of his unmistakable wheezing laughter.
The Adams girl reined the horse to an abrupt stop. Then, in an unexpected move, she turned the horse in a half circle and sauntered back until she sat right below Coot. She yanked on the reins to bring her mount to a halt, leaned forward to rest a hand on the saddle horn, and used the other hand to push the brim of her hat higher on her forehead. “Maybe so,” she answered, before eyeing him up and down with the most intense blue eyes Bo had ever seen. “Which tells me you definitely didn’t come from a farm.”
Coot grew unusually quiet, and his face reddened.
“Ooh. Guess she told you,” spouted Vernon with a laugh from his perch at the other end of the fence.
Bo and J.C. sniggered softly. Even Coot, his face still beet red, managed a slight chuckle, his eyes now exuding respect.
But the girl returned only a tight-lipped smile and tipped her hat before she turned and galloped from the arena. The horse’s hooves pounded the ground and sent up clumps of red soil.
Fascinated by the morning’s rodeo event, Bo watched girl after girl make her run on the barrels. The big Appaloosa and his rider turned out not to be so great. They knocked over two of the three barrels with too-sharp turns and brought boos from the stands. By the time they reached the end of the pack, the rider with a gorgeous Palomino like his own Buttercup held the record, with a time of sixteen seventy-three.
“And now our last barrel racer, Miss Mona Beth Adams, from right here in Miller’s Creek, riding her horse Daisy.”
In a flash, the little mare thundered into the arena, headed for the first barrel, a thick cloud of red dust behind her. The girl’s knee came perilously close to the barrel as the horse leaned to an almost horizontal position on the first turn. The crowd, now quieter than they’d been all day, leaned forward in their seats, totally mesmerized with the way the girl and horse rode as one.
“Go, girl, go,” whispered J.C.
Though the Adams girl had clamped her legs around the horse’s mid-section on the turn, she now straightened them and used their force to spur her horse on faster. On the second turn, the horse leaned in so close the girl’s left boot almost dragged the ground. But as she raced for the final barrel, something went very wrong. Shoes thudded against the wooden bleachers as people jumped to their feet.
Bo squinted against the white-hot July sun and focused on the horse’s mouth. The bridle must have broken. The bit dropped to the ground as horse and rider hurled at lightning speed toward the last barrel.
His heart moved to his throat, the muscles in his legs taut as he braced himself for the possibility that he might have to jump in the ring to help. A collective gasp sounded from the throng, followed by a low murmur as people pointed toward the center of the arena.
The feisty blonde leaned closer to her mare’s neck and grabbed hold of the mane with both fists. They careened in perfect alignment around the third barrel. As the little horse tore up the soil on her way out of the arena, the people in the stands went crazy with their hoots and hollers.
“Wow!” Coot’s dad shouted the word. “Mona Beth Adams just busted not only a bridle, but the record for the night. Her time is half a second under the closest time at sixteen twenty-three!” Again the bleachers went wild as all the riders returned to the arena to be recognized.
Bo couldn’t tear his eyes away from Mona Beth Adams, who seemed to take even this moment of glory in stride. She took time to shake hands with each of her competitors and then waved at the crowd with that sunshine smile of hers. No one would ever know by looking at her that her life had been in serious danger just moments before. Never in all his life had he seen a girl handle a horse that way.
After receiving her first place medal, the petite blonde, still atop her horse with her hair flowing out from under her hat, made a quick jaunt over to where Bo sat with his friends. She pulled the horse up short, just shy of where Coot rested, and looked him square in the eye, her chin jutted out. “As you can see, small doesn’t equate with slow. You might want to remember that before you pop off and spout the first idiotic words that come to mind.” Without another word, she turned and trotted toward the exit gate.
Bo caught her eye as she passed, but she sent him the same look of disdain she’d just given Coot. The only person she spoke to on her way out was J.C., who now wore a grin as big as Texas. Bo allowed his eyes to trail her until she disappeared from view, and then slapped a hand on J.C.’s back. “You planning on asking her to be your girl?”
His friend eyed him like he’d gone nutso. “Nah. She’s too young. Besides, knowing her, she’s probably not looking for a boyfriend anyway. Why?”
He rose to his feet and straddled the wooden fence, his eyes trained on the spot where he’d seen her last. “Cause if you don’t, I’m goin’ to.”
Vernon stood also and popped him on the head with the palm of his hand. “That is the stupidest idea I ever heard come outta your mouth, Miller.”
Bo rubbed the spot Vernon had pounded with a little too much force. His friends’ expressions ranged from incredulity to disdain. They obviously felt the same as his best friend, but only Vernon had the courage to express it. “Why’s it stupid?”
“How long do you have?” His friend’s green-eyed gaze never wavered. “First of all, since when have you been a baby snatcher? Second, you have less ‘n a year until graduation and college. Third, your mama and daddy will never go for it. Fourth—”
“Okay, okay, I get the picture.”
A familiar voice sounded from below. “Well, well, if it’s not Bo Miller.” He looked down just as Cecille Adams and a couple of other girls from their class stalked up, all holding ice cream cones.
“Hey.” For some reason she’d bobbed her hair and done up her eyes like Liz Taylor in Cleopatra. Bo craned his neck to see if he could catch another glimpse of the little mare and her tough-as-nails rider. “You ride horses, Cecille?”
A haughty laugh fell from her heavily made-up lips. “Me? Not hardly. Why would I want to mess up my hair on the back of a sweaty and smelly animal?” She took a step forward. “Come on down here and talk to me. Or do I have to come up there?”
Normally, he would’ve stayed put. He had no interest in Cecille, or her type for that matter. But he had another plan in mind, the seed of which had just taken root in his brain, so he swung his other leg over the top of the fence and dropped to the ground in front of her.
A feline-like smile curved her lips as she stepped closer, the scent of her painful perfume preceding her. “Want to ride the Ferris wheel with me?” She purred the words somewhat seductively.
“Maybe, but first I’d like to meet that little sister of yours.”
“Mona Beth?” Now she eyed him like he’d grown horns. “Whatever for?”
“I like her horse.” From the fence behind him his friends snickered.
She narrowed her eyes to tiny slits. “If I take you to see her horse will you win me a stuffed animal at the carnival midway?”
A few minutes later they all made their way through the grassy field which served as parking lot to the fairgrounds and rodeo arena in search of Mona Beth Adams. The brown mare was tethered to a homemade job of a horse trailer and munched happily on the grass as her young rider, now dressed in blue jean cutoffs and a red and white gingham shirt, combed her down.
Both horse and girl glanced up as they approached. The girl did a double take when she saw her sister’s new look. “Good gravy, Cecille. Mama and Daddy are going to have a conniption fit if they see you lookin’ that-a-way. You have on enough make-up for all the women in China.”
Cecille sniffed. “You’re one to talk, Mona Beth. You look like a little hillbilly in those shorts. All you need’s a corn-cob pipe.”
Mona Beth glared back momentarily, but returned to brushing down the horse.
Bo sauntered closer and held out his left hand to the horse, while his friends and Cecille and her friends hung back. The mare nuzzled his fingers with her velvety nose. Unfamiliar jitters raced through his abdomen. What was wrong with him? “Y-you and your horse—uh—did a good job with those barrels.” He fumbled through the words and then offered Mona Beth his right hand to be polite.
She eyed his proffered hand, but didn’t take it. Instead she turned back to her horse to continue the job. “Thanks.”
“You know who I am, right?” He wasn’t totally sure, but he could have sworn she rolled her big blue eyes.
“Yeah. You’re Bo Miller from the Miller ranch. Your daddy’s a big-time rancher and your great-grandfather is who the town’s named after.” An indecipherable tone and expression accompanied the words as she continued to work.
Bo frowned. Usually girls liked that about him, but she didn’t seem one bit impressed. “We’re ‘bout to head to the carnival. Want to come with us?”
Mona Beth looked up, her clear blue eyes wide with surprise.
Cecille released a short laugh, stepped forward, and casually draped an arm through his. “Mona Beth’s more at home slopping the pigs than she is hanging out. C’mon. Let’s go.” She tugged on his arm.
Bo stood his ground. “I asked your sister a question. Any girl that can ride like what I just saw back there is big enough to answer for herself.” He sent a wink the others couldn’t see.
The glare Mona Beth had aimed at her sister now morphed into a victorious smirk. She stopped her work, laid the grooming comb on the trailer, and dusted her hands against each other with a clapping sound. “As a matter of fact, I was just finishing up here and ‘bout to head to the carnival myself. I think I’ll take you up on that offer.”
A dry desert the size of Death Valley deposited itself on Mona Beth’s tongue, and she rubbed the back of her hand against her mouth. What in the world had she been thinking when she’d agreed to tag along with Bo Miller and his friends? She looked to the hazy blue sky and shook her head, convinced that the good Lord must surely be shaking His as well. If the truth be told, her foolish pride had landed her in this mess. She’d been so angry at Cecille for the pig slop comment she would’ve made a deal with the devil himself to put her older sister in her place.
And apparently she’d somehow managed to do both.
One charming wink was all it had taken, and she’d fallen in behind Bo Miller like he was royalty or something.
“Pretty day.” He launched a grin her way, his dimpled cheeks not helping the situation one iota.
“Yeah.” She did her best to sound bored and then made the mistake of glancing over her shoulder. Cecille’s deepening hostility was evident from the razor-sharp daggers she shot from her eyes, her crossed-arm strut, and the pouty edge of her gaudy-red lips. Man, she’d really messed up this time, and she knew Cecille well enough to know that she’d make her pay for it. Her sister yammered incessantly about Bo at home, as if he was personally responsible for hanging the moon.
Mona Beth blew out a quick breath and lengthened her stride, impatient to figure out her dilemma, especially now that the moon-hanger sauntered at her right side eager for conversation, while her sister aimed arrows at the invisible target on her back and kicked up more smelly dust.
One question bounced around in Mona Beth’s troubled brain as she kept pace with the others. Why was Bo Miller suddenly so interested in her in the first place? All the rest of them, including her sister, would be seniors in the fall, while she’d be nothing more than a freshman peon. Not exactly captain-of-the-football-team girlfriend material.
She cast a sideways glance his direction. Well, regardless of his motivation in asking her to join them, one thing she knew for sure. Bo’s father had made life extremely hard on her daddy, doing all he could to steal the farm Daddy had bought to eke out a living for her, Cecille and Mama. If Bo were anything like him—and judging by the way his friends treated him like a demigod, it was likely—she wanted nothing to do with him.
A smile worked onto her face. If nothing else, an afternoon at the carnival might just provide the perfect opportunity to bring the king of Miller’s Creek High School down a few pegs. Then he would want nothing more to do with her, and her sister’s wrath would be avoided. Problem solved.
The crew arrived at the outer edge of the carnival, where the aroma of French fries and burgers wafted on the breeze, and tinny music sounded from each ride, blending together with the noise of laughter. The Octopus beckoned by stretching out its long purple tentacles in welcome, a bucket dangling from each arm. Mona Beth peered up at Bo, raising her voice to be heard over the mayhem. “Here’s a good ride.”
Cecille moved between them and jumped into the conversation. “You would choose this one, you little tomboy. Not me. C’mon, Bo, let’s go to the Ferris wheel.”
He squinted against the midday sun and sidestepped to gaze at Mona Beth, an enigmatic expression on his face. “Sure you can handle this one? It’s pretty rough.”
“I rode it ten times last year. Maybe you’re the one who can’t handle it.”
The red-headed guy they called Vernon snickered and draped an arm across Bo’s neck. “You heard her, Big Man. Maybe you’re the one who can’t handle it. As I recall, you didn’t ride it at all last year.” Coot and Otis joined the harangue.
Bo’s face reddened, and he shrugged. “I’ve ridden it before. No big deal.” He looked Mona Beth square in the eye. “I’m game if you are.”
“Only one problem.” She sent a sly smile. “I don’t have any money with me.”
His eyes narrowed perceptibly, and she got the distinct feeling it had nothing to do with the sun. “Not a problem at all. I’ll buy tickets for both of us.” He glanced around at the others. “Anyone else game?”
Others shook their head or lowered their gaze to the dirt.
He faced her once more. “Looks like it’s just you and me, kid. Ready?” His voice held a mixture of excitement and challenge.
She nodded, suddenly enjoying this little test for Bo Miller that had all but landed in her lap. “Whenever you are.”
Five minutes later they took a seat on the ride. A tattooed carnival worker with bad breath secured them in the purple bucket, and then moved on to the next tentacle-dangling bucket.
“You did a great job during the barrel races.” Admiration gleamed from Bo’s eyes.
A frown crossed her face. Was he just buttering her up? She studied him a minute longer, but try as she might, detected no guile. In fact, his expression oozed sincerity. “Thanks.”
“And it was pretty cool how you didn’t let the broken bridle faze you. Fast thinking on your part. Shows you really know how to handle your horse.”
“I don’t really see it as handling my horse. Daisy and I are good friends. She was just helping me out.”
He laughed, his entire face wreathed in a smile. “That’s exactly how I feel about my horse. Like we were meant to be together.”
Her heart pounded as his gaze latched onto hers. She quickly looked away. Thankfully, the motor on the carnival ride began to groan in anticipation, and the long arm began to bounce and spin ever so slightly. She’d take that any day over the butterflies his grin sent to her stomach.
Bo tucked her hand into his with a wink, his teeth white against his summer tan. “Here we go. You ready for this?”
She had no time to answer the question that for some odd reason seemed to hold an extra layer of meaning. Instead she nodded and screamed as the quickly-spinning machine hurled her into closer proximity to the teen-aged boy she’d expected to dislike but didn’t.
A few minutes later they came off the ride laughing, her hand still clasped by his. He smiled down at her. “Want to go again?”
Mona Beth shielded her face from the bright sun with her right hand and peered over to where the others stood in the shade of a concession stand. Cecille’s mouth was drawn up in an angry pucker. “Uh, you think we should join the others so they won’t get tired of waiting?”
Bo shook his head. “Actually, I’d rather just spend the time with you. Maybe if we ride it again, they’ll get the idea and move on elsewhere.”
She pulled her lips to one side in contemplation. Her original plan wasn’t working so well. Cecille was already furious and would make the rest of the afternoon miserable for her. That in and of itself was reason enough to agree with Bo’s plan. Or was she giving in to him too quickly? Finally her desire to get to know him better won out. “Sounds like a good idea to me.” Besides, it would give her a chance to get to know the real Bo Miller. Who knew? Maybe she’d even find a way to question him about why his daddy treated her daddy like dirt.
An hour later, after they’d ridden the Octopus several times, they stepped off, still hand in hand, and looked over to where their friends once waited. They were nowhere in sight.
“It worked!” Bo followed the comment with a laugh of boyish delight. “You as thirsty as I am?”
“I thought you’d never ask. I’m dry as a bone.”
Within a few minutes they both downed root beers that Bo purchased for them. The cool liquid washed away the dry mouth she’d had for well over an hour now.
Bo drained his cup and tossed it in the trash. “What next?”
“Bumper cars, maybe?”
“Okay, but I get the blue car.”
“’Cause I always get the blue car.”
Always? Did his friends always let him have his way? She snatched a string of tickets from his hand and sprinted in the direction of the bumper cars, giggling. “Not if I get there first.” She glanced over her shoulder.
Bo stood there, his mouth hanging open for just a minute, and then chased her through the crowd.
She arrived just ahead of him, handed the guy her ticket, and dashed to the only blue car. Breathless and more than a little sweaty from her dash in the Texas heat she squirmed into the seat just as Bo reached the side. She clicked the seat belt into place and laughed up at him, half-expecting him to pout over his loss.
Instead he chuckled as he moved to a nearby orange car and climbed in, his long legs near his elbows. “You only won ‘cause you’re little and could slip through all the people. But I’ll show you who’s king of the bumper cars.”
The ride proved to be even more fun than the Octopus, mainly because of the competitive edge. Mona Beth lost count of how many times Bo’s car rammed hers, but she was at last able to get him trapped in a group of other cars, swung around a pole and crashed into him hard from the side. He once more laughed it off.
After the ride was over he fell into step beside her. “That was fun. Let’s head to the midway now.”
“What on earth for?” She shot him an incredulous look. “All that’s good for is wasting your money.”
“Thought I’d win you a stuffed animal.” His eyebrows wrinkled. “Don’t most girls like that? I’m a pretty good shot, even with a cheap BB gun.” His tone held a swagger.
“I think you’ll find out pretty quick that I’m not like most girls. If I want a stuffed toy, I’ll win my own. I’m not too bad a shot myself, you know.”
“Oh, really?” A mischievous expression landed on his face. “Okay, then let’s make a game out of it. Bet I can win a stuffed animal faster ‘n you.”
“I wouldn’t count on that, but you’re forgetting one thing. I don’t have any money, remember?”
He shrugged. “I’ll loan you some.”
She shook her head. “No loans for me. I’d rather save my money for something more important.”
Bo cocked his head at an angle. “Such as?” They now strolled amidst the noisy crowd, totally surrounded by people, but also very much in their own little world.
“The future. Education, family, the farm.”
He didn’t answer for a long time, but once more latched on to her hand and held it like a treasured object he hadn’t expected to come across. “You’re right about one thing.”
“I’ve never met another girl like you. Don’t think I’ve ever heard a girl—especially one as young as you—talk about saving money for the future.” Awe and fascination oozed from his words and his expression.
She snorted. “Well, before you nominate me for sainthood, you should probably know I don’t have a whole lot of money and neither do my folks. I don’t take loans ‘cause I don’t want to be put in the position of not being able to pay ‘em back.”
He stopped smack dab in the middle of the midway, people thronging around them, his face inches from hers. “I like you. You tell things like they are and don’t pretend to be somebody you’re not. What do you think about grabbing a bite to eat and carrying it up the trail to that rocky butte so we can talk?” He pointed to the hill that stood behind the rodeo arena at a rock outcropping poking out from the top like the bow of a boat.
She turned her head and eyed him sideways. “Just talk?”
Bo’s forehead buckled a minute and his eyes darkened with…was it hurt? “Scout’s honor.” His words were sincere.
Mona Beth checked his expression for a minute longer, but eventually gave up, sensing his trustworthiness. “I got an even better plan. You grab a couple of sandwiches and more root beer while I go to the fair barn to pick up dessert. I’ll meet you at the picnic tables by the creek. Then after we eat, we’ll climb to the bluff to watch the fireworks.”
A smile curved his lips. “I like the way you think, Sunshine. See you in a few.” He turned a few steps later and yelled across the crowd. “If it’s busy at the creek, save me a spot at the table.”
As Mona Beth headed to the fair barn to pick up the pie she’d entered, one thought kept her attention. Bo Miller was much nicer than she’d ever expected, which made him all the more dangerous.
Bo bit off a chunk of tuna salad sandwich and followed it with a big gulp of his A & W root beer, his eyes focused on the girl across from him at the picnic table. Even in the cool, deep shade of the live oak trees where the air smelled of cedar and musty earth, her blonde hair glowed with a halo-like light. Was she the angel he imagined, or had he totally misread her?
He gave himself a mental kick. In the short half hour conversation during their late afternoon picnic, Mona Beth revealed what his friends had already told him, that she’d just finished junior high. In a year’s time, he’d be leaving for college. In light of that information, what in the world was he doing here, and how could he gracefully get out of the climb up to the rocky bluff that overlooked Miller’s Creek?
“You sure got quiet.” She glanced over at him with those clear blue eyes that reminded him of bottomless pools of fresh water.
“Sorry. Guess I’m hungry.”
She gazed off in the distance for a moment, an ancient wisdom written in her features, then used those honest eyes of hers to pin him down like a bug beneath the beak of blue jay. “I don’t think you’re being completely truthful. I think I scared you off by telling you how old I am.”
He released a curt laugh which sounded as false as it felt. “I’m not scared of you.” Well, maybe. But he was for sure scared of liking her too much. Or was it already too late?
“It’s okay. There’s a big difference in our ages. You’ll be graduating from high school in a year, and I’m guessing your parents have big plans to send you to college somewhere.”
He shifted his weight and took a quick sip of his drink, words eluding him.
Mona Beth continued. “Honestly, you’re much nicer than I expected, and I think it’s wise of you to take the difference in our ages into consideration. If you want to forego the climb, I understand.”
Bo thought through her words, much more intrigued than he wanted to be. She’d just handed him the out he’d already considered. “You a mind reader or something?”
A cackle of a laugh, well beyond her size, burst from her mouth. “Not hardly, but I do read people pretty well.” She paused. “Which brings up a snoot full of questions for me.”
“Questions about me?”
“Yep.” She nibbled the corner of her sandwich.
“Not sure you really want to know.”
She released a sigh. “Because they might come across as mean-spirited, and I don’t want ‘em to.”
“Promise not to get mad?”
He considered the question. “How ‘bout I promise to try not to get mad?”
Mona Beth eyed him warily. “Well, I guess that’s better than nothing.” She didn’t sound convinced. “I just wondered how you can be so nice when your mama and daddy…” Her words slowed and dwindled away, revealing her discomfort.
A tiny flame lit his insides then combusted throughout his veins. Was this how she thanked him for treating her to an afternoon at the carnival? “Maybe you’d better explain why you feel that way about them.”
“Well, surely you know how they treat my parents and at least half the people in town.”
“No, but I’m sure you’ll tell me all about it.” He didn’t care that his voice had an angry edge to it.
She said nothing, but stared at him—hard—like she didn’t quite believe him. Finally she gave her head a shake and catapulted to her feet. “Never mind. I should’ve known it would make you mad.”
“I’m not mad!” He reached across the table and grabbed one of her arms above the wrist.
Her eyebrows shot up. “Then why are you yelling at me?”
“I’m not!” A couple of birds whirred from the trees at his outburst and beat their wings frantically, zipping over his head.
He released a frustrated breath and lowered his head, not at all used to others pointing out family flaws and his own shortcomings. “Sorry. Guess I was yelling, but I didn’t mean to. I just want to understand.”
“Sometimes people aren’t in a place to understand. Maybe you’re not there yet.” The softly-spoken words held wisdom far beyond her fourteen years.
Bo released her arm and instead reached for her tiny fingers, suddenly fearful she’d leave. “Please tell me what you mean. I don’t want you to leave.”
“Okay, but why don’t we have dessert while we talk?” She pulled her hand away.
An unopened grocery sack rested on the other end of the table. How had he forgotten dessert? As soon as the question popped into his mind, the answer quickly followed. This five-foot three-inch piece of grit and determination kept him distracted from everything. He stared around the space. How had he missed the sun streaming through the branches or the happy babble of the creek? Bo turned back to Mona Beth. “What’s in the bag?”
“A peach pie I made for the fair.” She waggled her eyebrows in a way that made him smile.
“Peach?” It would have to be his favorite.
“Yep. We had a really good crop of June peaches this year.” She grabbed the sack and pulled out a couple of plastic forks and a scrumptious-looking pie, a lattice-like design for the top crust. A blue ribbon dangled from the aluminum pie tin.
His mouth watered. “You won first place?” Was there anything she wasn’t good at?
“Yep. Got one for my chocolate cake and peach preserves, too, but my Daddy would’ve been hot under the collar if I cut into that chocolate cake without him.”
No gloating or boastful look. The words were meant only to inform, not to brag.
She held up a plastic fork. “Want some?”
He took the fork and leaned over the pie. Holding onto the pan with one hand, he dove into the light, flaky crust and peach filling. His ensuing sigh of satisfaction could no more be stopped than he could stop the sun from shining. “This is the best peach pie I’ve ever tasted.” He took another bite. And another.
“Whoa there. Glad you like it, but save me some.”
“So you like to cook?”
One shoulder rose slightly. “Seems to come natural to me.”
“What else comes easy to you?”
“Gardening, taking care of kids, helping. And I have a few ideas for businesses I’d like to try some day.”
Business? Now she was speaking his language. “Really?”
Mona Beth forked a bite of pie into her mouth and nodded. “Mainly to help the farm.” Her eyes clouded over, now a deep blue that edged on darkness.
He nodded. “All the farmers around her are having a hard time right now. Everything’s going mechanized. The only way to make it is to follow suit. Otherwise the big business farmers will come in and take over.”
“That’s easy for you to say. Your family has money.”
Bo thought about all the improvements he’d like to see on the ranch. Improvements his dad thought necessary for the survival of the family legacy. “You shouldn’t be so hasty to speak when you don’t really know.”
Her face reddened, causing the sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks to disappear. She lowered her head. “You’re right. Sorry if I spoke out of turn. Sometimes my mouth gets ahead of my brain.”
“Only sometimes?” He sent a quick wink, which brought a shy smile to her lips.
A summer breeze stirred the nearby mesquite trees, rustling the dangling leaves, and a dove began to coo for its mate. Bo took one last bite, rose from his position at the picnic table, and moved to a giant oak where he plopped down and leaned against the tree. “I’d really like to hear why you feel the way you do about my family.”
She didn’t answer immediately, nor did she join him. Instead she sacked the remains of the pie, stood, and moved to a different tree, her hands splayed behind her against the gnarled bark. “You may not know it, but my daddy bought our farm from your daddy. He leased it for a long time, while he and Mama worked hard to save the money to buy it.”
Bo nodded. Nothing he didn’t already know.
“Your daddy kept upping the price on him, but finally agreed to an amount. Then several years ago, your father started pestering Daddy to sell it back to him, but Daddy said no.” She hesitated, her eyes uncertain. “One day, he stopped by our house, yelling cuss words, accusing my daddy of cheating him out of the land and saying he would take him to court. I was coming back from gathering eggs and heard him.”
A frown pulled his eyebrows in tight. His father could be overly vocal and a more than a little rude, but he’d never seen him act in such a way. It only took one look at her face to see that she wasn’t lying. He swallowed. “Sorry. That must’ve been pretty hard to hear.”
“It was. I was ten at the time and didn’t really understand. But that was only the first time of many.” Her clear blue-eyed gaze never faltered.
Bo looked at the ground and grimaced, but couldn’t find adequate words to express how sorry he was. When he glanced up a few seconds later, she still perused his face, but her eyes now held some undefinable quality. His brows rose. “What?”
“You really had no idea all this happened, did you?” Surprise covered her features, from the open-mouthed smile to her wide eyes.
“I knew he had a temper, but I didn’t know how he treated your dad.” Bo thought about asking what she had against his mom, but changed his mind. It wasn’t hard too hard to figure out. His mother had always treated the people of Miller’s Creek—his friends included—with a certain disdain. Almost as if they were somehow beneath her. He cleared his throat. “You mentioned something about half the town feeling the same way.”
Her face took on a sorrowful compassion, and she shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry. I’m far too outspoken. I’ve probably already said too much.”
“No. It’s okay. Please.”
Reluctance held her back for a minute longer, but finally she spoke. “Like I said earlier, I don’t mean to sound mean, but sometimes your folks treat the rest of us like they’re the king and queen and we’re their subjects.”
The words landed a blow to his gut and punched a hole in his pride in the Miller family name. He rubbed a hand across his jaw and looked toward the sun as it lowered on the horizon. Is that really how the town felt about his family?
Mona Beth stood with her head lowered, her upper lip tucked between her teeth. She glanced up at him, the pale look on her face revealing that the words she’d spoken hadn’t been easy for her. “I’m sorry if that sounded—”
“Please stop apologizing.” In three steps he stood in front of her, his hands on her small shoulders. “I just don’t understand why someone didn’t tell me sooner.”
“Probably ‘cause they don’t want to hurt your feelings.” A teasing smile formed on her lips. “In case you haven’t noticed, just about everyone at school worships the ground you walk on.”
Though the comment was spoken lightly, Bo allowed the words to sink in and had to admit they were true. On more than one occasion he’d noticed preferential treatment from teachers and knew he was popular. But he’d always assumed it was because he tried to be a good student and friend. “Well, why don’t you tell me how you really feel?”
“Sorry. I thought you’d want to know.” A hesitant glimmer shone in her eyes.
He had to grin. She had more to say, and for whatever reason, he wanted her to say it. “Might as well go ahead and say it. Can’t be much worse than what’s already been said.” Could it?
A gentle smile flickered to her face. “I have to confess that I accepted the invitation to hang out with you and your buddies because I wanted to put you in your place.”
The words caught him off-guard, and he laughed out loud. A squirrel, once busy burying an acorn, bounded across the ground and up a tree. “Now this I gotta hear.”
“I thought you were like your parents and decided I needed to bring you down a few pegs.” She ended the comment with an embarrassed giggle.
He smiled and took her hands in his own. Never had anyone spoken so honestly with him. And never would he have allowed it. But something about this girl—despite her young age—intrigued him like no one else ever had, and he wasn’t ready for their time together to end. “Well, you succeeded, but I obviously needed it. C’mon, Sunshine. Let’s get up that hill before they start the fireworks.”
Within fifteen minutes, they sat atop the rocky bluff that overlooked not only the fairgrounds but most of Miller’s Creek as well. Beneath them the late afternoon sunlight reflected from the creek and the sounds of the carnival and rodeo floated to their ears. In the distance, the town square stood out among the happy homes of the people they both knew and loved.
Beside him, a happy sigh sounded from Mona Beth, her lovely face lit from within and with the fading light of a glorious Texas sunset. “This place makes me happy.”
“Then I promise to bring you here often.”
She gazed over at him, her knees drawn up close to her chest. “Promise?”
“Yeah. It makes me happy, too. Like I belong to this place, you know?”
“Exactly how I feel. A lot of kids I know can’t wait to get outta here, my sister included. But there’s no place else I want to live. Ever.” She grew quiet a minute longer, and then faced him, her eyes cautious. “But as for promises, I learned a long time ago that folks tend to make promises they can’t keep.”
“Not me.” Bo placed an arm around her, and in a move he found both touching and surprising, she leaned her head against his shoulder, smelling of fresh air and sunshine, her golden hair soft against his cheek.
Another contented sigh fell from her lips.
His chest swelled at the sound. Yep. He was definitely going to make her his girl, all right. Even if it meant waiting until she finished high school to make it happen.
As dusk settled and the fireworks began, one thought echoed in Bo’s mind. Mona Beth Adams, though a short snip of a gal, soared miles higher than any other girls he knew, and he somehow sensed it’d take a lifetime to discover just how high.
Bo grimaced and tried to take another bite of the tasty breakfast Bethie had set before him in the country cottage which once belonged to his grandparents, but the food just wasn’t settling well. Though the mouth-watering aromas saturating the cozy eat-in kitchen would’ve once set his stomach to growling, today they only made him nauseous. To tell her would only mean more tears and heartache. And judging by the dark circles beneath her eyes, she was almost at the breaking point as it was.
“It sure is pretty outside.” Mona Beth spoke the words with forced cheer, like it was just another normal day and they hadn’t a care in the world.
“Yep.” Didn’t she realize this small talk got them nowhere? By now they should’ve moved past this. If he could accept his own mortality, why couldn’t she?
Time was running out. He felt it in every ounce of him. He forced another forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth. The clock had always been ticking, but it started its final round for him the day they’d discovered the tumor. Many of his buddies exposed to the same deadly chemicals during the war had already been claimed by the monster. He was lucky to have cheated death as long as he had, lucky to have had these brief few years with the love of his life.
He wet his lips and gazed across the farmhouse table at his wife. But his beloved Bethie was still in denial, refusing to accept the ticking clock, refusing to hear him out in his determination to make her understand why he’d broken the promise. The last thing he wanted was to go to his grave without her knowing the truth.
Beth took a sip of coffee and peered at him above the rim of her white china cup. “I thought we could run to town later today to get some groceries if you feel up to it. I’m sure Steve would help us get you down the back steps to the car. An outing might do you good.”
He dropped his fork to the plate with a clatter, slumped forward in his seat, and stared out the dining room window at the beautiful side garden she’d created for them to enjoy, now barren and brown in the cold of winter, except for one lonely evergreen bush. Lord, help me get through to her before You take me home. I’m not afraid for myself. In fact, it will be nice to finally be with You, to be set free from the limitations of this earthly body. But God, my heart breaks for her. I’m not sure I’m capable of leaving her behind. Help me.
“If it weren’t so cold outside, I’d suggest a cup of coffee in the garden.” She picked up his plate and bustled off to the sink, focused on her regular chores of cooking and cleaning. Only she wouldn’t go to the daycare she owned and operated now. Not until he was better, and she was determined that he would get better. If sheer determination could bring it about, she was the one for the job.
“Bethie, we need to talk.”
She ignored him and turned the faucet to full force, clattering the plates and silverware intentionally as she placed them in the dishwasher.
His patience rubbed raw by her evasion techniques, he clamped his lips tight and released a disgusted breath through his nose. Well, she couldn’t hide behind the noise of the water forever. Eventually her frugal nature of conserving water and money would return to the forefront, and she’d shut the faucet off.
With great effort, he wheeled his wheelchair to the walkway between the kitchen peninsula and wall, effectively cutting off her escape route—unless she grew so aggravated she escaped through the back door without a coat.
Mona Beth turned off the water, her face hardened by anger. “What in tarnation are you doing? You could rip open your incision trying to wheel yourself around like that.”
“Blame it on yourself. You left me no choice, you ornery old woman.” Yes, his words were inflammatory, but that might be the only way to get through to her. “We have to talk about the past whether you like it or not. I won’t go to my grave without at least trying to explain what happened.”
She crossed her arms and leaned against the counter, refusing eye contact or conversation.
Bo’s stomach churned, and he brought a hand to rest on his abdomen. “I want you to know why I broke the promise. And I have a few questions myself, unless you have something to hide.”
Her brilliant blue eyes flashed sparks as he’d known they would. “I have nothing to hide. I was the one who stayed true to the promise.” Her tone held accusation. “As for whatever it is you want to tell me, I don’t want to know. I’ve made it this far without knowing, so why waste our time reliving something so painful?” She moved closer, attempting to slide past him. “Let me by.”
Bo extended his left arm to block her way, knowing she wouldn’t push for fear of hurting him. “Quit it, Mona Beth. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
In a surprise move, she burst into sobs and fell to her knees with her hands covering her face, the sounds coming from her tugging at his heart.
Bo lowered his hand to her soft white curls. “Honey, please don’t. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m trying to spare you from hurt down the road. I don’t want you forever wondering why.”
Her gut-wrenching cries grew louder, and her shoulders heaved uncontrollably.
He quickly engaged the brake on his wheelchair, lowered himself to the floor and lifted her tear-drenched chin.
She groaned and leaned her head against him, her sobs unabated.
“Bethie, you’ve got to accept the fact that I’m going to die.”
Now Mona Beth snapped her head back with such force it scared him, her cheeks dripping tears, her face contorted with anger. “I’ll never accept it until it’s here, Bo Miller, and I may not accept it then! That’s why I don’t want to talk about the past. Because it means you’ve already given up.” Her tears started anew, her features wrinkled in anguish and pain.
“Oh, sweetheart.” Bo reached up to swipe at tears that escaped his own fickle eyes. One of them had to be in control of their emotions or they’d never make it through this.
Finally her crying jag subsided somewhat, and she looked up at him, anger still simmering in her eyes. “You are the most heartless old man I’ve ever met.”
There was no stopping the slow grin that spread across his face. “And you are most mule-headed woman I’ve ever met.”
She laughed and hiccupped through a half-sob, and laid her head on his lap. “Oh, Bo, how are we going to make it through this? I’m not ready to let you go.”
“I know, honey. But God is faithful. He’ll make you ready, and that’s my prayer.” He hesitated, unsure of whether or not to proceed. His thoughts turned once more to the ticking clock. “In the meantime, we need to take advantage of the time we have left.”
Beth sat up, ramrod straight, her chin out. “I agree. That’s why I’m not going to spend it talking about the past.”
Frustration brought his anger to a rapid boil, and he clinched both fists. Before he could release the fury of words that built inside him like a volcano, a knock sounded at the back door.
Dani and Steve peered in the half window, concern clouding their faces.
Bo held up an index finger so they’d know to wait, raised himself slowly to a standing position, and then stretched out a hand to Beth to help her up before settling back into his wheelchair.
His wife dried her face with the blue and white checked apron that seemed to adorn every outfit she wore, squared her small shoulders with the same resolve that had drawn him to her a lifetime ago, and bustled to answer the door.
Maybe Steve and Dani could talk some sense into that pig-headed man of hers. Mona Beth swallowed against the salty taste still on her tongue from all the crying, clicked open the deadbolt, and swung open the back door, half ducking her head to hide her swollen red eyes. “Y’all come on in.”
Steve didn’t budge an inch, forcing her gaze to his. “Everyone okay?” Worry laced its way through his words.
“Yeah. Believe it or not, even us old married people have spats.”
The relaxed grin of the man she’d always considered the son of her heart worked its magic. “And knowing you, you came out on top.”
“Not exactly, but maybe you can help.”
He stooped his tall lanky frame down to give her a squeeze hug, and then sauntered through the back door toward his daddy, his cowboy boots clomping on the old wooden floors.
Dani stepped in, a mix of compassion, understanding, and concern in the blue eyes that exactly matched her own. “Hi, Mama.” Her daughter wrapped her arms around her neck and held her there for a moment, bringing a fresh wash of tears down Mona Beth’s face.
She’d experienced grief before. So why did it hurt so much worse this time around? The answer came before the question finished sounding in her brain. Because it felt so final.
Another wave of anguish washed over her as she shut the back door behind them and watched her pregnant daughter give Bo a hug. Was her husband right? Did she need to accept the fact that their time together was drawing to a close?
She lowered her gaze to the floor and gave her head a slight shake. Not yet. Not until they’d tried the chemo and radiation. Miracles happened every day. God still healed people.
“Let’s get Bo to the living room so we can sit and chat. Y’all want some coffee? I can put on another pot.”
Steve shook his head. “We can’t stay long. Dani has a doctor’s appointment in Morganville. Just wanted to swing by and see how y’all were doing.”
Mona Beth stared at her daughter’s swollen belly. When had she started showing so much? “That watermelon looks pretty ripe.”
“I know. I can’t wait to hold this little watermelon.” Dani’s voice bubbled with joy and excitement as she ran a hand across her abdomen.
Steve put an arm around his wife’s shoulder and pulled her close. “You mean we can’t wait.”
The daycare. Her daughter had been running the daycare in her absence while she cared for Bo. But who would run it after the baby was born? Mona Beth forced the worry from her mind, shooed them all into the living room, and grabbed her cup from the table in passing. As she seated herself on the overstuffed sofa next to Bo’s wheelchair, she took a quick sip of the now-cold coffee.
Questions lurked in Steve’s cinnamon-colored eyes. “So am I stirring up a hornet’s nest by asking what the spat was about?”
“Nope.” Mona Beth clipped the word short. “Your father’s bound and determined to bring up painful memories from the past, and I don’t think it’s healthy or good.” She rattled off the words, paused long enough to catch her breath, and launched in again before someone interrupted her train of thought. “He needs to focus on getting well, and he barely touched his breakfast for worrying about something we can’t change or undo.”
Steve’s eyebrows shot upward. He pursed his lips, but to his credit kept them glued shut.
Dani focused her blue-eyed gaze on Bo. “Your turn.”
Bo’s elbows rested on the arms of the wheelchair, his fingers entwined across his chest, his head lowered. He cleared his throat, but it was a long moment before he spoke, an obvious move to control his emotions. “I believe with all my heart my days are coming to a close, and I want Mona Beth to understand why I broke a promise I made to her a long time ago.”
“Why does it matter? I’ve accepted it and moved on.” An angry spew of vitriol erupted in her gut and made its way to her mouth. “You’ve agreed to take the chemo and radiation in order to recover from this. So do it.”
He shook his head, his lower lip trembling. “I didn’t agree to the chemo to recover.”
Her mouth fell open, and she gasped. “Then why did you do it?”
“To buy enough time to talk sense into that hard head of yours. I want you to understand. I want—”
“You want to absolve yourself of guilty feelings. That’s what you want.” Stinging tears ensued, but she blinked them away and swallowed against the lump that threatened to completely close off her windpipe.
Steve and Dani both sat with lowered heads, their fingers interlaced in a knuckle-white grip. Her daughter lifted a hand to wipe away tears that dripped to her pregnant belly.
Bo latched onto her hand, his eyes glistening. “I love you, Bethie, and I don’t want to spend what little time we have arguing.”
“It’s only a little time if you choose not to fight this. And if it turns out that God only gives us a little time, you shouldn’t be bringing up pain from the past.” God help me get through to him. And if I’m the one in the wrong, show me.
“Dad’s right, Mama Beth.” Steve’s lips were drawn into a hard line, the depths of his eyes dark with his own pain. “Dani and I’ve both noticed how you’ve closed yourself off to whatever happened between the two of you in the past. And honestly, to us that’s not healthy. It’s like a dark cloud trailing you everywhere you go.” He focused his attention on Bo, a tender smile on his pain-etched face. “I know Dad well enough to know that he’ll give this battle with cancer his best shot, but he’s also trying to be realistic and prepare you for what might happen. I think you should give him a chance.”
Mona Beth did her best to wrap her brain around his words. Her gaze landed on Dani. “And you feel the same way?”
Her daughter lowered her eyes and pressed her lips together. She finally raised her head, tears pooled in her sorrow-filled eyes, and nodded. “You know I love you, Mama, and I’m so grateful God allowed me to find you.” Dani drew in an audible breath and released it. “You’ve dealt with that part of your past. So I don’t understand why you’re resisting in dealing with this.”
A frown wriggled onto Mona Beth’s forehead. Good question. Why was she so resistant to bringing up the past hurt with Bo? A dust bunny she’d missed in her cleaning spree yesterday captured her attention. Was she resisting because it made his possible death feel real, or was there more?
Dani sighed and reached for the fashionable suitcase she called a purse. “When I was at Mother’s house the other day going through her things, I found these. Maybe they’ll help.” She retrieved a large bundle of yellowed envelopes bound with several rubber bands.
Mona Beth’s jaw unhinged. For the life of her, she couldn’t seem to make her mouth form words.
Dani stood and stepped toward her, extending the bundle. “I don’t know why she had these unopened letters from the two of you, but something tells me she was up to no good as usual.”
Bo reached out and took the parcel, the same shocked look on his face. “Thank you.”
From her perch on the sofa, Mona Beth studied the bundle in her husband’s lap. The top letter was in her handwriting, addressed to Bo Miller. The next envelope down was bigger, with only the return address showing, and revealed his handwriting from an address she didn’t recognize.
Steve uncurled his lanky frame from the couch and moved to a standing position, his hat in his hands, his pain-filled gaze on Dani. “We’d better be getting along to your doctor’s appointment, honey.”
She nodded and then looked back at Mona Beth. “I love you, Mama.”
Still numb from the stack of letters and the unmistakable timing of God, she could only nod her head. “And I love you.” She forced herself to stand, and in complete auto-pilot hugged Dani’s neck before she moved on to give Steve a hug as well. “You two be careful and keep us informed.”
“Will do.” Steve patted her on the back, his eyes searching hers for some clue as to what she’d do next. Then he stooped to give his daddy another hug, the two holding the clasp for longer than normal, and bringing a fresh round of grief to cascade over her heart. Each good-bye from this point forward seemed to hold extra meaning, meaning she didn’t want to consider.
Once the back door banged shut behind Steve and Dani a few minutes later, Mona Beth drifted to the coffee pot to make more. The gurgle and aroma somehow helped soothe her raw emotions. Normally she’d turn to God at a moment like this, but for some reason, today He seemed distant and uncaring, and not someone she relished spending time with.
While the coffee pot made its familiar racket, she returned to the living room. Bo stared out the front window, the bundle of letters in his lap, tears streaming down his face. He turned to face her when she entered the room. “I know this isn’t easy for you, Bethie. It’s not easy for me either.” He glanced down at the letters. “But at least now we have part of our answer, and I thank God for His intervention.” His soft dark eyes returned to her face. “I believe He’s given us these letters from the past as a way to help us through all this.” He lifted the bundle and held them out to her.
For a long moment she just stood there and stared at the hateful stack of letters. How could God expect her to deal with Bo’s cancer and hurtful memories at the same time? How could Bo? A cold ache began in her chest and moved down her legs, making them as dead-heavy as ice. She dragged her stiff body across the room to take the letters, feeling like death had already claimed a part of her.
Bo sent a tender smile. “I want to read them too, but I’ll wait until you’re finished if you’d like.”
She took in the soft curve of his lips and the gentle light in his eyes, but couldn’t bring herself to return the smile. The cold darkness inside had invaded every remote corner of her being. “I’m about to fix me another cup of coffee. Want one?” Her ice-tinged words sounded callous and uncaring, but at the moment it was the best she could do.
He frowned. “No.”
“Then I’m going upstairs. Is there anything you need?” She assumed her best caregiver voice. “Would you like me to help you back into bed for a rest? Or maybe you’d like to watch an old movie or the sports channel.”
The furrows on his forehead deepened. “I know how to operate the remote, Bethie. I’m not a complete invalid. Not yet, anyway.”
Normally, his last words would have cut her to the quick, but now they seemed to ricochet off a heart of stone.
“You okay, honey?” His frown had worked its way into the dark recesses of his eyes, lining his face with concern.
“Just fine.” She punctuated the words with a careless shrug and turned on one heel to return to the kitchen.
“Don’t forget I want to read the letters after you.” His voice ratcheted up a notch.
She pivoted and faced him once more. “That won’t be possible.”
His head cocked to one side, his dark expression contrasted against his snow white hair. “What do you mean?”
Mona Beth leveled her gaze at him, pouring every ounce of the hurt and anger she felt into the look she bulleted his way. “I have no intention of reading a single word.”
Light squeezed through the lace curtain panels of the bedroom and displayed a gorgeous pattern on the pale yellow walls. Normally the daily parade of sunlight and shadow brought comfort and joy, but not today. Mona Beth’s breath caught in her throat for a moment, and then she released it with a weighted sigh as she sat on the edge of the bed. Somehow she had to find a way to sort through the tangle of emotions that wrapped around her heart.
The stack of aged letters caught her attention from their perch on the nearby dresser. Obviously, Cecille had gotten her way after all. She’d made it more than clear that if she couldn’t have Bo Miller then no one could, especially her younger sister.
Anger clawed its way to the surface, and Mona Beth pounded a fist against the mattress in hurt and frustration. How like her older sister to do something like this, without any consideration of the people whose lives she’d destroyed in the process. Tears erupted again, a never-ending supply from some bottomless reservoir within.
God, how could you let her get away with this?
The prayer ricocheted around the room and made her heart its final target, leaving a cold, deathly darkness in her soul. Hadn’t she made it her life’s ambition to follow Him? How could God allow such treachery in light of her attempted faithfulness?
A quiet voice whispered loving answers, but she tuned it out, too hurt to care.
Without notice, a wave of guilt immediately crashed over her. Bo was downstairs, dealing with not only the implications of his disease, but also the physical strain of the treatment. And here she sat, proud and distant, refusing to do the one thing he requested.
She brought both hands to her face as a guttural sob escaped. “I don’t think I can do this, God. I can’t handle the possibility of losing him, much less what’s happened in the past. It doesn’t matter. It’s over and done with and will do nothing but stir up pain and trouble.”
