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Still I Will Follow

 

Still I Will Follow

a Miller’s Creek Novel

 

CATHY BRYANT

Still I Will Follow

Copyright 2017, Cathy Bryant

Published by WordVessel Press

 

 

All rights reserved.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, character, places, and incidents are either

the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

ISBN-13: 978-1-941699-04-1

Table of Contents

 

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Letter to Readers

About the Author

Cathy’s Books

Book Club Discussion Questions

Special Thanks

Bonus Chapter – CROSSROADS

 

 

To my good friend and prayer warrior, Sherlee Grinstead. Your prayers, encouragement, and support have kept me going when I was ready to give up. If we never meet in this earthly life, I can’t wait to meet you in heaven!

 

  • * *

 

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.

But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh;

rather, serve one another humbly in love.

~Galatians 5:13 (NIV)

Chapter One

“I don’t really care what you do.” Daddy spat out the razor-sharp words without even looking Bella’s direction, the oxygen tube creating a “V” beneath his chin.

Rather than responding from the familiar place of continuous hurt, Bella ducked her head and hurried to the front door. Stepping outside was like being born into a new reality. Out here mockingbirds sang, and the late February air held a warmth which signaled advancing spring. Wet with dew, the grass sparkled. Sunlight filtered through the branches of still-bare trees, though small wisps of fog curled across the dirt road in front of the house she shared with her emotionally-distant father.

The one who still blamed her for his only son’s death.

Bella filled her lungs with air and then released a satisfied sigh that curled the corners of her mouth heavenward. The perfect day for a jog. Hopefully it would be enough to whisk away the pain in her heart. While there wasn’t a doubt God had led her back to Miller’s Creek, one question remained.

Why?

She fell into an easy rhythm, her feet crunching against the gravel driveway and then the white dusty road. It didn’t really matter where she went, as long as it took her away from here.

Freedom, freedom, freedom.

The word pounded through her heart with each strike of her feet against the dirt. That same word had vibrated through every fiber of her being since last year. Though she had balked at the idea, she’d followed God’s leading back to the one place she’d sworn to never return. But beyond all of that, the desire and quest of her heart was to break free from chains she’d dragged around far too long.

But how could the chains be broken when so many held so much against her?

Lord, help me get through to Daddy before it’s too late. Help us build a relationship we’ve never really had. And show me how to convince people I’m not the same person they remember.

Bella swallowed against her cotton-coated mouth, released a cleansing breath, and gulped in another big one. Her lungs and legs burned more with each step. She jogged a few steps further on her usual Saturday morning run, then slowed to a walk at the city limits sign, hands akimbo.

Yes, she should probably head back home where a mile-long list of teacher and daughter to-dos awaited. But something propelled her forward. Was it the dread of returning to a place where she wasn’t wanted? Probably. But in addition the beautiful morning begged her to linger a while longer.

Finally her breathing slowed to normal. She resumed her jog and headed for the quaint downtown area of Miller’s Creek, a place which never failed to captivate.

In no time at all she reached the two- and three-story historic buildings and picturesque town square on Main Street. The tantalizing aroma of Granny's Kitchen lassoed her nose. Yeah, one of Granny's gigantic homemade cinnamon rolls or fried pies was just what she needed before heading back to the house.

Bella rounded the corner, her thoughts entirely on her cinnamon-roll goal, and ran smack dab into something as unyielding as a brick wall. The force of the impact propelled her backwards, and she crashed to the ground, her backside against the unforgiving concrete sidewalk. Immediate pain shot electric sparks through her spine. Rather than trying to stand, she opted to lie back and close her eyes until the pain subsided, her right wrist at rest against her forehead.

“Bella?”

No. It couldn’t be. That voice. The one person she’d managed to successfully avoid since her return to Miller’s Creek last fall. She cracked open one eye, peered up from beneath her arm, and then immediately squeezed her eyes shut. Yep. It was him all right.

“Here. Let me help you up.”

Both eyes popped open to see a strong, calloused hand stretched out toward her. Not a chance. Her palms hit the pavement, and she scooted to a sitting position, lightning-like pain shooting down both legs. She brought knees to her chest and rested her arms there. “I’m fine.” Well, fine, except she still couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact. Plus, a woozy feeling swam in her head and swirled into her stomach. She blinked, trying to focus her eyes on the blurry blue-jeaned legs and cowboy boots in front of her.

“You sure? Look a little pale to me.”

Without proper warning, the boots and jeans shifted to a squatting position, revealing a white t-shirt, tattered John Deere cap, and an all-too-familiar face. Now the world came into focus. Of all times. Really. “Hi, Clay.”

He grinned that cheeky grin of his and raised one hand in front of his face to make a peace sign. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

His two fingers morphed into multiples as her eyes honed in on his face. Time had been cruelly kind to him. Though frown lines and the dimples in his cheeks had deepened—though his brown hair had taken on shades of gray around the temples—he still looked good enough to resurrect old memories.

Clay’s smile disappeared, and the peace sign returned to the outstretched hand. “You look awful.”

How like him to make that kind of comment when her thoughts of him had run the opposite direction. The dull ache throbbed to full throttle in her tailbone and further fogged her brain. Enough already! The only way to end this unwanted exchange with her nemesis was to get out of here. And fast. She latched on to his proffered hand and let him pull her to a standing position. Ugh. Let the Texas-tornado spinning commence. To keep from falling again, she gripped his arm with both hands.

“Still up to your old tricks?” His throaty words held an unveiled accusation.

Bella’s gaze fluttered to his. “What do you mean?”

“You know. Still trying to trap any man around?”

Cold liquid steel coated her heart. Though still dizzy from pain, she released her grip and took a wobbly step backward, her head turned to one side in response to his verbal attack. Now what was she supposed to do? She scanned the opposite side of the street.

One solitary figure leaned against a street post, his eyes honed in on them.

An unexpected warning signal went off in her brain, a radar-like reflex she’d learned to trust throughout the course of her lifetime. A face she didn’t recognize. And why was the unknown man just standing there watching them?

She shook the thought away. That wasn’t her problem at the moment. Her problem stood directly in front of her. To make matters worse, there was no way she could make it back home in this condition. No way she could ask her tormentor for help. Absolutely no escape.

Clanging bells sounded, and the glass-paneled door to Granny’s Kitchen opened, raising her gaze. Steve and Dani Miller exited and stepped up behind Clay.

“Hi Bella.” Dani’s contagious grin split her small face, then she immediately sobered, her big blue eyes revealing concern. “Are you okay?” She took a step forward and placed a gentle hand on Bella’s arm.

“I took a spill on my jog. I think I might have broken my tailbone. Could I impose on you to take me to the hospital to get it checked?”

“No imposition at all. Of course I will. Can you walk?”

Bella managed a shaky laugh. “I’m not sure.”

Before she realized what was happening, Clay stepped forward and swooped her into his arms, then faced Dani and Steve. “Where are y’all parked?”

It was impossible not to notice the unspoken communication that took place between