You question My goodness now, beloved, but in those pages you’ll find healing and understanding.
Tears streaming down her face, she dropped her hands to her lap and gazed at the bundle once more, her mind instantly traversing the years.
Early November 1963
Mona Beth zipped through her morning chores, a fragile happiness inside. An all-night rain had turned the barnyard into a muddy mess. She carefully jumped over a puddle. The last thing she needed was to slip and get her school clothes covered with mud and manure.
As she broadcast feed for the chickens and gathered the small white eggs, her mind raced. Last night after the junior high football game, Bo had asked her to go steady. While part of her had wanted to surge ahead with a hearty “yes,” another part of her held back. She’d promised to give him an answer tonight after the high school football game that determined the district champs.
God, what do You want me to do?
Though He remained silent, she waited. Mama and Daddy had taught her that God didn’t always answer immediately, but that He did always answer in one of three ways: yes, no, or wait.
Her mind flew to the Bible verse she’d read during her time with the Lord earlier that morning. Something about being diligent in guarding your heart because it determined your life.
She dumped the bucket of smelly food scraps into the pig trough. The pigs grunted their appreciation, their bristly-haired bodies scurrying to their reward. Though time was short before Bo arrived to carry her and Cecille to school, she propped one arm on the rough makeshift fence Daddy had built from wooden pallets and watched the pigs impatiently slosh through the mud to find an opening at the trough. An answer of yes is what she hoped for, but could she be obedient if God said no or wait?
The hollered words turned her attention toward the back door of the small frame house. Her older sister stood on the steps, once more over-dressed for the back roads community and school of Miller’s Creek. “What?”
“Time for breakfast! Mama said to quit dilly-dallying and get in here!” The screen door slammed behind Cecille’s retreating back.
Mona Beth grabbed the five-gallon pig slop bucket and sprinted to the house, kicking off her muddy work boots before she entered the kitchen. The pleasant smells of breakfast greeted her.
“There’s our girl.” Daddy smiled and winked.
She returned his grin, hurried to the sink to wash her hands, and then sat down at the table out of breath. This would be her best chance to ask for their advice. “Chores are done.”
Mama patted her hand. “Good for you. Daddy, go ahead and ask the blessing.”
They all joined hands and bowed their heads while her father thanked God for the food and asked a blessing on their day. After the amen, he grabbed a butter knife to butter his biscuit. “You girls have a busy day ahead of you.” Holding the knife and biscuit in one hand, he reached into his pocket and procured a dollar bill for each of them. “I know this isn’t much, but maybe it’ll at least pay for a cup of hot chocolate at the game tonight.”
“Thank you, Daddy.” Mona Beth stuffed the bill into her skirt pocket.
Cecille snorted impatiently and followed suit, then returned to scarfing down her breakfast.
Mama cleared her throat. “Cecille, aren’t you forgetting something?”
Her sister looked up briefly. “Oh, uh, thanks.”
The table conversation grew quiet, and Mona Beth rubbed her lips together, shifting in her seat. Now was her chance. “I could really use y’all’s help making a big decision.”
No one said anything, but Mama and Daddy raised their heads and looked at her expectantly.
“Bo asked me to go steady with him last night. I told him I’d give him an answer tonight after the game.”
Without warning, Cecille slammed her silverware to the table, sent a daggered glare, then stood and stomped to the kitchen sink where she noisily cleaned her plate and put it on the rack to dry.
Mama and Daddy exchanged glances, and then her father laid down his egg-laden fork to gaze directly at her. “Thanks for asking our opinion, but quite honestly, your relationship with Bo Miller concerns us.”
Her mouth and eyes flew wide open. “Whatever for? He’s a really nice guy.”
“Well, for one thing, he hasn’t been a Christian very long.” Her father leveled his blue-gray eyes her way. “I think it’d be wise to wait and see if his profession of faith lasts.”
A frown pulled the skin of her forehead tight. “He’s been coming to church on a regular basis, Daddy.”
Her father pushed another bit of the flaky homemade biscuit in his mouth and chewed, not answering until after he swallowed. “Yeah, but why?”
Now the frown seemed to take over her entire face. Just what was he implying?
He released a sigh. “What I’m trying to ask is if he’s truly a believer, or did he make a profession of faith to please you?”
Ire quickened inside her and stiffened her neck. “I know in my heart his faith is real. I’ve seen his excitement over passages he’s read in the Bible. He’s in love with the Lord.”
“And are you in love with Bo?” Mama’s question was softly spoken, but straight to the point as usual.
“Yes, I am.” No ifs, ands or buts.
Daddy jerked his head around as Cecille, who’d listened in from the kitchen, now stomped from the room, and slammed the bedroom door behind her. He resumed eating, talking around the food in his mouth. “Honey, he’s three years older than you. I know that doesn’t seem like much, but at your age it’s huge. He’s the first boy that’s paid attention to you in this way. And he’ll most likely be going away to college after he graduates.”
Mona Beth nodded and nipped off a piece of the crispy homegrown bacon. “Yes, sir. His mama wants him to go to school in Georgia. That’s where she’s from. But he’s trying to talk his dad into Texas A & M.”
“Another thing for you to consider. College might save him from the draft, but it might not. Are you prepared for that?” Her father’s tone was dead serious, his eyes clear and direct.
No, she wasn’t even going to think about that possibility. Not at this point, anyway. “Bo thinks President Kennedy’s leadership will bring a quick end to the war.”
The table grew quiet again except for the pinging sound of silverware against the ceramic plates. Finally her mother broke the silence. “We’re not trying to discourage you, sweetie, but we do want you to exercise sound judgment and discernment.” She glanced down at the table briefly. “And you should know by now that the Millers don’t hold a very high opinion of this family, which more than likely extends to you, too.”
“Bo and I’ve talked about that. I told him to his face that his parents treat everyone like their personal slaves.”
Daddy’s gray-streaked eyebrows rose higher on his forehead, and a surprised chuckle fell from his open mouth. “Leave it to our girl to tell it like it is. How did he react?”
“He didn’t like it much at first, but he finally saw the light and agreed.”
A small smile lit her father’s face, and a far-off look glazed his eyes. “Maybe God’s using you to bring about much-needed change in Miller’s Creek.”
Mama smiled, too, and then faced Mona Beth. “We trust your judgment, Mona Beth. As long as you seek God and His opinion in the matter, then whatever He answers will be okay with us, too.” Her eyes took on a cautionary glint. “Just make sure that you’re willing to accept His answer, whatever that is. It’s easy to let your feelings take precedence over His will.”
A car horn sounded from the front yard. Mona Beth bustled to the sink to wash her dishes and then reached for her stack of school books. “Thanks for the advice.” She gave them each a quick hug before she headed out the door.
Outside, she crawled into the warm pickup cab and scooted to the center so Cecille could get in after her. She breathed in the scent of Bo’s cologne and sent him a happy smile. “Good morning.”
Dimples flew to his cheeks. “Morning, Sunshine. You get that Algebra homework finished?”
She released a breath through flappy lips. “Barely. I never would’ve made it if you hadn’t given me those pointers yesterday during study hall. I hate that class. Why do I need to know that stuff anyway? How’s it going to make one bit of difference?”
He backed out of the driveway and then flipped the gearshift into drive. “You might be surprised how it comes in handy someday. Besides, you need a good grade in Algebra to do well on the ACT and SAT tests.”
Beside her, Cecille snorted. “Why does she even need to take those stupid tests? It’s not like Mama and Daddy can afford to send her to college.”
Heat climbed up Mona Beth’s neck and landed on her ears. She angrily brushed her long hair behind her ears and glared at her sister. “You don’t know, Cecille. I might even do well enough to get a scholarship. God’s given me the dream of becoming a school teacher, and He’ll help make it happen if it’s meant to be.”
Cecille’s lips took on a derisive sneer, and she turned her head to peer out the window.
Bo patted Mona Beth’s leg and gave an encouraging wink.
Joy erupted in her heart. Bo meant more to her than she ever believed possible. She thought back over the past few months, and had to smile remembering that day at the fair when she’d been determined to bring him down a few notches. Just the opposite had happened, and he now stood head and shoulders above the rest. “Still excited about the big game tonight?”
His brown eyes lit with excitement. “Of course. Not a doubt in my mind that when it’s over and done with, we’ll be crowned the district champs and move into the playoffs.”
Bo laughed. “And there’s also not a doubt in mind that by the time the day’s over, you’ll agree to be my girl.” He pulled into the school parking lot, threw the gearshift into park, and turned off the ignition, sliding the keys into the pocket of his letter jacket.
Cecille yanked open her door and slammed it behind her, her school sweater flapping in the breeze as she made her way toward a group of girlfriends who stood near the entrance to the high school.
“What’s with her?” Bo yanked his head in Cecille’s direction.
“Ah, she’s just got a bee in her bonnet.”
Bo’s hearty laugh echoed through the confines of the pickup cab. He opened his door and held out a hand to help Mona Beth to the ground. “I love the way you talk.” He placed both hands around her waist and focused his soft brown eyes intently on her face. “In fact, I love everything about you.” He fingered a strand of hair and then tucked it behind her ear. “Your soft hair the color of wheat. Your giggle. Those freckles sprinkled across your nose. Those big blue eyes that threaten to drown me.”
Her heart pounded curiously in her chest and her cheeks burned with pleasure. She sent a shy smile, her mind whirring. The bell rang at just the right minute, giving her the out she needed. As much as she wanted to say yes to the question in his eyes, she still wasn’t completely certain it was the right thing to do. She turned and trotted toward the Home Economics building, and then turned back to where he still stood near his nearly new pickup. “See you at lunch!”
“You know it. I’ll save you a seat at the table.” He waved and started toward Old Main.
Later that day, Mona Beth and her best friend Sally Clark made their way down the concrete steps that led to the girl’s dressing room in the underbelly of the high school gymnasium. They’d just hung the final cheerleader sign that simply read “Go Mustangs!” in preparation for the pep rally scheduled in half an hour.
Sally’s brown hair was turned up perfectly at her shoulders, and her black and gold cheerleader skirt bounced at her knees above her white socks and oxfords.
A sudden surge of jealousy caught Mona Beth off guard, and she battled it. How wonderful it must be to have the money to be a cheerleader instead of having to don the dreaded mustang costume. She released a soft sigh. At least the smelly brown fur and heavy horse head mask provided warmth from chilly November nights and allowed her to go to all the games free of charge. But it would be nice to watch Bo play without having to duck her head to see out the opening in the paper-mache mustang head.
“So, have you decided what your answer to Bo is going to be?” Sally came to a halt as they reached the black and gold metal lockers that wrapped around the narrow space.
Mona Beth slumped against the lockers and set off a metallic rattle. “No. I really want to say yes, but…”
“But you’re afraid?”
She scratched her head and faced her friend. “Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life, but this scares me to death.” She clicked open her locker door and pulled out the brown furry costume and slipped it from its wire hanger.
Her friend nodded in understanding. “If he were our age, it’d be an easier decision.”
“Yeah. It’d also help if he weren’t so good-looking and smart and popular and nice—”
Sally laughed. “Whoa there, girlfriend. He’s not perfect.”
She skewed her lips to one side. Said who?
Voices reverberated in the concrete stairwell as Mona Beth slipped the costume over her shorts and t-shirt and zipped it up the front.
Cecille and two of her friends entered the room, her sister’s angry eyes immediately coming to rest on her. “Well, well, if it’s not the horse’s rear-end.”
The girls with Cecille snickered.
Mona Beth ignored them and moved to the giant horse head to pick it up. “Jealousy isn’t very becoming, Cecille.”
“Jealous? Me?” She gave a derisive laugh.
Sally stepped up to Mona Beth’s side and grabbed hold of the other side of the Paper Mache monstrosity to help carry it up the stairs. “Everyone in school knows you’ve got a crush on Bo. You’re just jealous ‘cause he likes Mona Beth instead of you.”
Cecille’s face turned blistering red, and her eyes bulged like a horned toad about to spit blood. “I’m not jealous at all. Bo Miller is tied to that stupid ranch of his anyway, and as soon as I can, I plan on leaving the dust of this hick town in my rearview mirror.”
White-hot rage flared through Mona Beth’s veins. “You wouldn’t know a good thing if it slapped you across the face, Cecille. Miller’s Creek is a great place to live. I hope I never have to live anywhere else.”
“Then you’re as stupid as that ugly old horse head. I’ll never understand what Bo sees in you.” She made a move for the stairs. “C’mon, girls, let’s go find a better place to hang out.” She glided from the room, her mousy entourage in tow.
Sally stared after her. “What I’ll never understand is how someone as nice as you got saddled with someone like her for a sister. Mom has her in last period English and says she’s one of the snobbiest and rudest people she’s ever met.”
Mona Beth searched her memory. Was there ever a time when Cecille had been different? She gave her head a shake. In spite of her parents’ best effort, her sister had always been uppity, almost like she’d come from different stock than her hard-working and kind parents. “I gave up trying to figure her out a long time ago. Guess we’d better head upstairs, too.” Excited voices and the stomp of feet on the old wooden bleachers already sounded above them.
The rowdy pep rally gave testimony to the school’s spirit and excitement over the possible district championship. Both teams in tonight’s game were undefeated, but only one would walk away with the title and chance to advance to the playoffs. The old gym shook with the racket created by screaming voices, the high school band, and the stomps of the cheerleaders as they did their cheers. Both the coach and Bo, the team captain, gave their speeches, and then it came time for the school spirit stick.
Sweat trickled from her hair and down the back of her neck inside the heavy horse head, but Mona Beth bounced up and down in front of her freshman classmates as they screamed: “We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you?” They tossed the chant to the sophomores, who in turn passed it on to the juniors and seniors. Finally the yell ended with the football team. Mona Beth waved the spirit stick in front of them, her eyes latching on to Bo’s animated face.
Her heart leapt to her throat. Oh how she loved him, wanted to be his girl, wanted to please him. How had she—a lowly freshman from poor farm stock—managed to win the heart of the most popular boy in town? Surely that was sign enough that God was in this.
The gym erupted into shouts as she presented the football team the spirit stick via their team captain. In the excitement of the moment, Bo picked her up and swung her around, then sat her on the ground to exit the gym with his teammates. As he left he leaned close to Mona Beth and shouted to make himself heard above the din. “Meet me at the football bus!”
Once the crowds began to exit the left side of the gym, Mona Beth removed the horse head mask, sat it on the gym floor, and made a beeline for the rear exit on the right side of the gym that led to where the busses were parked.
Bo, shoulders broad and bulky in his letterman jacket, leaned against the football boys’ bus, his hands tucked in the pockets of his jeans. He straightened and smiled as she approached. “You’re all sweaty.”
“It gets mighty hot inside a horse.”
He laughed and swung her up in the air once more, then stood her in front of him and pulled her close. Their eyes locked and he lowered his head to hers, kissing her for the first time. He pulled away a moment later, his brown eyes soft and dark. “I love you, Bethie.”
The words wound around her like a lasso around a frightened calf, somehow comforting and nerve-racking all at the same time. “I love you, too.”
Bo reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a small white gift box, and handed it to her. “Don’t open it ‘til you’re on the pep squad bus. I asked you last night to go steady with me, to be my girl. I hope this shows you how I feel.”
The lump in her throat kept her from speaking, so she nodded instead.
He leaned forward and gave her another breath-stealing kiss. “Give me your answer later?”
“Yes.” It was the only word her mouth could form, and it came out breathy and hoarse.
He caressed her cheek with the back of his fingers, smiled down at her, then turned and walked away, taking her heart with him.
An hour later, once the trip to the out-of-town game was underway, Mona Beth retrieved the box from her coat pocket and opened it. Inside was a beautiful gold chain, and dangling from it, Bo’s senior ring. A folded piece of notebook paper nestled in the bottom of the box. She unfolded it and began to read:
I thank God for leading me to you. You captured my attention and my heart the day you rode into the rodeo arena. The time I’ve spent with you since then has only doubled what I sensed about you that day. You’re a wonderful person, and just the sort of woman I hope to someday marry. I’d be honored if you’d be my steady girlfriend and wear my class ring while we wait to see what God has in store for our future.
All my love,
Her heart overflowed at his profession of love. She passed the note to Sally and peered out the bus window at the colorful Texas sunset, wishing she could share it with Bo. Surely this relationship was meant to be.
Sally finished reading and handed the note back to her. “So what’re you going to do?”
Good question. What was she going to do? She scanned the note once more then removed the chain and ring from the box and turned to her friend. “Will you help me put this on?”
With a nod, Sally took the chain and fastened it around her neck while Mona Beth raised her hair out of the way. Once the necklace was secured, her friend gazed at her intently. “You’re sure about this?”
The weight of the necklace was heavier than expected. Mona Beth touched the ring, cool against her skin. “Bo and I both belong to God. I feel sure things will work out according to His will.” Yes, it was a risky move, but a risk she was more than willing to take. No matter what might happen.
Late November 1963
“They’re going to love you as much as I do, silly goose.” Bo patted Mona Beth’s arm and smiled to reassure her as he drove his new red and white Chevy pickup toward the old home place at the Miller ranch the Thursday before Thanksgiving. The day had started off pretty, but now a thick mass of dark storm clouds had built, bringing with them lightning, thunder, and blustery winds.
Mona Beth didn’t seem convinced by the words he’d hoped would ease her mind. If anything she paled even more. “Wish I could believe that.” Her blue eyes seemed especially big and dark in the fading daylight.
Bo frowned. Perhaps he should’ve introduced her to just his parents the first time around, but the idea of doing this with other family members around seemed perfect. Maybe his mother would be so distracted by her hostess responsibilities she wouldn’t have time to be cantankerous. “You’ll do fine. Just be glad you’re meeting them instead of my mother’s side of the family. They live in Georgia.”
She nodded. “Tell me again who all will be there tonight besides your Mama and Daddy, so I’ll be prepared.”
“My Granny, Lily Miller, will be there. You might know her. She’s my dad’s mom. Lives in the old house my great-grandfather built, one of the first houses in Miller’s Creek.”
“The old house we just passed a few minutes ago on the left side of the road next to the Thatcher’s?”
“That’s the one.”
Her face took on fascination. “I love that old house.”
His pulse bounded to a rapid pound. Knowing she loved the old house as much as he did touched him in a way he didn’t expect. “My grandpa was born there. When he passed away we tried to talk Granny into moving out to the ranch with us, but she wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Can’t say I blame her. All her memories of her husband and family are tied up in that old house. Why would she want to leave?” Soft and melodic, almost dreamlike, she breathed the words. “Who else will be there tonight?”
“My dad’s younger brother, Uncle Will, his wife, Aunt Meredith, and their two kids, James and Molly.”
“How old are the kids?” For the first time all afternoon her voice held a smidgen of excitement.
“James is almost ten, and Molly’s seven.”
A few minutes later they bounced down the rutted ranch road that led to the old home place. The old German-style farmhouse and its big gables, wood siding and rock chimney came into view, and Mona Beth gasped, her face aglow. “What a gorgeous house.”
Pleasure spiraled through him, and he smiled. “My great-grandma came to Texas from Germany. When she married my great-grandfather, her dad built the house as a wedding present for them.” Too bad his mother didn’t share Mona Beth’s love of this part of the Miller family heritage.
While he parked the truck, Mona Beth slid away from her perch beside him and slipped out the passenger side door. One hand rested on the truck as she gazed up at the house, the light from the windows illuminating her pretty face. “It’s lovely. It reminds me of something I’d see in a Currier and Ives lithograph like the ones on my Mama’s dishes.”
Bo took a stand on the other side of the truck’s hood to watch her. As much as this old house meant to him, it seemed to mean even more to her, and he couldn’t pull his gaze from the child-like wonder etched on her face. The simple dress and sweater she wore only intensified her natural beauty, and he especially loved the way his class ring and chain glistened against the creamy skin at the base of her neck.
Mona Beth cast a sideways glance, a bemused expression lurking in her eyes. “Are you going to introduce me to your family or just stand there gawking at me all night?”
A grin spread across his face. How like her to pretend to scold him. Bo stepped around the truck, took her small hand in his, and gave it a squeeze to offer encouragement as they climbed the creaky front steps together. They entered the house to an indefinable smell he could only imagine to be dinner.
He sniffed and brought a hand up to rub his nose, hoping the meal was at least edible. “Hey, everybody, we’re home.” Bo called out the words, closed the heavy antique door behind them, and then turned to see Uncle Will stride toward them with hand outstretched.
“Good to see you, Bo. Who’s this pretty young lady you have with you?” His uncle patted him on the back, and then offered his hand to Mona Beth.
She returned the handshake and smiled timidly.
“This is Mona Beth, Uncle Will.”
“Nice to meet you, little lady. I know you must be someone special to capture our Bo’s attention.”
Mona Beth barely had time to thank him before Granny Miller tottered forward, her wispy white hair pulled into the bun she always wore on the lower back side of her head. “Hi, girlie.” She engulfed Mona Beth in a hug. “Glad to finally meet the girl Bo talks about all the time.” His grandmother shuffled off to the left, but stuck close to Mona Beth’s side. Aunt Meredith was next in line to introduce herself and the kids.
Mona Beth knelt and chatted with his niece and nephew at their level. Apparently the tactic worked, because with excited voices the pair wrangled a promise from her to join them in a checker match at the first opportunity.
Taking up the rear as he expected, his parents finally traipsed over. Mama’s eyes scanned Mona Beth’s plain homemade clothing and latched onto the class ring dangling from her neck. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Mona. Bo speaks highly of you.” Her tone sounded anything but welcoming, and her forced smile appeared ready to crack, held in place by a paper-thin veneer of civility.
A frown pulled Bo’s eyebrows downward at his mother’s lack of manners. “Her name’s Mona Beth.”
“Whatever you say, dear.” She drawled out the words in her South Georgia accent and faced the other guests. “Our house help is finishing up preparations for the meal. Why don’t we all have a seat in the den?”
The two kids were quick to latch onto Mona Beth’s hands, one on each side, and dragged her to the checker board. Since she willingly acquiesced, Bo pulled up a chair next to his grandmother.
Granny reached over and patted his knee, her smile broad. “I like her already, Bo. I can tell by lookin’ at her that she comes from a good home and is sweet and kind. Just the kind of girl I’ve been prayin’ for.” She nodded to where his girl sat with the kids. Mona Beth’s long blonde hair framed her face as she leaned forward and made her move on the checker board. “She’ll make a fine mother someday.”
His heart quickened. Yes, Granny was right. Mona Beth was sweet and kind, and there wasn’t a doubt in his mind she’d also make a wonderful mother.
As the evening wore on, the women gathered together on one side of the spacious room to talk, most likely about cooking and kids and other girl stuff. Mona Beth appeared to be holding her own, though she occasionally sent a pleading look that seemed to beg for rescue. Maybe later, but not now. He had to make sure she could handle herself in uncomfortable situations, especially where it concerned his family.
The men soon moved to the front porch to check on the approaching storm and speak of more serious matters, like football and politics. By the time dinner rolled around, all of them agreed that both Tom Landry and President Kennedy were doing better at their jobs than first predicted.
Once dinner was ready, Mama called them inside and took her place at one end of the giant farmhouse table built by his great-grandfather, while Daddy moved to the other end. His mother patted the chair to her left. “Mona, why don’t you sit here next to me so we can get better acquainted?”
Mona Beth cast a quick glance his way, but did as his mother requested, her back bone straight and her head held high.
Bo hurried toward the seat on Mona Beth’s opposite side, but Molly beat him to it, while Granny plopped down directly across from them. In a surprising move, James claimed the spot between his sister and Aunt Meredith, which forced Bo to a chair at the other end of the table between Dad and Uncle Will.
Mona Beth ran a hand across the old table’s warm patina, an enchanting radiance beaming from her face. “Is this a family heirloom? I know you must be so proud of it.”
“I think it’s absolutely horrific.” Unconcealed contempt colored his mother’s words. “I’ve been after Jim to get me a new one from Sears for over a year now.”
With lips pressed tight and head lowered, Mona Beth obviously wasn’t sure of how to respond to the caustic comment.
After the blessing, while bowls heaped with food began their rounds, Mama spooned green beans onto her plate. “Excuse my frightful manners, Mona, but I didn’t catch your last name.”
Mona Beth stiffened and inhaled a deep breath. “Adams. My parents are Cecil and Elsie Adams.”
To his right, a sudden coughing fit seized his father.
“Oh, I see.” The derision in Mama’s voice came through loud and clear, her glare more dark and threatening than the storm outdoors headed their way.
Thankfully, Granny stepped in. “Well, I’ve met your Daddy many times. He’s a fine Christian man. Always brings me extra eggs from your farm.” She offered Mona Beth a kind smile. “I know of several widow ladies in the community who’ve benefited from his kindness. And I understand your Mama is one of the best seamstresses in the county.”
An appreciative gleam sparkled in Mona Beth’s eyes. “Thank you, Mrs. Miller.”
His grandmother’s familiar cackle reverberated through the room, and she waved a frail bony hand in the air. “Oh, please. Call me Granny. It’s about the only name I answer to anymore.”
The sunshiny smile Bo loved so much appeared on Mona Beth’s face, and she nodded. “I’ll do that.”
“And what college will you be attending next year?” The catty edge to his mother’s words also colored her features.
“I won’t be going to college next year.” Mona Beth’s fork pinged against the plate as she released it. She shifted momentarily, and then lifted her chin, apparently readying herself for battle.
Bo choked down the dry bite of turkey he had in his mouth and followed it with a quick gulp of overly-sweet tea, silently praying Mona Beth could endure his mother’s underhanded way of embarrassing people. Why hadn’t he warned her ahead of time?
Mama patted Mona Beth’s hand, a condescending tilt to her smile. “I’m sure if you work hard enough you’ll be able to afford it someday. Bo’s going to Georgia State, my Alma Mater.”
“Where I go to school is actually yet to be determined.” Bo challenged his mother with an angry stare, but she moved her haughty gaze elsewhere.
“We’d sure like to have you close to us in College Station.” Uncle Will came to his defense, his non-threatening tone friendly and relaxed. “A & M’s a great school, especially since you plan to study Agriculture. You could even live with us and save money on room and board.” The kids added their endorsement of the idea.
“I might just take you up on that.” Bo grinned and took another bite.
“Not if I have anything to say about it.” His mother’s icy challenge brought the conversation to an abrupt halt. Everyone now sat with heads lowered, focused on their plates, the only sounds the ring of silverware against china and the rattle of iced tea in the crystal goblets.
It was Mona Beth who made the first attempt at more table talk. “I plan on majoring in Elementary Education when I go to school.”
Something about her quiet bravery tugged at Bo’s heart, and he fought against a sudden desire to rush over to hug her neck.
“I think teaching’s a wonderful profession.” Granny nodded her approval. “It’ll allow you to be with your own children at the end of the school day.”
Mona Beth released her sweet girlish giggle. “That’s the plan. I’ll stay home with them until they’re school age and then go to school with them.”
The words elicited smiles and laughter from Uncle Will and Granny Miller, but his parents sat silent as cold stones.
“And just when do you plan to start college?”
Bo cringed. The combination of his mother’s phony-baloney kindness and the poorly-cooked food were beginning to eat away the lining of his stomach.
“As soon as I graduate from high school. I’m only a freshman so college is a few years down the road for me.”
The fake smile his mother had previously worn disappeared, and she openly glared at him. “Well, Bo, you could have mentioned that Mona was three years younger than you, don’t you think?”
His glass of iced tea banged against the table with a little more force than he intended, and the room grew dead still. “Guess I didn’t think it was all that important. Mona Beth’s more mature than most girls I know, and that carries a lot more weight in my book than her age.”
An awkward hush descended, but his grandmother quickly smoothed things over in her customary way. “You know, I was fifteen years younger than my Tom, and we had a wonderful life together.”
Everyone smiled at the tender words except for his mother, who stabbed at her food instead.
Bo took another bite of his mashed potatoes, about the only thing that tasted halfway decent. What scheme was his mother plotting now? She wasn’t the type to let things slide. He just hoped Mona Beth wouldn’t be the one to suffer for it.
His mother managed to keep quiet until they’d all forked into semi-burnt slices of pecan and pumpkin pie. “You know, Mona, I might just have an idea to help you raise money for college.”
Cautious glances were exchanged around the table, but Mona Beth’s face brightened. “Really?”
His mother nodded while she swallowed a bite of pie. “You know, we could use more help around here, and I’m sure with your background, you’d be satisfactory as a housekeeper.”
The room instantly devoid of oxygen, everyone froze in place. Bo pushed aside the nasty-tasting desert, his eyes glued to Mona Beth.
Though her cheeks flushed bright red, she maintained an otherwise calm façade. Eyes downcast, she finished chewing before she spoke. “Yes ma’am, I’m sure you’re right.” Mona Beth yanked the napkin from her lap, and tossed it on the table as she rose to her feet. “I’d also be more than happy to teach you how to cook.”
Mona Beth’s flat shoes whispered across the wooden floors as she glided from the room, her posture erect like a regal princess. A few seconds later, the front door softly closed behind her.
His mother’s face turned pink, then red, and then a shade of purple that reminded him of an about-to-burst purple grape. “How dare that little witch insult me in my own house!” The viperous comment exploded from her taut lips like machine-gun fire.
A mixture of ice and fire coursed through Bo’s veins, but he clamped his mouth shut in spite of an angry tirade of words that crashed into the back of his teeth. He scooted his chair back, the hand-carved legs scraping against the polished wood floors and strode from the house to find Mona Beth.
He found her on the front porch swing, her hunched-over form lit by a nearby window, her face cupped by both hands. “I’m so sorry if I embarrassed you, Bo. Me and my big mouth. It always gets me in trouble.”
Bo scooted in next to her, pulled her into his arms, and caressed her shoulder. “Shh, it’s okay. She had it coming. I’m the one who’s sorry for the way she’s treated you all night.” When she pulled away a minute later, he rubbed one palm along the soft nubby wool of her sweater, and reached the opposite hand over to lift her chin.
Tears swam in her eyes and threatened to spill over. “I knew this wouldn’t go well. I tried to tell you.”
He let loose a heavy sigh. Yes, she’d tried to warn him, but in his excitement he’d foolishly assumed his parents would love her as much as he did. At least Granny and Uncle Will’s family liked her. “It’ll just take time, honey. Once they get to know you they’ll love you just like I do.”
Doubt clouded her face. “I’m not so sure we shouldn’t call this off.”
The words landed a blow to his gut like a football helmet slamming into his midsection. He frowned and leaned forward to search her face. “You can’t be serious. I thought you loved me.”
“I do, but I can’t be the cause of problems between you and your family.”
“It’ll work out, Bethie. Don’t break up with me over this.”
Mona Beth slumped forward in the swing, elbows to knees, entwined hands in her lap, and her head lowered. An uncomfortable silence like none he’d ever experienced in her presence charged the air with tension. Finally she sat upright, the storm in her eyes dark and ominous. “I’d like to go home now.”
His heart crumbled, and his breath came in shaky shallow spurts. Was this the end? Just like that? He helped her stand and tried to hold her hand as they shuffled to the pickup, but she denied him with crossed arms.
Instead of moving to the center of the seat like she normally did, she remained glued to the passenger door, and didn’t breathe a word throughout all the drive to her house.
Once they pulled into her driveway, Bo threw the gearshift into park and faced her. “Sweetheart, please don’t give up on us. This wasn’t your fault. It’s just one of those things that’s going to take time. You have to remember I’m an only child. All their dreams and expectations are loaded fully on my shoulders. One of these days they’ll realize this is my life, not theirs.”
Sad, soulful eyes peered back at him, her face lit only by the golden glow of a light atop a nearby pole. She turned her head away, completely silent, then reached across the cab and lightly touched his hand. “I think we both need to do some soul-searching and praying, Bo. We’ll talk about it at school tomorrow, okay?”
He released a pent-up sigh of relief. At least it was a step in the right direction. He exited the pickup and moved around to the passenger side to open the door. They walked in silence to the front door and faced each other briefly before she sent a sad little smile and entered the front door.
All the way back out to the ranch Bo rehearsed the words he needed to speak to his parents, praying for strength to wait until the other family members had left for Granny’s house. As he once more pulled up in the driveway of the old house, his headlamps spotlighted Uncle Will as he helped Granny down the porch steps.
His grandmother came to a stop once they reached the ground and motioned Bo to her. “Is Mona Beth all right?” The porch light revealed the tender concern in her eyes.
He nodded and kissed her weathered cheek. “Just pray for us, Granny. I’m not sure what’s going to happen after all this.”
Granny clamped a bony hand around his wrist. “You know I will, boy. Don’t lose faith. You just found it. God will bring you through this if you turn to Him.”
“Thanks, Granny.” Bo gave her a gentle hug then took his uncle’s proffered hand. “Goodnight, Uncle Will. Thank you for coming.”
Uncle Will’s eyes held understanding. He pulled Bo into a hug and slapped him on the back. “Still on for deer hunting Saturday morning, right?”
After wishing his aunt, niece, and nephew a good night, Bo followed his parents into the house, and sent up a quick prayer for guidance and wisdom.
As soon as the door closed behind them, his mother started in. “Why in the world would you choose a low-life like her? The whole town must think we’ve lost all respectability, and she completely ruined our Thanksgiving dinner. Had I known it was her you were seeing, I’d have put my foot down months ago.”
“You don’t even know her, Mother, but you’ve already judged her and decided she doesn’t fit the image you want to portray.” Bo sent his father a pleading look, but it was no use.
A peal of thunder ripped the silence as Dad’s lips firmed into a thin line. He reached to the breast pocket of his shirt for a pack of cigarettes and quickly lit one up, flicking his wrist to put out the match before he tossed it into a nearby ashtray. “Your mama’s right, son. She’s not the girl for you. Her daddy practically stole that place they’re living on right out from underneath me. The best piece of land in the whole county.”
“That’s not how she tells it. She says you changed the price on her father several times. What made you finally give in?”
His father’s face hardened as rain beat against the metal roof of the house. “Caught me at a bad time. We needed the cash.”
“That’s your problem, not his.”
Daddy jumped from his chair, his fists clenched, his eyes bulging from their sockets. “Let me make myself clear, boy. You will not be hanging around Cecil Adam’s daughter anymore. Either you break it off or I will!” He stomped from the house into the stormy night, the windows rattling as the door slammed shut.
Like a scratched-up record, his father’s last words replayed and knifed a hole in Bo’s heart. How could he choose between his family and the sweet country girl who’d captured his heart?
Late November 1963
*L*ord Jesus, show me what you want me to do. The last thing I want is to come between Bo and his family. Mona Beth closed her Bible and bustled closer to the electric heater, arms extended, and bent over to warm her hands. Her heart still ached, with no relief in sight, though her tears had subsided. Her best bet was to move on with her chores and attempt to forget the previous night—at least temporarily—if for no other reason than to protect her sanity.
The tangled condition of the bed covers proved her restless night of sleep. Mona Beth stepped to the bed, firmly yanked on the flat sheet and tucked under the corner like Mama taught her, then repositioned the chenille bedspread. Cecille was nowhere to be seen, which more than likely meant she’d moved to the couch at some point during the night of tossing, turning, and thrashing.
Once the bed was made, she tugged on her boots for the morning chores. Within a few minutes, she was out the back door to slop the pigs, feed the chickens and gather the eggs. Thanks to the freezing temps, she finished her tasks quickly and was back in the house long before time to eat breakfast. She headed to the kitchen to help Mama.
Her mother turned her head as she entered. “You’re up mighty early.”
Mona Beth hurried across the worn linoleum floor in her sock feet and kissed Mama on the cheek. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Any reason why?” Mama continued to roll out the biscuit dough with her large wooden rolling pin. It banged against the gold Formica counter with each pass, followed by a slight squeak.
She balked at answering her mother’s question. Hadn’t Mama and Daddy tried to warn her that this would happen? “The time with Bo’s family didn’t go well.” Or at least the time with his parents hadn’t gone well. Mona Beth pinched off a corner of the dough Mama worked and popped it in her mouth.
“I suspected as much when you disappeared to your room the minute you got home. I started to go in your room last night, but figured you wanted your privacy. Want to talk about it now?”
A heavy breath escaped without permission. “You were right about how Bo’s folks would treat me. I don’t know why, but it’s obvious they don’t approve of me being Bo’s girlfriend. I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritty.”
“Trust me. I can imagine it well enough without a description.” Mama’s dry tone and solemn face bore testimony to her words. “What’re you going to do?”
One corner of her mouth moved upward, and she shrugged. “I wish I knew. I love Bo with all my heart, and I believe he loves me, but I don’t want to come between him and his family.”
Mama dusted flour from her fingertips and pulled her into a hug. After a few seconds she pulled away. “This is exactly why your father and I tried to warn you.”
“I know. I just didn’t expect it to be so hard.”
“Life is hard, sweetie. We’ve tried our best not to shelter you from that truth.” Her mother’s eyes held world-weariness coupled with a glimmer of determination and hope as she turned back to her preparations for breakfast. “But you also know God. Trust Him for His will in the matter.”
Indescribable peace ensconced her heart. Yes, God would show her what to do. She’d prayed for His guidance and wisdom and had done what she knew to do to obey. All she could do was continue to seek Him and wait for His answer. In the meantime, she’d do all she could to see all sides of the situation clearly.
As was his custom, Bo arrived later that morning to pick her and Cecille up for school. A bevy of questions lurked within his eyes’ muddy brown depths.
Mona Beth sent a gentle smile and took her normal position beside him, but the ride into town was much quieter than usual. Only after Cecille left the confines of the pickup cab once they arrived at school did he give voice to the feelings inscribed in the tired lines on his face. “I see you still have on the chain.” His gaze flitted to the ring dangling at the base of her neck. “Does that mean you’re not breaking up with me?”
She ducked her head, unable to say what she needed to say with his sorrowful eyes blazing a hole through her. “I don’t know yet, Bo. I’ve prayed about it, and I’m trying to distance myself from last night so I can better understand everyone’s perspective. I want to make the decision that’s best for everyone, but I especially want to make the decision that God wants me to make.” Uncomfortable silence thickened the tension in the air, but she dared not lift her head for fear of succumbing to the plea in his eyes.
A half-laugh, half-snort fell from Bo’s throat, and he bolted from the truck and slammed the door behind him.
Tears pricked her eyes, and she raised her gaze to his quickly retreating back. Lord, I can’t take his anger and silence. Please help me. She gulped in a deep breath of air and released it slowly, then closed her eyes until the emotional pain subsided. The only way she could do this was with God’s help. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, her resolve to wait on the Lord strengthened, and ready to face the challenges of the day, she climbed from the truck and started toward the building.
The morning wore on torturously slow. She did her best to concentrate, but often found her thoughts returning to Bo. During the class right before lunch, she and Sally had a few minutes to visit, and Mona Beth relayed the previous night’s fiasco.
Sally winced as she told the story. “I can’t believe they treated you that way. But it doesn’t change how you feel about Bo, does it?”
“No. I still love him.”
“I personally think that’s your answer, but I know it’s something you have to work out on your own.” Her face suddenly took on a puzzled look. “Wait a minute. I don’t know why it just popped into my head, but have you thought about talking to Bo’s grandmother about this? She seems like a really wise lady. Judy would drive you over there during lunch.”
Mona Beth thought through her friend’s suggestion. It would be good to get the older woman’s perspective on the situation, and Sally’s big sister would gladly give her a ride to the old house she admired so much. “That’s actually a great idea.” The bell rang, dismissing the class to lunch recess. Mona Beth catapulted to her feet. “Let’s go find Judy.”
Several minutes later Judy steered the car carrying the three girls into the gravel driveway of the old house. The rocks crunched and popped as the car came to a stop. On closer inspection, the turn-of-the-century charmer was in serious need of a paint job and other maintenance. But even with its outer shell in disrepair, it held elegance, like an elderly woman clothed in a kind and friendly smile.
“Be back in a little bit.” Mona Beth scooted from the back seat and hurried across the Bermuda grass lawn, now crunchy brown because of recent frosts. She skittered up the porch steps and rapped on the black screen door.
Tottering footsteps sounded from within, and the painted wood door swung open. “Mona Beth. How good to see you!” Granny Miller’s face lit from within. “I was so concerned about you last night.” She paused for a moment, and her wise old eyes narrowed perceptively. “Looks like you might have questions.”
Mona Beth tried to speak, but could only nod.
“Let me grab my sweater and I’ll meet you at the porch swing on the other side of the house.” She pointed to her right.
With pounding heart, Mona Beth moved to the black porch swing. What was she thinking? She barely knew Bo’s grandmother. Was she really a good person to confide in?
In an attempt to disregard her fears, she glanced around the place and made mental notes about what she’d change if the house belonged to her. For sure, a new coat of paint, and a picket fence surrounding the front yard would be both adorable and practical.
Around the corner, the screen door squeaked and then slammed, followed by the sound of ever-loudening footsteps. The older woman appeared carrying a tray. Atop it, two cups sent up dueling spirals of steam.
Mona Beth jumped to her feet. “Let me help you.” She took the tray laden with sandwiches and hot chocolate.
Bo’s grandmother stretched out a bony finger. “Set it on that table right over there.”
She followed the request and then took her seat, her hands starting to shake. Hunger or fear?
Granny Miller handed her a cup of the fragrant liquid. “I thought you might enjoy some hot chocolate while we talked, Help yourself to the sandwiches. I know you must be hungry.”
“Thanks.” She took a cautious sip of the liquid, instant comfort flooding her body, and leaned forward to snag a sandwich.
The elderly woman sent a kind smile. “I know you don’t have long. May I give you a few words of advice?”
Her neck muscles and shoulders relaxed as relief washed over her. This was going to be easier than she’d expected. “Not at all. I was hoping you’d be able to offer some insight.”
“First of all, you should know that grandson of mine is smitten with you. He’s never been one to pay much attention to girls. The fact that he took you home to meet his parents should tell you a lot.” She looked away briefly. “Second of all, I approve of his choice. Bo’s told me all about how you led him to the Lord and got him going back to church. Words can’t express how much I appreciate that. It’s an answer to prayer for this old woman.” Her eyes shone with unashamed tears.
“It was my privilege.” Mona Beth’s voice quavered as she struggled against tears of her own, remembering the day Bo had turned his life over to God.
“Bo’s father never used to be the way he is now,” she continued. “He was blinded by Linda’s good looks and high society position, and she’s done nothing but make his life miserable ever since. He’s become unkind and ungrateful. Lord knows I love him, but it hurts to see him like this when I know what he can be.” She placed a gnarled hand on Mona Beth’s knee. “Bo needs you in his life to counteract what he has to deal with at home. Don’t let his parents scare you off. I know you’re strong. You can handle it. Be light to them.”
The words wound around her heart, not in a way that squeezed, but in a way that bolstered her resolve. She set her cup on the table and carefully hugged the fragile–boned woman. “Thank you for helping me to understand, Granny. I needed to find the right answer, and now I know what I’m supposed to do.”
A high-pitched cackle sounded in her left ear, and Granny Miller patted Mona Beth’s back. “Glad to hear it, girlie. Now as much as I’d love to sit here and chat with you, you’d best high-tail it on back to school before your lunch time is over. And take some of those sandwiches for you and your friends.”
Mona Beth stood, the smile on her face echoing the one in her heart. “I will. But is it okay if I visit you again sometime?”
The woman nodded, her rheumy eyes a-twinkle. “I’d be pleased as punch to have you. My door’s always open.”
The girls arrived back at school in just enough time to make it up the steps of Old Main. The bell rang as they entered the noisy and congested hallway. Mona Beth thanked her friends quickly and headed to her locker to grab her things.
“Where have you been?” Bo stepped into her path, his eyes cold and dark.
She smiled, hoping the joy in her expression would give him the answers he needed. “I went to see your grandmother.”
“What?” His mouth fell open and his eyebrows knotted. “Why?”
“I needed her take on what happened last night. She was so helpf—”
Without giving her further chance to explain, Bo strode away, his long legs outstretching hers until he disappeared among the crowds of students thronging the halls.
Mona Beth called his name and broke into a run. Finally she reached him and latched onto his elbow.
He swung around, his face livid. Before he could speak, a buzzer sounded, and a nearby speaker crackled to life. “Teachers and students, your attention please.”
Laughter and rowdy conversation continued amidst increased shushing. Finally the halls grew quiet enough to hear the voice on the speaker. “I’m sorry to have to announce this.” The speaker went quiet, and all around her, students exchanged concerned glances. “We’ve just received word that President Kennedy has been shot.”
Her ears rang and her mouth fell open gasping for air. The once-noisy halls had grown deathly silent. In what seemed like slow motion, Mona Beth took in the wide and round staring eyes, gaping mouths, and pale faces all around her. When her faltering gaze at last focused in on Bo, she could barely see him for the tears that had somehow leaked from her eyes. Then she and Bo clung to each other and cried—cried for their country, cried for the President, but especially cried for the death of innocence.
Bo did his best to understand the words the oncologist spoke so matter-of-factly, but his brain didn’t want to cooperate. He chomped on the piece of gum that had long since lost its cinnamon flavor and stared out the doctor’s window at the never-ending stream of Dallas traffic. Now, more than ever, he had to understand every facet of the situation. Not just for himself, but for his family, especially Mona Beth. “Sorry, could you repeat that in English?”
Dr. Wheeler half-smiled, mouth closed. “I apologize. I know these medical terms can be kind of confusing.” He droned the words in his typical monotone, and then paused as though gathering his thoughts. “Basically what I said is that we’ll start off with three weeks of radiation at the hospital in Morganville. Then we’ll follow up with chemotherapy. The chemo we’ll use is in pill form so it won’t be necessary for you to travel for your treatments.”
Mona Beth shifted in the seat beside him, her pantsuit whispering against the leather chair, then leaned forward, the scent of her perfume wafting behind her. “And what can we expect as far as side effects?”
A slight frown developed above Dr. Wheeler’s glasses. “I won’t lie to you. The side effects can be pretty horrible. Fatigue, of course, along with nausea, diarrhea, hair loss, poor appeti—”
On the bright red sofa on the other side of Mona Beth, Steve fidgeted for a moment and then cleared his throat. “And what about pain?”
The doctor bobbed his head rapidly like a woodpecker searching for grub. “He’ll probably experience pain, especially flu-like symptoms, as well as nerve and muscle problems. It could also affect his memory and mood.”
His son released a heavy sigh, crossed his arms, and dropped his chin to his chest. After a brief silence, he looked up again. “Seems to me to be a whole lot of needless suffering.”
“Why, Steve Miller!” Mona Beth’s eyes flashed lightening. “Can’t you be a little more upbeat than that?”
Steve didn’t answer, but clenched his jaw and looked away.
Bo reached across Mona Beth’s lap and stilled her hands, which had gone to fluttering as soon as Steve voiced his opinion. “Bethie, settle down. We’ll discuss this later.” He returned his attention to the oncologist. “Would it be all right if we talked about this among ourselves and then call you with our final answer?”
Mona Beth’s head whipped his way. “What do you mean? I thought you’d already decided.”
Bo gulped in a deep breath to control his anger and boost his determination. As much as he loved her, the woman could be like a bull dog with a bone. Didn’t she know that he had other people to consider as well? “Let’s not go into this here.”
Her blue eyes searched his face and then took on sullen resignation.
Dr. Wheeler stood, obviously eager to end the conversation and move on to his next patient. “That’ll be just fine, Mr. Miller. I know you all have a lot to discuss.” He hurried around the cherry wood desk, but stopped in front of Mona Beth. “You’ve done a really good job of taking care of him since his surgery, Mrs. Miller.”
Mona Beth didn’t speak, just nodded and blinked, most likely to keep her tears at bay. She’d never been one to cry, but here lately, it seemed like she’d done enough crying to make up for the both of them.
After a tense drive home, they arrived back in Miller’s Creek a little before sunset, and Steve dropped them off at the old house that once belonged to his Granny. They’d no sooner shut the door behind them when Mona Beth’s tears and pleading began in earnest. “I know it’s a longshot, Bo, but it’s better than not trying at all. If you forego the chemo and radiation, you’ll be taking the easy way out just like you did a long time ago.” Her tone and her expression carried accusation.
His skin crawled like he’d fallen in a bed of fire ants. He grimaced and sauntered to the fridge for a bottle of cold water, then unscrewed the lid and downed half the bottle in one fell swoop. Her words stung because they held a smidgen of truth. But if she’d read the rest of the letters like he asked her to, maybe she’d understand he’d only done what he thought was right for both of them.
She started in again, her tongue prattling away. “In the hospital after your surgery you said…”
“I know what I said, Bethie, and I had my reasons for saying it.” He inhaled slowly, catching a whiff of smoke from the leaves Otis was burning next door.
“Well, what in the world has changed since then?”
Her mouth flew open. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Let’s go in the living room and sit down so we can talk about it.”
She glared at him a minute longer, then gave her head a frustrated shake and trudged from her place in the doorway to plop down on the living room sofa.
He followed, sat on the ottoman across from her, and took both her hands in his. “I originally decided to do the chemo so it would buy me more time to convince you to talk about the past.”
She tilted her head away and sniffled. “Well, if it’s any consolation, all your infernal talking about the past has brought it back to my memory. I can’t even sleep through the night anymore without dreaming about it.”
An ache not caused by physical pain seared through his chest. “I know you don’t want to hear this, honey, but please promise you’ll let me get it out without interrupting.”
Mona Beth nodded reluctantly.
A blue blaze ignited in her startled eyes and she opened her mouth to speak.
He placed a finger against her lips. “You promised to let me finish.” Once he was assured he could say his piece, he continued. “I see what this is doing to you. As much as I want to talk about the past before I go, it matters more to me that I don’t drag this out any longer than necessary for your sake.”
Crocodile tears now spilled down her cheeks, and with a jerk, she reached for the Kleenex box on the table to her left. “I’m so angry I could spit bullets—at you and at God.” She choked the words out around heart-breaking sobs. “I don’t want you to give up, and I’m not ready to let you go.”
He leaned forward and rested his head against hers, suddenly weary of the argument. Why did this have to be so hard? “We don’t have to decide right now, Bethie, but I think the side effects of the chemo will only make this harder on everyone, especially you.”
“I don’t care. I’ll do whatever I can to help you, no matter how hard it gets.”
Bo sat back, an exasperated sigh whooshing from his mouth. For a good fifteen minutes they sat in silence, at a total impasse. He searched his heart and mind for a way to get through to her. Lord, You know her even better than I do. Give me a way to help her understand.
His gaze came to rest on the Bible she’d given him while they were still in high school. It now sat on the corner of the coffee table, a maroon yarn tassel dangling from between the worn pages. That was it! He sent a quick prayer of gratitude heavenward as he grasped the nubby tassel of the bookmark and pulled it from its treasured position. “Remember this?” He allowed the piece of faded fabric to swing from the yarn braid, tiny stitches of love revealing the message he now wanted to pass back to her.
Mona Beth nodded, her face transparent in her pain. She closed her eyes, as if suddenly transported to another place and time.
The past year flashed before Mona Beth’s eyes as she sat between Mama and Daddy in the gymnasium for high school graduation. The high school band played the same familiar and out-of-tune song they played every year, and the music echoed through the cavernous space to make the group sound at least twice as big as they actually were. Where had the year gone?
One by one, like a processional of black-suited penguins, the graduates filed by, bringing back treasured memories of the time she’d spent with Bo. He passed in front of her at just that moment and slanted his head to send her his special lopsided grin.
Her stomach twisted, sending a bitter taste to her tongue. How would she make it through the rest of high school without him there? Would he forget all about her once he left for college? She did her best to return his smile and raised a hand to wiggle her fingers.
As if understanding the tumult of emotions roller-coastering inside her, Mama enveloped her in a sideways hug. “It’s okay, sweetie. God will direct your paths, remember?”
Heart heavy, she nodded. Late night talks with Mama had become a commonplace habit for both of them. It was Mama who’d talked her through the shocking aftermath of the President’s death and offered her wise guidance in her relationship with Bo.
Mona Beth peered down at the bookmark she’d made for Bo as a graduation gift. Again, Mama’s suggestion. Times were too hard and money too short to afford an expensive gift, but hopefully Bo would understand the depths of her devotion in the gift of the bookmark. How many times had she removed stray stitches so that she got it just right?
She tucked her lower lip between her teeth as she fingered the intricate design she’d completed with many late-night sessions. Hopefully she could give him the gift after the graduation ceremony was over. With all the activity that the end of the school year brought, she and Bo had been unable to squeeze in even so much as a root beer float at the drugstore for the past couple of weeks. She’d missed him, the way he gently stroked her fingers with his thumb as they held hands, the boyish charm of his chortling chuckle, the scent of his aftershave lotion.
Mona Beth studied the verse she’d stitched into the linen cloth scrap, one of her personal favorites, and one that seemed especially appropriate for a recent graduate. [_ Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. ~Proverbs 3:5-6 _]
The evening prayer commenced, but the words were drowned out by her own heartfelt prayer. Lord, help Bo and me to trust You completely. I believe You know what is best for all of us. So give me the ability to accept Your perfect will, whatever it may be, even if I don’t understand. Thank You for Your promise to direct our paths.
Once the graduation ceremony ended, Mona Beth quickly made her way through the noisy gym to where Bo stood with Vernon, while Mama and Daddy chatted with friends in the worn wooden bleachers. Bo smiled as she approached and placed an arm around her waist as he continued his conversation with his best friend. “Man, Vernon, I can’t believe you ship out in just three days.” His eyes and his tone held awe and disbelief.
“I know.” Vernon gave his coppery head a shake, his heavy sprinkling of freckles seeming somehow more pronounced tonight. “It’s hard to believe for me, too.” He laughed, but it sounded nervous and foreign, like a little kid trying to convince himself he wasn’t afraid of the dark. “Kind of scary, but better than being drafted, I suppose.” He gave Bo a playful punch on the arm. “Not all of us get the chance to be a big man on campus, you know.”
Bo’s smile faded, replaced by the older and wiser expression that had grown more commonplace since Kennedy’s assassination.
A forced grin of optimism broke out on Vernon’s face. “Hey, hope you enjoy that graduation gift.” All of them looked down at the thick woolen sweater Bo held in his other hand.
Mona Beth’s heart sank. That must’ve set Vernon and his folks back a pretty penny.
Vernon turned his head to one side to peer to the corner of the gym where his parents stood with another couple. His mom motioned for him to join them. He started toward his family, but turned as he walked, calling out to Bo over the noise of the crowd. “See you at your house in a few. Need to go say goodbye to my aunt and uncle before they head back to Dallas.”
“Far out. Thanks again for the gift, Vernon.”
Mona Beth pressed her lips together and swiftly tucked the bookmark in her pocket while Bo ran a hand over the sweater his friend had given him. She could never afford such an expensive gift as Vernon’s. Would he appreciate the amount of time it had taken her with this paltry little bookmark? She glanced up at him, instantly pained by the fear and sadness etched on his face. “Hey, you.” Mona Beth reached a hand up to pat his cheek. “How ‘bout giving me a ride home? I have something I’d like to give you.”
He smiled down at her, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Wish I could, but I rode into town with Mom and Dad. They’re throwing a huge bash for the whole class out at the ranch tonight. After the girls leave, a bunch of the guys will spend the night so we can go fishing at the lake tomorrow.”
“That’s okay. I can give it to you some other time.”
“Yeah, that’d be good, if you don’t mind.” His dark eyes searched hers, like there was something he wanted to say, but couldn’t quite bring himself to voice.
Her pulse pounded in her ears. Was he thinking about breaking up with her now that he had graduated? She pulled her hand away. “Well, I guess I’d better catch Mama and Daddy before they leave, or I won’t have a ride home.”
Coot and J.C. walked by about that time, and Bo nodded absently. “Okay, see you later.” He gave a half wave and broke into a trot to chase after his friends.
A frown crawled onto her forehead as she made her way back to the stands. In somewhat of a daze, she climbed the steps and stood quietly beside her parents, scanning the crowd for another glimpse of Bo. She didn’t find him, but her eyes lit on Cecille, who stood near Linda Miller, deep in conversation. Mona Beth’s frown pulled in tighter, her insides suddenly cloudy and dark. What was that all about? And what could cause such serious looks on both their faces?
Mama leaned closer. “Did you give Bo his gift?”
She shook her head. “No, he, um, has lots of plans for the weekend. I’ll have to give it to him some other time.”
Her mother angled her neck to one side. “You seem worried. What is it?”
For a brief moment, she couldn’t bring herself to speak. But then just as suddenly, the words flowed, like a river set free from a dam. “I’m so afraid Bo is going to break up with me. He just seems different tonight, and that worries me.”
Mama’s eyes gleamed with an indiscernible light. She latched onto Mona Beth’s arm and pulled her to one side, away from prying ears. “Do you believe that verse you stitched onto the bookmark?”
“Of course I do.”
“No, do you really believe it, not just with your head, but with your heart?” Her lips were pressed into a thin line. “If not, you need to reach the place where you do believe it, ‘cause without it, you won’t make it through all the changes coming your way in the next few years. You need to accept the fact that God may have a different plan for you, but you also need to understand that His way is best.”
All the way home Mama’s comment wriggled through Mona Beth’s mind like a bunch of earth worms Daddy used for fishing bait. By the time they reached the house she’d come to a decision. She would give Bo the bookmark at the first available opportunity. But she would also do all she could to prepare herself for a different path than she would want for herself. A tiny sigh escaped. Somehow between now and then she had to come to peace with it, and the only way to do that was to submit her will to God’s.
Mona Beth brought a hand to her chest, a sudden realization seeping through her spirit. Step by tiny step, she’d somehow moved away from Him during the course of the last few months, probably because of the time she spent with Bo instead. But recognizing the problem was the start of the solution, right? Now she just needed to make those steps in the right direction.
The next day dragged by. With Sally and her family on their annual family trip to Padre Island and Bo still with all his buddies on their fishing trip to the lake, Mona Beth found herself ready to climb the walls.
By mid-afternoon, she could take the quiet solitude no longer. She traipsed to the living room where her mother sat behind the old treadle sewing machine. Her right foot pumped the treadle as she carefully fed the pin-lined fabric beneath the bobbling needle.
“Mama, can I go for a walk?”
Her mother finished the seam and clipped the thread without looking up. “Sure. Any idea where you’re headed and what time you’ll be back?”
“I just need to clear my head. Thought I might go visit Granny Miller.”
Mama smiled. “I think that’s a great idea. You might see if she has some chores you could help her with.”
A few minutes later, the screen door slammed behind her, and Mona Beth’s heart lightened with each step through the beautiful day. Once at Bo’s grandmother’s house, she helped the elderly woman weed the overgrown flower beds and give the house a spring cleaning. When their time came to a close, she felt closer than ever to Granny Miller, who advised her to wait and see what God had in store, not in a negative frame of mind, but with a sense of expectation.
The next morning at church, Mona Beth felt an unexplainable peace over what lay ahead. If the future included Bo, that was wonderful, but if it didn’t it was because God had something better in store. Her heavenly Father was faithful, and had never broken one promise to her. She had to trust her life to His more-than-capable hands.
The Sunday school lesson started, and a few minutes later Bo quietly slipped in the door and took the empty metal folding chair beside her. The chair squeaked and groaned beneath his weight. He bent his head down and whispered in her ear. “Sorry I’m late.”
Mona Beth sent a quick smile. “No problem.” She felt his eyes on her for a moment longer, but she forced her attention to the front of the room.
He edged closer once more and rested an arm on the back of her chair, his voice still lowered. “I’ve really missed you the past couple of weeks. Want to meet me at the creek for a picnic this afternoon?”
Her heart lightened immediately, and a surprising joy flooded her being. Bo didn’t sound like he wanted to break up with her at all. Had God simply been testing her trust in Him? Mona Beth cast a sideways glance at Bo and gave a quick nod of her head before settling in once more and honing in on the lesson.
Later that day, she arrived at the creek at their regular meeting place on the Miller’s ranch, dismounted Daisy, and tied her reins to a low-hanging oak branch. She pulled a picnic lunch from the saddle bag about the time Bo arrived on Buttercup.
He dismounted while the horse was still in mid-trot, quickly looped the reins over a branch, and pulled Mona Beth into his arms, kissing her soundly. “I’ve missed you so much.”
She laughed and pulled away. “So you said earlier.”
“Have you missed me?”
“At first, but I found a way to deal with it.”
His eyes took on curiosity, accompanied by a frown. “How?”
“Well, first of all I did a lot of praying. I realized I’d moved away from God and decided to turn back toward Him. I also spent some time with Granny Miller yesterday. That always makes me feel better.”
He followed her to the spot beneath the shade of a giant oak and helped her spread out an old red-and-white checkered tablecloth Mama had loaned her for the occasion. “You and my grandmother are getting to be pretty good friends. Last time I was over there with my parents, she talked about you non-stop. I thought Mom was going to blow a gasket.”
Her eyebrows wrinkled. The strained relationship between her and Linda Miller still weighed heavy, like a sack of potatoes around her neck.
Bo brought a hand up to caress her cheek. “Hey, Sunshine. Didn’t mean to bring clouds with my words. That’s just how Mom is. Don’t let it bother you.”
Mona Beth inhaled deeply, the combined scent of cedar and wild honeysuckle invading her senses, and gazed at him. “I’ll try. I just want it to be better between us.”
“At least my grandmother loves you. And if you have her approval, that’s saying a lot. What all did y’all do?”
“Not much. I helped her clean house and weed the garden, and we did a lot of talking about the future.”
Now he frowned and grew quiet and contemplative for several minutes while she emptied the knapsack. When everything was set out, she knelt on the tablecloth and peered over at him, his serious expression setting off alarms in her head. She latched on to his fingers and pulled him down beside her. “You okay?”
He sat cross-legged, his fingers intertwined with hers, his dark eyes studying hers.
She cocked her head to one side. “What?”
“You talked about the future with Granny. Would you be willing to talk about it with me?”
Hair stood up on the back of her neck. Maybe she’d been right earlier. Maybe Bo was about to break up with her. She nodded solemnly in response to his question, fighting off a sudden case of the shivers in spite of the warm May day.
He swallowed, nervous-like, and he rubbed his thumbs along the back of her hands. “I know you’re young and have the rest of high school ahead of you. What I’m about to say won’t be easy for either one of us.” He paused and inhaled a shuddering breath. “With me going away to college and everything—”
“Just stop right there.” Mona Beth closed her eyes and held up one hand, the salty taste of tears already on her tongue. “I think I can make this easier on both of us.” She blinked rapidly against the onslaught of tears, praying fervently for strength to set him free. “I’ve done a lot of thinking and praying about this over the past few days. I understand if you feel like we should break it off before you go to college.”
Sudden laughter erupted from his mouth. “Break it off? Is that what you think this is about?”
Her stomach still in her throat, she nodded.
Bo leaned closer and brought one hand to her face. His dark brown eyes grew soft as they met hers. “Silly goose, I don’t want to break it off with you at all, even though I’d understand if you wanted to. I probably won’t be here for your proms or other special events.”
A frown creased the area above her eyes. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that I love you, Bethie, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I know you’re too young right now, but I’ve never met any girl like you, and don’t much think I ever will.” He deposited a quick kiss to the tip of her nose and released a shaky laugh. “Can we make a promise to wait for each other? I’m going to try to finish my coursework in three years. That’ll mean going to school during the summer, but that way I’ll be through with college when you graduate high school. We can get married then, and I’ll be able to support you while you go to school. I’ll—”
“Would you stop already?”
Bo’s face fell. “I was afraid you wouldn’t go for it.”
“Now who’s being a silly goose?” She placed a soft kiss on his lips to reassure him, the cinnamon scent of his gum drifting to her nose. “I don’t mind not having a date for high school events as long as I have the dream of a future with you in front of me.”
“You mean you’ll wait for me?”
A smile flew to her face and she wrapped her arms around his neck. “A thousand times, yes!”
“Oh, Bethie, I love you so much.” He whispered the words against her hair.
“And I love you.”
He kissed her more tenderly than ever, but pulled away a minute later. “I think we’d better eat some lunch.”
“Agreed.” The last thing they needed to do was get carried away by their emotions. She handed him a baloney sandwich. As she unwrapped hers, she raised her gaze to his face. “So will you write me while you’re away at college?”
He chomped into the sandwich, and spoke with a full mouth. “As often as I can. What about you?”
“I’ll do my best to keep it to no more than two letters a week.” She accompanied the words with a coy smile.
A little while later, Mona Beth crunched the last salty chip, crumpled the bag, and reached into the side pocket of her knapsack. “I made you a graduation gift.”
“You did?” His eyes sparkled in anticipation.
“It’s not much since I don’t have any money, but I hope you like it.” She handed him the bookmark.
He examined it closely and rubbed his fingers across the stitching, his face bathed in some indefinable emotion. “You made this?”
She bobbed her head reluctantly. Did he find it too cheap compared to the sort of gifts he was accustomed to?
When he lifted his gaze a few seconds later, his eyes glistened. “I love it, Bethie. No one’s ever made me something like this before. It’s a perfect reminder of the promise we just made. God will direct our paths if we trust Him. He’s already proved it.” He pulled her into his embrace for a long minute, and then finally let her go.
For the rest of the afternoon the two laughed and splashed about in the creek until their clothes were soaked. Then they raced their horses through spring-green pastures with wild abandon, the wind tearing through their hair—a joyous day they would long remember.
Pink fingers of dawn streaked across the sky as Bo tiptoed out the door and made his way to the stables. The morning clouds lit with shades of orange and gold and held the promise of another wonderful day with the love of his life.
Once he was far enough away from the house to not be overheard, he released a happy whistle. The past few weeks had been the best he’d ever known, with the long scorching summer days spent with Mona Beth at the creek or city pool. Every week, they usually managed to sneak in a couple of horseback rides and long walks to Watson’s Drug Store in downtown Miller’s Creek for the customary root beer float.
Bo sidestepped a sharp-smelling pile of manure as he opened the gate and stepped into the corral. Never would he have imagined he and Mona Beth could grow even closer than during the school year, but they had, and now the thought of telling her goodbye at the end of summer seemed downright impossible.
Buttercup nickered softly as he pulled the saddle from its perch atop the fence inside the stable and hoisted it up to her back. “Good morning, old girl. Ready for a ride?” As he petted the mare’s velvety nose, his thoughts returned to the growing dilemma. For as long as he could remember, he’d dreamed of going away to school to learn all he could to help the family ranch reach its full potential, and one day pass on his family’s legacy and heritage to a son of his own. But in light of how close he and Mona Beth had grown could he leave her behind? Maybe he should just stay home and forget all about school.
He twisted his lips to one side as he cinched the saddle down tight. The only problem with that plan was the draft. Yes, he could still be drafted at college, but the chances were much slimmer. And it wasn’t that he didn’t want to serve his country. He’d taken President Kennedy’s words to heart: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
His stomach lurched. Though the thought of leaving Mona Beth behind to go to school niggled at his brain, the idea of leaving her to go overseas made him literally sick to his stomach.
Bo finished buckling the saddle’s flank cinch and reached for a bridle. Buttercup whinnied, stomped one hoof against the ground, and gave her wheat-colored mane a shake. He laughed at the horse’s antics. “Don’t be so impatient. I’m hurrying as fast as I can.”
His thoughts returned to the situation with school and Mona Beth. What it really came down to was that the distance that threatened to separate them was too far. His parents—especially his mother—had loudly insisted that he go to school in Georgia. After a month of arguments, he’d finally given in just to get her off his back. Would his parents be receptive to him living at home to go to school? The negative answer sounded in his brain before the thought was even completed.
He placed a foot in the stirrup to mount the horse.
“Going somewhere?” The familiar voice held a trace of challenge, and Bo glanced up to see his father’s figure silhouetted in the stable doorway.
“Uh, yeah.” Bo hauled his weight up and threw his right leg over the mare. “I told Mona Beth I’d meet her at the farm to help her with her chores.”
Dad moved in closer, his facial features gaining distinction with each step, his eyes cold and hard. “Actually, that won’t be possible today. Your mama sent me out to call you for breakfast. After we eat we’re headed on a family vacation.”
The words knocked the wind out of him. “Vacation? Why didn’t y’all tell me sooner? I’ve already made plans for the day.”
“Plans that’ll have to be changed. Would’ve told you sooner, but you’re hardly home here of late. Unsaddle your horse and come to breakfast.” His tone left no room for argument.
“I need to let Mona Beth know.”
Anger flashed in his old man’s eyes. “You can call her before we leave.”
Bo started to protest, but one look at his father’s face, and he changed his mind. Best not provoke him any further. “Yes, sir.” He unsaddled the horse and then headed to the house, his thoughts tangled.
As he reached the door, his mother met him with a brown paper sack that smelled of sausage and biscuits. “I packed your breakfast. You can eat it on the road.”
A rush of anxiety overwhelmed him. Why were his parents in such a hurry to get away? He shifted his weight back and forth between his feet. “But I need to pack.”
“I packed for you. Your suitcase is already in the car. Let’s go.” She headed out the front door, squeezing her hands into her white gloves, her heels rapping against the wooden floors of the old porch.
Bo hurried to her side. “But can’t I call Mona Beth first?”
Mama didn’t even look his way as she continued her march to the car. “No. Your father’s waiting.”
His anger rising and his heart sinking, Bo climbed in the backseat of the Buick and slammed the door with more force than necessary, praying that at some point he’d have a chance to call Mona Beth to explain.
But two days later, with not even the hint of a chance to call his girl, Dad parked the car outside a large two-story estate in the suburbs of Atlanta.
“Where are we?”
Bo sighed. “I know that. But whose house is this?”
His parents exchanged glances.
“You’ll see soon enough.” Mom used the rearview mirror to apply a coat of lipstick.
All the way up the sidewalk, an ominous feeling trickled through him. Something just didn’t feel right. His mother rang the doorbell at the oversized double doors and took a step back to peer up at the house. “Isn’t their home absolutely stunning?” She drawled out the words in her thick southern dialect and cast a loaded look at his dad. “This is exactly the kind of house I’d like to build at the ranch.”
His father didn’t respond.
The door opened, and Mama let out a squeal as she hugged the woman that could’ve been her sister. Once inside the gargantuan house, Mama held out a hand to the lady. “Bo, I’d like you to meet Jane Simpson, my dearest friend from our college days. Jane, this is my son, Bo.”
The woman smiled in a way that unnerved him, like she knew something he didn’t. “Nice to meet you, Bo.”
About that time a pretty dark-haired girl around his age entered the paneled family room where they all congregated. She moved closer, her smile broad and friendly, and extended a hand his way. “Hi, I’m Evelyn. Mother mentioned that you’ll be staying with us until college starts up in the fall.”
Bo leaned back in the suede recliner, his thoughts anywhere but on the John Wayne movie that blared from the DVD player. The faded envelope on the table beside his chair caught his attention once more. He’d forced himself to read that first letter he’d sent from Atlanta—if for no other reason than to prove to his wife it could be done. But nothing could have prepared him for the pain it resurrected or for the bad taste it left in his mouth.
As if the world itself had conspired against them, ancient hurts and betrayal had opened old wounds. No wonder Mona Beth was so hesitant to go down that path.
“Sweetheart? You in the kitchen?” He lowered the volume of the television and listened. Not a sound. He mulled over the situation. Was it asking too much for her to read the letters?
He gave his head a firm shake, his jaw clamped shut. In spite of the pain, something deep inside him still believed an understanding of past events would help her deal with her grief after he was gone. But how could he convince her of that fact? Not only a physical distance, but also an emotional distance stood between them, like a sky-high wall he had no chance of climbing over. Somehow he had to persuade her to at least attempt to read one letter. Maybe from there the rest would get easier.
A breath sounded through his nose. If this was her way of dealing with the grief, then so be it. She couldn’t keep the wall up forever. But in all honesty, her distance was like a knife to his heart, much like the distance in miles his parents had put between them so long ago.
The garden view from the front window riveted his attention as sunny daffodils poked their yellow bonnets above sword-like leaves. Though it had gone against everything he wanted to do—and everything his kids wanted him to do—his wife finally convinced him to undergo radiation and chemo. So far he’d experienced none of the side effects he’d dreaded. Had it not been for her refusal to visit the past with the help of the letters, he probably would have declined, side effects or not. But if the treatments bought him only enough time to change her mind, it would be worth it in the end.
Her footsteps sounded on the stairs and in the dining room, and then she appeared in the doorway. Though she didn’t speak verbally, her sad eyes spoke volumes as she stared at him.
“What is it, hon?”
“I don’t want to interrupt your movie.”
He picked up the remote and clicked the off button. “You’re not. Seen that movie at least a thousand times. Besides, my mind’s on you.”
Lips turned up slightly at the corners, she stepped to his side and knelt, using her fingertips to brush his hair to one side. “Thank you for doing the chemo and radiation, and…” The words trailed off, and she lowered her hand to her chest.
Bethie’s blue eyes took on even more sorrow.
“Go ahead and say it, Bethie. It’s okay.”
Her gaze lowered momentarily. When she raised it a few minutes later, the pain engraved on her face revealed that her statement wouldn’t come without great cost. She swallowed hard. “If it gets too bad for you, please tell me. So we can stop the treatments.” The words sounded wooden and forced, like it almost choked her to give them voice.
He nodded and attempted a smile. At least it was a step in the right direction. Maybe she was finally coming to grips with the fact that he wasn’t going to beat this monster. “You understand this will only work for so long?”
Though her eyes pooled with tears, she gave her head an affirmative shake, wrapped her arms around his neck, and held on for dear life.
Should he try pushing a bit further? He stroked her back. “I read the first letter I sent you.”
She pulled away from his embrace and sat back on her heels, her mouth open. A host of emotions played across her face—disbelief, anger, and finally acceptance. “Why?”
“Couldn’t exactly expect you to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself, now could I?”
Darkness descended on her features, and she gave her head a slow shake. “How was it?”
“Painful, but necessary. Want to give it a try?”
Mona Beth rose to her feet, her eyes averted. So the wall was back up. “I’m going to fix myself a cup of coffee. Want one?” The edge to her voice was sharp and curt.
“Guess that’s a no.”
Her lips pressed into a thin crack of a line before she answered. “Actually, it’s an ‘I’ll think about it.’ Quit pressuring me.” No more words sounded as she bustled from the room, her shoes clipping angrily against the warm wood floors.
From the kitchen, cabinet doors slammed, and pots and pans banged against the counters, further revealing the depth of her agitation. But it was okay. She needed to work out those frustrations. Lord, if this isn’t the path You want me to take with her during our final days together on earth, then show me. If it is Your plan, please help her to agree to just one letter.
At last the noise subsided, and a few minutes later he heard the soft whoosh of the coffee machine as the aromatic fragrance of fresh-brewed coffee saturated the air.
Bo closed his eyes, suddenly wearier than he’d ever felt in his life. Though it seemed to be only for a brief moment, when he re-opened them later, the sunshine had almost dissipated, leaving the room bathed in the golden glow of sunset. He yawned, rubbed his eyes, and glanced around the quiet room, the only audible sound the hushed chatter of sparrows in the old red oak tree out front as they took to their nests for the night.
His gaze landed on the table beside his chair, his heart doing a sudden flip. The letter was gone.
A bitter taste in his mouth, Bo clinched both fists and released a guttural groan of frustration. How could they do this to him? Spurred on by confusion and pain, he struggled against an overwhelming desire to punch a hole in the wall. From his upstairs room in the Simpson mansion, he watched helplessly as his folks drove away, headed back to the people and places he loved best while they left him behind in this Georgia prison.
Both his parents explained it was for the best to get him away from Miller’s Creek before he did something foolish. They said it was because they loved him too much to watch him waste his life. While they hadn’t mentioned Mona Beth’s name even once, the implication was there. But in their hasty and completely unnecessary attempt to “save” him, they’d denied him the opportunity to say even a temporary goodbye.
Fingers splayed, he pressed his palms against the panes of glass and stared out across the wealthy neighborhood at nothing in particular. J.C. and Coot must surely think him a poor friend for not even telling them goodbye. And while he’d hugged Granny’s neck the last time he’d seen her, he had no idea it would be the last time for at least a few months. To make matters worse, she’d been in poor health for the past year. What if he never got to see her again?
And the ranch.
A longing ache developed in his chest. What he wouldn’t give for green pastures, the cool shade of the oaks, the refreshing scent of cedar, the dusty smell of dry earth during the beginning moments of a summer rain. And who would take care of Buttercup in his absence? Yes, the horse would be fed, but who would ride her and brush her down?
He trudged from the window, flopped onto the massive four-poster bed, and examined the intricate architecture of the ceiling. Even worse than missing the ranch and the pain of not saying a proper farewell to his grandmother and buddies, was the thought of Mona Beth pining away for him.
“I’m so sorry, Sunshine.” Bo whispered the words, and then blinked back sudden tears as he imagined the confusion and sorrow she must feel. She wouldn’t understand, but worse than that, she’d think he lied when he promised to stay true until the day they could marry.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and pulled himself to a sitting position. Well, his folks might be able to put miles between him and his girl, but they couldn’t keep him from writing her a letter.
First he checked the ornate desk on the left side of the room, but it was all looks, with not so much as a pen or scrap of paper. Next he wandered into the hall and down the majestic curved staircase that reminded him of something from a movie set. Surely in a house this big someone had paper of some sort.
Evelyn, who had wisely allowed him space after his parents announced their departure without him, met him on her way up and offered a friendly smile. “You doing okay?” Her soft Southern drawl flowed over his broken heart like molasses on hot pancakes.
Bo came to a standstill, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and raised both shoulders. “Been better, but I’ll be fine.”
A knowing look crossed her face, and she peered over her shoulder as if to make sure they were alone. “I’m sorry about how things went down. Parents, as much as they try, don’t always get it right.”
He nodded, already feeling better that someone understood his plight.
“It’s a pretty day out. Want to go for a drive?” Her doe-like eyes held excitement and adventure, probably just her way of trying to cheer him up.
“Sure.” It wouldn’t hurt to have an ally in the house. At the very least she should be able to dig him up a pen and some paper after they got back home.
Within a few minutes, Bo and Evelyn sped through the forested and hilly landscape in an upscale neighborhood of estates near Atlanta. With the top of her red-seated white Mustang convertible down, the brown-eyed beauty’s dark hair whipped around her pretty face.
Bo closed his eyes for a long moment and allowed the fresh-scented breeze to whisk away his pain and frustration. Eventually his shoulder muscles relaxed and his thoughts turned to the girl beside him. Though he’d never be unfaithful to Mona Beth, right now he needed a friend in the worst way. Evelyn was pretty and fun and would attend Georgia State in the fall just like him. What would be the harm of at least befriending her until he got into school and had the opportunity to meet other people? He sat up straighter in the red leather seat and looked her way. “Cool car.”
She sent a coquettish sideways smile. “How about a turn behind the wheel?”
At the first available driveway Evelyn zipped into the space and brought the little car to a quick stop. Both of them climbed from the front seat and switched sides. After a quick check of the dashboard, Bo threw the gearshift into drive and pulled out, marveling at how smoothly the Mustang operated.
Though he loved and missed the red Chevy pickup his parents had given him during his junior year, this car was groovy, made even more so by the name that matched the Miller’s Creek mascot. Now memories of Mona Beth flooded his mind, wreaking havoc with his already wounded heart. With concentrated effort he pushed the thoughts away, determined to enjoy himself in spite of his parents’ manipulation. The sun’s rays warmed his skin, and he smiled. He wouldn’t let his folks ruin his joy for life, no matter how hard they tried.
Evelyn faced him several minutes later, her head cocked slightly to one side. “You look like you’re having fun, in spite of the gloomy start to the day.”
“I am, thanks to you.” Bo grinned and squinted up at the bright sun, somewhat astonished at this lightheartedness on what was easily the worst day of his life.
“I’m surprised you haven’t seen how fast she can go.” Evelyn’s teasing tone and stunning smile caught his attention. “Why don’t you open her up on the next straight patch of road?”
“Thought you’d never ask.” Bo pushed the accelerator pedal closer to the floorboard and sped down the road, Evelyn laughing at his side.
A few hours later, they drove through a shopping district of Atlanta, Bo careful to watch for pedestrians as they crossed from one side of the tree-lined street to the other.
Evelyn checked her wristwatch. “I’m hungry. Why don’t we stop for some lunch and shopping?”
He shrugged. “Okay, but I don’t have any cash on me.” Obviously his parents wanted to keep him strapped for cash to insure that he didn’t try to return to Miller’s Creek.
“No problem. My treat.”
He steered into a parking space and turned off the ignition. Evelyn hopped from the car and fed the parking meter, and then the two of them headed down the street toward a restaurant she suggested.
After a delicious steak lunch that reminded him of Texas, he strolled beside Evelyn as they made their way through the busy shopping district. Out of the blue, she laced her arm through his.
He automatically stiffened, but then forced himself to relax. She was just being friendly. No need to make a mountain out of a molehill. The soft floral fragrance of her perfume danced in his nostrils, but he forced his mind to Mona Beth. She always smelled like sunshine and fresh air.
“A penny for your thoughts.” Evelyn’s dark eyes held an enigmatic gleam.
He ducked his head, his gaze on the sidewalk. She needed to know where he stood. “Actually I’m thinking about my girl back in Miller’s Creek.”
If the words fazed her at all, she didn’t let it show. “What’s her name?”
“Mona Beth.” Even speaking her name brought a benediction of blessing on his life.
“Judging by the way you just said her name and that look on your face, I can tell she means a lot to you.”
He nodded. Words couldn’t begin to describe how much he loved her.
After a few seconds Evelyn expertly changed the subject, and the rest of their day was spent in newfound friendship and camaraderie. Back at her house later that night, they relayed the events of their day to her parents over dinner.
Mrs. Simpson clasped her hands together. “Sounds like you two had a delightful day, which gives me a wonderful idea.” She smiled across the table at her husband, who’d been unusually quiet. “Jack, why don’t we take Evelyn and Bo to a beach in Florida next week? One last hurrah before college takes up all their spare time.”
Jack Simpson stopped in mid-bite, his fork suspended over his plate, and with a slight frown on his face, glanced over at Bo. A tight smile gripped his lips as he turned his attention back to his wife. “Sounds to me like you have it all arranged.” Sarcasm dripped from his words, and the glare he sent Mrs. Simpson held meaning.
Before the evening was over, Evelyn’s mother had the trip to Florida all ironed out, from the time of their departure and return, to where they’d be staying while they were gone. Jack Simpson hid behind his newspaper for the rest of the night, the smoke from his pipe filling the room with a pleasant aroma, while Evelyn and Bo played Scrabble.
At a little after ten that evening, Bo excused himself and made his way up the stairs toward his room. Evelyn followed, but said her goodnight at her room. After he’d walked to the other end of the long hallway and shut the door behind him, he moved to his suitcase to grab his pajamas. Only then did he remember his earlier plan to write Mona Beth a letter, so he made his way back down the hallway and came to a stop outside Evelyn’s room. He rapped on the door and called out in a loud voice so her parents knew everything was above board. “Evelyn? It’s Bo. Do you have some stationary and a pen I could borrow?”
The door cracked an inch or two and two dark eyes peeked through the opening. “Hang on.” A few seconds later she returned with light purple stationary with a matching pen and envelope.
“Uh, thanks.” He shifted his weight to the other foot. “I don’t guess you have a stamp, too, do you?”
“Just a sec.” Again she returned in record time, and passed the stamp to him through the cracked door, her fingers lightly brushing against his. “Goodnight, Bo.”
“Good night.” An image of Mona Beth’s expression when she received a letter from him on purple paper crossed his mind and brought with it a grin as he made his way down the hallway to his room.
Once the door clicked shut behind him, he wandered to the antique desk and pulled out the fancy carved chair, almost afraid to sit on it. The Bible Mona Beth had given him sat nearby, and he instinctively reached for it, as though to somehow regain his connection to her across the miles that separated them. A maroon tassel hung from between the onion skin pages, and he gave it a gentle tug.
Slowly the graduation gift she’d made just for him came into view, and this time the now-familiar verse brought a frown to his face. What kind of God allowed the circumstances that held him in Atlanta, miles away from where he longed to be? And how could he ever trust God again after this?
Mona Beth’s pulse roared to a full gallop, the heavy thud in her ears pounding louder by the second. The Miller’s car was finally back, parked beneath the carport on the far side of the two-story house. She reined Daisy to a halt behind a stand of oak trees, her thoughts stampeding like a herd of wild horses.
Would Bo be happy to see her or had his time away put a wedge between them? She swallowed against the tinny taste in her mouth, remembering the day earlier that month when she’d waited for Bo at the creek for hours. It had just about broken her heart. Only after she’d learned from Granny Miller that the family was on vacation had she finally able to regain her bearings. But why hadn’t Bo told her ahead of time, and why hadn’t he called to let her know he was back in town?
Her stomach a-churn, she eased Daisy into a trot and moved closer to the house. It was risky coming here with Linda and Jim Miller so antagonistic toward her, but she simply had to see Bo, to see for herself that things were okay between them.
To make sure the promise was still in effect.
Once she reached the house, Mona Beth dismounted, tied the reins to the front porch railing, and climbed the steps to the front porch decked out with the typical German-style gingerbread trim. She sucked in a deep breath of the clean air to steady her nerves and then knocked.
Linda Miller answered the door. With scorn-filled eyes, she scanned Mona Beth’s work attire of jeans and t-shirt. “May I help you?” Even her tone held an attitude of superiority.
“Hi.” Mona Beth ignored the sudden urge to curtsy, and instead flashed her best smile, hoping against hope that the woman would be receptive. No such luck. Instead Bo’s mother began to tap her fingers impatiently against the door. “Um, could I speak with Bo, please?”
“He’s not here.”
Mona Beth’s jaw sagged, and she was helpless to stop it. Not here? But they couldn’t have been back long enough for him to leave again. “H-has he gone to visit a friend?”
“You could say that.” A malicious grin curved one side of the woman’s mouth. “He’ll be staying with friends of the family in Atlanta until the fall semester begins.”
The words landed a blow to Mona Beth’s abdomen, and she clutched her stomach. Her eyes closed as she prayed for the light-headed spin to stop. It didn’t. Mona Beth gulped in more air. “So he won’t be back until…?”
“We’re not really sure at this point.” Mrs. Miller’s cemented chin revealed that further discussion wasn’t an option.
Mona Beth fought off a wave of nausea. Even the expanse of the wide-open central Texas pasture land began to close in on her. She leaned one hand against the old house, the rusty-colored sandstone rough beneath her fingers. “Is there an address where he can be reached?” Her voice sounded strained and foreign.
Linda Miller’s face hardened like over-baked soil in a July drought. “Look, it’s probably best to just tell you that it’s over between you and Bo.” She eyed Bo’s class ring, which still hung around Mona Beth’s neck. “You would only keep him from being who he needs to be. If you really care about him, you’ll back away without causing any problems. Surely you realize you’ll never be able to give him the kind of life he deserves. Goodbye.” She spewed the hurtful words, and then closed the door hard enough to make the windows rattle.
The ache in her belly moved to her head, and she brought both hands to her face, her mind in turmoil. Now what? Did she do as Bo’s mother suggested and just back away? She stepped to the edge of the porch and thought through the questions in her heart.
No. She and Bo had made their promises to each other, and it would be just like Linda Miller to close a door Bo didn’t want closed. But how could she reach Bo to let him know that she still loved him and would be praying for him? How could she keep the lines of communication open?
Without warning, the craziest of thoughts filtered through her brain. Bo might be gone for several months, but she still had work to do, work that started with changing his parents’ minds about her. Mona Beth straightened her backbone, steeled her resolve, and marched back, rapping sharply against the wooden screen door.
Linda Miller swung open the door in a flurry of movement, her features dark with unconcealed anger. “You don’t take no for an answer, do you, Missy?”
Mona Beth, her head held high, faced Linda Miller with more bravado than she felt. “Before I leave, I was wondering if the housekeeping job you offered me last November is still available?”
The woman’s jaw came unhinged temporarily then snapped shut, and her eyes narrowed to beady slits. “As a matter of fact, it is. When can you start?”
“First thing tomorrow.”
“Good. Be here at six a.m. dressed more appropriately than you are right now. And don’t be late.” Without another word, Linda Miller slammed the door in her face, before Mona Beth had a chance to ask about the salary.
Oh well, it would be more than she was currently making, which was nothing. A triumphant smile pulled up the corners of Mona Beth’s mouth and her once-sagging emotions. She’d save every penny she made for the day she and Bo would begin their future together as man and wife. Though heart-broken that she wouldn’t see him for possibly a very long time, she left the ranch feeling more like a grownup than ever before.
Mona Beth slipped off her shoes and tiptoed to the doorway of the living room. It had grown so quiet she was almost positive Bo had drifted off to sleep again. Though his head was turned away from her, the gentle rise and fall of his chest confirmed her thoughts.
The sight tugged at her heart and brought the sting of tears to her eyes. She moved noiselessly closer to better see his face—each line in his forehead, the long straight nose, the curve of his full lower lip. Would the time come when she would forget what he looked like? She gulped down a breath and studied him a while longer, battling the urge to touch his face and hair and hands.
She knelt beside his chair, the scent of his familiar aftershave instantly calming her frazzled spirit. The doctor had been right about the fatigue as a side effect of the chemo. Ever since he’d started the medication, he dozed off constantly, and when he was awake, each step dragged slower and slower, like a wind-up toy headed toward complete and final stillness.
A sudden wave of sorrow crashed over her and threatened to sweep her away in the undertow. She closed her eyes against the pain. They’d fought long and hard over whether or not he should take the chemo, and in the end he’d given up and allowed her to have her way.
As Mona Beth opened her eyes, her gaze landed on the faded lilac paper on the small table just beyond his chair.
The first letter.
Whatever had possessed him to write on such feminine-looking stationery? Curious, she stood and reached for it, the familiar handwriting somehow comforting.
She read the salutation, “My dearest Mona Beth,” but quickly averted her gaze before she took in anymore words. The tiniest of cracks developed in her resolve. Bo had granted her wish by agreeing to the chemo and radiation. Couldn’t she at least return the favor by reading the letters? Her shoulders sagged. It was the least she could do for him.
No matter how much it might hurt.
Gliding silently back to the kitchen, she poured another cup of coffee. The fragrant aroma reached her nose right before the soothing flavor landed on her tongue. She moved to the window seat beside the solid farmhouse table that had once belonged to Granny Miller, and reclined on the soft cushion, her back against the white China hutch Bo had built for her last fall. Hands trembling, she picked up the letter and began to read.
By now you must think I’ve deserted you, but I want you to know that Mama and Daddy didn’t let me know we were leaving ahead of time. And I didn’t learn their plan to ditch me in Atlanta until the morning they left to return to Miller’s Creek.
Her insides wrenched considering how difficult that time must have been for him. She rubbed her forehead and read the lines a second time, searching for clues. Well, there was one question answered, but it was what she’d suspected all along. Jim and Linda had whisked him away intentionally, but why?
The answer came immediately—to get him away from her. They’d somehow found her lacking and unsuitable for the position of Bo’s wife and mother to the heir to the Miller family legacy and ranch. Her past efforts to change their minds about her crept into her thoughts, the all-too-familiar hurt returning right along with them. With a shuddering sigh, she shook off the memory and returned to the letter.
I know they think they’re doing the right thing by putting miles between us, but so far the distance has only made me love you more. I guess they think we’re too young to make this kind of commitment, but I think we can make it work, don’t you? I must confess I’m a little angry at God right now. Please pray that I’ll be able to get past it.
Bitterness snaked its way through Mona Beth’s heart as she stared out over the side yard garden laid bare by winter’s blast. How could she pray for his request when she’d never received the letter? The same couple of memories she’d rehashed over the past several days returned to the forefront of her thoughts—the obviously serious conversation her sister had with Linda Miller at Bo’s high school graduation, and Cecille hiding something behind her skirt that one morning before school. Had the two schemed together to keep her and Bo apart?
She took another sip of fragrant coffee and gave her head a shake. Don’t be such a foolish old woman, Mona Beth. But it could be true, especially since the letters had been in Cecille’s possession. Or was the confiscation of the letters simply her sister’s way of punishing her for winning Bo’s attention and love?
I’m living with Mom’s best college buddy and her family until school starts, and I’m hoping to come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Already I can’t wait to see you and hold you in my arms. That thought will keep me sane.
The Simpson family has a daughter my age. She’s really nice. I told her about you. She’s the one who gave me this purple paper to write on. I’m sure you probably wonder if your Bo (and your beau!) has lost his mind.
A smile formed on her lips at the line about holding her in his arms, but was immediately replaced with profound sorrow that it had never happened. Then the mention of Evelyn cut deep into her heart, knowing that even early on she played a significant role in this sad tragedy. But when Bo mentioned the purple paper she chuckled out loud. Even back then he knew her well enough to know it would raise questions in her mind.
I love you with all my heart, Sunshine. Hang on to our promise while I’m gone, and use the time to study hard. As soon as I get through with college, I’ll be back to make you my wife and work the ranch so you can go to school.
Tears slid down her cheek and plopped onto the denim blue cushion of the window seat. She had hung onto the promise. He was the one who had broken it. Why? What had happened that made him back out? Had he simply given up and taken the easy way out as she’d always suspected?
“You okay, hon?”
She startled and brought a hand to her chest. “Good gravy, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
Bo stood in the doorway, both hands extended as though he needed the support of the door frame. She’d been so engrossed in the letter and her thoughts of the past that she hadn’t heard him stirring about.
“Sorry.” Bo’s voice held fatigue. His house shoes whispering against the golden wood floors, he shuffled past and sat at the other end of the window seat.
Mona Beth whisked away tears with both palms. “Good nap?”
“Guess so. Didn’t really intend to fall asleep.” His gaze lit on the lilac paper on her lap. “You read the letter?”
Could she adequately express all that was on her heart and mind without pointing fingers of blame at him? “Well, it answered questions about why you went away so suddenly that summer, but I’m still trying to figure out why I never received the letters.” She paused and pursed her lips. “Cecille obviously played a part in it since the letters were in her possession, but I’m guessing your mother was involved in it as well.”
He nodded. “That’s my best guess, too. My mom I can sort of understand.”
Anger flared. “How can you say that? She and your father intentionally kept us apart.
A heavy sigh fell from his open lips. “They thought we were too young.”
She slammed both palms against the cushion, the fragile letter crunching beneath her hands, and stood. “No. They thought I wasn’t good enough for you. Your mother made that painfully clear to me on more than one occasion.”
His bushy white eyebrows furrowed. “Other than Thanksgiving? When?”
When had she grown so old and tired? Mona Beth plopped back down to the window seat, her fingertips sliding across the soft denim fabric. “It’s a long story, but the short version is that I went to work for your folks while you were gone.”
His eyes widened. “Why?”
Mona Beth hoisted her shoulders. “I thought I could change their mind about me, and at the same time, it helped raise money for our future. Your daddy finally accepted me, but your mother was always hostile toward me no matter how hard I tried to please her.”
His face reddened, and then paled. “I never knew.” He choked out the words.
She sent a sad smile and reached across to pat his knee. “Don’t let it bother you, Bo. It was a long time ago. I guess that’s why I struggled with reading the letters. I didn’t want to relive the pain of those years.”
His eyes held a mixture of understanding and sorrow. “Do you know why Cecille intercepted the letters?”
She inhaled sharply. “I have my suspicions. She had a huge crush on you in high school, and I think it rubbed her the wrong way when you chose me instead of her.”
Bo said nothing, as though considering her words, then bobbed his head once. “That makes sense, I guess.”
“And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if your mother didn’t pay her for her services.” She couldn’t help the acidic edge to her tone. “Cecille didn’t have a job for a long stretch in there, but she always had money for extras.” The color in his face faded even more. Maybe this discussion wasn’t such a good idea. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, just trying to come to grips with all this. All this time I thought the letters would help you understand. As it turns out there’s a bunch I don’t understand either. Like why God made things turn out the way they did.”
Her shoulder blades cinched up a notch at his words, and she bolted upright. “Hold on there. I think you’re going a little too far with that comment.” She sent up a silent prayer for wisdom and the right words. “I learned a long time ago that bitterness is a pretty sneaky fellow. It’s not so much the initial price we pay for allowing resentment to take root, but the upkeep that’s so expensive.”
He didn’t answer, and his jaw clamped more tightly.
She slurped the lukewarm coffee and tried again. “God didn’t make it turn out this way. When you say it like that it sounds like you’re accusing Him.”
“Then He allowed it to happen.” He huffed out the words and turned his head away.
“Yes, He did.”
“But why?” Now his dark eyes bored a hole through her head.
“We may not like it, but God’s ways are beyond ours. We don’t always understand, but we have to trust that He had his reasons.”
“Well, for one, I’m not sure I would’ve learned to depend on Him so strongly if I’d had you to depend on instead.” She hesitated, trying to wrap her brain around all she wanted to say. “And in retrospect, I probably put you on a pedestal instead of allowing Him to be the One True God in my life. He’s not the kind to settle for second place.”
His eyes and features immediately softened, and the tiniest of smiles formed on his lips. “Same here. I guess if things had worked out the way we planned them, neither one of us would have grown as close to Him as we are now.”
She took his weathered hand in hers and brought it to her face, caressing it. “Sometimes our blessings come attached to pain and suffering, but God’s ways are always best, even when we don’t understand.”
Without warning, he yanked his hand away, grimaced, and clutched his stomach.
Fear sent bullets of panic ricocheting throughout her insides. “What is it?”
“Hurts, and I think I’m going to throw up.” He ground out the words between clenched teeth.
Mona Beth bustled to the kitchen trash can and dragged it across the floor to him just in the nick of time.
“Mona Beth, you finished with your chores?” Mama’s voice rang out from the kitchen, where the smells of a country breakfast spiraled throughout the old farmhouse.
With the verse she’d just read churning in her brain and quickening her heart, she closed her Bible and sent a quick prayer heavenward. Thank You, God, that You’re always with me. Another promise God had given her to hold on to. Especially when it seemed like Bo had abandoned her.
A soft smile touched her lips as she laid the Bible on the old oak dresser that had once belonged to her grandmother. God always managed to comfort her with words of promise and hope, and not one of His promises had ever failed. No matter what happened, she would keep hoping for the best.
She hurried from her bedroom to the stove where Mama stood. “Yes, ma’am. You need me for something?”
Mama stirred the eggs in the cast iron skillet. “Yes. Please set the table for breakfast while I finish up here.”
A frown wrinkled her forehead as she reached for a piece of bacon and crunched it between her teeth. “Where’s Cecille? That’s her chore.”
One corner of Mama’s mouth lifted, her eyes a murky blue. “I think she’s still in the bathroom.” She whisked the eggs with a little more gusto. “That girl has got to find her a job before she wastes her life away in front of that mirror.” She murmured the words softly, but Mona Beth heard mounting frustration behind every word.
She set the table, her thoughts focused on her sister. All summer long Cecille had lounged around the house or hung out with friends, almost as though she’d been promoted to queen upon graduating from high school.
The front door of the little farmhouse swung open with a bang, and Cecille entered, out of breath, her blonde curls windblown, and her hands behind her back like she was hiding something.
“What do you have?” Mona Beth placed the last fork on the table and stared her down.
“None of your beeswax.” Cecille harrumphed and headed toward the bedroom they shared, with whatever she held concealed in the folds of her skirt. The paneled wood door slammed behind her sister, sending the front windows to rattling.
At the noise of the slamming door, Mama glanced up from her place beside the stove, her jaw clenched. She gave her head an exasperated shake and returned to her work, muttering something under her breath.
Mona Beth’s mouth watered at the aroma of homemade biscuits baking in the oven, and set off a grumbling rumble in her stomach. “Anything else I can do to help, Mama?”
“No, we’re just waiting on the biscuits.”
Mona Beth plopped down on the couch until time for breakfast, grabbed her newspaper-covered Geometry book, and flipped it open to the folded piece of notebook paper that marked her spot. Somehow she had to make sense of this gobbledy-gook. Only a few weeks into the fall semester, and already it felt like she was studying a foreign language rather than Geometry.
Daddy sauntered through the back door, stomped his boots against the doormat in the laundry room, and made his way through the kitchen to where she sat. He leaned down and planted a kiss on the top of her head. “How’s my girl today?” His blue eyes seemed more tired than usual and his face more lined.
“Okay. Just trying to study this gosh-awful Geometry before the quiz today. If only Bo were here so he could explain it to me.” The words gushed out before she had a chance to think through them, but it was the truth. Only he had been able to explain last year’s Algebra in a way that made sense.
Mama and Daddy exchanged glances as they both took a seat at the table.
Mona Beth closed her book and joined them.
“Cecille, breakfast is ready!” Mama called out.
“I’m not hungry,” came the muted reply.
Again, her parents locked gazes, and Daddy released a sigh that made his shoulders sag even lower. “Guess I’m going to have to have a talk with that girl.” He latched on to her hand then reached for Mama’s. “Let’s ask the blessing before the food gets cold.”
Breakfast smells wafted to her nostrils while Daddy blessed the food. Once the prayer was over, Mona Beth quickly filled her plate with scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits, and gravy, eager to dig in. She’d just placed a bite of gravy-covered biscuit in her mouth when Daddy turned her way. “Heard from Bo by any chance?”
She shook her head. “No, sir.” How many letters had she sent him so far, with not so much as a postcard in reply?
“Honey, I think it might be wise if you moved on with your life.” Mama smiled, a sympathetic look in her eyes. “Why don’t you go to the football game tonight? I understand the Thatcher’s nephew is here. He seems like a nice young man.”
Otis’ cousin? Ugh. She’d rather eat lumpy oatmeal through an exhaust pipe. Mona Beth forked a bite of scrambled eggs in her mouth. “Can’t. I’m babysitting for the Cates.”
Daddy frowned. “Again? Seems like you’re always working somewhere. You going out to the Miller’s ranch in the morning?”
“Yes, sir. Mrs. Miller will want me to get my weekly cleaning and cooking done.”
A disgusted snort sounded from his nose. “That woman doesn’t pay you near enough for all the work you do for her. And it seems to me now that school’s started she hasn’t let up one bit.”
Mona Beth nibbled a bite of bacon and followed it with a sip of ice-cold milk. It was true. What she’d done in five days during the summer, Linda Miller now expected completed in one. But she refused to give up and quit, no matter how hard the work or how rudely the woman treated her. And she would continue to be as kind as possible. Mama always said you could catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and she’d win the woman over if it killed her. Besides, after a summer of working for a dollar twenty-five an hour, she’d already saved over two hundred dollars. With that and her baby-sitting money, she’d surprise Bo with a really nice gift for Christmas and still have money left for the future.
Mama reached over and patted her hand. “Back to what I was saying earlier. Have you thought about the likelihood of Bo forgetting all about you? I know y’all grew close last year, but he’s in college now.”
Daddy’s fork clinked against his plate, and he took a swig of milk. “Mama’s right, Bethie. You’re far too young to be pushing yourself so hard and never having any fun. When you’re not working at the ranch, you’re babysitting, studying, or sewing stuff for that chest I gave you last Christmas. Girls your age should be out with friends, especially on a Friday night.”
She didn’t respond, but calmly thought through their words as she finished eating her breakfast. They still didn’t understand how much she loved Bo and how committed she was to their future. The promise they’d made each other was still in effect as far as she knew, and until she knew otherwise, she refused to give up hope.
Mona Beth set her empty milk glass on the small circular table and looked up at both of them with concrete resolve. “I know Bo hasn’t written, but I also know him well enough to know he has a good reason.” Instinctively she reached up and fingered the class ring and chain he’d given her. “A promise is a promise, and I won’t go back on my word.” She stood and picked up her dishes. “May I be excused?”
Daddy nodded, his face still bathed in concern, but with just a hint of pride lingering in his clear blue eyes. “Yes, you may.”
Later that day, after the quiz in Geometry class, Mona Beth bustled out to the hallway to put her book away. A steady stream of kids poured from various classrooms, all jostling for position, their voices loud and boisterous, the metal locker doors creaking open and slamming shut. She removed her sack lunch and history book from her locker and stood. There should be enough time during lunch to work on the reading assignment she’d received earlier that day.
Sally, dressed in her blue-and-gold cheerleading uniform, stepped up to her left and swung open her locker door, sending a quick smile her way. “How’d you do on the quiz?”
Mona Beth released a sigh and leaned her right shoulder against the cool metal of the locker. “I don’t think I did well at all, but it wasn’t from a lack of studying. It just doesn’t make a lick of sense to me.”
Her best friend slammed her locker door and linked her arm in Mona Beth’s, dragging her in the direction of the school cafeteria. “Maybe we can get together tomorrow for a tutoring session and some girlfriend time.”
“I’m working out at the ranch all day tomorrow. What about Sunday afternoon?”
Sally made a face and shook her head. “Can’t. We’re visiting my aunt and uncle that day. Speaking of the ranch, has it gotten any better?”
“I wish. If I can just hang on until Bo gets here for Thanksgiving, I think Mrs. Miller will finally realize that we’re serious about our relationship.”
A couple of other cheerleaders rushed by, one calling out to Sally over her shoulder. “Don’t forget, Sal. We’re supposed to be in the gym at two today to make the run-through sign for the game tonight.”
“Okay.” Her friend’s face held a smile that didn’t quite make its way to her voice. She made pouty lips as she turned back to Mona Beth. “Cheerleading’s just not the same without you there. I miss you.”
“Sorry, I just think it’s more important for me to focus on saving money and studying right now. I have to do well to make it into college, and if I don’t save money, I won’t be able to go.”
“I know, and I understand. I just miss how it was last year.”
Sally’s hand slid down her arm, latched onto her hand, and gave a gentle squeeze. “Any letter from Bo yet?”
Mona Beth blinked against the prick in her eyes, wishing she had a different answer to give everyone. And here lately, it seemed like she heard the question at least once a day. “Mama and Daddy told me I should move on, but I just can’t.”
Sally came to a sudden halt in the middle of the hallway and faced her, a tender light in her green eyes. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing the right thing. Hang in there. Bo’s worth waiting for.”
“Yes, he is.”
After school, a volcano of anger building inside, Mona Beth bounded off the yellow school bus and rushed into the house. Thanks to some of the kids on the bus, the driver had pulled over for a good ten minutes until everyone settled down. While part of her understood the action, another part of her fumed. Her personal time was short enough as it was without wasting precious minutes due to the thoughtless behavior of others. Now she’d have to trim time off her trip to see Granny Miller.
She dropped her books to the bed, ignored the scowl Cecille sent, and hurried out to the pasture to round up Daisy. Within fifteen minutes she rode up outside Bo’s grandmother’s charming house, looped the reins around the painted porch rail, and hurried up the creaky wooden steps to knock on the door.
“Come on in, Mona Beth.”
As the old screen door squeaked open, the smell of snicker doodle cookies drifted from the back of the house. Mona Beth followed her nose to the source of the mouth-watering aroma and snagged a warm cookie from the plate Granny Miller held toward her. She deposited a kiss on the woman’s wrinkled cheek and bit off a large bite of the soft spicy cookie. “Mmmmm. You really need to give me this recipe, Granny.”
The old woman’s eyes twinkled, and she released her familiar cackle. “I most certainly do, especially since they’re Bo’s favorites. Can’t wait to see that boy. I asked Jim when he was coming home for a visit.”
Mona Beth’s heart pounded and she froze in place. “And?”
The elderly woman waved a claw in the air. “Ah, he just hemmed and hawed around and muttered something about Christmas.”
Her mouth flew open. “Christmas? You mean, he’s not going to be here for Thanksgiving?” How could she survive an extra month without seeing him? Her shoulders sagged at the thought.
Granny Miller engulfed her in a hug. “There now, child. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news and cause that discouragement in your eyes. Hang in there, girlie. He’ll be home soon.”
Mona Beth plopped down on a rickety old stool, her mind a-whirl. “I’m doing all I know to do to make the time pass fast. I’m trying to stay busy, to work and study hard, but maybe Mama and Daddy are right.”
The woman’s expression darkened. “Right about what?”
“They think I’m too young to spend my life waiting for Bo. They believe he’s found someone else.”
“Hogwash.” Now Granny’s face turned a livid red. “I’ve seen how that boy looks at you, and he’s not the type to tell you one thing and do another.” She pressed her lips into a pencil-thin line. “Don’t you dare give up on him, ‘cause I know he ain’t gonna give up on you.”
“But I haven’t gotten one letter from him, and I must’ve sent him at least twenty.”
“That don’t matter none. I haven’t gotten a letter either, but I know he loves me. Have you been reading your Bible and praying?”
“Then what’s the latest thing God’s told you?” Her eyes held a challenge.
“That He’s with me always.”
Now the woman’s face softened, and she smiled. “Why yes, yes He is. It’s His way of comforting you while Bo’s away, sweet girl. Don’t you see? Our God, who is with you always, is also with Bo. He’s the connection point between you two. Don’t give up.”
The words wound about her and solidified like a rock foundation. “I won’t because I can’t. I love him too much.”
“No such thing as loving someone too much.” The smile that lit her face faded suddenly. “Unless you love him more than God. Whatever you do, don’t let that happen.”
No, she wouldn’t let that happen. She frowned. Or was it already too late? The thought nagged her for the rest of the day and well into the night.
After a restless night’s sleep, six a.m. came way too early the next morning, but Mona Beth silenced the brass-legged alarm clock and quietly slid from between the covers so she wouldn’t wake Cecille. She stumbled down the hallway to the bathroom to get dressed, then brushed her teeth and pulled her hair back.
A few minutes later, Mama met her at the front door, handed her a banana for breakfast, and held up the pickup keys to give them a jingle. “Daddy’s doing your chores for you this morning, so I’ll give you a ride to the ranch.”
Still bleary-eyed and half asleep, Mona Beth followed Mama out to the truck. Once they reached the ranch, she climbed down from the cab and faced Mama. “I should be through by three o’clock this afternoon.”
“I’ll be here to pick you up.”
“Thanks, Mama.” She started to close the door, but had a last minute thought. “Oh, if a letter comes today, will you bring it with you?”
Sadness took up residence on her mother’s face. “If a letter comes, I’ll bring it.”
Though the day was a pretty one, Linda Miller turned out to be in a particularly foul mood. No matter how hard Mona Beth tried, nothing seemed to please her. Her toast wasn’t toasted enough, and after more time in the new toaster oven, it came out blackened. Right before lunch, the woman insisted that the kitchen floor hadn’t been swept, when in reality, Mona Beth had made doubly sure to sweep every square inch—not just once, but twice—in order to silence the woman’s complaints.
In addition to her regular chores, Bo’s mother demanded that the draperies she’d washed and ironed only a week ago be cleaned and pressed again. Though she hoped for one-on-one time with Bo’s mother to talk, the woman seemed bent on keeping her so busy she had no time for anything else.
A few minutes before three, her chores done, Mona Beth took a timid step into the formal living room where Linda Miller sat reading a book. “I finished up the draperies.”
Without looking up, Bo’s mother held up an index finger, read a little longer, and then dog-eared the page to peer up at her, an icy coldness in her dark eyes. “I suppose you need a ride home?”
“No ma’am. Mama’s coming to pick me up.”
“Good. You can wait for her on the porch.”
Mona Beth licked her lips. “Actually, I was hoping I could talk to you just a minute.”
She stepped closer. Did she dare sit on the sofa? After further thought, Mona Beth opted to stand. Time to see if Granny Miller had understood correctly. “I, uh, wondered if Bo would be coming home for Thanksgiving.”
Linda Miller’s face hardened. “No. He’s made plans to go snow-skiing with our friends in Atlanta.” She hesitated momentarily, and a smirk curled her upper lip. “If you’ll remember correctly, I told you months ago it would best if you forgot all about Bo. I know he’d be a step up for you, but he seems to have grown very much attached to my friend’s daughter, who’s his age and goes to the same university. I think she’s the perfect match for my son.”
Like poison daggers, the statement pricked at her courage and deflated her hopes. Yes, the words were intended to drive a wedge between her and Bo, but the comment stung all the same. Mona Beth tried to answer, but could think of nothing to say. Instead she hurried from the room, not stopping until she reached the porch swing. There she brought her hands to her face and cried—over the hurtful words and the possibility of their truth—but especially over the fact that it would be Christmas before she could finally see Bo.
When their old pickup rumbled up the road a few minutes later, she ran to climb inside, wanting nothing more than to put distance between herself and the ranch.
Mama took in her damp cheeks, but wisely said nothing. Instead she put the truck in gear and drove away, the dust from the road entering the rolled-down windows. Only after they’d driven down the road for a few minutes did she speak. “It’s not like you to get so emotional. Want to talk about it?”
Mona Beth sniffed and shook her head. “Maybe later, after I’ve had a chance to put her sharp tongue and words outta my mind.”
“Wish it was that easy, but it’s been my experience that hurtful words have barbs that work their way under our skin and fester. I know it’s hard, but I think you’ll feel better if you talk it out.”
Would it make her feel better? Doubtful, but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. “Bo’s not coming home for Thanksgiving. His mother said he’s grown attached to the daughter of her friend in Atlanta.”
“You do know that’s not necessarily the truth, right? And it certainly doesn’t mean that his feelings toward you have changed.”
More tears threatened as she raised her gaze to Mama’s face, for the first time noticing an odd strain there she hadn’t seen before. “I wish I could believe it, but what if Bo is seeing someone else? What if he’s forgotten the promise he made to me?”
“Do you think that’s true?”
Did she? “No.”
“Then what you have to decide is if you plan on staying true yourself, or move on with your life like Daddy and I suggested.”
Sudden determination straightened her spine. “I won’t go back on my promise.”
“Even if he does?”
A small light flickered in Mama’s weary eyes. “Well, I don’t completely agree with your decision, but I’m proud of you for sticking with your end of the bargain. I feel mighty blessed to have a daughter like you.”
Fatigue lined her mother’s face.
She leaned forward in the seat to study her Mama’s face more closely. “Is there something going on that I don’t know about?”
Her eyes widened momentarily. “Goodness, but I’ve never been able to hide things from you. You have this uncanny ability to read people. Should come in handy as a teacher and mother one of these days.” She finished the words with a sad little upturn of the corners of her mouth.
“The usual, only worse. Seems like every year we’re working harder and harder to keep the farm afloat, but wind up further and further behind.”
Mona Beth’s heart constricted. No one worked as hard as Mama and Daddy. Not even her.
Mama continued. “It’s hard keeping up with how fast everything’s going mechanized. We need those machines to compete with the big business farms that are popping up everywhere, but they cost money and lots of it. Money we don’t have. In fact, I’m not even sure how we’re going to make the tractor payment this month.”
“How much is it?”
Her mother bounced in the seat beside her as they drove over a pothole in the road. “Over two hundred dollars. Why do you ask?”
“I can help. I’ve been saving all the money I make babysitting and working for the Miller’s.”
“You have that much?”
Mona Beth nodded and placed a hand on her mother’s arm. “Please let me help. I don’t want to lose the farm. It means too much to all of us.” Well, all of them except Cecille.
Mama didn’t answer for a long minute, focused on the caliche road in front of her. Finally she spoke. “I’ll have to talk your Daddy into it, and we’d pay you back as soon as possible.”
Mona Beth inhaled a deep breath of the dusty air. “No hurry. I’m saving it for school and for when Bo and I get married. As long as I get it back before then, it’ll be fine.” A laugh tumbled from her mouth. “And if I know Bo, he’ll have that ranch in tip-top shape within in a few weeks after he graduates from college. I might not even need you to pay me back at all.”
Early spring 1965
After his morning classes, Bo hurriedly scarfed down a bologna sandwich as he made his way to his part-time job at a grocery store three blocks away from the campus. With its thousands of azalea bushes, the city of Atlanta blossomed with fresh hope, but the beauty surrounding him did nothing to alleviate the melancholy in his heart.
He inhaled a deep breath of the humid, flower-scented air. It was going on nine months since he’d been home, and it was slowly but surely sucking the life right out of him. He’d pleaded with his parents to let him return home last Christmas, but they’d decided to visit Atlanta instead. And after taking one look at his dad’s withering frame, he knew the news from home wasn’t good.
With a quick check to make sure there weren’t any cars coming, Bo jaywalked to get to the other side of the downtown Atlanta street. The ranch had hit hard times, just like most agriculturally-based family businesses here of late. Daddy had lost weight, his face long and drawn, but he hadn’t lost his bitterness toward the Adams family. When Bo tried to bring up Mona Beth, he’d suffered the punishing end of his father’s blistering tongue.
Bo lengthened his stride as he turned the corner, the mom-and-pop neighborhood market now in sight. With his parents so set on keeping him away from Miller’s Creek, he’d done what he had to do, which was find whatever work he could for the purpose of catching a bus back home as soon as the spring semester ended. If necessary he’d forget his studies and work the ranch for his dad. He’d also marry Mona Beth as soon as possible, putting an end to his parent’s objections and manipulations once and for all. That is, if she’d still have him.
Why hadn’t she answered his letters? Had she found someone else?
Once at the store, he headed to the back to don his butcher’s apron, hoping Herman wasn’t around. The burly butcher was crass, loud, and obnoxious, all of which chafed at Bo’s nerves. The last thing he wanted or needed right now in addition to his other problems was a tongue-lashing.
But as Bo pushed through the swinging stainless steel door, the odor of raw beef and blood attacked his nostrils, and Herman looked up from the butcher table with a red-eyed glare. “Well, it’s about time you showed up, Tex.” He bellowed the words, his face creased in a frown.
“Sorry I’m late. Got here as soon as I could.” Bo kept his eyes averted and focused on tying his apron.
“Well, if you can’t get here on time, maybe you should find another job. I guarantee there are at least ten guys out there who’d love to have your position.”
Yeah, until they met Herman. Then they’d be high-tailing it out of there faster than a jackrabbit pursued by a pack of hound dogs. “What do you need me to do today?”
His white apron smeared with blood, Herman pointed his meat cleaver at a nearby rack of packaged meat. “All that meat goes out front, and then the freezer needs cleaning.”
Bo bristled at the mention of the freezer, but managed to keep his mouth shut. All the guys hated freezer work, and Herman used it as punishment for those he wanted to exert power over. Well, he’d make the best of it by using the time to plan his trip home. A grin worked its way onto his face as he imagined the surprised look on Mona Beth’s face when he showed up at her door.
Even with gloves on, by the time Bo’s work hours were up that evening his fingers were numb with cold. He collected his week’s pay and stepped out into the balmy spring evening to count it. Just a little over thirty dollars. Some of the guys had gotten a raise a couple of weeks ago, and he’d hoped he would eventually get one as well. No such luck, at least not yet.
Ben, one of his co-workers, exited the store behind him, the rest of the guys in tow. He slapped Bo on the shoulder as he passed by with the noisy crew. “We’re going to the pool hall. Want to come?”
Bo shook his head. “Wish I could, but I’m headed to job number two.”
His friend’s eyebrows shot up his forehead. “You have another job?”
“Yeah. I help out at the college library during the evenings.”
“Guess that gives you time to study, huh?”
Study time was definitely needed, considering his mid-term grades. “Sometimes. Not as much as I’d like.”
“I figured you Texas ranch boys had plenty of money.”
The words neatly sliced through the remaining shreds of his pride, and try as he might he couldn’t think of one thing to say, except “You guys have fun.” Bo turned and headed the opposite direction, the cheerful conversation between his friends trailing after them as they moved down the street.
Friday evening at the library turned out to be mind-numbingly slow. With the pretty weather, most students were either out on a date or out with friends. Once Bo restocked the pile of books back on the shelves, he at last was free to sit down and take stock of his current situation.
He located a secluded corner, sat down at one of the library tables, and pulled his latest grade report from his billfold. His stomach burned and sent a nasty taste to this tongue as he scanned the report. How could it be that he was flunking all but three classes? And even those grades teetered on the tight wire between passing and failing. He’d opted to go the business degree route Since Georgia State didn’t have an Ag degree, but his high school classwork hadn’t at all prepared him for the rigors of college business classes. And it didn’t help matters any that his study time was almost non-existent because of his workload. He’d never graduate at this rate.
His spirit completely deflated, Bo rested his crossed arms on the table then lowered his head. Though it felt like he rested only a few seconds, he was awakened by a hand on his arm.
“Bo, wake up. It’s me. Evelyn.”
Squinting against the glare of lights, he lifted his head to the friendly brunette, who looked prettier than ever. “What time is it?”
She checked the diamond-studded watch on her wrist. “Almost ten.”
“What are you doing here?”
Her gentle bell-like laugh sounded. “What do most people do at the library, silly? I was passing by about to head home for the weekend when I saw you off in this corner by yourself. Sleep here often?”
A grin popped onto his face. He leaned back in his chair and stretched. “Nah, just tired I guess.”
Her demeanor sobered. “I haven’t seen you in a while. Guess school’s keeping you busy?”
It wouldn’t do for her to learn about his two jobs, especially if the news somehow made it home to his parents. That would only lead to questions, and soon he’d have to reveal his plan to catch a bus to Miller’s Creek. He couldn’t chance it. “Yeah.”
“You look really tired. Are you sleeping okay?”
“Not really. Guess I just miss my folks.” And the ranch. And his friends. And Granny. But especially Mona Beth.
Compassionate understanding lurked in the dark depths of her eyes. “How about a weekend with my family? We’re headed to the lake house tomorrow. It’s too cold to swim, but we can go boating and hiking. I promise it’ll be fun.”
A rift grew inside him. When was the last time he’d done anything just for fun? He needed to work tomorrow. Herman would fire him for sure if he didn’t. Bo ran a hand across his mouth. But more than anything he needed time to get away, to think, to make important decisions. With what he’d already saved, he could make it at least as far as Dallas. From there, he’d hitch a ride to Miller’s Creek if need be. But was that the best option, not just for now, but also the future?
“Well?” Evelyn’s fingers tapped restlessly against her books.
“Sure. Sounds like fun.”
“C’mon, then. We’ll stop by your dorm to let you pack. Then we’ll head to my house.”
Within an hour they arrived at the Simpson estate, all the lights in the house off except for one in the driveway. Though they tried their best to not wake Evelyn’s parents, they couldn’t help but giggle and shush each other all the way up the stairs.
Evelyn turned toward him as they reached her room at the top of the stairs, her smiling face lit by the moon shining in the expanse of windows on the front of the house. “I’m glad you decided to come home with me. I always enjoy having you here.” Then she planted a soft kiss on his cheek before she entered her room and closed the door behind her.
Though his sleep was restless with confused thoughts of Evelyn, Bo was the first one up the next morning. He showered and dressed, and then let himself out into the backyard to sit near the pool. The air was cool, but the early morning sun warmed his skin. He leaned back in the chaise lounge, his eyes drowsy as the sun inched higher. How good it felt to forget his worries for at least a while. Today there would be no thoughts of Miller’s Creek, the ranch, his poor grades, his crummy jobs. Today he would simply enjoy whatever the day chose to bring.
Evelyn’s kiss the night before niggled at his brain, but he pushed it aside. Maybe later he’d spend time thinking about it, but not now.
A half hour later Evelyn joined him outside, her dark hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail. “You’re up awfully early.”
“Didn’t want to miss the fun. I wasn’t sure what time y’all would be leaving.”
“Knowing my parents, they’ll probably sleep for another hour at least. Are you hungry?”
Bo smiled. “As a horse.”
She leaned her head back and laughed out loud, her eyes twinkling. “Well, you might never guess it, but I’m a pretty good cook. How does French toast sound?”
“C’mon. I’ll fix you some.”
Bo traipsed behind Evelyn into the updated kitchen his mother had swooned over and took a seat on a chrome and gold Naugahyde barstool.
Evelyn expertly whipped up a light batter, dipped oversized slabs of bread into the mixture, and slipped them onto a griddle atop the harvest gold stove along with some link sausages. Within a few minutes, the sausages sizzled, and the delicious aromas set his mouth to watering and his stomach to rumbling. By the time she finally sat the plate of sausage, French toast dusted with powdered sugar and a side of strawberries in front of him, he could’ve eaten a car bumper. “Wow! This looks and smells delicious.”
The comment must have pleased her, because she blushed and beamed. “Hope you like it.”
He devoured the meal in less than five minutes, then leaned against the counter and groaned. “I don’t remember the last time I had a breakfast like this.”
Once more pleasure shined on her face. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
Bo watched Evelyn as she finished her plate of French toast, his mind in a quandary. She’d been such a good friend to him, though he’d offered her nothing in return. Meanwhile, he’d sent Mona Beth no telling how many letters and she hadn’t written him once. With a shake of his head, he pushed the thought away. No, he couldn’t allow himself to go down that road. Not until he’d had a chance to talk to Mona Beth. For now, he’d just enjoy the time spent in the company of this lovely young woman.
By noon the group of four reached the Simpson’s lake house. Situated in a stand of pine trees, the house overlooked a crystal blue lake. Bo exited the car first and moved a few steps up the drive to take in the view.
Jack Simpson climbed out next, walked over to stand beside him, and clamped a hand on Bo’s shoulder. “Beautiful lake, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir, it sure is.”
“The Corps of Engineers finished it a few years ago. Our house was one of the first one’s built out here.”
Bo swiveled to peer at the lake house. He’d expected a quaint cabin, not this humongous colonial with an immaculate lawn that led to the shoreline. “Nice house.”
An embarrassed grin crept onto the man’s face. “A little too much if you ask me, but Jane insisted. Guess I’m glad, since we have guests out here a lot during the summer.”
Jealousy wound its way through Bo’s gut as he followed the family through the garage and into the massive house, beautifully decorated, as expected. What he wouldn’t give for just a tenth of what they owned. He could make the ranch what it should be with that kind of money.
Jane Simpson dropped the bag she carried to the hardwood floors and faced him and Evelyn. “Why don’t you two carry your things upstairs? Evelyn, show Bo to the blue room. As soon as you’ve put your things away, we’ll head to the fish place down the road for a bite to eat.”
For lunch Bo ordered the catfish, the batter fried to a crunchy crisp, and the fish tender and flaky. Compared to the bologna sandwiches he’d been living on over the past several weeks it was culinary heaven, made even better by the fact that he wasn’t required to spend his own money for the meal. His mind drifted back to the ski trip to Vermont the Simpsons’ had taken him on during Thanksgiving weekend and the trip to Florida before school started. They obviously had the money to do what they wanted when they wanted. Must be nice.
Afterwards, they returned to the house, unpacked their belongings, and then spent the afternoon boating to a nearby island for hiking and fishing. Evelyn stuck to his side like glue, her chatty conversation lively and fun. She took hold of his hand as they climbed a rock on the island. Thankfully she didn’t push the relationship past that, though he got the distinct impression she wouldn’t mind it if they moved their friendship to the next level.
As the sun sank in the west, she plopped down on the beach and patted the ground beside her.
He obliged, his gaze focused on the sunset and the giant half-orb of a sun which turned the lake to liquid gold. The waves lapped gently against the shore, bringing an extra aura of peace to the scene. “Thanks again for inviting me this weekend. I don’t remember the last time I had this much fun.” Without warning, the days from the previous summer spent playing at the creek and riding the pastures and bluffs with Mona Beth flitted to his mind. Had it been that long since he’d truly enjoyed himself?
“I was hoping this might take your mind off whatever’s bothering you. Has it worked?” The look she sent was full of hidden meaning.
He averted his gaze, picked up a nearby stone, and pitched it into the water where it landed with a plip. He’d hoped for the very same thing. “A little.”
A heavy sigh whooshed from her lips. “Still pining away after the girl in Miller’s Creek?”
His eyebrows shot up. How was he supposed to answer that? “I love her. Isn’t it to be expected that I’d miss her?”
Evelyn leaned forward, wrapped her arms around her bare knees, and stared out across the water, her face bathed in the ebbing light. “I guess.” She grew quiet for a long moment. “I was just hoping that you and I might…” Her words drifted away like the songs of the birds as evening descended.
Bo inhaled a deep breath of the pine-tree scented air. Why couldn’t he have just one day of peaceful thoughts, with no pressure or demands? He faced Evelyn, her gaze soft and wistful. “Look, Evelyn. I like you and everything, and I appreciate all the fun times I’ve had with you and your family, but—”
“Has she written you?”
The words slapped him across the face. “No, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
She gave her ponytail a toss. “It does to me. If I loved someone who’d gone off to college, I’d be writing him several times a week.”
The barbed words sank into the flesh of his heart, bringing with them poisonous doubt. “I’m not saying no, Evelyn. I’m saying not now. The truth is, I like you a lot, but I made a promise, and I can’t back out of it until I know for sure where she stands.”
Now she glared at him, her eyes dark and murky. “You’re a fool.” She stood and stomped away.
The rest of the weekend was more peaceful, but Evelyn kept a cool distance between them. Bo used the time to explore the area. But his resolve to put his problems away for the weekend had been weakened by the argument with Evelyn, and he found himself battling troubled thoughts and dreams of Mona Beth, Miller’s Creek, and the ranch.
When they arrived back at the Simpson’s Atlanta home on Sunday afternoon, Jane called out after him as he made his way toward the staircase, his luggage in tow. “Bo, I almost forgot. A letter arrived for you on Friday. I was going to send it to you via Evelyn, but since you’re here I’ll just give it to you in person.” She handed him the floral designed envelope with a taut smile.
His pulse bounded. Had Mona Beth finally written him? Bo searched the return address. No, it was from his mother. He left his suitcase by the dining room table and moved to the den where Jack Simpson had turned on the news. Bo kept his eyes to the screen to see the latest on the Vietnam War while he opened the letter. Earlier that year President Johnson had sent in ground troops as well as aircraft, but the video coming back from the warfront wasn’t pretty or encouraging.
He took a seat in an orange suede leather chair and removed the letter from the envelope. His mother rarely sent letters, so something must be wrong.
I’m sorry to have to tell you that Granny Miller passed away last week. We buried her yesterday. I know you probably wanted to be here for the funeral, but there just wasn’t enough money to bring you home and send you back to Atlanta.
Your father’s health has worsened, and friends of his are looking after the day to day operations of the ranch. If things don’t improve soon, I suppose we’ll have to sell the ranch and move to a house in town.
I thought you’d want to know that J.C. and Coot enlisted. They were among some of the first ground troops sent into Vietnam.
Hope all is going well for you at school.
His heart cratered and left a bruised feeling in the center of his chest as if someone had landed a ferocious punch. He blinked against immediate tears and sniffed. Thoughts of time spent at Granny’s house devouring handfuls of her famous snicker doodle cookies still warm from the oven plagued his mind. What he wouldn’t give to have had the opportunity to tell her goodbye. To make matters worse, his best buds had joined Vernon on the battlefront. Who knew when he’d see them again or if he’d see them again?
While the news about the ranch and his father didn’t surprise him, it still wasn’t easy to bear. Bo squared his shoulders and sat up ramrod straight in the chair. He’d do whatever had to be done to keep them from selling the ranch, even if it meant doing the unthinkable. But first he had to get in touch with Mona Beth.
Bo glanced over at Jack Simpson, whose frowning eyes were glued to the television. Asking the Simpsons for another favor after all they’d done for him was going to be difficult, but it couldn’t be helped. He stood and cleared his throat. “Sorry to interrupt, sir, but I need to ask a favor.”
The man looked up at him, and his eyes immediately registered concern. “What is it, Bo? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
His mouth filled with cotton, Bo swallowed hard. “I just found out my grandmother passed away. I hate to ask, sir, but could I make a long distance call? I’d be happy to pay you for the charge.” Another expense he hadn’t counted on.
“Why certainly, and no need to pay.” He pointed to the large double doors that led to his private study. “There’s a phone on my desk. Take all the time you need.”
Bo thanked him and moved to the study. He dialed the number he knew by heart with shaky fingers. On the other end the phone rang only once.
“Hello?” Cecille’s breathless greeting sounded as though she’d raced to the phone.
His heart pounded in his chest. Was he really this close to speaking to Mona Beth after all this time? “Hey, Cecille. It’s Bo Miller. Can I speak with Mona Beth please?”
“Hi, Bo. How are you?”
“Fine. Look, I don’t have much time. Is Mona Beth there?”
The line grew quiet for a moment. “No, she’s out on a date with some guy from Morganville.”
An icy chill shimmied through his veins. All the answer he needed.
The attic stairs creaked as Mona Beth pulled her weight up the steps using the well-worn wooden hand rail. Bo was asleep again. These sleeping episodes of his kept them from spending time together, and since their time was potentially limited anyway, that hurt more than she wanted to admit. But sleep could also be restorative and healing. She prayed that was the case in this instance, and not the menacing threat of death that seemed to invade every inch of the old farmhouse.
A noose of despair tightened around her neck and squeezed, but she shook it off and made her way through the things piled in the attic to the boxes Bo had brought with him when they’d married. They stood in one corner in a shaft of light from the only window in the attic, already covered with a fine layer of dust that danced around her in the sunrays and made its way into her nose and mouth. She sneezed, scattering the dust even more.
It was time to start going through his things just in case. Piece by piece he seemed to be slipping away from her, and whatever these boxes contained might give her and him a way to hold on as long as possible. Plus it might provide much-needed clues without having to read any more of those hateful letters. How could something written with such love turn into sharpened knives?
During his waking hours, Bo continually pleaded with her to read more, but she just wasn’t ready. As much as she wanted to do it for him, it was like pouring salt on a recently-reopened wound.
She lifted the top box and headed down the stairs to the dining room table to sort through it. Much of it Steve and Trish would probably want eventually, but perhaps something in here would pull Bo back to the land of the living.
She spent the next hour turning back time through the pages of school yearbooks and scrapbooks, savoring memories of happier times. Some pictures elicited hushed laughter, like the Polaroid snapshot of her and Bo riding backwards on their horses, huge grins splayed across their faces. Others brought on nostalgia and a desire to return to the relative innocence of adolescence.
As she pulled the final items from the box, the black metal light fixture above the farm table illuminated the bottom, where something glinted at her from one corner. Mona Beth reached in and snagged the object, rough and familiar against her fingertips.
A gasp fell from her mouth and immediate tears sprang to her eyes at Bo’s class ring spinning in circles from the simple gold chain. She brought a hand to her lips. How had he ended up with this when he’d given it to her? The possibilities crawled through her brain like a nest of snakes, leaving behind trails of resentment.
A strained cough sounded from the living room. She sprang from her seat and rushed to the doorway.
Bo turned his head and sent a weary smile. “How long was I out this time?”
“Oh, a couple of hours.” She concealed the ring and chain in her left hand and bustled to him, then perched on the ottoman and used her right hand to smooth back the shock of white hair that had fallen across his forehead. “How are you feeling?”
One look at his face revealed the truth of the statement. His eyes and mouth drooped. She breathed a silent prayer of thanksgiving that he was hanging on, in spite of the longing to be free from his earthly tent.
Can you trust him with Me?
The odd question from out of the blue pricked her heart. No, Lord, not yet. Please.
“What’s that in your left hand?” Bo’s eyes honed in on her clenched fist like a hawk on a field mouse.
She tried to act nonchalant. “Just a little trinket I found while I was going through some things.” Should she confront him now about why he had the ring and chain? How would he react to her going through his things without permission?
“You’re dodging the question, aren’t you?” His hawkish eyes bored into hers, searching.
Finally she nodded. “I carried down a box of things you brought with you when you moved in. I thought it might do us both good to relive some happy memories.” She hesitated. “And I wanted to understand without having to read the letters. I don’t know why I thought it’d be easier this way, but I did.”
“And what did you find?”
She shared some of the funnier moments of going through the yearbooks and scrapbooks. By the time she finished, Bo held his abdomen in laughter. Mona Beth paused a moment before she continued, gathering her strength. “I also found this.” She held up the chain and ring.
His expression immediately sobered and his eyes took on a dark glint that frightened her with its intensity. Without warning, his face crumpled and his shoulders shook with gut-wrenching sobs.
Merriment sounded all around Mona Beth—the crowd’s cheers, the band’s raucous rendition of the school fight song, the cheerleaders and pep squad yelling their shouts of encouragement to the Miller’s Creek Mustangs’ football team. Though her heart should be glad on this special night of Homecoming festivities—especially since it was her senior year—football season was always especially ripe with thoughts and memories of Bo. And this time her melancholy was compounded by all the romances that abounded at every turn.
She smoothed out the blue organza fabric of the dress Cecille and her fiancé Daniel had so graciously purchased for her for the half-time crowning of the Homecoming queen. In spite of the sparkling tiara that now topped her head, never had she felt so miserable, with a heartache the size of Texas. How much longer could she wait to see Bo? And had he already found someone else in spite of his promise to wait for her?
“You okay?” Her best friend Sally, who knew her better than anyone except for maybe Bo and Mama, smiled, her elation over the new promise ring on her finger giving her a happy glow.
Mona Beth attempted a smile as she munched on a piece of buttery popcorn. “Does it count if I’m trying to be okay?”
Sally made a sad face and engulfed her in a hug. “Oh, sweetie, I can’t imagine how hard this waiting has been for you. Hang in there. Things will work out the way they’re supposed to. Aren’t you always telling me the same thing?” She sat back, one arm still draped across Mona Beth’s shoulders.
She nodded. Yes, she’d said that on numerous occasions. And she still believed it. But what if things didn’t work out for her and Bo? Could she accept it?
At that moment, Harvey Emerson, who’d graduated from high school last year and now attended college at Morganville Junior College, strode up the noisy metal ramp that led into the bleachers.
Mona Beth crouched lower and ducked behind Sally. Not tonight, please, not tonight. Every time Harvey came back to Miller’s Creek he sought her out, refusing to take the hint that she wasn’t interested. Apparently some guys thought nice looks and family wealth were enough.
This time was obviously no different. His boots came into her line of vision, and his nasally voice sounded above her head. “Well, if it’s not the prettiest Homecoming Queen ever.” He took a seat behind Sally.
Mona Beth lifted her head and sent a tight smile, then faced the football field. “Hi, Harvey.” Surely her deflated tone would get the message across.
“Have a date for after the game?”
And then again, maybe not. She shot Sally a pleading look for help.
Her friend stepped in quickly. “Er…David and I are taking her out with us.”
“Good. Then you won’t mind if I tag along.” He winked at Mona Beth. “That way you won’t feel like a spare tire.”
Her skin crawled. Why wouldn’t he take “no” for an answer?
Thankfully Cecille arrived just in time to provide a distraction. Dressed in an expensive fur coat and flaunting a diamond the size of the rock of Gibraltar on her fourth finger, she made her way up the bleachers to where Mona Beth, Sally and Harvey sat. Daniel, her fiancé, followed right behind like an obedient puppy.
Though usually not so happy to see her sister, tonight a wave of gratitude washed over Mona Beth. Maybe Cecille would give her the out she so desperately needed. Her sister was all smiles and spoke loud enough so that everyone around was very much aware of her presence. “I knew that dress Daniel bought would look great on you. It matches your eyes perfectly.” She leaned forward to speak directly to Sally. “We bought it at Neiman Marcus, you know.”
A pasted-on smile landed on Sally’s face, and she simply nodded and turned her attention back to the game.
“What I can’t figure out,” continued Cecille as she stepped around Harvey to have a seat behind Mona Beth, her overpowering perfume preceding her, “is why you wore that cheap gold chain and Bo Miller’s ring around your neck instead of the diamond necklace I offered to loan you.”
Heat crawled up Mona Beth’s face. “Maybe because I love him.”
Her sister laughed cynically. “I’m positive Bo Miller has moved on by now, and so should you. Why, he could have his pick of one of thousands of Southern beauties at Georgia State. Why would he want you?” She patted Mona Beth on the back and giggled as though teasing, but there was no doubt that the barb was intended to sting. And the fact that Harvey heard the comment only gave him further ammunition for his pursuit.
Unable to bear anymore, Mona Beth stood and clomped down the wooden steps, past the concession stand, and out the chain-link gate. By the time she reached the dirt parking lot, tears streamed down her face. Now what? She’d ridden to the game with Daniel and Cecille. Should she return to the stands?
She faced the stadium, the bright lights in stark contrast to the dark night and the darkness in her heart. No, she wouldn’t go back. She couldn’t. Instead she turned back around and began the three-mile trek to the farm.
Saturday morning came way too early. When the alarm rang at five a.m. she considered turning it off and sleeping in to compensate for all the tossing and turning she’d done during the night. With a frustrated groan, Mona Beth dragged herself from the warm bed and stumbled to the bathroom to splash cold water on her face.
A few minutes later she hurried out the back door to the chicken coop with a flashlight in one hand and the egg basket in the other. She deposited the basket near the gate while she replenished the chickens’ food and water supply, then picked it up and moved to the back to gather eggs.
Mona Beth counted the eggs as she removed them from the nesting box and placed them in the basket. Only ten again today. For whatever reason, two of the White Leghorn hens refused to lay. A sigh fell from her mouth. With a substantial increase in the price of feed, there was less and less to go around. With fewer eggs to sell came lower income, a vicious cycle that seemed to have no solution.
As she released the hinged roof to the nesting box, it slipped from her hands with a bang. Though she managed to move her head out of the way just in the nick of time, the edge of the tin roof caught her at throat level, sending a scrape down her upper chest.
“Ow!” Mona Beth dropped the flashlight to the ground and brought her hand to the stinging flesh at her throat. The area felt tender to the touch, but thankfully she didn’t feel any trickles of blood. She picked up the flashlight and hurried to the house.
Mama was already in the kitchen cooking breakfast when she entered the back door, the tantalizing scents wafting throughout the house. She shucked her shoes and hurried to the stove. “Is my neck bleeding?”
Her mother propped the spatula on the edge of the skillet, gently pushed Mona Beth’s hair behind her shoulder, and pulled back the collar of her button-up work jacket. A frown wrinkled her eyebrows. “What on earth happened?”
“I accidentally dropped the lid to the nesting box,” Mona Beth explained. “Is it bad?”
“Well, you’re not bleeding, but you have a mighty big scrape. You probably should douse it with Bactine.”
Cecille appeared, bleary-eyed, and in her flannel night gown. “What’s all the racket about?”
Mona Beth shot her a dirty look, still angry at the way her sister had treated her the night before. “As if you really care.”
“Mona Beth!” Mama’s expression and tone scolded. She faced Cecille. “The roof of the nesting box scraped her neck and throat. You’re up early. Planning to work on your wedding dress today?”
Cecille waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Daniel told me he’d buy my dress since y’all couldn’t afford it.”
Now Mama’s face grew stone cold. “I spent our hard-earned money for the fabric you begged me for. Now what am I supposed to do with it? The store won’t take it back, and white satin isn’t exactly good quilting material.”
Her sister shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll think of something. I’m going back to bed.”
Once Cecille drifted back to the bedroom, Mama returned to the stove and stirred the scrambled eggs with more force than necessary. “Here the rest of us are working our fingers to the bones, and Miss Astor takes her leisure and expects us to bow to her wishes and demands.”
Mona Beth’s compassion tripled as she searched for some way to ease her mother’s tension. “Is there something I can do to help, Mama?”
Her mother stopped her fidgeting and sent an apologetic smile. “No. I’ve got it. You go get ready for your day at the ranch. We’ll talk over breakfast.”
A few minutes later, breakfast ready, she and Mama took a seat at the table just as Daddy appeared at the back door. Shoulders bent, he shuffled to the table and took a seat. “Shall I offer the blessing?” He reached for their hands and prayed. “Oh, Lord, we come to You, grateful for this food You’ve provided. We continue to pray that we’ll be good servants for You, and once more humbly ask that You provide the means to save the farm. In the precious name of Jesus we pray. Amen.”
The prayer lodged in Mona Beth’s heart. Long gone were the days when she’d been able to squirrel away money for her and Bo’s future. Now everything she made went into the family kitty, much to the protests of her parents. “Daddy, have you thought about asking Daniel to help? He was nice enough to buy me a dress for Homecoming.”
Her father didn’t look her way, but shook his head and finished chewing his bite of sausage. “I already tried. He said he didn’t think it was a good enough business proposition to risk that kind of money in this economy, especially with him just starting a new business and a family.”
Tears stung her eyes at the injustice of it all. Here her folks were barely scraping by, and Cecille about to marry a man with the resources to make the farm viable, but he wouldn’t because it wouldn’t provide him with the return on investment he expected.
A wad of emotion gathered in her throat, and Mona Beth brought a hand up to rub it away. She gingerly fingered the stinging scrape, a sudden realization sending panic to her heart. “My necklace! It’s gone!”
With one fluid movement, she pushed her chair back and stood, then glanced at the clock. If she went to look for the necklace now, she’d be late to work which could mean losing a source of income and the opportunity to change Bo’s parents’ minds about her. “I don’t have time to look for it now!”
Mama stood as well. “It’s okay. I’ll look for it after I take you to the ranch. I’m sure you probably lost it between here and the chicken coop.”
“But what about work?” Her pulse quickened. Mama couldn’t afford to lose her job at the TG&Y store either, not to mention the stack of sewing projects she’d accepted from people in the community in an effort to bring in more income for the farm.
“It’s okay. I’ll find the time.”
Feeling somewhat pacified, Mona Beth nodded and carried her dishes to the sink. Within a half hour, she was at the Miller’s family ranch as per her usual routine.
A few minutes before lunch, she hastily washed her hands, and heated some broth to carry to Jim Miller, the aroma soon filling the small kitchen. Over the past years of working for them, especially since Jim’s health had declined due to lung cancer, she’d somehow managed to get through to him.
He smiled wanly as she entered the dark den where he now slept since he could no longer climb the stairs. “There’s my girl.”
She winced at the phrase that reminded her so much of Bo, but quickly covered her pain with a cheery smile. “You ready for some lunch?”
Jim pointed to the bank of windows on the south wall. “Would you mind opening those silly curtains for me so I can see the sun?”
Mona Beth sat the tray on the side table near him. “Not at all.” She hurried to the windows and tied back the heavy blue velvet drapes. Light immediately flooded the room, chasing away the dark shadows made even more ominous by the mahogany wood paneling.
“That’s what you are to me, Girl…sunshine.” His words were softly-spoken and sincere.
Strong emotion erupted inside. She pressed her lips together to fight against tears as she readied the bowl, spoon and napkin.
“Did I say something wrong?” He twisted his neck at an angle to accompany the question.
How could she fully explain how his description tore at her already battered heart? She shook her head. “No. It’s just that Bo sometimes calls me Sunshine.”
His eyes held compassion. “I always knew that boy was smarter than me.” He reached over and stilled her hands with his own. “Just so you know, I’m glad I got this opportunity to get to know you. Thank you for waiting for our Bo.” For a brief moment he looked like he wanted to say more, but then grimaced and shifted position in his chair until he reached a place of comfort. “I’ve been a stupid fool in how I treated your family, especially your daddy. Is the farm doing any better?”
Again she gave her head a shake. “No, but we’re not the only ones struggling. It seems like big business farming is hurting us all.”
He nodded. “Yep. Us ranchers, too. If I had the money, I’d do what I could to help your folks, but with me laid up…” His words dwindled away, a distant yearning on his face.
“Now you stop fretting about it and concentrate on getting well.” Mona Beth forced a smile she didn’t necessarily feel and lifted a spoonful of the steaming broth to his lips. “I’ll go out to the barn after I get through here and tend to the horses. Is Buttercup’s leg doing any better?”
He slurped down the liquid with a grateful gleam in his eye. “Nope. In spite of all you’re doing and all the vet’s doctoring, she’s still lame. Guess she must have caught it on a piece of barbed wire. Doc said it didn’t look like a snake bite to him.”
She continued to ladle the soup into Jim’s mouth, her mind on Bo’s horse. For several months now, she’d taken special care of Buttercup, riding her frequently, especially since she’d sold Daisy to help her parents with the bills that seemed to stack up no matter how hard they worked. The old mare had flourished under her care, but a few weeks ago, Mona Beth had found her lying down and unable to stand. With some coaxing she’d finally gotten her to her feet and called the vet. The antibiotics had worked at first, but the wound that appeared so mysteriously on her back right leg just wouldn’t seem to heal.
Jim finished off the last spoonful and leaned back. “I don’t want to do it, but the doc tells me if she don’t get well soon, I’ll have to put her down.” Pain etched deep lines in his face. “Bo will be heartbroken.”
At just that minute, Linda appeared in the doorway, her face drawn and tight. “After you put those dishes away, you can leave, Mona.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Mona Beth glanced at Jim’s face, now lined with tension. Was her newfound friendship with him the cause of strain between him and his wife? She grabbed the tray and quickly exited the room. Just as she entered the kitchen, Linda’s angry voice sounded from the den. As quickly as possible, she cleaned up the dishes, praying all the while for strength and healing for Bo’s dad, and for Linda Miller to curb her sharp tongue.
Once outside and around the horses, Mona Beth breathed in a deep breath of fresh air to gather her peace. After tending to Buttercup’s wound and walking her around the corral a few times, she fed and watered the remaining horses and saddled up a bay gelding for a brief ride before Mama returned to pick her up.
Though the time on horseback was short and sweet, the gallop to the creek and back did her a world of good. For some reason, being on horseback on the ranch seemed to connect her to the past in a way that nothing else could.
Her smile had returned an hour later when Mama picked her up in the truck.
“You look happy.” Mama returned her open-mouthed grin. “Must’ve had time for a ride today.”
Mona Beth hauled her weight into the pickup cab and slammed the door shut behind her. “That obvious, huh? Did you find the necklace?”
Mama’s eyes held sorrow as she shook her head. “I even made Cecille get out of bed and help me search. We covered every square inch between the back door and chicken coop with no luck. I’m really sorry.”
Her joy instantly dissipated and her eyes pooled with tears. That necklace represented the last piece of Bo she had left.
I love and miss you more than words can say. Though I’ve yet to receive a letter from you, I’ll continue to write until I receive confirmation from you one way or another. If you receive this letter, please take time to answer to let me know if you still intend to keep our promise.
This last year of high school seems interminably long, especially with you and J.C. gone, and Sally and Cecille engaged to be married. Last night was homecoming. I was crowned queen, but it meant nothing to me without you here to share the moment with me.
I don’t quite know how to tell you this, but I’ve lost your ring and chain. Mom and Cecille looked for it while I went to work for your mother at the ranch, and then I searched for it when I got home, but with no luck. I’ll keep trying to find it so that if you want it back I can give it to you.
Your dad and Buttercup are both doing poorly, though they both seem to enjoy my company. I continue to pray that your mom will accept me. Will you pray for that as well? No matter how hard I try, it doesn’t seem to do any good. In fact, I think the fact that your father has accepted me has only made the distance between me and your mother even greater.
Please know that I love you and pray for you every day. I look forward to the day you return so that we we’ll never have to be separated again.
All my love,
For some reason Bo couldn’t quite fathom, springtime away from Miller’s Creek—even in a place as beautiful as Atlanta—was always the most difficult time of year. He tried to convince himself it was because of the bountiful Texas wildflowers, the baby calves and horses born on the ranch and the beautiful weather that followed cold, windy days. In spite of his attempts to attribute his depressed thoughts to those parts of Central Texas he adored, he knew he was only kidding himself. It was Mona Beth who was always at the forefront of his memory during this time of year, her long blonde hair flowing behind her as she galloped across the ranch’s green open pastures, her smile warm and loving, her intense blue eyes penetrating to his very soul.
In spite of the warm day, he shivered as he walked between the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta on his way back to campus after working at the bank. Though this new job was still not his cup of tea, it far outshone his days in the meat department with Herman the butcher, providing him the opportunity to hone his business skills for the future. It also paid a better salary, which gave him more to send to the ranch.
Bo removed the wrapper from a stick of Dentyne and popped the reddish-pink gum in his mouth, then lifted his head to the deep blue skies. Behind him a car honked, revved its engine and sped around another car, leaving exhaust smells in its wake. He turned to watch the scene, and accidentally bumped into the man in front of him.
“Watch where you’re going, will ya?” The man scowled, adjusted his hat and walked away shaking his head and muttering under his breath.
“Sorry about that.” Bo called out after him, but the man didn’t acknowledge his apology. He released a weary sigh, suddenly homesick for the good-natured folks of his hometown, though he’d long ago given up on returning to Miller’s Creek. His parents had made sure he stayed in Atlanta, threatening to pull the plug on financing his college studies. So he’d made the best of a hard situation and tried his best to get his grades up, taking extra courses during the summer so he could graduate on time. Now it was only a few short weeks until he’d be back at the ranch, back in Miller’s Creek, and back in Mona Beth’s arms—if she’d chosen to wait for him as she’d promised.
Once clear of the most congested streets, Bo quickened his pace. In spite of Cecille’s comment about Mona Beth going on a date with someone, he still had no reason to doubt his girl. Cecille had proved on more than one occasion that she couldn’t be trusted, and he refused to believe the worst unless he saw it with his own eyes.
His mind immediately strayed to Evelyn. The pretty brunette had tried over and over again to make him focus his thoughts on her, but each time he’d told her as nicely as possible that he wasn’t interested. Other Southern belles at Georgia State had tried to capture his attention as well, but he hadn’t found anyone that even came close to his Mona Beth.
Bo stuck his hands in his pockets and strode quickly up the concrete sidewalk toward the dorm. His mid-term grades should arrive today, and they should be better this time than ever before. Long nights of working on essays had given way to early morning study sessions. Though he’d forfeited precious hours of sleep, it would hopefully pay off in the end.
As he approached the multi-story brick dorm building, several students with big signs congregated near the steps and chanted in protest to the Vietnam War. A frown drew his eyebrows together. He wasn’t any happier about the reasons for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam than those who protested, but couldn’t they show a little respect for the men who’d literally sacrificed their lives for the cause of their country?
With his thoughts on Vernon, Coot and J.C., Bo fought his way through the crowd, entered the building and stopped at the rows of mailboxes in the foyer. He moved the dial on his box until it clicked on each number of the combination, opened the door, and reached inside to withdraw a tiny package. The return address showed it was from home, but what could be in a package so small? His second reach inside the box revealed a familiar-looking envelope from the school. His grades.
Bo took the stairs two at a time, eager to open the box and grade report in privacy. In less than a minute, he reached his room and swung open the door. He was about to enter when he noticed Ricky, his new roommate, lying on his bed with his back to the door. Sobs sounded, and his shoulders heaved.
He froze in the doorway, uncertain. Though he and Ricky had never become close friends due to their busy schedules, it troubled him to see his roommate so distraught. Bo cleared his throat and tossed his package to the desk in an attempt to give his roommate time to recover. “Hey, bud. How’s it going?” He pretended to study the envelope.
Ricky, his blonde hair disheveled and his face red and swollen, sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, then used the back of his wrist to wipe his eyes. It took a minute for him to regain his composure, but finally he spoke. “Honestly, not so good.” His voice wobbled, and he drew in a heavy breath. “I just learned I’ve been drafted.” Beneath his white t-shirt, Ricky’s shoulders sagged further to reveal bony shoulder blades.
Bo fell to a sitting position on his bed and rubbed his jaw, unsure of what to say. Ricky was a city boy and more docile than anyone he’d ever met, including J.C. How could anyone benefit from forcing him into a war he had no desire to serve in? “Man, I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry.”
Ricky blinked rapidly and tucked his trembling lips between his teeth. This time he couldn’t voice words. Instead he only nodded.
What should he do? “You need to talk or anything?”
His roommate sniffed and shook his lowered head from side to side.
Obviously the guy needed more time to process the information. Bo snagged his mail and a stack of books from the desk. “I’ll get outta here and give you some space. I’m headed to the library, but come find me if you need to talk or hang out or whatever.”
“Thanks.” In that one single word lingered the sound of defeat and despair.
Ten minutes later, his gut still aching and his prayers still sounding for Ricky, Bo reached the library and hurried to his favorite corner. Out of the traffic flow, the lone table sat behind several shelves, well-insulated from noise and interruption. And after his roommate’s unnerving news, it would be just fine if the rest of the world would just go away. Once situated, he reached for the white envelope and ripped it open.
His pulse galloped and his mouth gaped. A ‘D’ in one class and an ‘F’ in two others? How was that even possible?
Bo lowered his head to his hands, his stomach a-roll, and did all he could to think rationally amidst the onslaught of emotions that raced through him. Could he get his grades up before the end of the semester? If not, he’d be required to stay at least through the summer to finish his degree. And in a highly plausible, worse-case scenario, the classes he needed might not be available again until another semester.
He stared blankly into thin air for several minutes, as he thought through his options. Though it was too soon to go ballistic—at least until he’d talked to his professors—a bitter urge within him wanted to throw it all in the air and return to Miller’s Creek immediately.
With a shake of his head to rid himself of the unwelcome and painful thoughts, Bo reached for the small box from home. Maybe whatever it was would help him regain his perspective. He removed his pocket knife from the pocket of his dress pants and slit through the clear tape. After he returned the knife to his pocket, he opened the package and withdrew a letter.
Thank you so much for the money you’ve been sending to help the ranch. With your father unable to tend to things, the money has allowed me to get someone to help with the housework. Jim’s friends have graciously agreed to help with the outside work, and many of the ranch hands have agreed to a pay cut.
I’ve put off sending this letter, because of the news I have to tell you. J.C.’s parents received word that he’s missing in action. The military thinks he and some other soldiers are being held captive by the North Koreans.
Even worse than that is the news about Vernon. He was killed in action two weeks ago. His folks left yesterday to go after his body to bring it back to Texas.
Bo clawed at his necktie, finally able to loosen it and his top shirt button, but it was if every last ounce of oxygen had been sucked from the room. He struggled to catch a breath. Tears blinded his eyes and turned the handwriting on the page into a blurry mess. J.C. missing and Vernon dead? That couldn’t be possible. Just a few years ago they’d enjoyed the life of carefree teenagers.
Anger wound inside him, releasing a white-hot fury in his bloodstream. Hands shaking, he swiped at his eyes and turned his attention back to the letter, as more teardrops plopped to the linoleum tile floors.
I know this must be a lot for you to absorb, but I thought you’d want to know. I’ve also enclosed something that belongs to you. It was given to me some time ago, but I hesitated to send it for fear of how you’d react. Though I believe it’s for the best, I know it won’t be easy for you to accept.
Now completely numb, he tried to feel…anything. His eyebrows crumpled as he bumped the open end of the box against his palm. Did he really want to know what this Pandora ’s Box held?
An immediate kick to his gut doubled him over and caked his mouth with a bitter-tasting acid. The distant sound of his own sobbing lodged in his ears. This couldn’t be happening. The confines of his secluded corner closed in on him, and his thoughts churned. Blurred by tears that seemed to flow from some source outside his body, the gold chain that held his senior ring dangled from one shaky hand.
Mona Beth had finally given up on him. It was certainly understandable, thanks to his parents’ thoughtless words and actions.
Bitter resentment coiled around his heart in a vise-like grip, and he pounded the table with a clenched fist. How like his mother to think only of herself. If she truly loved him she would’ve never delivered the heartbreaking news in the form of a letter. He’d lost the love of his life, and she was to blame.
He sat, dazed, in the library for an unknown length of time. Then, with fierceness that surprised him, Bo pushed the chair away from the table with such force that it screeched. He bounded to his feet. The wooden chair teetered then crashed to the ground, the echo sounding throughout the studied hush of the building.
Not bothering to set the chair aright, Bo sprinted out the door with his belongings. Once he reached fresh air—even though his lungs pleaded for mercy—he didn’t stop, but sprinted across the campus as fast as his legs would carry him. Only when he reached the military recruitment office, his breath coming in short spurts, did he fully comprehend where he was and the action he was about to take. Shoving aside the throngs of picketing students, he made his way indoors, laid his books on the bullet-gray countertop, and boldly stared the recruiter in the face. “I’m here to enlist.”
The doorbell for the back door sounded behind Mona Beth. Whoever was here was either family or a close friend because those were the only ones who ever bothered to drive to the back of their century-old house. She took a last look at Bo as she rose from her seated position near him. He swabbed away tears that erupted when she showed him the ring.
She released a sigh of frustration and handed him the chain. More than anything she wanted to understand how he’d ended up with the chain and ring, a physical representation of the broken promise that had happened so many years ago. But thanks to the clanging doorbell, it would have to wait.
The doorbell rang again. “All right, all right, I’m coming.” She bustled to the back door. Steve’s and Dani’s faces were framed by the window in the old wooden door, and behind them Mona Beth glimpsed Andy and Trish and a young woman she didn’t recognize.
She swung open the door. “Come in out of that cold before y’all catch pneumonia.”
The five entered, their cheeks and noses red with cold. Steve leaned his tall frame down to plant a kiss on the top of her head. “Thought you were going to let us freeze to death there for a second.”
She smiled up into his handsome face and cinnamon-colored eyes. “Well, if you’d learn to wear a coat in freezing weather, you wouldn’t have to worry about it now, would you?”
Dani laughed and squeezed her neck in a hug, her pregnant belly coming between them. “I’ve tried, but he won’t listen.”
Mona Beth’s mouth quirked upward at one corner. “I’ve been trying a lot longer than you, with the same results.” She gave Trish a hug next. “How are those precious babies?”
Trish, her dark brown hair now cut right below her ears, smiled her typical brilliant grin. “Cute as ever. I’ll bring them over for a visit some time. Just let me know when it’s convenient.”
“You know you’re welcome anytime.” Mona Beth turned her attention to the attractive red-head who stood quietly behind Trish. “Hi, there.”
The woman quietly accepted her handshake, discomfort oozing from her green eyes. “Hi.”
“I’m sorry,” offered Trish. “Mama Beth, this is Dakota. She’s the youngest sister of my best friend during high school. You probably know her grandfather, Levi Kelly.”
“Why, yes, I do.” Mona Beth offered the quiet woman a smile. “How’s your grandfather doing?”
“Not too well. The family has called in hospice.” Deep pain sounded behind her softly-spoken words.
An ache took up residence in Mona Beth’s heart. Her too? Why did death have to be so hard? “I’m sorry to hear it. Please let us know if we can do anything to help.”
Dakota lowered her head and nodded.
Andy moved to her side, arms wide open, his mischievous grin deepening the devilish dimples in his cheeks. He swept her into a bear hug. “How’s my favorite Mama Beth?”
“There you go again, trying to sweet talk me.” She pulled back to let him see she was only teasing. “I’ve been better, but I’m surviving.”
“Glad to hear it.” Understanding lurked in his ocean-green eyes.
“And how’s that sweet brother of yours?” She dabbed at her eyes with her apron, once more swept away by unexpected tears. Would the day ever come when she could get through a conversation without crying?
His dimples reappeared. “In love and trying to help Gracie anyway he can.”
Her forehead wrinkled in concern. Just about everyone in town was praying for Gracie Soldano. Though she’d survived the gunshot wound that almost took her life, she still had a lot of hurdles to overcome. “Let her know we’re all praying for her.”
“There’s fresh coffee and I’ll put on some water for hot chocolate. Y’all know where everything is so help yourselves.” Mona Beth filled the tea kettle and put it on the stove, then stood back to watch the four people she loved so much, suddenly so grateful for their presence, even if it meant a delay in her talk with Bo. They laughed and chatted like the good friends they were, filled their cups with their beverage of choice, and headed to the living room.
Mona Beth refilled her own cup for at least the tenth time that day and doctored the aromatic brew with cream and sugar, taking a quick sip to make sure she had the mixture just right. The warm liquid soothed her nerves, and she released a deep breath of satisfaction before joining the others.
Bo accepted hugs and comments from the four before they took seats on the chairs and sofas that lined the room, and shook hands with Dakota. “How are things going for Miller’s Creek, son?”
Steve pressed his lips together firmly and nodded. “Well enough. Looks like the idea to build a bypass around town is going to fly.”
As the mayor of the town, Steve willingly bore the burden of making sure the citizens of Miller’s Creek were cared for in the best possible way, a role he took very seriously.
“And the ranch?” Bo’s eyes took on a glimmer of hope. That man would go to his grave looking out for the welfare of the ranch. The pride and loyalty he felt for the place ran through his blood just as surely as the creek ran through the middle of town, only it never went dry in the summer like the creek did.
“Good.” Steve’s face grew more animated with each word. Obviously the acorn didn’t fall far from the oak. “Lots of calves born already, with several bulls in the mix. The fall sale should be a good one this year.”
Dani elbowed her husband. “Okay, enough ranch talk. Let the rest of us in on the conversation.”
Mona Beth eyed her daughter fondly, still amazed at how God had orchestrated such a family, lives bound together like the threads of a finely-woven tapestry.
“I’ve got good news.” Dani’s blue eyes sparkled with excitement. “The doctors have decided to induce labor on April fourth if the little one hasn’t arrived by then.” She rubbed her belly and locked eyes with Mona Beth. “The nursery’s finished. You should stop by some time to see it.”
“I’d love to.”
Bo snorted. “It would do her good to get away from this place for a while. Why don’t you two go shopping or something?”
Mona Beth glared at her husband. “You make me sound like a monster.”
He shook his head and sent a tender smile. “Not a monster, a hummingbird. You’re always hovering over me unless I’m asleep. Then you’re working your fingers to the bone. You need some time away.”
Yes, it would be good to do something other than dwell on what lay ahead of them—if that was humanly possible.
Trish cleared her throat, her dark eyes especially large. “I’d love to have some time alone with Daddy.”
Bo’s lips parted in a broad smile. “I’d like that, too, baby girl.”
“Sounds like it’s all arranged.” Andy gave a short laugh and sent Bo a wink. “Shall I draw up a contract and make Mama Beth sign it?”
Everyone laughed, and Bo raised his bushy white eyebrows. “That might be the only we get her out of here—that and a couple of mules with chains and ropes.”
Laughter erupted again, and Mona Beth joined in, cherishing this brief moment of lightheartedness in her otherwise sorrow-filled life. Even the quiet redhead managed a grin. After several minutes more of conversation, Steve and Trish gave their father another hug and kiss before leaving with their spouses, with a promise to drop by again the following day.
Mona Beth walked them to the back door and watched them drive away, then ambled back to the living room doorway.
Bo held the chain and ring in one hand and ran a thumb over both. He didn’t look up when she re-entered the room.
“I’m sorry if that brought back bad memories.” A stray tear escaped down her cheek, and she whisked it away with her fingertips as she took a seat beside him.
His eyes glistened. “It was the worst day of my life.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“I guess. It needs to be said, but it won’t be easy. I’ll probably cry a lot.”
Her lips curved softly upward. “Which means I’ll cry a lot.”
Just then, steps thudded on the wooden porch outside, and a knock sounded at the front door.
Exasperation trickled through her and she let out a puff of air. “Good grief. You’ll be ready for another nap by the time I get the next part of the story.”
Bo smiled and patted her hand. “I promise to stay awake for you. Just sorry I’m not up to helping you more or I’d get up and answer the door myself.”
Now guilt rained down on her head. God had put her here to look after him and to do those things he couldn’t, and here she was complaining about it. She rose to her feet and hurried to the door.
J.C. and Coot stood outside the screen door, the former dressed in his familiar jeans and flannel shirt jacket, the latter in his infamous bright orange suspenders that allowed his pants to ride beneath his over-sized belly without falling to the ground.
Mona Beth noticed movement behind the two, and J.C.’s grandson stepped up to shake her hand.
“You remember my grandson, Chance.” Pride resided on J.C.’s face.
“Yes, I sure do. How are you, Chance?”
“I’m well, how about you?” With the same kind blue eyes and unassuming nature as his grandfather, Chance sent her a smile. “Sorry to hear about Mr. Bo.”
J.C. placed a hand on his grandson’s shoulder. “Bo up for some company?”
She swung open the squeaky screen door. “With you guys? Always.”
Coot trumpeted a laugh and waddled through the front door, the old wooden floors groaning in complaint. He shook Bo’s hand and slapped him on the back a little harder than necessary. “How you doing?”
“Good, Coot. How ‘bout yourself?” Next Bo took J.C.’s hand. “Hi, Buddy. Well, hello there, Chance. What brings you to town?”
The lanky young man humbly raised his kind-eyed gaze. “I’m in nursing school over in Morganville and decided to come spend some time with Grampa.”
“Well, glad to have you here. Y’all make yourselves at home.”
The three moved to nearby seats.
“Can I get y’all something to drink?” Mona Beth started toward the kitchen, pretty sure she knew the answer. She turned and faced them as she reached the doorway.
“I’ll take a cup of coffee if you have some. Thanks.” J.C. continued to smile.
“Me, too,” bellowed Coot.
Chance shook his head. “No thanks.”
With the coffee pot almost empty, Mona Beth quickly refilled the machine and punched the brew button. Within a few seconds, the familiar gurgle sent the aroma of coffee to permeate the air. Next she prepared cups for all of them as she listened in on the laughter and man-talk coming from the front room. Some things never changed, and in this case, she was glad. When the coffee finished, she poured the dark liquid into four cups, placed them on a tray and made her way back to the living room.
J.C. immediately stood and took the tray from her hands. “Let me help you with that.”
After serving them, Mona Beth took a seat on the sofa near Bo and sipped her coffee. How had she so quickly gone from a couple of cups in the morning to several pots throughout the day?
It only took one glance at the weary lines beneath Bo’s eyes to see that he was quickly growing fatigued, but he hung on like the soldier that he was.
“Must be hard on you two to be going through all this.” J.C. spoke the words softly, compassion gleaming from his eyes, and echoed in the eyes of his grandson. “When my Sarah was so sick at the end, we had to find a way to see God in all that was going on and trust that it was all part of His perfect will.”
Bo nodded. “That’s what we’re trying to do. Right now we’re going through a stack of old letters and Mona Beth is cleaning out some boxes, finding enough stuff to keep us talking for decades.” He hesitated. “There are just parts of the past I’d rather forget, as I’m sure you two more than understand.”
Coot and J.C. both lowered their gazes. For the remainder of the time conversation between the three friends remained jovial and superficial, never straying to the past or anything remotely important. When the three men finally said their goodbyes, Mona Beth shut the door behind them, leaned against the door frame, and heaved a sigh. “I’m glad that’s over.”
“Me, too. Love both of them like brothers, but talk of the past is uncomfortable. Conversation about the war is especially taboo. After all these years, it still leaves a dark cloud hanging over everything.”
“Speaking of dark clouds…”
His dark eyes latched onto hers. “I know, I know. We need to get the story of the ring out in the open, before we both take the easy way out and never mention it again.” He stared off in the distance for a moment, but finally leveled a sad gaze at her. “Why’d you break up with me?”
“What?” Her pulse ratcheted up a few notches, and she brought a hand to her chest, shocked that he’d even think such a thing. “I didn’t!”
He frowned. “But Mom sent me the necklace and ring in a package along with a letter.” His voice grew thick and gravelly, and his eyes clouded over. “In the letter she said you’d given it back to her to send to me.” The words lowered to almost a whisper. “The same letter when I learned J.C. was missing and Vernon was dead.” Slow tears worked their way down his leathery cheeks, permanently tanned from his hours on horseback in the scorching Texas sun.
“I never gave your mother the chain and ring. I lost it and couldn’t find it.” Her breath caught in her throat at the thought of the heavy burden dumped on him all at once. And to think that she’d unknowingly and unwillingly played a part in that burden. “I don’t know how your mother got the chain.”
“You promise you didn’t give it to her?”
Her heart ached at the question. Did he really not believe her? Mona Beth gave her head an emphatic shake, a dawning realization of what could have happened taking root in her thoughts. “No, but I think I know who did.” She leaned close and laid a hand on his knee. “I can see how that day became the worst of your life. I’m sorry you had to bear so much bad news at once.”
“That was just the start of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“That was the day I enlisted.” Bo leaned toward the side table and grabbed the stack of letters, flipping through them quickly until he found the one he wanted. He handed it to her. “Here, you need to read this letter next.”
She tossed it to her lap and reached for the bundle. “Let me see those.” Mona Beth scanned the postmarks until she found the letter that should tell about how she lost the ring. “And you need to read this one.”
Bo fingered the edge of the envelope, a somber look in his eye. “Looks like we’ve stirred up a few more ghosts.”
“Yep.” She shook her head, not quite believing what she was about to say. “Believe it or not, I’m starting to see how all this might bring healing, even if it hurts like the dickens in the meantime.”
Bo’s features softened. Then without warning, his shoulders heaved, followed by a stream of foul-smelling vomit. Vomit the color of blood.
Hi Mona Beth,
I know it’s been a while since I wrote, but I’m sure you know why. The day I got my ring back was a really rough day for me, which might help you understand why I’m at Fort Benning.
I ship out for Vietnam in a few days. My CO thinks I’ll do well since I’m pretty handy with a gun. I’d like to believe him, but Vernon was a better shot than me by far, and he didn’t make it. Guess that’s why I decided to write this letter.
If I don’t ever make it back to Miller’s Creek, I want you to know that it’s okay that you didn’t wait for me. And even though it still hurts, I forgive you. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another girl like you. In fact, I know I won’t, because they just don’t come any better.
I still struggle with why God allowed things to turn out like they did. When I gave you my promise, I meant it with all my heart. If it weren’t for my parents controlling things, I would’ve been back in Miller’s Creek a long time ago. But I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.
Hope you’re well and happy. I really do wish you the best, and pray you’ll have a wonderful life. You certainly deserve it. If you don’t mind, please say a prayer for me and all the other guys in the war. Pray especially that it will all be over soon.
“Why are you just now telling me?” The question pelted from Mona Beth’s lips in an angry rush, tears dripping from her cheeks as she glared at her parents.
Mama and Daddy, anguish inscribed on both their faces, glanced at each other and then back at her. Finally her father broke the silence. “Honey, you were so busy and happy with finishing up your senior year at school. We didn’t want to mar the celebration with bad news. The other parents did the same thing for their kids.”
Well, that explained why no one had mentioned it at school and why she hadn’t seen the McGee’s at church or about town. Vernon was dead.
Her chest ached as she stared blankly out the window. How could that be possible? And did Bo know? Just the thought of his reaction clawed at her heart, especially since he was all alone. Lord, help him and keep him safe.
With no appetite left for the half-eaten pancakes, Mona Beth rose from the table, dumped the food into the smelly pig slop bucket, and rinsed her plate. Though she dreaded confronting Linda Miller, there was no other way. She had to get a letter through to Bo. Even better would be a phone call, though it would mean spending a part of her hard-earned savings—savings that her family sorely needed to invest in the farm. “I’m ready to go whenever you are.” She muttered the words without looking at her mother.
The ride to the ranch was particularly quiet. Mama tried to make small talk and even tried once more to explain their decision to keep the news to themselves to protect her.
But concern for Bo crowded every other thought from Mona Beth’s mind. Vernon had died several weeks ago. Had Bo known the entire time without anyone to console him or offer comfort? Once they arrived at the ranch, she looked over at her mother and opened the pickup door. “I’m sorry if I seem distant, Mama, but my heart is breaking for Vernon’s family and for Bo.”
Mama nodded and waited while she slid to the ground. “I know. We’ll talk later. Love you.”
“And I love you.” A second later she stood at the door of the Miller ranch and knocked. No one answered. Again she knocked and waited, and again no answer. She tried the door knob. It turned and the door creaked as she pushed it open. Quietly she traversed the expensive rugs in search of Bo’s parents. Finally, as she passed by the sunroom, she spied Linda Miller.
The woman sat, unmoving, in a white wicker chair. Still in her pajamas, her hair was scrunched up on one side like it hadn’t been fixed in days, something Linda Miller would normally never allow. In addition, her face was streaked with tears and mascara. In her trembling hands she held a letter, the ripped envelope on the floor in front of where she sat. A low wail sounded from her throat.
Mona Beth’s heart pounded. Was something wrong with Bo? She hurried over, knelt at her side, and rubbed a hand against the woman’s bare arm. “Are you okay, Mrs. Miller?”
The woman groaned and buried her head in her hands. Heavy sobs caused the letter she still held in her hands to bounce up and down. “It’s all my fault.”
“What is it? Please tell me so I can help. Is Mr. Miller okay?” She glanced out into the living room. The doors to the study where Jim stayed were shut tight.
Linda Miller dropped her hands back to her lap, her eyes red-rimmed, almost in a state of shock.
Mona Beth’s eyes drifted to the letter. The handwriting was Bo’s. “Did you get a letter from Bo? Is he all right?”
As if noticing her for the first time, Linda’s face took on the oddest look. “Bo’s in Vietnam.”
The blood immediately drained from Mona Beth’s head, and the room began to spin. No, this couldn’t be real. It was just a cruel joke. A maniacal laugh fell from her mouth. “Shame on him for playing such a mean joke on you. He’s not in Vietnam. He’s in school, remember?”
A sorrowful look like none she’d ever seen appeared on the woman’s face, and she gave her head a slow shake. “No, Mona Beth. He enlisted a few weeks ago and has already shipped out. And it’s all my fault.” Without another word, Linda Miller rose to her feet and on shaky legs wobbled from the room and up the stairs.
In a daze, and with her heart in constant prayer, Mona Beth set about to accomplish her usual round of tasks. Why would Bo enlist when he was so close to finishing school? The plan was to finish and then return to Miller’s Creek so they could be married.
An unexpected rush of anger coursed through her, and she gripped the edge of the Formica kitchen countertops until her knuckles turned white. How could he do this to her, without so much as a postcard to let her know? All throughout the years he’d been away, she’d purposefully stayed true to the promise and loyal to him. And he gave it all away to enlist? Being drafted was one thing, but intentionally going away to the war was something else entirely. What had happened to make him do such a foolish thing?
The one-word answer landed in her brain with a thud and set her heart to pounding. Bo had definitely heard of his best friend’s death, and it would be just like him to join the war effort in some sort of foolhardy attempt to honor Vernon’s memory. The thought sobered her somewhat, but she spent the rest of the morning vacillating between two overwhelming emotions—anger that Bo had done this without consulting her and fear for his safety.
A few minutes before lunch, she checked the study to see if Jim wanted something to eat, but he wasn’t there. Her heart ached for him, and she sent up a quick prayer to heaven on his behalf. He would take the news hard.
Her angst now in overdrive, Mona Beth poured her fury into scrubbing and scouring every inch of the old house. By quitting time, the house sparkled more than it ever had. She climbed the stairs and knocked softly on Linda Miller’s bedroom door around three that afternoon. “Mrs. Miller, I’m leaving. Can I get you anything before I go?”
“No, thank you,” came the sedate reply.
Mona Beth locked the door to the old house, which now seemed enshrouded by an extra layer of sorrow and death, her mind focused on one thought. Life in the Miller household wouldn’t be the same until the heir to the family legacy returned home safe and sound. Neither would her heart.
For the rest of the afternoon, Mona Beth closed herself off in her room, not ready to tell her parents the news. At first, she simply lay on her bed and peered out the window at the beautiful May weather, wondering what the scenery looked like on the other side of the world. Was the sun shining, or was it rainy and dreary? Was Bo dry and comfortable on a cot in an Army tent, or besieged by insects and oppressive heat in the jungles of Vietnam?
For the first time all day, she gave into the sorrow and misery, buried her head in her pillow, and cried until tears would no longer come. Finally Mona Beth sat up and swabbed at the tears on her cheeks. This was getting her nowhere except deeper in a miry pit. She leaned toward the spindle-legged bedside table for her Bible, then propped her back against the headboard and flipped open the well-worn pages, praying Bo still had the Bible she’d given him. How could anyone make it through life without the comfort of God’s Word?
The Bible fell open to Isaiah. Mona Beth forced her troubled thoughts to the words on the page, reading them with a newfound fervency. God was the only answer to this mess. She read and read, pausing occasionally to offer up prayers for Bo—for his safety, for his comfort, and for him to turn to God for wisdom and guidance.
As the sun set on the horizon, a giant blob of orange in a golden day, a nest of sparrows chirped from the crepe myrtle by her window. Her eyes lit on a verse in chapter fifty-four: For thy Maker is thine husband; the LORD of hosts is His name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall He be called.
The words spread like wildfire throughout her body, quickening her heart. She read the verse again, a slow frown forming on her forehead. What did it mean and why did it seem so important to this situation?
Sudden comfort and peace blanketed her heart as the words registered. Bo had promised to one day become her husband, but for now that promise was postponed for an indefinite period of time, apparently even longer than she’d hoped. Until the day that God ordained for her and Bo to marry, the Lord would be her husband.
She read through the verse over and over again, allowing the words to whisper peace to her soul. Though her heart grieved for the man she loved and the deferred promise, God had not left her alone. When she exited the room for dinner later that evening, only one promise echoed in her mind. “I will be your husband.”
“Hey, Miller!” Jeff, a private who served as secretary to the CO, hollered at him from the other side of the compound. “Colonel Myers says to tell you that you have a letter.”
Only a few steps from his tent, Bo paused and forced the hope that burgeoned in his chest back down. Just because there was a letter didn’t mean it was from her. Head lowered, he retraced his steps to the main office and took the decorative and scented envelope Jeff offered, ignoring the return address momentarily, his ego not yet ready for another disappointment. “Plans still on for the New Year party?”
The young private nodded eagerly. “Yeah, Colonel says the North Vietnamese won’t be doing any fighting tonight. The Vietnamese New Year is a big holiday over here.”
Bo held the envelope to his nose and breathed in the floral scent, the smell familiar, but not familiar enough. Sometimes he wondered if Jeff ever uttered a sentence that wasn’t prefaced by “Colonel says.” But in this instance what he said was true. Christmas and Tet ran together into one long holiday here. He turned the envelope over and eyed the return address. Evelyn.
Jeff motioned toward the letter in Bo’s hand, a suggestive gleam in his eye. “Your girl?”
Bo’s lips formed a tight line. “Maybe.” If Mona Beth didn’t want him, he could certainly do worse than Evelyn Simpson. Pretty as all get out, and the only heir to a huge fortune. What wasn’t to like?
Part of him instantly recoiled at the distasteful thought, but he hardened his heart against the guilt. Such were the ways of life, and for whatever reason the road sure hadn’t taken him back to Miller’s Creek and Mona Beth.
He let the flimsy door slam behind him and crossed the base toward the tent he shared with three other guys, waiting until he was safely inside and alone to open the letter.
I just wanted to drop you another letter to let you know I’m thinking about you and praying for you. It seems like forever since I’ve seen you, and I miss you like crazy.
As I’m sure you know, I’m finishing up my last semester. I’m so ready to be out on my own! I have several job interviews lined up for the coming months. But honestly, my heart just isn’t into any of the options. It might sound pretty quirky for a girl who is about to have a business degree, but I’m ready for a husband and family.
My problem is that I can’t seem to find anyone that stacks up to you. (Please don’t stop reading. Give me a chance to explain.) Mama told me that you and your girlfriend from Miller’s Creek broke up. I know that must have been difficult for you. So what I’m trying to say, even if it’s coming out a little clumsy, if you don’t have another girl when you get back to the states, be sure to look me up. Who knows? Maybe things will work out between us, and I can move back to Texas with you to help you with your ranch.
His heart heavy and leaden, Bo read the letter a second time, then carefully folded it and tucked it inside his shirt pocket while he digested the information. Evelyn was still interested in him, even after he’d pushed her away proclaiming his love for Mona Beth.
Bo rolled onto his back on the narrow cot and stared up at the ceiling of the ugly Army-green tent. Maybe it was time for him to move on in the love department. But one thing was for sure. It could be years before he was outta this God-forsaken place, where his only real goal at the moment was survival.
Later that night, he took another swig of his drink and gazed around the mess tent. Crawling with rowdy drab-green soldiers, the party lacked the celebration of joy and hope the American New Year held, and had become just another way for the GI Joe’s to forget the traumatic horrors of a war they had no business being involved in. Did the powers in Washington think America was somehow superior to the French? The soldiers of that country had already been whipped up on before the U.S. ever arrived. What were they thinking?
He allowed his thoughts to meander over the past few months. No amount of training could have prepared him for this. It had rained—not just a few drops here and there, but a steady downpour—from June through October last year, the lushness of the jungles in high contrast to the muddy brown of the Army base.
And so far Army life consisted of moving from place to place at the whim of General Westmoreland. His duties included spraying Agent Orange from a backpack to beat back the thick foliage along allied military routes where guerrilla forces often hid in ambush, as well as raiding villages and traversing steamy jungles in search of Vietcong.
Bo wiped sweat from his forehead. It hadn’t taken long for him to realize that the American military was spread way too thin. The allied forces would finally gain an advantage in one area until the North Vietnamese doubled their efforts in another. Then his platoon would move to the new location, which only served to allow the enemy to capture the ground the U.S. had originally taken—an endless cat-and-mouse game that seemed to have no winning solution for anyone.
He examined the hands he no longer recognized, now the hands of an old man. He often felt the same way when he glimpsed his unshaven face in a mirror. Sometimes he felt more like a North Vietnamese puppet than a soldier for the United States Army. And the thing that made the whole war especially frightening was that the North Vietnamese were experts at traversing the thick jungles. They easily infiltrated South Vietnamese villages posing as peasants. How many army buddies had he lost to their tactics?
A sudden wave of emotion threatened to drag him under, as memories of his platoon’s frequent jaunts into the countryside flooded his mind. He shifted in his seat and released a weighted breath in an attempt to make the images and guilt go away. How could they know for sure that the villages of peasants—men, women, and children—they’d destroyed were actually controlled by the Vietcong?
Bo ran a hand across his shaved head. Fighting the loneliness, fatigue and depression was an even more difficult battle. Most of the guys dealt with the craziness in self-destructive ways, taking drugs or drinking themselves into an oblivious stupor when the opportunity arose.
A fight broke out in one corner of the tent, complete with yelled curses and exchanged punches. A couple of soldiers, reeking of liquor and cigarettes, left their table beside him to help stop the brawl. Bo watched the ordeal with a jaded eye. How sad that most of these guys were little more than kids, his age or younger, some fresh out of high school. When had the land of the free and the home of the brave decided to turn schoolboys into soldiers? And would there ever be an end to this crazy war?
Bo tossed a handful of peanuts into his mouth and crunched them, trying his best to ignore the sights and sounds around him. Though it was true that President Johnson had inherited the war from Kennedy and had to tread lightly to keep from involving the Chinese, he seemed reluctant to really fight the war. Instead of going in at one hundred percent like Bo had learned during high school football, the Texas-born President and his cohorts fought the battle by inches instead of miles. And the unacceptable result was more wounded soldiers, or worse yet, men going home in body bags.
Sudden sirens sounded and the whine of artillery pierced the air. Bo jumped, then ducked beneath a long table, secured his helmet and latched onto anyone he could grab hold of to yank them to safety. Nearby a boy younger than him was hit with a spray of shells, splattering blood into Bo’s face and eyes. He wiped his face with the front of his t-shirt, praying none of the blood was his own.
After several intense minutes, the attack let up as quickly as it began, and he peered out from beneath the table to survey the damage. What was left of the mess hall hung in tattered shreds, and the fallen bodies of his fellow soldiers littered the room. Some were already dead, some blinked blank eyes dimmed by the approach of death, and some cried out in agony. How had he managed to stay in one piece in the middle of this carnage? He removed his helmet, knelt on one knee, and bowed his head to offer up prayers of thanksgiving and grief to the Giver and Sustainer of life.
Several hours later, after all the dead and wounded had been evacuated, the Colonel, his face weary and resigned, rounded up the few of them that remained. “Boys, we’re sending you up to Hue. Apparently, the Commies have launched a major offensive during Tet as a surprise attack, not just here, but over South Vietnam. All our forces have been hit pretty hard, including Saigon, but the worst fighting is in Hue right now.”
Bo’s pulse rocketed. Hue was right on the border. If the North Vietnamese had captured the city, the next battle he faced wouldn’t be the jungle warfare he’d grown accustomed to, but urban hand-to-hand combat. And one thing he’d learned during his tenure in this God-forsaken place—the Vietcong didn’t play fair. They often captured an opponent in a hug to prevent an allied airstrike, and then killed their human shield at their convenience.
Suddenly sick to his stomach, Bo shoved his way to the back of the pack where he lost the meager contents of his stomach.
His prediction turned out to be accurate. A week and a half after battling their way into Hue and securing their position, the battle still seemed unending. With only tepid water to drink and MREs to eat, all of them were fighting on pure adrenalin and the will to survive.
Bo sank to the ground and wearily leaned his helmeted head against the damp stone building in the outskirts of Hue where they’d taken refuge for the night. The stars twinkled brightly, the only thing around that linked him to anything vaguely familiar. Miller’s Creek now seemed like another lifetime. How had he ended up in this place?
Without warning, tears spilled down his cheeks. He quickly wiped them away before his fellow-soldiers noticed. In war, the strong preyed on the weak, no matter which side of the effort they supported. Bo reached into his Army jacket and withdrew a pen and the multi-paged letter to Mona Beth he’d started weeks ago, right after the Tet Offensive began. He glanced over to one of his fellow soldiers. “Hey, Jay, can I borrow your flashlight?”
“Sure thing. Still working on that letter to your girl?”
“Yeah.” Bo barely recognized the bitter voice as his own. “Sorry. I don’t mean to sound so…” He had no idea how to finish the comment.
Jay smiled kindly, his teeth bright white against his dirt-caked face in the moonlight. “It’s okay, Buddy. We’re all going through it. None of us know if the next day will bring with it our last breath.”
Bo nodded and took the flashlight his friend held out. It was true. Maybe that’s why he’d decided to write her one last letter. He might never see her again at this rate, and that thought brought a sorrow so deep he wasn’t sure he’d ever get past it. Bo tucked the flashlight beneath his left arm to keep the beam of light focused on the paper.
It’s been a few days since I last added to this letter. As you can tell by my small handwriting, I’m trying to fit as much on the paper as I can. The fighting that began on Tet has been hard and exhausting. Most of my original platoon has left for stateside due to death or injury.
I’ve heard by way of the grapevine that this year has already turned into the deadliest of the whole war for the U.S. soldiers, and I believe it.
Now his tears started in earnest, and this time there was no holding them back. He quickly switched off the flashlight, and lowered his head and crossed arms to his knees, his heart crying out to heaven as the sounds of artillery pierced the night air not very far away. Oh, God, help me. I’m sorry I pushed You to the side when Mona Beth returned my ring. My stupid pride got in the way. That’s why I’m here, my own foolish pride. But I’m ready to go home. Please take me back to Miller’s Creek.
Bo curled up in a fetal position and softly cried until his tears were spent. At the forefront of his mind as he finally drifted off into a sleep of pure exhaustion were Mona Beth and the ranch.
The thumping helicopter rotors thrashed up a cough-inducing dust that stung Mona Beth’s skin and eyes as the aircraft lifted away from the vacant field across from the old farmhouse. She clutched Steve’s hand tightly while the wind whipped her skirt and sweater into a frenzy and her heart ripped from her chest. That helicopter, now en route to Baylor Medical Hospital, carried the man she loved more than life itself, and it would be several hours before she saw him again. She sent a fervent prayer to heaven that God would sustain Bo’s life and keep him comforted until she arrived.
Once she’d seen the blood dripping down Bo’s chin, she’d immediately called Steve, panicky and unsure of what to do. He arrived a few minutes later, and the care-flight helicopter immediately after that. Now he peered down at Mona Beth, his brown eyes full of sorrow. “Better grab a few things before we head to Dallas. Can you get your things together on your own while I make a quick trip to the ranch to get my stuff? I shouldn’t be gone longer than thirty minutes, and then we can hit the road.”
She nodded and swallowed the sandy grit in her mouth, uncertain of anything, including her ability to stand without someone to hold her up. Why, on why, had she insisted on talking about the ring? Maybe if she hadn’t brought it up this wouldn’t have happened.
Overwhelming fear grabbed her by the throat. She simply had to get to Dallas as soon as possible to make sure Bo was all right.
Steve helped her back to the house with a promise to return as soon as possible. While she packed an overnight bag her soul cried out to God. Her last stay at the hospital had turned into several weeks. How long would it be this time?
The thirty minutes Steve promised turned into an hour as he made sure that Miller’s Creek and Dani would be taken care of in his absence. While part of her was glad he took such good care of her daughter and hometown, another part of her was ready to strangle him as her fear and anxiety for Bo escalated to a full head of steam.
Finally, three hours later, Steve pulled his pickup into a spot in the concrete parking garage of the hospital and killed the engine. He leaned his head back against the headrest and released a weary puff of air. “I hate Dallas traffic.”
Mona Beth’s heart softened. All this time she’d been focused on what Bo’s dreaded disease would cost her. How could she have been so blind to the others around her? Steve was his father’s only son, and the two were unbelievably close. There was no doubt this was hard for him as well. She reached across the cab and laid a hand on his arm. “I love you, Steve.”
He smiled, close-lipped, his eyes bearing testimony to his weariness and sorrow. “Love you, too, Mama Beth. You ready to go see what’s going on?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Her dry comment elicited a chuckle from Steve as he helped her from the over-sized pickup.
A few minutes later they checked in with the receptionists in the lobby, and then made their way to the ICU nurse’s station, the familiar hospital smells already burning Mona Beth’s nostrils.
Steve, his cowboy hat in hand, leaned his lanky body against the granite counter.
“May I help you?” A nurse in colorful scrubs gazed up at them from behind the station.
“Yeah, my dad was care-flighted here from Miller’s Creek. His name is Bo Miller.”
The computer keys clicked rapidly as the lady typed in the information and then studied the screen. “You’ll have to take a seat in the lobby for right now, but I’ll let the doctor know you’re here.”
Panic clawed its way to Mona Beth’s heart and then into her throat, her mind imagining the worst. Was he already gone? She exchanged a nervous glance with Steve. He put an arm around her shoulders and led her to the crowded waiting room, then went in search of coffee. Within a minute or two, he was back at her side. She gratefully accepted the cup he offered and slurped down a big gulp to soothe her frayed nerves.
After what seemed like hours, Dr. Kumar arrived in his customary blue surgeon’s scrubs, his dark hair covered with a matching hat and the mask dangling from his neck. He shook both their hands and straddled a chair across from them.
Mona Beth could wait no longer. “Is he okay?”
He nodded wearily. “Bo was still asleep when I left a few minutes ago, but he should wake up soon. After we talk I’ll let you in to see him for a little while.” He paused, his dark eyes sad and soulful. “I’m sorry to have to say this, but the tumor’s back.”
Her heart cratered and she tried unsuccessfully to suck in a gulp of air. Finally she found her voice. “Well, we’ll just do another surgery, right?”
The doctor’s mouth clamped into a taut line, and he shook his head. “His body’s simply not strong enough to endure that again, and it would only be a matter of time before it returned anyway.”
Heaviness landed in her chest with a thud, then branched out to send a numbing cold to her extremities. A shudder raced down her spine. She’d known all along this day would probably come and tried to prepare for it. So why was it still so hard to hear?
Steve took hold of her hand, his eyes moist and full of concern for her. “You okay?”
Okay? Would she ever be okay again? She shook her head and faced Dr. Kumar. “How long does he have?”
“A few weeks.”
A few weeks. He might as well have said a few minutes. She tried to clear the frog in her throat, but her words still came out croaky. “Can he go home?”
“He could, but I’m not sure I can advise it unless you have hospice care. It would be too much for you to handle on your own.”
“We’ll call hospice.” Steve’s tone was direct and firm. “Dad wouldn’t want his last days to be spent in a hospital away from the people he loves most.” His voice cracked, and he finished the statement with a hoarse and wobbly whisper.
The doctor clamped his lips and nodded. “Fair enough. Let us keep him overnight. If all goes well and we feel he’s able to make the trip, we’ll arrange for an ambulance to take him back tomorrow.” He hesitated momentarily. “May I ask you a fairly personal question?”
Mona Beth nodded. Anything, especially if it helped Bo.
“The last thing I want to do is to cause you more pain, but I always try to get to the root cause of the cancer for my records and study. Did Mr. Miller by any chance serve in the Vietnam War?”
Steve bobbed his head, his forehead wrinkled. “Yes, why?”
The doctor released a low sigh before he brought his gaze to Steve’s face. “This type of cancer is especially prevalent among men exposed to Agent Orange. Do you know if he was exposed to the chemical?”
She and Steve exchanged questioning glances. Mona Beth lifted one shoulder. “Bo doesn’t talk about his war days much.” The answer was possibly buried somewhere in the letters, but did she really want to know?
The man stood. “Okay. I appreciate your willingness to help. You can see him now.”
After shaking Dr. Kumar’s hand one last time, they made their way down the hallway. Steve held the door for Mona Beth, and she hurriedly entered the darkened room, eager to see her husband.
Bo turned his head ever so slightly, and his face brightened. “There’s my girl.”
Tears of relief dripping from her chin, she bustled to his side. “I’m so sorry I caused this.”
“You did no such thing.” He accompanied the words with a stern look.
“But if I hadn’t been so intent on finding out about the ring.” He squirmed in the bed, obviously growing more agitated. She quickly changed the subject. “Never mind my foolish prattle. Let’s move on to something else. We just talked to Dr. Kumar. If you have a good night, he’ll let you go home tomorrow.” She forced cheerfulness into her tone.
His eyes told her that he didn’t buy it, but he graciously played along. “Good. Don’t know why I had to come here in the first place. All they’ve done since I got here is poke and prod me until I feel like a pincushion. And don’t get me started on all the pictures they took of my insides.”
They enjoyed a few more minutes of conversation, but within a half hour the nurse came in and shooed them out. “Mr. Miller’s going to get a dose of something to help with the pain and help him sleep. You two should enjoy a nice dinner and find a comfortable place to stay. You can come back in the morning.”
Though not pleased about leaving him again, Mona Beth acquiesced, comforted by the fact that she’d see Bo again the next morning. She kissed him good night and hugged him around the wires and monitors.
After a nice steak dinner, which she only nibbled at, Steve found them each a room at a nearby hotel. She readied herself for bed, then put on her reading glasses and reached into her overnight bag for the bundle of letters. Time was running out, and she needed to do this, if for no other reasons than to grant Bo’s dying wish and to see if she could find answers for Dr. Kumar.
Mona Beth read for a good half hour until she reached an envelope much thicker than the others. She glanced at the postmark date. 1968. This letter was written while he was in Vietnam. With a slow, heavy breath she closed her eyes momentarily. God, make me strong enough to bear this.
Only a few paragraphs into the letter, she reached the words that described how he sprayed the roadsides with a chemical called Agent Orange.
Mona Beth hurriedly slipped out of the work jeans she’d worn to complete the morning farm chores and pulled on the long skirt Linda Miller preferred for her work at the ranch. A fatigued sigh fell from her lips as she combed through her mussed hair with her fingertips and pulled it back into a ponytail. What she wouldn’t give for five minutes to catch her breath. Or better yet, a good half hour and a borrowed horse for a ride. Her thoughts flew to Buttercup, who had been put down earlier that year in spite of her best efforts to save the prized mare.
She checked her appearance in the small mirror above the dresser, surprised at the changes reflected there. With the long hours of constant motions, she’d dropped a few more pounds, and her clothing now hung lifelessly from her shoulders. In addition, dark circles now hovered beneath her lackluster eyes. Would Bo even be attracted to her anymore?
In exasperation Mona Beth fisted both hands. Out of school for almost a year now, and she still had nothing to show for it except calloused hands and an empty bank account. Her dreams of going to school to be a teacher had flown out the window, as had her hard-earned savings, all in an attempt to save the farm. Between helping Daddy with the farm chores, working at Miller ranch, and waiting tables at the new diner in town, every spare second of her time was spoken for, with no end in sight.
She hurried from the tiny second bedroom into the open living space of the apartment they’d recently rented where Daddy and Mama gobbled down a few bites of breakfast before they left for their day jobs.
Mona Beth joined them at the table and reached for the cereal with Tony the Tiger grinning from the front of the box. The Frosted Flakes whooshed from the plastic liner and dinged against the bowl as she poured them. Next she added a small amount of milk and shoved a spoonful in her mouth with a crunch.
“Goodness, if we’re not all worked to the bone.” Mama let out a weary breath, her face strained and lined, and her head at rest on one palm. “I think I’m too tired to even chew.”
Daddy rubbed a hand along her back. “It’s okay, hon. It won’t always be this way.”
Mama’s tired eyes glistened with unshed tears. “I wish I could believe you, but I don’t. I can’t hold on much longer. I know we’re getting more money for renting out the farmhouse than what we pay on this crummy little shoebox Otis Thatcher calls an apartment, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.” Her words grew louder and more agitated. “I haven’t slept a lick since we moved in here thanks to the lead-footed people upstairs.”
Mona Beth frowned. Her mother had never been one to complain, so it carried great weight when she did.
Daddy’s face took on resignation. “Then maybe we should sell the farm and buy a cheaper place in town.”
Immediate protest flowed throughout every fiber of her body. Mona Beth pushed her chair away from the table and stood. “Over my dead body!” She clenched her jaw and prepared for a battle.
Mama twisted her head to the side to look Mona Beth in the eye. “And just look at what all this has done to you. When was the last time you had a date or went out with friends?” She grabbed one of Mona Beth’s hands and examined her palms and fingernails. “Your hands don’t look like a girl’s hands anymore. They’re calloused and rough, and your fingernails are chewed to the quick.”
She snatched her hand away, no longer hungry. Without another words to her parents, she moved a few steps to another part of the living area, switched on the small black-and-white television, and plopped down on the sofa. A small dot in the center of the TV slowly developed into a grainy picture.
Beyond frustrated, Mona Beth forced air through her nose and rose from her position on the couch to adjust the rabbit ear antenna. The picture finally cleared up, and immediately she wished it hadn’t. The Today Show paraded horrific pictures of injured soldiers and bloody fighting from the war across the screen, and Hugh Downs’ deep voice announced: “On the warfront, allied forces continue to lose ground.”
She froze in one spot, her eyes unblinking as she took in the images. Could Bo survive such an onslaught? Oh, God, please spare his life.
A voice sounded behind her, and she gave her head a shake to dislodge the troubled thoughts so she could comprehend the words.
“I said to turn it off, Mona Beth.” Daddy’s voice held a firmness she’d not heard since the time she’d chosen to play hooky in the fifth grade to avoid a math test.
Her heart in torment, she did as she was told. “Mama, can I use the pickup today?”
“Sure. Daddy can give me a ride to work.”
Without even saying goodbye, she left the tension-laden confines of the small apartment and hurried to the truck. As she sped down the dusty dirt roads to the ranch, her brain replayed the terrifying scenes she’d seen on the television, and her heart cried out a constant prayer for Bo’s safety. Once at the ranch house, she practically ran to the front door and knocked, eager to see if Linda had any news.
Bo’s mother answered the door, her face as cold and uncaring as ever, though more lined since she’d received the news that her only child had enlisted. “Come in. I have a long list today, so you’d better get started as soon as possible.” She stepped to one side for Mona Beth to enter.
“Any word from Bo?”
A brief flame flickered in the woman’s eyes, but was quickly doused by her ice-cold demeanor. “No.” Linda handed her a list almost twice as long as normal.
Mona Beth took the list and gritted her teeth to keep her mouth from falling open and her tongue from complaining.
“I don’t think Jim will be with us much longer, so I need these things done in case I have a house full of company soon.”
The news brought a fresh round of grief to Mona Beth’s heart. Though she’d expected it for some time, it hurt none the less. She determined to sneak in to see Jim at the first opportunity. His death would be almost as difficult to bear as Granny Miller’s, especially since Bo wouldn’t be here for this funeral either.
“I have a hair appointment and some shopping to do in town. After that I’m having lunch with friends.” Linda Miller secured a light blue hair scarf over her beehive hairdo and picked up a white patent leather purse from a nearby table. “Please try to have this finished before I return. Then we need to talk.”
Mona Beth nodded, grateful the opportunity to spend time with Jim had presented itself, though it would be cut short by the lengthy list of chores. And Linda Miller wanted to talk? Had she finally broken through the woman’s leaden heart? After Bo’s mother drove away, she hurried to the study. Jim was bedridden now, confined to a small hospital bed they’d had delivered to the ranch.
As she entered the room, Bo’s dad turned his head her way, his eyes sunken into his skull, his body emaciated by the cancer that would soon claim his life. “I was hoping I’d get to see my ray of sunshine today.” The raspy words were accompanied by a weak smile.
She inhaled a deep breath of stale air, hurried to his side, and took his frail hand in her own, searching his face for clues. “How’s the pain today?” Her prayers for him yesterday and last night had centered on removing the pain according to God’s will.
With concentrated effort, he weakly moved his head from side to side. “The prayers worked.” His eyes grew watery. “I want you to know how much I appreciate you showing me the way back to God. In spite of Bo being gone and the cancer, these past few months have been the most wonderful of my life. It brings me a lot of comfort to know that when I breathe my last here, I’ll breathe my first there.” Jim wheezed out the words and finished it all with a cough.
An odd combination of sorrow and joy gripped her heart. How she would miss this man! Thank You, God, for the friendship we’ve shared. I pray that Jim’s home-going will be quick and peaceful. She patted his hand and kissed his weathered cheek. “It’s been my joy and pleasure, Mr. Jim. You ring that bell if you need anything. I’ll be back to check on you later.”
A flicker of displeasure crossed his face. “Linda works you way too hard. She still paying you?”
Mona Beth nodded. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that her pay had been cut even further because of hard times. “Can I bring you anything before I go?”
“No, sweet girl, I feel a nap coming on. Will you come back at lunch and read the Bible to me for a few minutes?”
She smiled. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
For the next several hours, she cleaned and organized the kitchen cabinets, pantry, and refrigerator. Then she dusted and swept and mopped all the floors, including the upstairs bedrooms that were hardly ever used. She lingered in Bo’s room, her eyes drawn to the relics of his childhood—newspaper clippings of various football games attached to corkboard, her school picture, and surprisingly enough, a clipping from the paper that detailed her barrel-racing win from the summer of 1963.
Her breath caught in her throat, and she closed her eyes, allowing the bittersweet memories a few moments of her time. She finally shook off the nostalgia and hurried back down to the kitchen to fix some broth for Jim. With the aroma of the soup wafting to her nose, her mouth watered and her stomach growled, but she pushed aside her own needs for Jim.
He was even weaker at lunchtime than he’d been earlier that morning and refused the broth, with a request that she read Psalm 23. She obliged, comfort flowing from the sacred words.
When she finished, a soft smile curled his lips upward. “Thank you. Now if you don’t mind, I think I’ll take another nap. See you soon.” His face held some indefinable quality.
Mona Beth peered at him once more from the doorway, then softly closed the door and resumed her tasks. By the time Linda Miller returned, she’d finished the laundry and weeded the flower beds, completing her lengthy to-do list.
“Help me carry in the groceries and put them away, then we’ll talk.” Linda Miller didn’t even look Mona Beth’s way as she made the demands.
Though it was well after her normal quitting time when they finished, Mona Beth followed Linda Miller to the sunroom her thoughts in an uproar. Was it possible that Linda Miller was finally warming up to her, or did she have something else up her sleeve?
Like a queen who had a firm handle on the servants beneath her, Linda Miller perched on the floral cushions of the white wicker furniture. “You asked earlier this morning about Bo.”
Mona Beth frowned. “Yes. You told me you didn’t have any information.”
“Well, that wasn’t exactly the truth. I didn’t tell you at the time because you needed to focus on your chores.”
Her heart flip-flopped and sent a bout of nausea to her growling stomach. She gripped the edge of the chair and waited for Bo’s mother to continue.
“The truth is that Bo has been injured.”
Mona Beth’s pulse roared in her ears as tears flowed, and she brought both hands to her face. “Why didn’t you tell me the truth?” Her words increased in volume with each syllable, and for once, she didn’t care that they were laced with the venom she felt in her heart. “How could you be so cold-hearted and unfeeling? This is your son you’re talking about!”
Linda Miller had the audacity to roll her eyes. “Get a hold of yourself, girl. His life isn’t in danger. It was a fairly serious wound, and his ability to walk has been affected, but he’ll be coming back to Miller’s Creek soon.”
An exquisite joy replaced her anger and fear, bringing a smile in spite of the tears. “When?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Mona Beth’s demeanor softened toward the woman. “Thank you so much for telling me.”
Linda’s chin rose. “I wouldn’t be so quick to say thanks if I were you.”
A frown puckered her brow, but Mona Beth didn’t respond. Instead she waited for whatever bombshell Linda Miller decided to drop next.
“I’m sure you’ll understand that I no longer need your services.”
Anger laced its way through Mona Beth’s insides. Her mouth flew open, then immediately snapped shut. Though she had other part-time jobs, her family needed the money this paycheck brought in, and it was here at the ranch that she felt closest to Bo. Now she had to give that up as well?
“Before you leave, I have one more request.” She paused, her dark eyes blacker than the blackest night. “Stay away from my son.”
“I figured you might say that.” Her words were frozen icicles, sharp and dangerous. “Well then, you’d best be prepared for the consequences. You can leave now.”
Her pulse thundering, Mona Beth strode from the room and out the front door. She was almost to town before she realized Bo’s mother had neglected to pay her, after yet another exhausting day.
Ice-cold anger quickly doused the idea of returning to the ranch to collect her pay. Never would she lower herself to beg for money from Linda Miller, even though she’d earned every cent.
Once back at the apartment, she munched on an apple and quickly changed back into her work clothes to help Daddy with the spring planting. When she arrived at the farm, she located the tractor in the middle of a field, but neither Daddy nor his pickup were anywhere in sight. She crawled onto the old John Deere and resumed the work.
An hour later her father arrived. Even from her perch atop the tractor, she could tell by his slumped posture and grim facial expression that something was wrong.
She quickly turned off the roaring motor and jumped to the ground. “What is it, Daddy?”
He shook his head and gave a brief shrug as he shuffled past her to the tractor. “Same old stuff.”
Mona Beth’s eyes followed his retreating back. “What does that mean?”
Daddy faced her as he reached the tractor, his eyes distant and clouded over. “It means that unless I can come up with several thousand dollars in the next few weeks, the bank is going to foreclose on the farm.”
His angry words landed a blow to her midsection. She hurried to him, but he held up one hand that brought her to a halt. “I don’t want to discuss it right now, Mona Beth. I’ve had a long, rough day. Maybe later, after I’ve had a chance to process it. Your mama will be off work in half an hour. I need you to pick her up.”
Tears hovered right beneath the surface, but she held them at bay. Never had she seen Daddy so discouraged. Never had he turned her away like this.
Mona Beth arrived at TG&Y just as Mama locked the store door, and her mother’s face held the same unnerving look she’d just seen at the farm. Had Daddy already told her?
Her mother swung open the pickup door and pulled herself inside. “I guess you already know?”
“Yeah, Daddy told me about the farm.”
“The farm? What about the farm?”
A black cloud of confusion descended. This couldn’t be good. “Never mind. What were you talking about?”
Her mother’s expression grew even darker. “I just heard that Jim Miller died in his sleep this afternoon.”
Bo hobbled from the car with the use of his cane, an indelible grin on his face. He inhaled deeply, the light fragrance of the bluebonnets swirling into his nose, and made his way to the rocky overhang ahead. In spite of that frightful night he’d been shot and wounded—and now the occasion of his father’s funeral—at least the horrible circumstances had landed him back in Miller’s Creek. He was finally home.
His heart throbbed with excitement at this scenic overlook close to the ranch, and he gazed down on his beloved hometown. Besides God, there were only two things in the world he loved more than Miller’s Creek—the ranch and Mona Beth—and he couldn’t wait to see them both.
He gingerly turned and limped back to the Simpson’s car where Evelyn and her parents waited. They’d picked him up at Fort Benning the day before yesterday and driven him to Miller’s Creek for the funeral.
Bo scooted into the back seat beside Evelyn, careful to keep distance between them as he slammed the car door. Based on her pained expression, he was pretty sure she knew where he stood, and the last thing he wanted to do was hurt her. She’d been a loyal friend, but it would be wrong for him to encourage any ideas of a romantic relationship between them, at least until he’d had the opportunity to speak to Mona Beth.
She sent a sad smile. “This part of Texas is so beautiful, Bo. What are those pretty blue flowers called?”
“Bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas. Smelled them as soon as I stepped out of the car.”
Jane Simpson swiveled and peered into the backseat. “I can’t wait to see your mother. She sounded so distraught when I talked to her on the phone.”
Bo nodded, but couldn’t help remembering his phone conversation with his mother. She hadn’t sounded distraught at all, just cold and distant.
A rollicking exhilaration skittered through his insides when they pulled into the oak-lined driveway that led to the old home place a few minutes later. But a frown developed as they drew closer, the signs of decay and deterioration all around him. The barbed-wire fence that his father once kept so taut you could barely squeeze between the wires now hung limply from the cedar posts, like mesquite leaves on a dry and windless summer day. In some places the posts leaned to the ground, providing no protection or security for the livestock. Overgrown and weedy pastures greeted him next. Where were all the cows and horses? The house came into view, with peeling paint and rotten wooden screens that sagged from the exterior window frames.
A sick feeling developed in the pit of his stomach and his mouth cottoned over. Bo swung open the car door and hopped out with his cane as Jack Simpson brought the car to a stop. What had happened to the place in his absence? Yes, he knew his father had been sick for much of the time, but his mother had assured him that the ranch was being cared for by family friends. If this was her definition of cared for, then they obviously had some serious talking to do.
Behind him the Simpson family climbed from the car, their eyes and faces bearing varying levels of shock as they took in the surroundings. Bo thought of their mansion in Atlanta. This must surely make his family look like hicks from the sticks.
Evelyn pasted on a smile. “Your house is cute. Didn’t you tell me it had been in your family for a long time?”
“Uh, yeah, Mom’s always wanted to build a newer house, but Daddy liked this one for sentimental reasons.” He lowered his gaze to tufts of spring grass sorely in need of mowing. At least the flower beds were weeded. “Maybe she’ll get her new house now.”
As if on command, his mother appeared, her face lit with the same old phony smile. “I thought I heard car doors and voices.” She hurried to Jane and engulfed her in a hug. The two women exchanged smiles and indecipherable words. Next she shook hands with Jack and hugged Evelyn.
Then she stood in front of him, wariness in her dark eyes. The years had not been kind. Her face, now devoid of the smile she’d given the others, seemed granite hard, whisper-thin cracks around her tight lips. “Welcome home, Bo.” She reached forward to hug him.
“Thanks, Mom.” He tried to put some feeling into his embrace, but the cool distance he felt toward her made it all feel a bit surreal.
She pulled away, her eyes downcast, then immediately began to chat with the Simpsons as though she didn’t have a care in the world.
Bo followed the others into the house. The place smelled and looked clean. He lugged his suitcase with one hand and used the other to prop himself on his cane as he headed up the stairs to his room. Once he dumped his junk, he had to find a way to get to Mona Beth’s house without Mama’s knowing about it. If she knew, she’d find a way to stop him, and he just couldn’t risk that, not with so much on the line.
Walking into his room was like stepping out of a time machine. He clicked the door shut and took in the blue plaid bedspread and braided rug Granny had given him. Next, his gaze moved to the cork board stuffed full of football game newspaper clippings, now yellowed with age and curling at the corners. There in the middle of everything hung a school picture of a smiling Mona Beth.
His bag dropped to the floor with a thump, and he hobbled over to release the photo from its perch behind a rusty thumb tack. Had he known he’d be away for so many years, this picture would’ve gone into his wallet a long time ago.
A grin broke out on his lips as he slowly ran his fingers over the photograph. His sunshine girl. Steps and voices sounded at the bottom of the stairs. Bo quickly deposited the picture in his wallet and lay down on the bed with a book from the nearby bookshelf, his cane propped against the side of the bed within reach.
A short while later a knock sounded at the door.
He propped himself up on one elbow. “Yeah?”
The door creaked open. Mama stood in the doorway, a hesitant look on her face. “Aren’t you coming downstairs?”
“Nah, I’m going to read and nap for a while. I’m really tired.”
A slight frown sent wavy lines across her forehead, but thankfully she didn’t press the matter. “Okay.” She hesitated just a second. “It’s good to have you home.”
All sorts of retorts came to mind, considering that he would’ve never left home had he known her original plan, but he let them stack up on his tongue. “Good to be here.”
She stood there a moment longer like she wanted to say more. Finally she nodded and left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
As soon as her footsteps receded down the wooden stairs, Bo rapidly changed into a t-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers then crawled out his window onto the roof of the wraparound porch, the cane in one hand.
Crouching as low as possible, he passed by the other upstairs windows, made his way around to the east side of the house and then used his upper body strength to lower himself to the ground via a porch post.
From there, he half-ran, half-skipped on his good leg to the barn where Daddy always kept a ranch truck fueled and ready to go in case of an emergency. If seeing Mona Beth for the first time in four years didn’t count as an emergency, then nothing did.
As he rounded one corner of the barn, his steps slowed and his jaw went slack. It was almost like walking into a ghost town, so bad were the buildings’ condition. The small frame houses where the ranch hands once lived stood empty and in need of repair. The big hay barn was devoid of hay and tractors, and the roof had large holes where the tin had blown away.
Flabbergasted, Bo leaned his weight against a nearby cedar post, his hands behind him on the rough wood as he tried to catch his breath. At one time this place had buzzed with activity and laughter. He sniffed the air. It even lacked the familiar barn smells he remembered.
Thankfully, his old red Chevy pickup was parked there, the keys dangling from the ignition. The sight of it instantly brought back happy memories of a better time. But before he climbed in and sped away, there was one more place he had to visit.
Bo shivered as he made his way to the stable, like a kid approaching a haunted house on Halloween. There were no horses, no nickering and hoof stamping, no scent of fresh hay. Only a few loose bridles hung from hooks near the door, and even the saddles which once lined a section of the stable walls were missing.
His heart grew heavy and sank, taking his shoulders along for the ride. He’d expected a little disrepair with his father being so ill, but in all her letters Mama had made it sound like they were making it, in spite of hard times. Was it even possible to bring the ranch back to its former glory? And where was Buttercup?
His chest still aching over all he’d seen and hadn’t seen, Bo returned to the truck and climbed in. The pickup roared to life, and within a few minutes he barreled down the road toward the Adams’ farm.
A giddy excitement coursed through him as he pulled into the driveway. The condition of the ranch lost its importance. All that mattered now was seeing Mona Beth and holding her in his arms. Not bothering to shut the pickup door, he bounded up the porch steps as best he could and banged on the door. A little red-headed girl with freckles sprinkled across her nose answered, and two more kids joined her.
He smiled in spite of his confusion. Maybe Mona Beth was babysitting. “Hi. My name’s Bo, and I’m looking for Mona Beth. Is she here?”
The girl frowned and shook her head. “I don’t know no Mona Beth, Mister.”
A woman with red frizzy hair appeared, wiping her hands on a dirty dish towel. She used one hand to smooth down escaped wisps of hair. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I’m—uh, looking for Mona Beth Adams.”
“The Adams’ don’t live here anymore. They still own the place, but we’re renting the house from them.”
An ache built in Bo’s temples, and he knotted his eyebrows. “Do you know where they’ve moved?”
She shook her head back and forth. “Somewhere in town, but I couldn’t tell you exactly where. Mr. Adams always picks up the rent check when he’s here working the farm. Sorry I’m not more help.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Sorry to disturb you.”
He hobbled back to the truck, his mind in overdrive. The only other thing he knew to do was drive around town. Maybe he’d catch a glimpse of her that way. If nothing else, he’d find a phone booth and try to reach her that way.
On his way into town, he passed the old family home Granny Miller once lived in and slowed to a stop in the middle of the road. Devoid of a couple of shutters, the two-story house looked like a rickety old woman without all her makeup. Other shutters hung precariously from one screw, and the grass was overgrown. A branch from the red oak in the front yard had come down on the porch roof, causing it to sag in the middle. The realtor’s sign in the midst of all the Johnson grass revealed that the house was for sale, but who would buy it in such condition?
A car honked behind him and yanked him from his reverie. He waved into the rearview mirror, released the brake, and headed on down the road.
The ache in his head and chest intensified as he pulled into town. Though still very much his beloved hometown, many of the downtown storefronts now stood empty, and wherever he looked he saw a dinginess he’d never noticed before. Had Miller’s Creek just looked different to him as a kid, or had the place really decayed that much in the years he’d been gone?
After driving around town for thirty minutes with no sign of Mona Beth or her parents, he made his way to a phone booth near the town square. The phone book dangled from a chrome cord, very much wrinkled, as though doused with one too many rain showers. He searched the listings for their phone number, but turned up nothing.
Bo heaved a frustrated sigh, crawled back in the truck, and slammed the door. He sat there, unsure of what to do next. Maybe he should head to Watson’s drugstore. It wasn’t an option he particularly relished, especially with J.C. still missing in action, but perhaps Mr. Watson could point him in the right direction to find Mona Beth.
Once more he cranked up the old truck, drove the two blocks to the only drugstore in town, and parked outside. The windows, once kept so clean you could see your reflection, were covered with several layers of dust. The old wooden door creaked as he swung it open and stepped inside.
A musty odor hit his nostrils, and his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. Once the room came into view, it was yet another moment of stepping back in time. For a second, he could do nothing but remember all the happy memories he’d had here as a boy—first with J.C., Vernon and Coot, and then with Mona Beth. How many root beer floats had he shared with her during the hot summer days of Texas?
“Bo, is that you?”
A thin old man he didn’t recognize toddled closer, his bald head a continuous series of wrinkles and age spots. “Yes, sir.”
A smile broke out below the old man’s sparse mustache, and revealed tobacco-stained teeth. He enveloped Bo in a hug. “Good to see you, boy.” The man took a step back, his shoulders slumped forward.
Only then did Bo recognize him. “Mr. Watson?”
The man grinned again and slapped Bo on the arm. “Yeah, it’s me. I know I’ve changed a lot in the past four years.” He turned and toddled behind the counter. “That’s what having a boy in the war will do for you.”
Bo followed him and took a seat on one of the red-seated barstools that used to thrill him as a youngster because he could make them spin all the way around. “Sure sorry to hear about J.C.”
Mr. Watson nodded. “I know you miss him, too.”
“And I’m sorry about your daddy. He’s been sick a long time.”
Bo’s chest tightened with his sharp inhale, and then relaxed as he released a slow puff of air, still trying to come to grips with how much everything had changed. “Do you happen to know where Mona Beth Adams lives now?”
The man’s eyes held an apology. “I know they moved somewhere here in town, but not sure where.”
“Why’d they move?”
“Doing all they can to hang on to the farm, I suppose. They’ve held out longer than anybody else.” A whoosh sounded from the soda fountain, and then Mr. Watson pushed a frosted mug of root beer Bo’s way. “On the house.”
“Thanks.” Bo sipped the cold, sweet liquid, immediately transported to a happier time. He gulped down several swallows and then licked the foam from his lips. “So a lot of farmers have gone out of business?”
“Yep. Big business farms are slowly but surely taking over. Folks around here don’t have the capital to invest in lots of land and machinery. They can’t compete. And Cecil Adams himself told me that he just couldn’t bear to sell the farm to the enemy. He even went and asked your old man if he still wanted to buy it, but your dad said he didn’t have the money either.” He hesitated, as if unsure if he should continue. “Rumor has it that the bank is about to foreclose on them. They’ll lose everything.” The old man’s beady eyes glistened, and he dropped his head quickly. “Just don’t seem right for a man to invest his whole life—his blood, sweat, and tears—into a place, only to have it ripped right out from underneath him.”
Bo couldn’t even bring himself to nod in agreement. Was the ranch that bad off, too? He poured the rest of the root beer down his throat and clunked the glass on the polished wood counter, then stood. “Thanks again for the root beer, Mr. Watson. Reminded me of old times.”
Mr. Watson nodded, his light gray eyes darkened by sorrow. “I’d give a whole bunch of buffalo nickels for those old times.”
“You and me both.”
After giving the old man a hug and a promise to stay in touch, Bo limped out to his pickup. Time to head home and have a talk with Mama about the ranch, and he had a hunch the news wasn’t going to be good.
He didn’t bother to park the truck in the barn, but instead pulled in behind the Simpson’s Buick and clomped up the porch steps and into the house.
Mama met him at the door, her eyes cold and hard, accusing. “There you are. I thought you were going to rest. Imagine my surprise when I found your room empty and your window open. Aren’t you a little old to be sneaking out?”
“I do what I have to do, Mother.”
She looked briefly taken aback by the formal address. “I guess you went to see her.”
“Her, who?” He didn’t care that his words held a challenge, or that his voice carried further than intended.
“Keep your voice down,” she hissed. “Do you want the Simpsons to hear?”
“I don’t really care if they do.”
Mama straightened. “You’re obviously in a mood to be obstinate, in spite of all I’ve been through—”
A short laugh sounded from his throat. “All you’ve been through? Ha! Leave it to you to think only of yourself.”
She glanced around nervously. “Let’s move to the study before they hear us.” Without hesitation, Mama stepped down the hallway, her fancy shoes a-click on the wood floors.
Judging by the shine on them, the high heels appeared to be fairly new. Had his hard-earned dollars paid for them, or had the ranch been the one to pay?
Too angry to disagree with her insistence on privacy for fear he’d say something he shouldn’t, he followed and inhaled slow, deep breaths. Once inside, he shut the door behind him and took a look around the space where his father had once operated the ranch. In the far corner stood a hospital bed.
A heavy blow crashed into his gut and sent pain ricocheting throughout his body as the sudden reality of his father’s death hit. He struggled to catch a breath and lowered his head. Finally he brought his emotions under control and looked up, his eyes once more on the hospital bed.
Mama followed the direction of his gaze, her lips pressed together and silent.
“Did he suffer?” His words trembled with restrained emotion.
Her eyes filled with tears. “We had someone working for us during his illness. She was really good with him.” Mama crossed her arms and released a shaky stream of air. “Did you go see Mona Beth?”
“I tried, but they don’t live at the farm anymore. They’ve moved to town. I tried to find out where they lived by stopping by the drugstore, but Mr. Watson didn’t know their new address.”
A frown flitted across Mama’s face and her mouth opened slightly. “Have they lost the farm?”
He shook his head, his lips pursed. “Not yet.”
Mama stepped to the bank of windows on the far side of the room and stared out into the sunny back pasture, her back to him. “Times have been tough on everyone, including us.”
“I gathered that by looking at the place.” He opted not to mention her new shoes. “Where are the cows and horses?”
“I sold them to pay doctor bills.” His mother grew silent for a moment. Suddenly she whirled around, her hands a-flutter with nervous activity. “You should know I’ve found a buyer for the ranch.” She spurted the words out quickly, as though fearful that she wouldn’t be able to say them at all.
Anger shot steam to the top of his head and sent acid from his stomach to his tongue. “You what?”
“Now hear me out before you blow up. We’re out of money, Bo. We don’t have the funds to operate anymore. Sticking our heads in the sand won’t help anything. There’s a food production company that has bought up several acres of land in the area to grow wheat and maize. They’ve offered enough to buy a house in town. I intend to take them up on the offer.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it.”
A defiant smile twisted one corner of her mouth. “That’s just it. You don’t.”
Bo didn’t stick around to hear more, but limped from the room and slammed the door behind him. Prodded forward by frustration, he kept walking until he reached a small grove of oak trees. He plopped down beneath the biggest one and stretched out his aching leg with a grunt and a grimace.
How could he fix this mess? Not just for him and the ranch, but for Mona Beth and her family as well?
A twig cracked, and he glanced up to see Evelyn approach. “Sorry to disturb you, Bo, but I saw you go by. You looked upset so I thought I’d see if there’s something I could do.” She moved closer and ran her fingertips over the rough bark of an oak. Her head tilted as she studied its gnarled branches, her dark curls cascading down her back. She sat down beside him and leaned against the same tree. “I love live oaks, don’t you? They’re so sturdy and stalwart. Bad weather might take out other trees, but these always seem to weather the storm.”
Her gentle words soaked into his soul like refreshing rain in a desert. “Yeah, they do.”
Evelyn attached her dark-eyed gaze to his. “Anything I can do to help?”
Bo glimpsed the sincerity in her soulful eyes, now large in her perfectly-shaped face. In the past four years, she’d been a constant and consistent presence in his life, more so than any other person. He could never marry solely for money, but Evelyn would be easy to love. Mona Beth had given up on the promise when she returned the ring and chain. Maybe it was time he did the same.
She leaned her shoulder against his, the tempting scent of her perfume encircling his head, her gaze still focused on him and questioning. “Want to at least talk about it?”
His heart pounded curiously, and he lowered his head to search for words. “This ranch has been in my family for over a hundred years. My great, great grandfather was one of the first settlers in the area, and a good friend to the first governor of Texas.”
“That’s very impressive. I’m sure you must be proud of such a heritage.”
Bo raised his gaze to the sunshiny day outside the shadow of the oak trees. “More than words can express, but it’s even bigger than that. It’s something indefinable and intangible, like it runs in my blood.” He snagged a twig from the ground, snapped it in two, and tossed both pieces toward a small outcropping of rocks. “Seeing the ranch like this hurts a hundred times worse than the shrapnel I took in the leg. I talked with my mom a few minutes ago. Her plan is to sell the ranch.”
Evelyn gasped and her eyes grew even larger. “But it’s been in your family so long.”
“Yep. That’s why I’ve got to find a way to save it. And it’s going to take lots of money.” Not to mention the money he’d need to buy the Adams’ farm.
A frown swept across her features. She studied his face a moment and then lowered her gaze to the ground, silent and still.
Bo sighed, his frustration returning. He couldn’t blame her exactly. In spite of her many attempts to move their relationship past mere friendship, he’d offered no encouragement. Now, here he was, insinuating that he’d be interested in something more only because she had money. “I’m sorry, Evelyn. I’m not very good at this kind of stuff.” He took her hand in his, and shifted position to look her more directly in the face. “Please don’t think that I’m asking for a marriage of convenience. That’s not what I want at all. Whoever I marry will have all my love and commitment until the very end.”
She blinked rapidly, her forehead crumpled in heavy lines.
He sent a soft smile. “Would you object to at least seeing if this friendship of ours could be more? I know you wanted that in the past, but I just wasn’t ready.”
“And you are now?” Her words held a demanding edge.
She once more studied him, and he allowed it. Apparently she found something in his expression that satisfied her questions. “Okay.”
Bo gripped the tree trunk and rose to his feet, acorns popping beneath his weight, then reached down and offered Evelyn a hand.
She placed her hand in his and stood. Then Evelyn took a step closer and wrapped her arms around his waist. “Don’t you dare break my heart, Bo Miller.” She leaned forward until her lips softly met his.
Mona Beth hurriedly scribbled table five’s order on the pale green pad and cast a quick glance at the chrome clock which hung over the cook’s station in the noisy diner. The steady tick of the clock’s red second hand was getting her nowhere, and fast. Jim Miller’s funeral was scheduled to start in ten minutes, and Jenny was nowhere in sight. To make matters worse, every table in the joint was full.
She bustled to the cook’s window where the combined smells of onions and bacon drifted to her nose and read the ticket. “Two burgers, one with cheese and mayo, and cut the tomatoes. Mustard with everything on the other. Also a large order of fries.” The words rattled off her dry-as-a-bone tongue as she clipped the ticket to the line.
Her boss grinned, the morning stubble still on his dimpled face. “You seem a little antsy today, Blondie. What’s up?”
“I have a funeral to go to. Jenny said she’d fill in for me, but she’s not here yet, and I still have to change clothes, and—”
“Whoa, girl.” Dirk held up both hands, one attached to a greasy spatula. “Slow down and relax.” He motioned with a nod of his whiskered chin over her left shoulder. “Looks like your relief just showed up.”
Mona Beth twirled around as Jenny climbed from her car, then released a relieved breath and fumbled with her apron strings. “Thank goodness.” She hurried to open the door and attempted to hand the apron off to Jenny, who in her typical laid-back style, seemed determined to make her even later than she already was.
In slow motion, the dark-haired waitress chomped her usual wad of gum, blew an enormous pink bubble until it popped, and showered Mona Beth with the unmistakable smell of Double Bubble.
Then the woman breathed in one last drag on her cigarette and tossed the smoking butt out the door before she took the apron and released a puff of smoke in Mona Beth’s face. “Hold your horses, honey. What’s the hurry?”
Heat crawled up her neck on its way to her ears. “I’m late to a funeral and still have to change clothes.” She somehow managed to keep her tone even. She didn’t wait for a response, but instead scuttled to the ladies’ room to change clothes.
A few minutes later she was out the door, her hair and clothes reeking of the cigarette smoke that invaded every square inch of the small diner. Thankfully the truck started right up, and she pulled up outside the church less than five minutes later. It figured that on the day she’d finally get to see Bo again, her makeup had sweated off and she smelled like an ashtray.
One look at the closed front doors of the church confirmed her worst fears. She was late. Taking the steps two at a time, she bounded to the top, silently opened the heavy door, and slipped into a seat near the back just as the Miller family entered from the front of the church.
Mona Beth’s heart caught in her throat at first glimpse of Bo. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she leaned forward in her seat to see him better.
Handsomely dressed in his Army uniform, he entered with the help of a cane and a pretty young woman. A cousin, perhaps? Must be, because she situated herself between Bo and Linda. A man and woman she didn’t recognize, but with the same dark looks as Linda, came in behind them.
Bo scanned the room as if looking for someone. His gaze landed on her. For an all-too-brief moment, their eyes locked and it was as if no one else existed. Everything and everyone else seemed to freeze, suspended in time. His features softened, and his lips curved upward to reveal his dimples, but then the moment was over, and he looked back to take hold of Linda’s hand.
As the funeral service progressed, friends of the family from all over the county moved to the pulpit to share their memories. Bo’s tribute was especially moving, and several times he stopped speaking to gain control over his emotions. By the time the service was over, Mona Beth’s frazzled feelings hovered near the surface, and her eyes were red-rimmed from all the tears.
She hurried outside afterwards, hoping for a brief glimpse of Bo before she had to return to work. As she rounded the corner of the building, she ran smack dab into him and would’ve landed on her backside had he not reached out with both hands to keep her from falling.
He pulled her close to his chest, his eyes veiled and his jaw clenched. The scent of his familiar aftershave almost did her in. His still-handsome face bore lines far beyond his actual age, but never had anyone looked so good. “I was hoping I’d get to see you while I was in town.”
She smiled. “Me, too.”
Bo took a step back, and his hands slid down her arms to hold her fingertips instead. A frown wrinkled his dark brows, and he lowered his gaze to her rough and calloused hands. When he lifted his head, a troubled darkness lurked in his eyes. “Coming to the graveside service?” His voice held raw emotion, barely held in check.
Mona Beth swallowed to rid her mouth of its desert dryness and shook her head. “I wish I could, but I have to go back to work.”
He frowned and nodded. “I understand.”
“Could you meet me at the creek—close to the train depot—at three this afternoon? I, uh, h-have questions…” Her words trailed off and a sudden fear set her legs to trembling. What if his answers were ones she didn’t want to hear?
Now his eyes held pools of sorrow so deep they threatened to drown her. “Me too, but I don’t know if I’ll have time. I’m headed back to Atlanta this afternoon to enroll in summer classes.”
Her heart spiraled to her stomach. He was leaving so soon?
He must have read the disappointment on her face, because he pulled her closer, his heart thudding against her ear. Then almost immediately, he once more put distance between them and craned his neck from side to side as if looking for someone. “I have to go now, but if there’s time, I’ll meet you at the creek by the train depot.” His dark eyes searched hers once more before he turned and disappeared around the corner of the building.
A trembling numbness overtook her limbs and mind, and she stood there for no telling how long. When she finally came to her senses, the funeral procession had already pulled away from the curb and headed down the street.
Back at the diner, Mona Beth lost count of the number of careless mistakes she made that afternoon, including mixing up the orders for three different tables and absent-mindedly overfilling one lady’s glass of iced tea so that it flowed into the woman’s lap. She tried to do better, but her thoughts were completely muddled by the events of the morning and hopes that Bo would have time to meet her at the creek.
A few minutes before three, she hung her apron on its hook in the back and left work, not caring that she wasn’t supposed to leave until three on the dot. How many days had she worked overtime without pay? Besides, she’d completed all her chores, and there were no customers at that hour of the day anyway.
Exactly at three, she pulled the truck into the parking lot of the old train depot and traipsed to the creek. As she neared the familiar gurgle, the scent of the bluebonnets that blanketed both sides of the creek invaded her senses. She breathed deep to soothe her nerves, frazzled from the emotional onslaught of the day, and then peered down the length of the creek in both directions.
The ache in her heart intensified at Bo’s absence, and she immediately sent a plea to heaven. God, please help Bo be able to meet me at the creek. Let me get some answers. And if he can’t make it, give me the strength to hold on to his promise and Your promises.
The wind stirred, caressing her cheeks and arms, and once more wafting the scent of bluebonnets to her nose.
I will be your husband.
Fear and confusion, like two hissing serpents, slithered through her soul at the words whispered to her heart. What did the message mean? She drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. Maybe it just meant she needed to wait until he finished his schooling. Her smile returned, and her anguish subsided. Yes, that’s what it must mean.
Mona Beth took a seat near the happy babble of the creek, and allowed the sounds and smells of the beautiful spring day to work its magic. The warmth of the sun unwound the tight muscles in her neck and shoulders. Why didn’t she do this more often?
The answer came immediately. When did she have time? Already Daddy was probably wondering what had happened to her, since she’d promised to plant the peppers and tomatoes in their vegetable garden at the farm this afternoon.
Several minutes later, heart heavy, she stood with a sigh. No sense wasting any more time. Obviously Bo hadn’t been able to make it after all. She trudged back to the pickup. As she made her way around the front of the truck, she glanced up. A large black Buick passed by on the highway, headed out of town toward the east. Bo waved from the back seat, a soul-stirring sadness on his face.
Something inside instantly snapped in two, but without hesitation she raised a hand in response, as tears slipped down her cheeks to drip on the dusty gravel parking lot beneath her feet. God, watch over and protect him. Help me move past this hurt with the work that You’ve given me to do. And hold me close, Lord, because my heart is broken.
Mona Beth crawled into the sun-warmed cab of the pickup, leaned her head against the steering wheel, and sobbed like there was no tomorrow. She cried with gratitude that at least she’d been able to see him with her own two eyes and that he’d somehow made it out of Vietnam relatively unscathed, sobbed that once more he’d been wrenched from her grasp and wept over the endless ache in her empty heart and arms.
Though the month of March had stormed in like a lion, today it was as docile and sweet as a newborn lamb. Bo leaned his head against the rocking chair on the wraparound porch and gazed out over the front yard where blooms of white and pink covered the plum and peach trees. A gentle breeze wafted the blossom’s sweet scent his way.
Beyond the white picket fence Steve had built for Mona Beth years ago, late daffodils and cheery buttercups greeted the world with sunny smiles. And in the pasture across the road, cows munched happily on the new spring grass.
His heart lifted a prayer of gratitude. Lord, thank You that this is just a taste of what awaits me in heaven. I look forward to being there with You, but it hurts to leave her. Help her come to grips with this, but also help her to understand where my heart was all those years ago. Help us to make the most of the time we have left, no matter how painful.
To his right the screen door squeaked, and Mona Beth’s light and quick footsteps made their way to the other rocking chair. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“Yep. They just don’t come any better than this. At least not on this side of heaven.”
Mona pressed her lips together, her typical expression whenever she battled strong emotion.
He reached across the small table between them and latched onto her hand. “Feel like a trip to the creek?”
Her eyebrows rose. “You do?”
“I might tire easy, but I’d like to go there one last time. Days like this remind me of better days with you at the creek.”
Mona Beth’s gaze took on a soft distance. “It is a special place. Want to go to our usual spot at the ranch?”
The soft expression was quickly replaced with thundering darkness. “Whatever for?”
He squeezed her hand, doing all he could to encourage a little further down this journey to the past. “Seems to me we have unsettled business there.”
A myriad of emotions played across her face. “Okay, if you insist.” She stood with a weary groan and nibbled one corner of her lip, something she often did when particularly agitated. “I guess I’m game, even though I’m not necessarily looking forward to this.”
“Because I put it behind me a long time ago.”
Bo gave his head a shake. “I don’t think so. I think you just stuffed it down deep where it still hurts and festers.”
Her blue eyes glistened with tears, confirming his statement, and she plopped back down in her seat. “I hate it when you do that.”
He couldn’t help but grin. “Do what?”
“Point out something about me that I don’t even realize.”
“That’s why God gave you to me, so I can do that for you.”
She snorted. “Remind me to thank Him. I think.”
Laughter bubbled from his chest. Even after all these years, she had a way of making him laugh like no one else had ever been able to. His heart once more sent up a prayer of silent gratitude. Bo released her hand and with great effort pushed himself to a standing position. His body was quickly giving out on him. Best to do this while he could still move. “Let’s grab some stuff for a picnic like we used to.”
She rose to her feet and headed to the front door. “Okay.”
“And bring the letters.”
Mona Beth halted abruptly and pivoted to face him, her icy glare revealing exactly how she felt about the last suggestion. To her credit, she made no further sound except for the heavy sigh she let out as she turned and continued her trek to the door.
Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at Creekside Park, the downtown play area near the creek the town was named after. Interestingly enough, she parked on the train depot side instead of in the regular parking lot on the other side of the creek. She turned the car key to off position.
“Why’d you park over here?”
Mona Beth turned her head and stared toward the highway. “Remember that day?” She twisted her body sideways in the seat to face him. “The day we were supposed to meet before you went back to school after your father’s funeral.” Her eyes held unfathomable pain.
Bo gulped against the guilty feelings. “If you’ll remember, I told you I might not be able to make it.”
She lowered her head. “Your face looked so sad as you passed by.”
“As did yours. As I recall, it felt like my heart was being ripped from my chest that day.” The words wavered.
Mona Beth’s eyes pooled with tears, and the corners of her mouth turned down and began to tremble. “Why did you marry her, Bo? Why’d you break the promise?” She buried her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably. And the sobs emanating from her were nothing short of heart wrenching.
As best he could, he scooted his tall frame across the seat of the car, careful not to damage the crumbling letters on the seat between them. He took her in his arms, on the verge of tears himself. “I’m so sorry for the hurt I caused you, Bethie, but please trust that I thought I was doing the right thing.”
She used both hands to push him away, her face livid. “How is breaking a promise ever the right thing?”
His heart broke at the pain he’d caused her. He groaned and ran a hand over his head. How could he explain the predicament he was in at the time? Would she ever understand that what he’d done had been for the both of them? “It’s a long story, Bethie. Let’s go to the creek and enjoy the pretty day and our picnic. Maybe that will make all this easier.”
Her troubled gaze lingered on him for several seconds longer. “I’m sorry, Bo.”
“I’ve only been concerned with how this affects me. I know it must be just as hard on you.”
He sent her a reassuring smile and patted her hand. How like her to put herself into other people’s shoes. “Don’t sell yourself short, sweetheart, and quit being so easy on me. C’mon, let’s grab that cooler and head down the creek a-ways.”
Mona Beth nodded and opened her car door. She grabbed the small blue-lidded cooler from the backseat, and then held it with one hand and his arm with the other so he wouldn’t stumble or slip. The fresh green grass sent up a sweet fragrance with each step.
They chose a spot behind a clump of live oaks and cedars, away from the oftentimes prying eyes of small-town living. Made merry by recent rains, the creek crooned its tune as it rushed over the smooth river rocks.
Mona Beth spread the familiar red-checkered tablecloth over the ground and opened containers of potato salad and fried chicken as well as a canned root beer and two straws.
The two exchanged a smile over the single soft drink, and a chuckle worked its way out of Bo’s throat. “If I had a nickel for every root beer we’ve shared.”
Her happy cackle joined his. “You’d what? Have enough to buy a hundred more?”
His smile faded, replaced by a yearning ache far worse than any other pain he’d experienced. Oh, that he had enough days left to share that many more with her, to somehow buy back lost time. He shook off the sad thought and rubbed his hands together. “Ooh-wee, I do believe my appetite’s coming back now that I’ve quit the chemo.”
“Glad to hear it.” She handed him a paper towel. “Want to bless this mess?”
Bo took hold of her hand. “Lord, we thank You for this wonderful opportunity to share this lovely day in a place that’s so near and dear to our hearts. God, I especially thank You for Mona Beth and for giving her to me in spite of my mistakes. Bless this food to our nourishment, that we might be better servants for You. Give us courage and strength to do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said. Amen.”
She sent a quick smile and reached for the drumstick. “Remember when we used to fight over the drumsticks?”
Bo chomped into the other chicken leg. “Yep. I just did it to make you mad.” He winked. “I don’t know what was more fun, getting under your skin or making up afterwards.”
Bell-like laughter fell from her mouth. For a moment, time flew backwards, her silver hair now blonde again and reaching down her back. “You sly dog, you. If I’d known then what I know now.”
“You’d have loved me just the same.”
Mona Beth’s features softened. “You got that right, Mister. Sometimes I think I’ve loved you since the day I was born.” Her eyes moistened, and she swallowed hard, and then gazed off across the creek. “Have you always loved me?”
“Always. Even though the time came when I couldn’t express it.”
“And what about Evelyn? Did you love her, too?”
The world went still as he searched for words. “Of course I did. I wouldn’t have married her if I didn’t. But how I felt about her was totally different than how I feel about you.”
She jerked her head toward him, bitter accusation swirling in the depths of her stormy blue eyes.
A sigh fell from his lips. “You need to remember that I thought you’d broken up with me.”
“But you never gave us a second chance to talk through it. I’m convinced if you’d come to the creek that day, things would have turned out very differently.”
Now his ire quickened to match hers. “I’m not.”
Her mouth fell open, and a small vertical line appeared between her eyebrows. Her spine slowly straightened as realization dawned. “You left Miller’s Creek that day with your mind already made up.” Slowly, and almost reverent-like, she spoke the hushed words.
Memories flooded back in one crashing tidal wave, and Bo nodded. He closed his eyes against the pain of the day he’d relived more times than he cared to remember. “For the most part.”
She lowered her head to her knees, her arms wrapped around them like a schoolgirl. Within a few seconds, a low wail erupted.
A throbbing ache developed in his chest and throat. Bo angrily tossed aside the chicken leg that had lost its appeal and moved closer. “Don’t cry, sweetheart. It hurts me to see you hurt.” He laid a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off.
“Leave me alone.” Interspersed with shuddering sobs, the words left him feeling more helpless and guilty than ever. After what seemed like an eternity, she jerked her head back, swabbed at tears and began to put the food away.
“The last thing I ever wanted was to hurt you, Bethie. Please understand that.”
She rifled another angry look his way. “You’ll never know how much I hurt that day and for years afterward.” She furiously spat out the words. Then her frenetic activity halted abruptly, and her head drooped, her voice low and emotion-filled. “The least you could’ve done was prepare me for what happened next.”
Bo hung his head, not at all surprised by the venom in her voice. He’d long-suspected that his lack of courage had been the dagger he’d unknowingly plunged into her already broken heart.
~B~o stepped off the massive stainless steel elevator in the lobby of Simpson & Associates, his emotions vacillating between excitement and dread over what he was about to do. Excited over yet another step in moving ahead with his life, and dread because it took him one step further away from the woman who possibly still waited for him in Miller’s Creek.
Images of Mona Beth shoved their way to the forefront of his mind, but he pushed them aside with a clench of his jaw, and strode out the revolving glass door of the multi-storied building onto the noisy streets of downtown Atlanta. An icy blast of cold air sent a shiver down his spine. He quickly turned up the collar of the tan trench coat the Simpsons had given him and dodged an oncoming throng of pedestrians as he turned in the direction of the jewelry store down the street to pick up his package.
Elvis Presley’s popular rendition of Blue Christmas blared from overhead speakers as he entered the elite store a minute later, and white-lit snowflakes dangled from the ceiling above his head. He gulped in a breath of the cider-laden air to bolster his courage and sauntered toward a jewelry-case counter where a woman in a Santa hat stood.
She smiled becomingly as he approached. “May I help you?” Her tone was that of an over-eager saleswoman in search of a hefty commission.
“Yes, I—uh—need to pick up a ring I ordered last week.”
“And your name?”
“If you’d like, you can help yourself to a beverage while you wait, Mr. Miller.” She pointed to an area on his right.
Bo thanked her and meandered to the beverage table for something warm to drink. Though hot cider and coffee were also available, in the end he chose the hot chocolate, hoping it would soothe his sudden attack of nerves.
As he sipped the warm cocoa, the woman walked to the back of the store and entered a black curtain doorway. She disappeared behind the curtain, and a few minutes later returned with a black velvet box. She popped it open for him. “Is this what you’re after?”
He eyed the one-carat solitaire encircled with tiny diamonds atop a diamond-encrusted gold band. It winked as the lights hit it, brilliant and dazzling. Evelyn would be pleased. “Yeah, that’s it.” A nervous smile flitted to his face. A plain gold band—or even nothing at all—would’ve suited Mona Beth. He gave his head a shake to dislodge the wayward thought.
The Santa hat lady beamed at him and snapped the lid shut. “You’re going to make some woman very happy this Christmas.”
Bo nodded grimly. And break another one’s heart. He frowned. Why all these thoughts of Mona Beth? He’d made it through the past six months just fine until today. He thought back to the day of Daddy’s funeral—the happy light on her face, the excitement in her voice, the way she’d felt in his arms…
The lady at the counter broke through his daydream by announcing his total bill—more than he’d ever planned to spend on a ring for anyone. He let out a low whistle, pulled out his wallet, and handed the lady his hard-earned cash.
Thanks to the high-paying job Jack Simpson so graciously provided, he could afford to pay for not only the ring and his schooling, but also send some on for the running of the ranch. Maybe the lengthy peace offering letter he’d sent his mother would further delay her intent to sell the place until he could graduate and return to Miller’s Creek.
He took the glittery gift bag the Santa lady held out to him and headed to the door. It was his future in-laws who’d encouraged him to not only finish his business degree, but also take some classes at a nearby agricultural college for the purpose of rebuilding the ranch when he graduated. Though it had delayed his return to Miller’s Creek for a few more months, the courses had been well worth the wait. With the knowledge they offered under his belt, he’d be more than ready to battle the big businesses that threatened the farmers and ranchers across the country.
As he stepped out the jewelry store door and into the cold weather, Bo checked his watch. Still an hour and a half until he was expected at the Simpson estate. That would give him time to enjoy a little more of the downtown Christmas spirit and also gather his courage for the night’s events.
The streets buzzed with excitement over the rapidly-approaching holiday, and the electric energy created by the hustle and bustle worked its way into Bo’s heart. As dusk fell, thousands of Christmas lights flickered on, and familiar Christmas carols sounded from every direction.
His gaze landed on the back of a woman several feet in front of him. Though the crowd kept him from getting a good look at her, long blond hair streamed down her back.
It couldn’t be. Bo picked up his pace, but the mass of people held him at a distance from the mysterious woman. He managed to duck around the extra-large man in front of him just as she entered a department store up the street.
His heart pounding, he followed her inside and came to a quick halt when she stopped to admire a black-and-white plaid coat on a mannequin. It had to be her. Her hair was the same exact wheat-colored shade he so vividly remembered. Christmas lights reflected off the woman’s golden curls, and Bo moved forward, drawn by a magnetic force stronger than his will. He put a hand on her shoulder, still mesmerized by her hair.
She whirled about, green eyes flashing. “Excuse me, do I know you?”
Bo’s mouth fell open. “I’m s-sorry. I thought you were someone else.” His face flushed as he stumbled over the words. Acute disappointment ripping his insides to shreds, he backed away.
Shaken by what had just transpired, he now wandered the streets aimlessly, his thoughts in turmoil. Finally, he came to an abrupt halt on an unknown street corner. This was nothing but a typical case of cold feet. For reasons he didn’t fully understand, Mona Beth had broken up with him, and unfortunately, some broken things could never be mended. It was all just part of growing up and moving on.
Bo turned around and found his way back to the company car Jack had given him to use, and within a half hour, he pulled up outside the Simpson estate, his proposal well-rehearsed and his nerves under control. The two-story brick home welcomed him home with lighted wreaths and candles in every window. But what was with all the cars? He shrugged. Maybe someone in the neighborhood was hosting a party.
Prodded on by steely determination, he removed the velvet jewelry box from the sack, placed it in his pocket, and made his way up the front steps of the home that reminded him of a modern-day version of an old plantation house.
Chimes sounded as he pressed the lighted doorbell button, and one of the household help, a woman in a black dress and white apron, answered the door and ushered him into the formal living room. Several people congregated near both the fireplace and an enormous shiny silver tree, alternately lit with shades of blue, green, red, and gold from a rotating light wheel at its base. The sounds of polite conversation, tittering laughter and piped-in elevator music filtered to his ears.
Bo’s eyebrows drew up tight. When had this so-called intimate family dinner turned into a dinner party? Evelyn, her dark hair piled into a bun on her head and wearing a pale green velvet party dress that almost touched the floor, rushed to him, a happy glint in her dark eyes. “There you are! I was beginning to get worried.” She engulfed him in an embrace, her perfume on the overpowering side, then latched on to one hand and pulled him to the center of the room.
His future mother-in-law met them there and introduced him—to doctors, attorneys, architects, designers, engineers, and more—as Evelyn’s steady boyfriend, a Vietnam vet, and the only heir to a large ranch in Texas.
Bo answered an endless round of questions to best of his ability and released a relieved sigh when the entire group was ushered to the formal dining room for dinner. The table was decorated over-the-top, with fancy china, crystal stemware and gold eating utensils.
His nerves quadrupled as he took a seat next to Evelyn. He tried hard to recall the carefully-rehearsed proposal speech, but it clumped into disorganized phrases in his brain that made absolutely no sense.
He quickly drained his glass of water, twisted his neck from side to side and adjusted his tie. Could he go through with this in front of so many people, or should he wait until after all the guests left? He released a puff of air through puckered lips and eyed his boss and future father-in-law. The man was expecting the proposal tonight. Bo’s forehead wrinkled. Is that why the Simpsons had invited the unexpected guests at the last minute?
He leaned over to Evelyn as he followed Jane’s cue and placed the red linen dinner napkin in his lap. “I thought this evening was just supposed to be family.”
She giggled. “Relax, silly. Mama and Daddy decided to invite a few friends. Besides, it will give us more time together later on.” She tilted her head to one side, questions in her eyes. “Are you okay? You seem really nervous or sick or something.”
Bo attempted a smile and reached for her glass of water, draining the goblet dry in a matter of seconds. “Just a little thirsty, that’s all.”
Dinner consisted of fresh lobster and steak, along with several side options and cheesecake shipped in from New York especially for the occasion. Though more than a little uncomfortable and his dread ratcheting higher by the moment, Bo engaged in small talk with those nearby, doing all he could to impress his future in-laws.
Once most of the guests had finished their food, Jack Simpson stood and tapped his glass with his fork. “If I could have your attention, I think Bo has something he’d like to say.” Jack nodded in his direction with a cat-like smile.
Bo’s heart thudded in his chest, and his breath clutched in his throat. This was it. He stood and fumbled in his pocket until his hand came into contact with the small velvet box. He turned it over several times in his pocket as he scooted his chair back and cleared his throat. “Though it’s been difficult to go to school in Georgia being from Texas and all, the Simpsons have been so kind to me, including me in family trips and allowing me to make their home my home. During this time, I’ve grown really close to Evelyn. She’s been a great friend.” He glanced over at her and gulped, then went down on one knee.
Heat built under his collar and exploded onto his face at the awkward silence that developed as he tried to make sense of the jumbled phrases floating around in his brain. In the end he opted for the standard question. “Um, Evelyn, would you mind, I mean, would you please, be my wife?” He cracked open the box to reveal the ring.
Evelyn raised both hands to her cheeks, her lips parted…in mock surprise? “Of course I will.” She held one hand out, fourth finger extended, the opposite hand resting at the base of her neck.
Bo plucked the ring from its perch, his hands and fingers trembling. Though it took longer than anticipated, he somehow managed to wiggle the band on her finger.
Applause and cheers broke out as Evelyn wrapped her arms around his neck and shoulders. The rest of that moment was a blur, and it was only much later—once they were all back in the formal living area—that he wondered how he’d arrived back in the space when he couldn’t remember walking from one room to the next.
Evelyn rescued him from the crowd a few minutes later and pulled him into the privacy of the family room where she hugged him again. “Oh, Bo, I’m so happy.” She pulled away to stare at the ring. “This ring is perfect.”
“I’m glad you like it. Hope I didn’t mess up the proposal too badly. I wasn’t expecting a small crowd.”
She laughed and tugged on his arm to move him to the sofa near the fireplace. “What do you think about an early June wedding?”
Dates already? He’d kind of hoped they could take their time on the ceremony end of things. “Seems awful quick to me. I know your mother’s going to want a fancy shindig, so why don’t we wait until after I graduate to give you and her time to plan?”
Her smile faded. “I don’t want to wait that long. Besides, my mother’s been planning this day for years. Knowing her, she’ll have all the arrangements made within a couple of weeks.”
Another case of nerves landed in his stomach and sent a tinny taste to his tongue. “But it’ll take time to reserve places and caterers and flowers and the cake and—”
Now Evelyn’s face took on the hard petulance of someone used to getting her way, and a scornful laugh sounded from her throat. “My parents have lots of pull because of their social standing, Bo. I promise they won’t have any trouble getting those things on short notice.”
Bo pictured Jane Simpson snapping her manicured fingers, as people from every walk of life jumped into their pre-assigned places. Yeah, it wasn’t far-fetched at all. He released a weary sigh. “I suppose whatever you want will be fine.”
Now a broad grin landed on her lips, and she giggled. “I knew you’d see it my way.”
Later that evening after all the guests had departed, Jack invited Bo into his wood-paneled private study while Evelyn and Jane discussed wedding plans. His future father-in-law patted him on the back as they took seats in a couple of high-back leather chairs. “Well, you made it through with flying colors, son.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Jack grew quiet and opened a polished silver box to withdraw a large, expensive-looking cigar. The clear cellophane crunched as he removed the wrapping. He bit off one end of the cigar and discarded it, then clicked open a gold-toned lighter, the cigar in place between his teeth. The yellow flame quickly turned the end of the cigar fire-hot orange. Once he’d drawn a few puffs of the aromatic smoke, he smiled over at Bo. “So let’s talk about this ranch of yours. How big is it exactly?”
“A little over fifteen thousand acres.”
Jack released a low whistle. “Pretty big. I know it’s gone downhill since your father passed, but as my wedding present, I’d like to do what I can to help you bring it back. After all, my future grandchildren will one day inherit the place.”
Whether from the good news or the savory scent of the cigar, Bo couldn’t really tell, but his shoulder muscles relaxed for the first time all evening. “I appreciate that, sir.”
“In your opinion, what needs to be done first?”
“A ranch foreman and workers. If I were there, I could handle it personally, but I can’t do that and finish my studies, too, especially with it being so far away.”
Jack nodded. “Understood. Know any people you’d like to hire?”
“And what upkeep needs to be handled first?”
“Repairing the fences and outbuildings. Then we need to buy cows and horses.”
“What about future expansion?” The man’s gaze trailed a wisp of smoke as it disappeared above his head.
Bo shifted uneasily in his seat. This part could be easier than he’d ever dreamed possible. “Actually, there’s a nice piece of farmland encircled by the ranch except for the side that butts up against the road. Some of the best land in the area, and the owner needs to sell. It’d be perfect for growing winter wheat and maybe even peanuts.”
“Sounds profitable.” Jack Simpson balanced the cigar between his bared teeth and steepled his fingers in front of his chest. “Let’s get the ball rolling on buying that property right away.” He stood and made his way toward the double wooden doors, and Bo followed.
But before he reached them, he turned. “One more thing. I know your parents left you here against your will, but they did what they thought was best for you. Now I feel like not only two families, but two businesses, are merging. In light of that fact, I’d like to help your mother out as well. What would be the best way to do that?”
For some reason he couldn’t comprehend, Jack’s words knocked the breath from him, and it was all he could do not to double over. He left the question hanging, with a promise to give it more thought, mainly because he suddenly felt like he’d signed over his soul to the devil. As he left the Simpson estate a few minutes later, one question played over and over in his mind.
Just what had he gotten himself into?
A happy hum erupted in Mona Beth’s heart and moved to her vocal cords. She quickly wiped down the last table on her last day at the diner. Thanks to the anonymous buyer of the farm, she no longer had to spend her life slinging hash.
Her hum turned into a whistle, and she practically danced her way to the diner’s cramped kitchen that had always had a peculiar reek of Pine Sol and old grease. With the buyer’s generous offer, her parents, weary from years of working both the farm and multiple jobs to keep it afloat, eagerly accepted, along with the addendum that allowed them to keep the old farmhouse and a few acres for a garden and farm animals. The amount they received for the land had been far more than they ever dared to hope for. Her parents quickly set her down, told her they’d no longer accept her money, and gave her strict orders to begin her schooling. Finally she could pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.
“I’m finished, Dirk!” She hollered the words loud enough for him to hear her from his office and then allowed her thoughts free rein as she signed out on the clipboard that hung from a nail in the wall. But even better than the sale of the farm was the news that Bo would soon be coming home.
Joy bubbled inside. A few months ago, Linda Miller had hired her on again temporarily to help with remodeling the old house. A changed woman, Bo’s mother now wore a constant smile, and had let the news about Bo slip. For the first time, Mona Beth felt like the woman had accepted her as a potential daughter-in-law. When Bo arrived, all the waiting would be put behind her, and they could be together forever.
Dirk poked his head out the door. “You don’t have to be so happy about leaving, you know.” Her former boss followed the comment with a wink, and stepped out to give her a hug. “I’m thrilled for you, Blondie, but don’t be a stranger, okay?”
She smiled back as she sipped her now watered-down coke. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back.” But only as a customer.
After bidding her co-workers farewell, Mona Beth bustled out of the diner and climbed into the aqua-colored ‘63 Ford Fairlane Daddy purchased last week at a used car lot. It was the perfect choice to see her back and forth to school. Yes, life was finally headed in the right direction.
Once at the farm, she hurried into the house, eager to exchange the double-knit uniform for a pair of blue jeans to take Lucky out for a gallop. The reddish-brown mare with a black mane and a white blaze down her nose had been a surprise birthday gift from her parents. She’d just finished changing clothes when the back door slammed shut and Mama’s shoes sounded on the creaky wood floors.
“I’m home!” Her mother’s voice held joy.
Mona Beth quickly slipped on her boots and joined her mother in the living room. She snagged a few roasted peanuts from a bowl on the coffee table and popped them in her mouth, enjoying the salty crunch.
Mama’s face looked younger in light of the recent farm sale, as if the property that once hung around her neck like dead weight had been lifted, bringing new life and energy in its stead. She smiled at Mona Beth. “You look comfy and ready for a ride. Glad to be finished at the diner?”
“I’m not sure glad is a strong enough word.”
Laughter floated from her mother as she kicked off her shoes and rested her feet on the ottoman. “I can relate. I felt the same way when I quit my job at TG&Y. It’s like we have everything we need now, but without all the stress.” Her eyes took on a knowing look, like a schoolgirl with a secret. “Guess who I saw in downtown Miller’s Creek just a few minutes ago?”
Mona Beth’s heart flip-flopped. “Where?” She reached for the purse she’d slung on to the couch earlier.
“Outside Granny’s Kitchen, talking to Coot and J.C.”
Without further hesitation, Mona Beth sprinted to her car and raced toward downtown Miller’s Creek, questions zipping through her mind. How long had he been home? Why hadn’t he tried to contact her? She steered the small car into a parking space across the street from the new café, her gaze immediately directed to Bo.
Their eyes locked as she climbed from the car, and like some invisible force, his direct gaze drew her across the street toward him. At first no one spoke. Even Coot had turned off his yapping trap.
“Hi.” Her single word came out breathless and shaky, an echo of what she felt inside.
“Hello, Mona Beth.” Though friendly, kind and soft, Bo’s eyes held something else she couldn’t quite decipher, and he shifted his weight back and forth from one foot to the other. “How are you?”
“Doing well. I start summer classes in a few weeks.”
“Glad to hear it.”
For the first time, Mona Beth glanced at both J.C. and Coot. They both stood with lowered heads. She frowned. What was wrong with them?
Behind her, the door to Granny’s Kitchen swung open, and two women’s voices sounded—Linda Miller’s and a soft Southern drawl she didn’t recognize. She turned to see the same young woman she’d seen at Jim’s funeral. The pretty brunette cradled a baby in her arms.
Mona Beth smiled and gazed down at the blue bundle. “Oh, what a beautiful baby.”
“Thank you.” The lady held the baby at an angle so Mona Beth could see him.
The hair on the back of Mona Beth’s neck stood up at the sudden awkward silence. Linda’s face was drawn and pale, and Bo scratched his cheek, his lips pursed. J.C. and Coot continued to stare at their feet.
Finally Bo broke the tension, his eyes averted, his voice strained. “This is my wife Evelyn and our son Steve.”
Her breath suspended in her lungs, refusing to budge, and her knees threatened to buckle. She blinked furiously to dam up threatening tears. No way would she cry in front of them. She forced a smile and offered her hand to the young woman, whose dark eyes, once warm, now held a cool distance. “I’m Mona Beth Adams. So nice to meet you.” Her words held surprising calm.
The woman gingerly shook her proffered hand and shot Bo a daggered look.
With her mind in a tizzy, and her hands fluttering about out of control, Mona Beth gave a tight-lipped smile. “Well, I’d better be going. Y’all take care.” Without a glance back, she hurried across the street and climbed into the confines of her car. She backed out of the space, careful to keep her head averted to hide the tears already pouring down her face to the point that she could barely see. How could Bo do this to her? She’d waited all these years for him, putting her life on hold. How could he not only break the promise, but also her heart, and without giving her any advance warning?
Intense anger froze the blood in her veins and built a barricade in her mind. She’d prove to Bo Miller that what he did mattered nothing to her. Her life would move ahead in spite of him, and it would start with a call to Harvey Emerson. He’d been persistent in his pursuit for several years, and for several years she’d put him off because of the promise. There was no need to push him away any longer.
Later that day, Mona Beth stared at her reflection in the mirror. Though her eyes were still puffy from her earlier crying jag, for the most part she’d never looked prettier. Well over a month ago, Cecille had sent a box full of really pretty hand-me-down dresses, much too elegant for even church in Miller’s Creek. But now that Harvey had graduated from college and had a thriving insurance business in Morganville, one dress in particular would be perfect for the evening he’d suggested when she called.
Hands trembling, she fingered the pretty blue and white fabric at the neckline of the dress. Tailored to hug her curves, the dress had a generous ruffle, called a fishtail, at the hem. Mona Beth frowned and reached down to tug on the bottom of the dress. Though it had more length than the miniskirts that were so popular these days, it was still shorter than she was used to wearing. She glanced at the clock and released a numb sigh. Oh well, it would have to do. Harvey would be here any minute.
She picked up the white clutch purse from the bed and made her way to the living room. Daddy, seated in his favorite chair, read the newspaper, while Mama crocheted an afghan. Both of them looked up as she entered.
Mama’s face lit, and her eyes shone with approval. “You look so pretty.”
“Our little girl’s all grown up now.” His tone reflective, Daddy peered at her over the top of his reading glasses. “Big date?”
Mona Beth nibbled her lower lip, her emotions churning right below her carefully made-up façade. How could she let them know about Bo without breaking into tears again right before her date with Harvey? Maybe it was best to keep that information for another time. “Harvey Emerson’s taking me to dinner and a movie in Morganville.”
Mama’s face darkened and crinkled into a huge frown, questions in her eyes. She opened her mouth to speak just as the doorbell rang.
Still numb, Mona Beth ambled to the door. This was for the best. It was past time to move on. She mustered the biggest smile she could manage as she opened the door.
Harvey’s eyes widened as he took in her appearance. “Wow! You’re all dolled up.” He handed her a bouquet of flowers with a rank hot house odor and entered through the door she held open.
“Thank you for the flowers.” She tried to infuse her tone with excitement, but her voice sounded flat and foreign. “Mama and Daddy, I’m sure you both remember Harvey. He graduated a year before me and has an insurance business in Morganville now.”
Daddy stood. The newspaper rustled as he tucked it beneath his arm and shook Harvey’s hand. “Nice to see you again, Harvey.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Mama moved to Mona Beth’s side and put a protective arm around her. “Sounds like y’all have a big evening planned.”
“Yes, ma’am.” A charming smile rested on his face. “I managed to get us a table at the Cattleman’s Restaurant, and then I’m taking this pretty young lady to see Love Story at the drive-in.”
Her mother smiled and nodded, though without much enthusiasm. “Sounds nice.”
Harvey moved his eager gaze to Mona Beth. “Yeah, I’ve been trying to talk your daughter into a date for years, but she kept turning me down. You can imagine my surprise when she called earlier today.”
Mama’s smile faded into a frown, and she shot Mona Beth a disapproving glance. “I apologize if that was too forward on her part.” Her tone suggested it was. Both Mama and Daddy had always told her it was the boy’s job to call her. Not the other way around.
“Not at all. I’m just glad she finally said yes.”
A minute later she stood on the front porch alone with Harvey. The sound of the farmhouse door closing behind her awoke her from the icy numbness caused by emotional pain. What had she done? Part of her longed to give Harvey her apologies and run inside to the comforting presence of her parents. She sucked in a big breath and squared her shoulders. No. She had to move on with her life at some point. Might as well be now.
Harvey must have sensed her uneasiness. He took hold of her hand and escorted her to the shiny new Monte Carlo parked at the curb. After making sure she was seated comfortably Harvey then moved to the driver’s side. As he started the car, he sent a reassuring smile. “Relax, doll. I promise to show you a good time.”
His cocky words did nothing to reassure her. All evening long, Mona Beth felt on pins and needles and antsy. The steak dinner was delicious, and Harvey proved able to carry the conversation in spite of her reticence and dark mood. Yes, he had a tendency to talk about himself a little too much, but it was probably just his way of trying to impress her. Still something about him unnerved her. She tried to shake off her uneasiness, tried to be more conversational, and especially tried to erase the images of Bo and his wife and child from her thoughts, but none of her efforts met with success.
Later that night at the drive-in theatre, Mona Beth quietly released a weighted breath from puffed out cheeks. Thankfully the movie was almost over. Then she could go home to the comfort of their cozy country farmhouse. The sad love story had only served to remind her of her own sad love story and deepened her melancholy.
Harvey scooted closer to share the popcorn. Though her wounded heart was somehow comforted to know that he found her attractive, he suddenly seemed a little too close, to the point that she pressed her side against the door and battled an overwhelming urge to escape.
Finally the movie ended. As Harvey moved back behind the steering wheel, her nerves and muscles relaxed, and she released a pent-up breath.
Without speaking, he removed the speaker from the car window and placed it back on the stand. A buzzing noise ensued as he pushed the button to roll up the window. He started the car and glanced over at her, the look in his eyes indefinable in the low light. Once they exited the drive-in parking lot, Harvey turned right instead of to the left as Mona Beth expected. “A short cut I found,” he intoned. About a mile down the road, he made another right turn onto a dirt road.
Alarms rang in Mona Beth’s head, but she forced her breathing to return to normal. Probably just a road that would connect with the main highway in a few miles. But when he pulled into a field with no lights from nearby houses anywhere in sight, her pulse skyrocketed. “What are you doing?”
Though she fought back with every ounce of her strength, in the end Harvey overpowered her and took what he’d wanted all along. Afterwards, he drove her home, breathing threats that brought more anguished tears to her already fragile and damaged emotions.
As he pulled onto the road that led to the farmhouse, multi-colored lights flashed from the front yard. Her heart in her throat, Mona Beth flew from the car and down the driveway to the front porch.
Mama stood there in her bathrobe, her palms planted on her cheeks, tears rolling down her face.
Mona Beth wrapped both arms around her mother. “What happened?”
Her eyes wide and blank, Mama spoke with an eerie calmness. “Your daddy had a heart attack.”
Mona Beth’s pulse pounded in her aching head. The ambulance pulled away from the porch, without sirens or flashing lights.
“Are they taking him to the hospital?”
Mama shook her head, her blank stare on nothing in particular. “He’s dead.”
The world went dark as she felt herself slipping to the ground.
Mona Beth rubbed her forehead to relieve the ache that had taken up permanent residence behind her eyes and then watched a curly-headed toddler entertain the other patients with her high-pitched laughter and precocious antics. Every time the little girl wandered too far away, her daddy would patiently pick her up and carry her back to where he sat.
Memories of her own daddy paraded through her mind—a slow march of times past. Just a little over two months had passed since Daddy’s death, but the pain was just as raw as it had been that night. In light of everything that horrid day held for her, it had taken every ounce of her strength to hold herself together for Mama’s sake.
Under the circumstances and with all the preparations for the funeral, she’d kept what happened that night to herself—to protect Mama from embarrassment at an incredibly difficult time for both of them. Small towns and scandal didn’t mix well, and at this point personal vindication just wasn’t worth the emotional risk.
Now she sat in the waiting room of a clinic in Morganville, waiting to speak with a doctor. Beside her, a young mother changed her baby’s diaper, and the foul smell brought a wave of nausea that sent a nasty taste to her mouth.
She clutched her stomach and waited for the moment to pass, her thoughts quickly returning to the matter at hand. Though life’s difficulties carried the potential for bitterness toward God, her relationship with Him had miraculously grown stronger. He’d been especially close, comforting her through His Word, holding her close when she felt like she was coming apart at the seams. Once again He’d proved Himself faithful and true in a world of broken promises and shattered dreams.
“Mona Beth Adams?” A white-clad nurse called out her name.
She stood and made her way through the open door. Within a few minutes she sat alone in a curtained cubicle, awaiting the dreaded test results. If the doctor confirmed her suspicions, her next course of action was to follow through on plan B, a plan that further destroyed her dream of becoming a teacher.
Mona Beth grabbed a magazine from a nearby rack and listlessly flipped through the glossy pages, searching for anything to take her mind off her problems. Without a husband, staying in Miller’s Creek—at least in the short term—wasn’t an option. As much as she loved her hometown and the people who lived there, they wouldn’t accept her or a potential child, no matter the circumstances behind it all. And the last thing Mama needed to deal with right now was a situation that set people’s tongues to wagging.
Her shoulders sagged at the explosion of painful thoughts in her head. At least Cecille and Daniel had plenty of room in the Dallas mansion they called home. In a place the size of Dallas, where she was nothing but a nameless face, she’d be able to find work until the baby was born. But it was the next call that caused her the most heartache. Her entire life she’d longed to be a mother. Now she faced either raising a child single-handedly or putting the baby up for adoption. Neither option held promise.
The short, bald doctor entered the room, his expression stern and unyielding. “Miss Adams.” He chopped off her name with a clinical clip and took a seat. “The tests confirm that you’re pregnant, approximately two months along.” The doctor shifted a bit, but continued to gaze at his clipboard. “According to your medical records you’re not married?”
A slow flush climbed from her shoulders to her face. “No, sir.”
His opinion of her evidenced in his judgmental eyes, he handed her a slip of paper with a phone number scribbled on one side. “There are ways to take care of unwanted pregnancies.”
On the verge of tears and her stomach churning, Mona Beth jumped to her feet and headed to the door. “I’m not interested.” What he’d suggested was unthinkable, and she refused to go down that road, no matter how convenient it might appear.
Once outside, the fresh air partially relieved the nausea, but did nothing to alter the mind-boggling news that in one instant had changed her life forever. Mona Beth hurried to her car and climbed in, one hand instinctively going to her abdomen. A helpless baby lived within her, and already Satan was trying to snuff out that tiny life by whatever means possible. She clenched her jaw. Not on her watch.
Mona Beth cried all the way back to Miller’s Creek, her heart left behind in Dallas with the tiny baby girl Cecille now cradled in her arms. Never had she been required to make a decision that cost her so much. Though her entire being would forever ache with this loss, it was the right call to make. When Daniel and Cecille had offered to adopt the baby girl she’d given birth to, it had seemed like the best option—a way to provide a wonderful life for her daughter—a life she could be a part of, if only as an “aunt.”
With her fingertips she wiped the area beneath her eyes and then checked the rearview mirror to make sure her mascara had stayed in place. Only one thing about the adoption caused concern—Cecille. Thankfully, over the past few months of living in Dallas, her sister seemed softer and kinder than ever before. Perhaps married life—and a life that offered her everything money could afford—had brought out her better side.
Mona Beth turned right at the only traffic light in Miller’s Creek and drove straight to the nursing home to see Mama. She’d moved to Dallas as soon as her pregnancy began to show, and in her absence her mother had suffered a debilitating stroke. For once, Cecille had stepped up to the plate. Due to Mona Beth’s condition at the time, her sister had taken care of the situation by placing her mother in the Miller’s Creek nursing home.
Once she arrived, Mona Beth made her way through the front door, immediately greeted by a host of smells, some not so pleasant. Mrs. Williams from church sat behind the counter at the nurse’s station. She looked up from her work and broke into a big grin. “Why, Mona Beth Adams, how good to see you!” She hurried from behind the counter and engulfed her in a hug. “I guess you’re back from the big city to see your Mama.”
Mona Beth nodded and swallowed against the emotion in her throat. “Yes.”
Mrs. Williams’ face sobered. “I need to prepare you for what you’re about to see. She can’t see or hear. There’s no response at all.”
She sucked in a deep breath of air. Already Cecille had described her mother’s condition to her—apparently with razor-sharp accuracy. But could anything truly prepare her for what she was about to see?
The other woman placed an arm around her waist and steered her down the hall. “Let me go with you, honey.” She came to a stop outside a doorway bearing the number 23.
Mona Beth gave her head a shake. “I appreciate your help, but I prefer to do this on my own.”
Mrs. Williams gave her a reassuring smile. “I’ll be out here if you need me.”
Her palms clammy and cold, Mona Beth opened the doorway and stepped into the darkened room, and her eyes immediately zoned in on the lone figure in the room. As she moved closer, tears coursed down her face. Mama’s hands were curled into half fists, her eyes staring blankly into the space above the bed, as if the only part of her beloved mother that still existed was an empty outer shell.
She collapsed into the chair at the bedside and took hold of Mama’s hands, the sobs uncontrollable now. At last she was able to speak, though the tears continued. “Oh, Mama. I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for you. But I’m back now, and I’ll be here every day.” Mona Beth laid her head against the mattress, allowing her tears to drip to the floor.
Never had she felt so scared and all alone.
G~~old, orange, and scarlet tinted the leaves of the trees as Mona Beth pulled up outside the childcare center near downtown Miller’s Creek early Friday morning. The cool nip in the air stung her cheeks as she climbed from her miraculously still-running Ford Fairlane and gazed at the old house she’d turned into a daycare to serve the children of Miller’s Creek.
She remained motionless for just a moment, with the busyness of a new day sounding around her, to take in the sight of which she never tired. Many might see the childcare center as just a place of business, but to her it was her life’s mission. Though her original plan to become a teacher had fallen to the wayside so she could look after Mama, the daycare had provided a means to not only help the town’s youngest residents, but to ease her broken heart at the loss of her daughter. She’d used the money from the sale of the farm to buy both this property and Granny Miller’s old house as a place to live, and not once in the four years that passed had she ever regretted the decision.
With one last look and prayer of thanksgiving, Mona Beth made her way up the sidewalk and steps. Once inside she flipped on the lights and hurried to the kitchen to prepare toast and orange slices for the kids who came so early they hadn’t yet eaten breakfast.
Her heart stirred at the thought. The poor babies. Some of them spent more time with her than they did their own families. She released a sigh. Sometimes it couldn’t be helped. Many of her kid’s parents worked long, hard hours just to put food on the table, clothes on their backs and a roof over their heads.
Lord, help them all.
You help them, too.
A smile touched her lips. How like her God to speak so lovingly, yet with a sense of humor. Some might argue God was too transcendent to have humor as a character trait, but that hadn’t been her experience with Him at all. He often spoke softly to her thoughts in a way that made her laugh or brought a smile. Besides, one only had to look at the giraffe and the camel to see that the Creator of the universe indeed had a sense of humor.
She stuck a slice of juicy sweet orange in her mouth, then buttered the bread and slid it into the oven. How was it that she could she be so joyful when life had denied her so much of what she’d always wanted? First Bo, her parents, and then her daughter.
Mona Beth shook her head, amazed. Was it really possible that her little girl would be four in March? She sent a prayer heavenward, petitioning God to watch over her and prepare her little heart to one day receive Him. Though Cecille continued to deny her access to little Danielle, and Satan often tempted her with self-pity and worry, she’d learned to turn it over to the One who controlled everything and brought good out of evil, regardless of her ability to completely understand.
The buzzer above the front door sounded to let her know someone had entered the daycare. Mona Beth pulled the fragrant bread from the broiler, set it on the stove top to cool, and dusted it with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. Then she bustled to greet the early-comer.
Evelyn Miller, dressed to the nines, held baby Trish in one arm and yanked on Steve’s coat sleeve. “Hurry up, Steve. You’re going to make me late. Quit dragging your feet.”
Mona Beth’s blood boiled at the woman’s harsh tone, but she pasted on a smile and hurried to help. “Good morning.” She knelt to remove Steve’s coat.
Evelyn didn’t speak, but released an impatient snort and held out the pink squirming bundle for Mona Beth. “You should really get some early morning help so parents don’t have to wait so long.”
She’d been waiting, what—all of ten seconds? Mona Beth took baby Trish and cuddled her close. “Wish I could, but I can’t afford to pay someone for only a handful of kids.”
The other woman’s face held a contemptuous sneer. “Well, if you weren’t the only facility in town, I’d certainly be looking elsewhere. My husband will be picking up the children this afternoon.” Without another word, Bo’s wife pivoted and exited the building. The door slammed behind her like an exclamation point.
Little Steve looked on, his soulful dark eyes trailing after his mother with longing.
Mona Beth’s heart broke for him. She knelt again with the baby still in her arms. “How’s my favorite boy this morning?”
He shrugged. “Okay, I guess. I just don’t know why Mama’s so mad at me.”
“Oh, sweetie, it may seem like she’s mad, but maybe she’s just in a hurry.”
“She’s going to Dallas to shop with her friends.”
The words knifed into her. How could a woman with such adorable children be so calloused to their needs? “Well, Christmas is coming, you know.”
Steve’s little face brightened. “Hope she buys me that bicycle I want.”
“Me, too.” She tweaked his nose. “Then you can ride over here for some chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven.”
He smiled the adorable smile that always reminded her of Bo, his little eyes wide. “Or maybe even snicker doodles.”
A laugh fell from her mouth at his overly-dramatic face and sly suggestion. She tickled his belly. “Yep, maybe even snicker doodles. You ready for some breakfast, Mister?” Mona Beth rose to her feet.
“What is for breakfast, Mama Beth?”
The name caught her off-guard, but she had to smile at the sweet sound. “Not Mama Beth, sweetie. It’s Mona Beth.” She headed toward the kitchen, careful not to disturb the sleeping baby girl as she looked back at him. “We’re having your favorite—toast.”
His eyes rounded. “The kind with cinnamon and sugar?”
“Is there any other kind?”
He giggled and took off for the dining room, his demeanor much improved from the sullen little boy who had entered a few minutes ago.
Later that afternoon, Mona Beth herded the kids outside to the backyard play area, her heart happy and light, but her feet aching from too many hours on her feet. She laid Trish in the play pen and draped one of Mama’s quilts over the top to shade her from the sun, her senses also tuned in to the other children. Normally, she had someone else come in for the afternoons to give her time to remodel Granny Miller’s house, but Tammy had requested off again in order to travel to the out-of-town football game.
One by one, parents came to pick up their kids, and by five-thirty only two children remained. The wind took a chilly turn from the north. She picked up Trish and called across the playground to her young charge. “Let’s go in, Steve. It’s getting too cold out here.”
They’d just made their way in and shut the door behind them when the buzzer rang from the foyer and the front door closed with a bang.
Her heart pounded uncontrollably. Bo was here.
With a deep breath to still her nerves, and a prayer for wisdom and guidance, Mona Beth made her way to the front.
Bo stood in the entryway, his hat in both hands. One glance was all it took to see that his discomfort matched her own. “Sorry I’m late. We had some cows get loo—”
“No problem. I was just about to fix Steve some tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner in case you were delayed any longer.” She did her best to keep censure from her voice. Judging by the hangdog look on his face, he already felt guilty enough.
He smiled apologetically. “I sure appreciate that.” He gazed down at his small son, who stared up at his daddy with eyes full of admiration. “You have a good day at school, son?”
“Yes, sir. My school teacher said I copied my numbers and letters better than anyone else in Kindergarten.”
Mona Beth couldn’t hide the smile that worked its way onto her face. The boy was five going on thirty-five. “I’m not at all surprised, Steve. You’re a very smart young man.”
A bashful grin covered his face, but then he returned his focus to his daddy. “And Mama Beth cooked me cinnamon toast for breakfast.”
Heat flushed her cheeks. “Not Mama Beth, Steve. Remember? It’s Mona Beth.” She bit her bottom lip. The last thing she wanted was for either Bo or his wife to think she was trying to assume a parental role with their son.
Bo’s eyes held soft understanding. “Mama Beth suits you.”
Pleasure swirled throughout her at his words. She lowered her gaze quickly, searching for a way out of the conversation that had suddenly grown entirely too personal. “Steve’s books and papers are in his cubbyhole. I’ll get them and Trish’s diaper bag for you.”
When she returned a few minutes later, Bo had assumed a much more impersonal stance and seemed eager to leave.
Mona Beth handed him the diaper bag and books first, then bounced the baby as she started to fuss. “I changed Trish’s diaper while I was at it, so she should be okay for a while, but it’s been a few hours since her last bottle so you’ll probably need to feed her when you get home.”
He gently lifted the baby from her arms without making eye contact. “I’ve been meaning to tell you that I like what you’ve done with Granny Miller’s old place.”
The ancient wound in her heart broke open a bit, but she pushed it aside with a finesse gained from much practice. “Thanks. Well, other than wayward cows, how are things at the ranch?”
His eyes took on the familiar light they always did when he talked about the ranch. “Pretty good. It’s taken a while to bring it back, but I think we’re just about there.”
She nodded toward the books and bag and baby in his arms. “Think you can carry all that without dropping something?”
“Sure. I’ve got Steve to help me, don’t I?” He smiled down at his young son.
Steve grinned from ear to ear. “Yes, sir.” He followed his daddy out the door, but turned to wave goodbye. “I’ll see you at church, Mama Beth.”
“Okay, sweetie. See you then. Don’t forget to study your memory verse.”
“Already know it.” He yelled the words back over his shoulder.
Though tempted to watch them load up in Bo’s new truck, Mona Beth forced herself to turn her back on the heart-wrenching scene, stepped inside and shut the door softly behind her. She leaned her back against the door until the pickup motor started and drove away, then wiped away tears and set about the clean-up process so she could go home to her empty old house. Alone.
From his wheelchair, Bo feebly glanced around the kitchen and dining room at the faces of the people he loved the most. Today the whole family was gathered for lunch, a kind of last-minute celebration for the arrival of the newest member of the Miller clan. Though the celebration was definitely warranted, more than anything he wanted to soak in these last earthly moments with his family.
Steve and Andy talked sports at the rustic farm table over fragrant cups of coffee, while Mona Beth, Trish, and Dani perched on the window seat “ooh-ing” and “ah-ing” over Elizabeth Anne Miller, only a few days old. The other grandkids played on the backyard swing set under the watchful eye of his oldest grandson and namesake. Even indoors the sound of their shouts and laughter reached his ears.
Mona Beth held the new baby out in front of her, her face awash in enchantment. Dani’s big blue eyes misted over, and she rested her head on her mother’s shoulder. “Isn’t she beautiful, Mama?”
“She looks just like you did when you were a baby.” His wife half-choked on the last words, and then looked up at Bo, her eyes silently pleading for rescue.
“I’d like to hold my new grand-daughter a minute if you don’t mind. You’ve hogged her ever since they got here.” Bo groused the words, but followed the comment with a wink.
Mona Beth smiled and rose to a standing position, Elizabeth cradled in the crook of her arm.
Trish cleared her throat, her gaze pinned on Andy. “I think the rest of us should go check on the other kids.”
“Bo’s out there with Brody and Bethany. I’m sure they’re fine.” Andy’s tone held the same easy-going drawl that matched his easy-going gait.
His daughter sent her husband a look that communicated volumes without actual words.
He released a short laugh and rose to his feet obediently. “Yes, dear.”
Now his daughter laughed, too, the love for her husband obvious in the dark depths of her eyes. “That’s what I thought you said.”
The foursome made their way out the back door, laughing and talking together as they went.
Mona Beth bustled over beside him and gently laid the new baby in his arms. “Isn’t she the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” Her voice held wonder.
“What do you mean almost? Why—” She broke off suddenly, finally comprehending his words. A tender smile curved her lips upward. “You old flirt.”
A chuckle rumbled from his chest. “She is mighty pretty, and I sure do like her name.”
His wife nodded. “Dani told me that Elizabeth means promise.” A tiny frown furrowed the area between her eyebrows.
“Promises just seem to be on my mind a lot here of late.”
An ache landed in his chest. There was no doubt in his mind as to what promise she referred to. It was time to settle this once for all. “Have you read the last letter yet?”
She shook her head. “I want to, but I’m afraid.”
“I guess it’s because it’s the last one.” She lowered her head.
Her fear was losing him. The last letter represented the little time they had left. “Honey, I understand why you’re afraid, but I really need you to read that last letter to understand why I broke the promise. And you need to read it soon.”
Mona Beth yanked her gaze to his face, her eyes searching his. Finally she nodded slowly.
Bo reached over and caressed her cheek. “Do you have a last letter for me?”
“Of course, but I haven’t written it yet.”
A grin broke out on his face. How like her to want to get the last word.
“When the kids leave, I’ll go upstairs to read the letter and write you one in return. How does that sound?” Though her eyes held sorrow, a soft smile played on her lips.
“Good.” He swallowed, his throat suddenly parched and cottony. “Would you mind if I had some time alone with the kids before they leave?”
She stiffened and sucked in air. “No. I actually think that’s a good idea.”
The back door swung open and Steve entered with the other three behind him. He stopped and rapped gently on the old wooden door. “Can we come in yet?”
“Of course.” Mama Beth removed the baby from Bo’s arms and handed her back to Dani. “I want you to spend some time with Bo. I’ll keep an eye on the kids. Y’all can move to the living room if you’d like. You’ll be more comfortable there.” The mood instantly turned somber.
Steve did his best to lighten the intensity of the situation as he made his way toward the wheelchair. “Up for popping a wheelie, Dad?”
The others laughed, but it wasn’t merry. Instead it sounded forced and filled with dread.
Once they’d all entered the room and taken a seat, Bo gazed around the room at each one of them. “I know this is uncomfortable for y’all, but I don’t have much time left. I want you to know how much you all mean to me.” His voice cracked with emotion. He inhaled, but one look around the room brought more tears. All of them, including Andy and Steve, had moist eyes. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to make this so teary.”
Steve held up a hand. “Stop apologizing, Dad. We love you, so of course there are going to be tears. That’s just the way it is.”
Bo’s chest swelled with pride for his son, who’d been born a leader and led with grace. He lifted a silent prayer for strength to get through this, and then tried to finish off what he wanted to say before his emotions ran away again. “I couldn’t be more proud of my family. They just don’t come any better.” He gulped in another deep breath. “When I’m gone, I know you’ll look after Mona Beth, but I want you to know she’ll put on a good front. Don’t buy it. It’d mean a lot to me if you’d check in on her several times a day. At least at first.”
They all nodded.
“Don’t let her push you away.”
Dani sniffed and swiped at tears on her cheeks. “You know her pretty well.”
“Know her well enough to know she’s going to need you more now than ever, but she’ll try to convince you otherwise.” Tender love gripped his heart. Only one thing left to do. “Now I’d like to have a prayer with you before I spend some time with the grandkids.”
Steve nodded and placed a hand on Bo’s knee. “I’d be happy to voice that prayer, Dad.”
Bo smiled at his son and placed a hand over his. “Not this time, son.” He bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Lord, I thank You for this family You’ve given me. I thank You especially that they all belong to You. Please grant all my kids an extra portion of Your love, and give them the strength they’ll need for the coming days. Enable them to love each other and care for Mona Beth when I’m gone. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
The sniffles were louder now as each one took the time to hug his neck and whisper words of love before they exited the room. Saying goodbye was so hard.
Andy was the last. He knelt beside the wheelchair, wrapped his arms around Bo’s neck and patted him on the back. “You’re like the dad I never really had, Bo. I’m glad God allowed me to be a part of this family.”
“Me too, Andy. Thank you for all you’ve done for Trish and Little Bo.”
His son-in-law pulled away, his sea-green eyes bright with tears and the familiar lazy grin on his face. “Think it’s about time we renamed that boy. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s not so little anymore.”
Bo laughed along with him for a minute, and then sobered as his next words made their way into his mouth. “I’d like him to keep my name. I won’t need it much longer.”
Andy gave his sandy blond curls a shake. “That’s where you’re wrong. Your name will be long remembered, and I’m sure Little Bo will wear it proudly.” He gave him another pat on the shoulder. “I’ll go get the kids for you.”
As Andy made his exit, Bo looked out the front window to the spring sunshine, his heart hurting for his family. With the prayer for his kids over and the last moments with his grandkids soon to follow, he was ready to go home.
Well almost. After Mona Beth read the last letter.
T~~he faded letter crackled as Mona Beth pulled it from the yellowed envelope. Hands shaking, she dropped the letter to her lap, willing herself to breathe as she looked out the bedroom window to the sprawling branches of the old red oak. Something about reading this last letter unraveled her peace. Probably because it was the last one. The last item of undone business between her and Bo, who had held on to life by a tenuous thread all for the purpose of bringing closure for her.
She released a breath through puffed out cheeks. No sense putting it off any longer. This had to be done sooner or later, so might as well get it over with. During the kid’s visit she’d glimpsed something in his eyes she’d not seen before—a longing to be released. He was ready to go home.
Until she read this last letter explaining why he’d broken the promise, he’d fight death with everything inside him. Though part of her longed for him to delay the inevitable as long as possible, she couldn’t ask him to suffer any longer.
She pulled her gaze from the spring green leaves of the oak and raised the letter to eye level.
Dear Mona Beth,
I’ve sent letter after letter without any response from you, but I’m going to try again this one last time. While part of me will never understand why things worked out the way they did, I have to trust that God knows what He’s doing. Though you broke off our relationship first, for some reason I can’t really explain, I want you to know I’ve decided to marry Evelyn.
I’ve grown to care for her much more than I ever believed possible, and feel like I’m making the right decision. Working for her father has been profitable for me, and I hope to someday find a way to save what matters to both of us—Miller ranch and your farm. I pray you’ll understand my reasons for this move are what I believe to be the best option for all of us.
Mona Beth’s eyes traveled to the date at the top of the letter. December 2, 1968. He’d written the letter long before the day in 1970 that had been so pivotal in her life. A sudden realization dawned on her heart. Had Bo been the anonymous buyer for the farm?
Instinctively she knew the answer, and a mixture of gratitude and hurt swam in her heart and mind. Thanks to her sister and Linda Miller, he hadn’t known how she’d stayed true to him. In the end, he’d taken the only road he thought an option, in the process doing all he could to provide a future for her.
But a nagging question still remained. A question Bo had touched on in his letter. Why had God allowed things to turn out this way?
Bitterness climbed from her stomach to her throat, its acidity leaving her insides raw.
Every one of your days was written in My book before one of them came to be.
She lowered her head at the still, small voice, and a tear dripped to the yellowed pages of the letter. In spite of the hurt, for whatever reason, God had allowed everything that occurred in her life. Though she didn’t understand it, she had to trust that He knew what He was doing, just as Bo’s last letter indicated.
Rising to her feet, she moved to the small desk near the door, opened the drawer, and removed a sheet of the rose-edged stationary Dani had given her for Christmas. She pulled out the small chair and sat, her heart heavy as she searched for the right words for this last letter to the man she loved.
An hour later, Mona Beth folded the letter, slipped it in the matching lacy envelope, and stood. She raised both hands to her face and swiped away the tears, her fingers lingering on her cheeks. When had she grown old? How had time flown by so quickly?
From below her, she heard sounds of Bo stirring about downstairs. Good. He was awake from his nap. She slipped the envelope into her apron pocket and bustled down the stairs and into the living room.
He rubbed his eyes and looked her way, a tender smile immediately reaching his lips. “There’s my girl.”
“Ha. You mean old woman.”
Bo laughed and held out a hand toward her. “Oh, Sunshine, don’t you know that when I look at you I still see the girl that captured my heart?”
She hurried to his side, snuggled into the over-sized recliner beside him, and laid an arm across his chest. Though her heart ached to tell him how much she appreciated all he’d done to save the farm for her and her folks, right now she wanted nothing more than to hold him close and pretend that everything was all right.
Her husband heaved a heavy sigh. “Did you read the letter?”
“Yes.” She breathed a quick prayer for the right words. “Thank you for saving the farm. Part of me always wondered if it was you.”
“You’re welcome. But that’s not why I wanted you to read it. I want you to understand that I was doing what I thought was best under the circumstances.”
Mona Beth pulled away from his embrace and gazed into the soft dark eyes she loved so much. “I know. And as impossible as it is to understand, I believe God allowed it and had a reason for it.”
He nodded and swallowed. “Did you ever stop to think if He hadn’t allowed it, we might not have Steve or Dani or even little Elizabeth?”
“More times than I can count. As horrible as it was to go through what I experienced, God brought good out of it.” She brought a palm up to his sun-weathered cheek. “I’m grateful for every minute He’s given me with you. I’m glad you were with me on this pilgrimage, in spite of the hurt.”
Tears sprang to his eyes and his lips trembled. “I feel exactly the same way. The last few years have been the happiest of my life.”
She scooted closer. “Mine, too. It was as if God was making up for all our time apart.”
Now it was his turn to pull away, his gaze searching her face. “Bethie, why didn’t you ever marry?”
Her heart skipped a beat at the question, and she sent a quick prayer heavenward for the right words. Words that would bring healing not hurt. “God gave me a promise—one that I didn’t understand at the time—that He would be my husband.” Wave upon wave of sorrow crashed around her heart, and she gripped his shoulders tighter. “But what promise do I have to hold on to without you here beside me?”
A sudden peace rested on his features. “God didn’t stop being your husband just because you married me. He’s still with you.”
Tears blurred her vision. Yes, it was true. God had always been with her and had provided for her in ways she’d never been able to fully comprehend. He’d directed her path. And in spite of broken human promises, He’d always been faithful.
Bo pointed to the table behind her. “Would you hand me my Bible? I bookmarked a verse that I want to read to you—your next promise to hold on to.”
Heart heavy, she pulled herself to a sitting position and picked up the Bible to hand him.
He pulled on the scarlet satin ribbon and the pages of his Bible parted. His fingers slid down the page, his gaze locked on the worn page. “Here it is.” His voice bold and strong in spite of the frailty of his body, he read, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”
For the first time in months, her heart lightened. Though her earthly time with Bo was coming to an end, death couldn’t part them. One day they’d be reunited in the heavenly dwelling places made especially for them. And what made it even better was that Jesus would be there with them, and they’d spend eternity with Him. She smiled at Bo. “Thank you for sharing that with me, Bo. It’s another promise He’s given me through you, and one I won’t ever forget.” Mona Beth embraced him in a long hug. Finally she released her grip, sat back and pulled the letter from her pocket. “Here’s the letter I promised you.”
He took the letter with a trembling hand, his eyes both relieved and sad.
“I think I’ll run to the grocery store right quick if it’s okay with you.”
He nodded. “Of course.”
“Sure you’ll be okay?”
Bo rolled his eyes. “Quit being such a mother hen.”
“I’ll just be gone a few minutes, long enough for you to read the letter. I’ll have my cell phone so you can call me if you need me.” She climbed from the chair and straightened her clothes, then smiled down at him. “Need anything before I go?”
Bo reached for her hand. “I have everything I need.” He brought her fingers to his lips. “If I’m asleep when you get back, we’ll talk later.”
Mona Beth smiled. “Sounds good. I love you, Bo.”
“And I love you.”
A tender smile played on Bo’s lips as he watched her bustle from the room, suddenly all business. One of the things he loved about her the most. It was her way of putting things behind her and moving ahead, despite difficulties. But would she be able to move past what lay ahead for both of them?
A minute later, he heard her brisk footsteps scuttle across the kitchen floor, and the back door slammed shut behind her.
Bo gazed down at the enveloped edged with roses, not yellowed with age like her other letters had been, but pristine and white, forever young in his eyes. He breathed in deep to momentarily stop the rattle in his chest, and then carefully opened the envelope and removed the letter.
My dearest Bo,
Words seem so inadequate to express all that is in my heart. First, let me say thank you for encouraging me to read the letters. Through them I’ve relived many happy memories as well as times we’d both just as soon forget. As difficult as it has been to make this journey to the past, I’m grateful for it. It has helped me come to grips with things, and in ways I don’t fully comprehend has brought healing to my life.
I know now that you did what you thought was best at the time, just as I did. Just like we all do when we don’t understand. The perspective of time and wisdom from above has helped me realize that every human promise has the potential to be broken because none of us can foresee the future. Your words helped me remember that God has been so faithful to both of us in more ways than we’ll ever be able to realize on this side of heaven.
What I need to say now is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say, but it needs to be said all the same. Don’t hang around here on my account. Though part of me dreads what must soon come to pass, I know the best is still ahead. Though it sounds crazy, I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s okay if you leave and go on home. I’ll miss you like crazy, but trust that we’ll one day see each other again in a land where we’ll never grow old.
Save me a spot at the table.
All my love,
Bo laid his head back against the recliner and closed his eyes, clutching the letter to his chest as grateful tears of joy slid down his cheeks and onto his shirt. Lord, thank You for bringing us both to this place. Thank You that she finally understands why I broke the promise. But especially thank You that for those who put their trust in You, death is only a doorway to a better place.
He wiped his face with one hand and yawned, weary but his heart overflowing with joy. Gulping in a big breath, he turned his head and went to sleep.
It had only taken one look at Bo, his lanky and thin frame sprawled out in the recliner, the letter held to his heart, and the happy smile at play on his lips to know he was gone.
After her immediate grief was spent, she’d somehow found the strength to call Steve. He’d taken care of the rest.
Now Mona Beth sat outside on the front porch in her rocking chair, achingly aware of the emptiness of the oversized rocking chair beside her. She’d sent the kids home, and they’d left begrudgingly as nightfall neared, eliciting a promise from her that she’d call if she needed them for any reason.
To the west, the giant orange orb of sun nestled on the horizon in a clump of faraway live oak trees, while to the east the last remains of a blue-gray thundercloud rumbled in the distance. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the giant red oak and then caressed her cheek. She closed her eyes and rested her head against the back of the rocker. The light and warmth from the sun also lent itself to her comfort.
A sudden and indescribable peace descended over heart. I am with you, and he is with Me.
“Thank You, Lord.” She whispered the words, and then opened her eyes and pushed herself to a standing position. Her left hand trailed the white porch rail as she stepped down into her cottage garden and moved to the white picket fence.
Life abounded all around her in the seedlings that poked their scrawny heads from the ground. In a few weeks, these plants would be bursting with flowers and fruit.
A grumbling rumble lifted her gaze to the storm in the east, and she brought a trembling hand to her mouth. There plastered against the dark eastern sky was a full double rainbow.
“Have you ever seen anything so pretty in all your life?” The familiar voice sounded from behind her.
She shook her head, dropping her hand to her side. “I’ve seen a lot of beauty in my lifetime, but this seems to be a perfect gift especially for me today.” Mona Beth turned to face Steve. “I thought I sent you home.”
He laughed, his dark eyes so much like his daddy’s, wrinkling at the corners and splaying out to the dark sideburns that at some point had taken on tinges of gray. “That you did. And I followed your orders, General. I did go home.”
“Well, you didn’t stay there.”
Another chuckle sounded from his throat. “That’s ‘cause my wife and your daughter pulled rank on both of us. She said she and the baby were going to lie down for a nap while I came back over here and spent some time with you.”
Now Steve laughed full out. “And I know exactly where she gets it.” He moved closer and laid a hand across her shoulder, turning them both to face the rainbow once more.
They stood there silently for a few minutes, the time together and the sight before them sacred. Finally Mona Beth broke the silence. “You know what a rainbow is, don’t you?”
“Yep. You taught me well. It’s a visible sign of an invisible promise.”
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Yes, it is. I like to think it’s God’s way—and your Daddy’s way—of letting me know a promise is in effect.” She turned to face the rainbow once more. “A promise that won’t ever be broken. C’mon. I’ll fix us both a cup of coffee.”
A few minutes later they sat at the farmhouse table, sipping dark cups of her favorite aromatic brew.
“You going to be okay, Mama Beth?” Steve’s eyes held concern.
She smiled and patted his hand. “I’m better than okay. And trust me, I’m just as surprised over it as you are. Now don’t get me wrong. There won’t be a minute go by that I won’t miss your Daddy, and I suspect it will be the same for you. But it’s not the end for us.”
Relief flooded Steve’s weary features. “And for that I’m eternally grateful.” He paused a moment. “Daddy prayed earlier this morning for us. I was ready to pray, but he said he’d pray instead. I expected a prayer for healing, but instead He prayed for all of us.” His voice broke, and his head moved from side to side. “I’m incredibly blessed.”
“Yes, you are and so am I.”
He clutched her hand with both of his, his watery eyes pinning her down. “Not just for Dad, Mama Beth, but for you. You’ve been a Mama to me as long as I can remember.” He lowered his gaze. “Even when my own mother wasn’t.”
Tears swam in her eyes, but before she had time to respond, a knock sounded at the back door. Mona Beth raised her gaze. Dani stood at the back door, her arms clutching a pink bundle.
Steve hurried to the back door and undid the dead bolt. “Everything okay?” His voice held worry and concern.
Dani breezed into the room and laid the bundle in his arms. “The baby’s fine, but I wanted to be here with you and Mama Beth.” Her daughter hurried to the table and engulfed her in a hug. “I love you, Mama.”
Tears started down her cheeks. “I love you, too, sweetie.” After another minute of crying and hugging, Mona Beth pulled away and swatted the tears on her cheeks. “Good heavens. About the time I think I’m all out of tears, they start up again.”
Dani’s pretty face broke into a smile as she wiped away tears on her own face. “Me, too. By the way, did y’all know there’s an awesome sunset going on outside? I think we should make a quick drive to the bluff out at the rodeo grounds.”
Within a few minutes, the three of them stood at the scenic overlook, with baby Elizabeth sleeping contentedly in her mother’s arms. Across the valley and the town of Miller’s Creek, the sun had become only a small sliver, the sky a brilliant red with tinges of pink, orange and gold.
Mona Beth moved to where she stood between Dani and Steve, the son and daughter of her heart and of her brokenness. As they stood there watching the light fade and the approaching spring evening, Mona Beth could almost hear sounds of laughter rising from the empty rodeo arena and fairgrounds below. A lifetime of memories and the beautiful colors of the night sky proved life could be beautiful even in the midst of heartache and loss, and pointed to a future bright with the promises of God.
Yes, the best was yet to be.
* * *
Thanks for taking the time to read Pilgrimage of Promise. I hope you enjoyed the story as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you enjoyed the book, please consider the following:
1. Make a donation to help make this faith-based ministry possible. I have opted to allow readers to set the price for my books. Your donation will insure that I am able to continue this ministry. You can mail your donation to Cathy Bryant, P.O. Box 884, Farmington, AR 72730. Over ten percent of the proceeds from my books are used to support other Christian ministries.
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Thank you so much!
Mama Beth and I have become pretty well-acquainted over the course of four Miller’s Creek novels and five years. Since I first wrote TEXAS ROADS back in 2008, she’s been waiting patiently for me to tell her story.
With every novel there is the necessary requirement of planning and plotting, which for me includes the all-important spiritual theme. As is the case with all my books, I wanted the theme of this story to be a nugget of God’s truth I had personally experienced and one that readers could latch on to.
The most profound spiritual truth I’ve experienced lately came through a series of four moves in an eight-month period. Through each of those moves I learned that even when life is scary and uncertain, God is unchanging and faithful. He always keeps His promises.
As I write this letter I am facing yet another move, but I needn’t fear or worry. God is with me, and there is no place I can go where He is not.
I pray that no matter what the future may bring for each of us, we will all reach the place on this pilgrimage where we fully experience and realize the sure foundation we have in Christ.
Standing on His promises,
A native Texas gal, Cathy currently resides in the lovely Ozark mountains of northwestern Arkansas with her husband of over thirty-five years. When she’s not writing you’ll find her wrangling chickens, rummaging through thrift stores, spending time with her family, or up to her elbows in yet another home improvement project.
In addition to the Miller’s Creek novels, Cathy also has written devotional articles for The Upper Room magazine, collaborated with other authors on two devotional books, and penned her own Bible study and daily devotional books. Visit Cathy at . Cathy also loves to connect with readers in the following places:
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**]A Path Less Traveled[
**]The Way of Grace[
**]Pilgrimage of Promise[
**]A Bridge Unbroken[
**]Still I Will Follow[
**]Pieces On Earth (Christmas novella)[
**]The Fragrance of Crushed Violets[
**]Believe & Know[
**]The Power of Godly Influence[
**]Life Lessons From My Garden
Book Club Discussion Questions
1. Sometimes in our Christian walk we only have to learn a truth once, but at other times, God has to reteach us a certain truth over and over. What truth does God repeat over and over to Mona Beth throughout her life? How does this truth bring her reassurance?
2. The 1960’s were a turbulent time in America’s history. What facets of the story reveal those turbulent times, even in small-town Texas? What parallels do you see between the 1960’s and the present? Why are these parallels important for us to make?
3. What is the inherent danger in making promises? Compare and contrast human promises with God’s promises.
4. What godly qualities does Mona Beth demonstrate throughout the course of the story? What godly qualities does Bo demonstrate throughout the course of the story?
5. As young adults, most people have pre-conceived notions of how life will turn out, yet life rarely meets our youthful expectations. What spiritual truths can be gleaned from this experience?
6. What specific promises has God given you either through His Word or by His Spirit? How have these promises come true? What promises are you still waiting on to come true?
7. What is your favorite promise given by God in the Bible? Why is it special to you?
8. Both Mona Beth and Bo learn through the course of the story that God’s ways are always best even when we don’t understand. How has that truth played out in your life?
9. Life’s difficulties shape our character. How did God use Mona Beth’s and Bo’s struggles in shaping who they later become? How have your struggles made you better?
10. What danger must be avoided in loving others?
To beta readers: Barbie Bray, Travis Bryant, Jimmie Croker, Carolyn England and Sherlee Grinstead. Thanks for lending me your eyes, time, and expertise. You make what I do possible.
To my church family: Thank you for your love, friendship and encouragement. You are living proof of this verse: "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." ~John 13:35
To my family: Mom, you continually bless me with your love, friendship, encouragement and wisdom. I want to be like you when I grow up. Jase, Josh and Megan, you all inspire me to be a better person. Harrisen and Baby Bekah, you bring joy to my heart, love to my life and a bounce to my step. Travis, you are truly God’s gift to me. I love you.
To my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ: Never once have you failed to keep even one of your promises to me. Thank You for Your steadfast and faithful love. Great is Your faithfulness.
Sneak Peek Chapter of A BRIDGE UNBROKEN
(The fourth stand-alone book in the Miller’s Creek novels)
Heart thumping wildly, Dakota peered out the peephole at the figure of a man obscured by the semi-darkness of early morning.
“Just peachy.” She kept her voice to a hushed whisper in the small and dingy apartment she’d called home for the past few months. What now? No longer secure, her downtown San Antonio getaway had obviously been compromised. But calling the cops wouldn’t work—a lesson she’d learned the hard way with scars as evidence. No, Kane had friends in high places.
Lord, help me. She inhaled sharply and backed away from the flimsy front door, willing her heart to slow its frantic pace. Calm down, Dakota. You’ve prepared for this scenario. Emergency backpack? Check. In its usual place by the window that led to the fire escape. Now to gather her bedding, meager food rations, and laptop. At least she was already dressed. Another lesson she’d learned in a life on the run.
A sharp knock sounded.
“Sorry, buster. I’m not falling for that trick.” Especially at this hour of the morning. Her neighbors partied until 3 a.m. and slept until noon. Whoever banged on her door at this ungodly hour wasn’t a neighbor or friend.
She sped to her bed in one corner of the room and rolled up her bedding. Less than a minute later she returned to the escape window, her computer bag slung over one shoulder. With nimble fingers, Dakota snapped the sleeping bag onto the backpack latches and strapped the drawstring trash bag that housed her food to a dangling carabiner clip.
The polite knock on the door now erupted into a persistent pounding.
Her pounding pulse responded in kind. Dakota struggled to lift the old window, finally able to raise it high enough to crawl through the narrow opening. A shiver rattled her body at the cold blast of autumn wind whistling between the tall brick buildings. She yanked her over-stuffed backpack through the opening and hoisted it to her back. The weight almost pulled her backwards. Why hadn’t she thought to practice her escape with the heavy backpack in tow? She pushed against the outside of the window with every ounce of her strength. It screeched its objection, but finally clattered into place. Hopefully the closed window would buy extra time.
A hefty body thudded against the front door. With that kind of force it wouldn’t hold long.
She froze, her breathing shallow. Another thud against the door. Move it, Dakota! She flew down the rusty stairs, aware of the clanging sound of her boots against the metal, but powerless to soften her steps. At the first floor landing, she stopped abruptly and yanked on the ladder to access the alley. Frozen in place by rust and years of disuse, it didn’t budge. She pushed again with a guttural grunt. Nothing.
“Great.” Her brain sped into overdrive. What good was a fire escape if you couldn’t escape? Lips clenched, she searched the area for any reason to hope. To the left of the landing a gutter pipe inched to the ground, but would it hold her weight?
A screech raised her eyes to the apartment window five floors above, and she flattened herself against the cold brick of the building. A hooded head peered out, barely visible in the pre-dawn light, then a stocky figure climbed from the opening.
“Busted.” Her heart tapped out a ferocious dance against her ribs. This guy meant business.
Praying the gutter would do the trick, Dakota scrambled over the rail and grabbed hold of the ice-cold pipe. The metal strap holding the gutter in place pulled precariously away from the grimy brick wall, exposing rusty nails.
“Don’t you dare let go,” she commanded under her breath. Determined, she clamped her bottom lip between her teeth, her gaze on the strap as she shimmied to the ground. Once her boots hit the asphalt alleyway, she raced toward her pickup, the sound of heavy steps pounding the fire escape behind her.
Lungs exploding, Dakota neared the truck, unbuckled clips, and yanked off her pack. She glanced back just long enough to see the quickly-approaching figure, then tossed the backpack to the far side of the pickup’s cab and jumped in. The man drew closer—close enough to note the black hoodie he wore, but not enough to make out the shadowy face beneath. Definitely not Kane—too short and too stocky—but most likely one of his many hired goons.
Overwhelming panic erupted in her gut, blazing a fiery trail to her stomach. With fumbling fingers, she inserted the key in the ignition. Please start. The pickup roared to life on the first try. Just as the man reached her bumper, she threw the truck into gear and shot out into the street. In the rearview mirror, the guy slowed his steps and stared after her a brief moment before he turned and ran in the opposite direction. Probably going after his vehicle.
Her spirit deflated, whooshing air from her puffed-out cheeks. This chase wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.
Dakota pressed the accelerator. “Well, Miller’s Creek it is.” The decision made for her. With San Antonio no longer a safe option, her deceased grandparent’s farmhouse made the most sense. J. C.‘s late call last night couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, God’s guiding hand once more on her shoulder.
Only when she merged into the thickening morning commute traffic on Interstate 35 a few minutes later did Dakota semi-relax. She twisted her neck from side to side to release tension from her neck and shoulders, still trying to wrap her brain around returning to Miller’s Creek. The only problem with Mawmaw and Pawpaw’s farm was the possibility of facing Chance again. Could she withstand the magnetic pull he’d always exerted over her heart? Even more importantly, could she handle the guilt and blame he’d most certainly place on her?
An ache landed in her chest. If only things had turned out differently between them. Dakota gave her red curls a shake to dislodge unwanted thoughts and emotions from her system. “Didn’t you suffer enough the first time, Dakota?” She checked her rearview mirror as a black car moved in behind her. “Nope. I’m through with all men, including Chance Johnson.” Her palms pounded the steering wheel to punctuate the self-serving promise. J. C. hadn’t mentioned his grandson. Hopefully Chance had moved on somewhere else.
Dakota flipped on her blinker and changed lanes. The black car followed, right on her bumper. A frown pulled her forehead tight. The guy could at least stay far enough back for her to see his license plate.
Uneasiness skittered down her spine. Had the guy in the black hoodie caught up to her? Even in all this traffic?
“Chase back on.” She floored the gas pedal and swerved around the car in front, the black car tailing her every move. Dakota drove as fast as she dared down the interstate’s thick traffic through San Marcos and New Braunfels, the black car never far behind. Finally, out of desperation, she decided to detour around downtown Austin, through a suburban neighborhood, and then down a little farm-to-market road. She checked the mirror. A tiny black speck topped the hill behind her and grew steadily closer.
Not again. “Kane must be paying you a hefty sum, Mister.”
Once more Dakota punched the accelerator. “C’mon, old truck. You can do this.” Her clunker’s motor sputtered for a moment and then shot forward. She squinted her eyes against the brightening Texas day. It wouldn’t do any good to get away from this guy if she got stopped for speeding, nor would it help if he tailed her all the way to Miller’s Creek.
For the rest of the day she zigzagged across central Texas, doing her best to give no rhyme or reason to her travel pattern, only stopping when she needed gas.
A little after nine p.m., the car’s bright headlights disappeared behind a lengthy train at a crossing in some small nameless town that looked like all the others. Finally she’d caught a break. Rather than continue her trek, Dakota whipped the pickup into a dark parking lot of a towing company. Her jalopy fit right in with the other wrecked and disabled cars. The chain-link fence and tall stacks of tires provided further camouflage.
She waited well over an hour and used part of the time to call J.C. to let him know she was on her way. Then convinced she’d finally lost her pursuer, Dakota resumed the trip to Miller’s Creek, suddenly eager to start her new life in the one place that had always felt like home.
The repetitive beep of the alarm clock roused Chance to a sitting position. His fingers danced around the top of the bedside table until they landed on the alarm clock and brought a halt to the beeps. After a few blinks, his eyes adjusted to the darkness, but not to the lack of sleep. Would his body ever get used to the work schedule at the hospital? Not that he was complaining. For the first time in forever, he was finally moving forward and leaving the painful past behind.
Chance drug a hand across his stubbly chin and rolled out of bed with a groan. Who had called Grampa’s house at such a late hour last night and disturbed his precious sleep? Whoever it was needed a few lessons on appropriate times to make a phone call.
He stumbled to the hall bathroom and washed his face, then headed to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Normally he didn’t drink the stuff, but since starting work at Miller’s Creek new hospital, his body craved it like his lungs craved air. Once the caffeine kicked in, he’d read his Bible, grab a quick workout, check on his grandfather, and eat a piece of fruit on the way to work, the familiar routine somehow comforting.
The coffee pot had barely started its cacophony of gurgles and hisses when the wooden floors creaked behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to see his grandfather, his IV pole in tow. “You’re up awful early.”
Grampa’s gentle smile lit the eyes so much like his own. “Only ‘cause of all that racket you’re making.” Then without warning, Grampa’s smile faded, and he reached for the old chrome and yellow dining table.
In two steps Chance was at his grandfather’s side and helped him sit. “You okay?”
The old man nodded weakly. “Yep. Just one of those dizzy spells.”
Chance’s chest tightened. If only the nursing skills he’d acquired over the past few years could reverse the aging progress and his grandfather’s quickly-failing health. He placed a hand on Grampa’s back and gazed down at him. “Sure you’re okay? Need anything?”
Grampa waved a hand in front of his face as though swatting a pesky fly. “Aaah, nothing a few hours of sleep won’t cure. Sleep I’ll get as soon as you quit making such a ruckus.”
Chance chuckled and moved to the cabinets. “Wanna cup?”
He poured two cups of the dark, fragrant liquid and made his way to the table, a steaming cup in each hand. “Who called so late last night?”
An ornery look crossed Grampa’s features, but he said nothing. Instead he pursed his lips and blew on the coffee, then brought the cup to his lips.
Chance took a seat across from him. “You got a lady friend you’re hiding from me?”
“Hmph.” His grandfather followed the grunt with a snort. “Never had any plan on replacing your sweet Grandma. The only woman I ever loved.”
Longing swirled around his heart and pulled tight. Would he ever experience that kind of love again?
“Besides,” his grandfather’s voice softened, “you’re the one who needs a lady friend.”
Chance lowered his head, took a quick sip, and sat his cup down with a little more force than intended. “Don’t have time.”
“Then make time.”
Really? Were they going to have this discussion again? “C’mon, Grampa, cut it out. With a face like this no girl my age is interested in anything other than friendship.”
“Hogwash.” His grandfather’s typical smile disappeared. “You just need to quit feeling sorry for yourself and get out there and start living.”
“And just when do you suggest I do that, huh? I work twelve-hour shifts, and then come home to help you.” As soon as the words flew from his lips, he wished them back in his mouth. Chance shook his head. “Sorry. Shouldn’t have said that.”
Grampa’s shoulders slumped. “It’s the truth. Sorry to be such a bother. If you want me to hire somebo—”
“No way.” When he moved here for nursing school, his plan had been to take care of Grampa, pay off student loans, and hopefully one day re-open the family drugstore. He was right on track, even though the hours were long and hard at the moment. Chance looked his grandfather straight in the eye. “I’m here because I want to be. One day I’ll have the opportunity to get out there and start living, as you put it. But right now, I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to do, and wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Grampa turned his head away quickly, but not quick enough to hide the tears welling in his eyes. A sniffle sounded. “I need you to do me a favor.”
“Not a problem.”
“And I need you to do it before you go to work.”
Chance eyed the old kitchen clock, which sported a knife, spoon, and fork for hands. Just now 5:30 a.m. He should still have time to follow his routine, shower, and have enough time to run a quick errand before his shift started at seven. “Also not a problem. What is it?”
“I want you to run out to Levi’s farm.”
“What on earth for?”
“Just wanna make sure the place is secure. With the weather turning cooler, we might have some unsavory characters trying to camp out there over the winter.” Grampa’s jaw clamped in a stubborn pose.
“And why can’t I do it after work?”
“Dagnab it, boy. Will you just do what I ask?”
Chance’s eyebrows jumped up his scalp. Never had he seen his grandfather so testy. Was he really so bothered by possible vagrants, or was something else at play? “Okay.”
His grandfather stood in one liquid motion, and almost knocked his chair over in the process. He swiveled around and tottered from the room, mumbling under his breath. What aliens had abducted his kind and gentle grandfather? And what crotchety old grump had they left in his place?
At 6 a.m. on the dot, Chance hurriedly backed his Ford 150 out of the driveway and headed toward the late Levi Kelly’s farm. Frustration headed the list of a myriad of emotions colliding within. To fulfill his grandfather’s strange request, he’d showered without reading his Bible or his workout, without taking the time to finish his one lousy cup of coffee. In addition, there was no fruit in the house, which meant Grampa had finished off the bananas and forgotten to write them down on the grocery list.
He rubbed the nape of his neck. But the one thing that bothered him most, like a hidden undercurrent beneath it all, was a crippling fear. Fear that being on the farm would resurrect memories he’d worked long and hard to forget.
The sky took on pale purple hues as he headed south on the farm-to-market road which led to the dirt road where the old farmhouse stood. As much as he tried to put Amy out of his mind on this foggy fall morning, he could not. Instead, thoughts of her elbowed their way to the forefront of his memory—her perfect smile, curly blond hair, infectious laugh, and flirtatious emerald eyes. Why were the memories as vivid as though they’d happened only yesterday?
He gritted his teeth and gunned the motor as familiar questions returned. Why had she left so suddenly? He played over the events of their last night together. How the evening ended was her fault, not his. But the resulting heartache was due to his own poor judgment. That’s what he got for falling for a girl of questionable character.
Chance reached the turn-off and slowed his speed to make the turn onto the seldom-traveled bumpy dirt road. As expected, the washboard-like road rattled his new truck and threw up a cloud of chalk-white dust behind him.
Great. Add washing the truck to his grievance list.
A few minutes later he pulled onto the private road that stretched over rolling hills until it came to rest behind a grove of pecan trees. Right beyond the pecan orchard sat the two-story farmhouse, secluded enough that only those who knew it existed could find it. And a mile past that the creek and old bridge where…
He rounded the final corner, so over grown it no longer seemed familiar, and his jaw dropped. The old house, once a beautiful yellow among a forest of green, was sorely in need of a paint job, raw wood exposed, bleached gray by the hot Texas sun. No lights shone from the windows, but a rusty old jalopy of a truck sat out front. Grampa had been right after all.
Chance pulled his pickup as close as he dared and killed the engine, his eyes trained on the house for even a flicker of movement.
Gravel crunched beneath his boots, the only sound in the mostly dark morning. He made his way all the way around the house to look for any sign of the intruder. Quietly, he climbed the steps to the front porch, weathered wood sagging beneath his weight. Add new decking to the much-needed paint job for the old house. Chance paused at the front door, his ears strained for any sound within the old house.
Suddenly from behind, the distinctive sound of a shotgun being pumped reached his ears, made louder by the quiet of the countryside.
Heart in throat, he instinctively raised his hands. But before he could speak, a female voice sounded, a voice he never expected to hear again.
“I don’t know who you are, Mister, but you’re about two seconds shy of getting your backside loaded with buckshot.”
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From this bestselling page-turner series comes a Christian contemporary romance novel reminiscent of the writings of Karen Kingsbury and Nicholas Sparks--a poignant love story about long-buried secrets, redeeming love, and the unfailing promises of God. In this high school sweethearts romance, a small town girl has always believed her second chance rancher was the only man for her. But life intervened, their 1960s romance interrupted by college and the Vietnam War. Then sabotage and family pressure bring about hard choices and broken promises. Now many years later, a dusty stack of unopened love letters and troubling diagnosis force the recently-reunited couple to sift through the painful past. Can their relationship endure the deception they unearth, or will the experience compel them to trust more fully in the promises that never fail? "This epistolary novel combines a present-day reunion romance with a historical glimpse at the turbulent 1960s. You don't want to miss this hope-filled and timeless feel good novel!" Written with the feel of Mitford and Mayberry, readers have fallen in love with Miller's Creek. Will you? Grab your copy of this rural romance today! WHAT READERS ARE SAYING... "I enjoyed the flow of the history and current day events of the characters. It was easy to follow, and I could not put this book down." "Love this book. Cried almost all the way through it. A very good read." "I read many Christian books, but this one touched my heart more than any I have read. It helped me feel closer and to understand God's word and promise..." "Well written, and filled with love! This book has characters with whom you will fall in love, and will want to live next door to them, or adopt into your own family! Warm, Christian wisdom is woven throughout this beautiful novel. And..... it is free of those irritating spelling and grammatical errors that have become all too common in today's e-books! Love it!" "This is a story that sucks you right into it. You'll laugh, cry and feel the presence of God, especially during sadness and grief , but also in joy. This was hard to put down..." "Great book. This entire series is a very good read. I highly recommend it." "This story grabbed me from the first page. A beautiful and endearing story of love that is lost and found again." OTHER CATEGORIES: Christian fiction Christian contemporary western romance Christian historical romance Inspirational Romance Inspirational Women's Fiction Christian Women's Fiction Women's Religious Fiction Christian Contemporary Western Christian Love Story Christian Epic Christian Saga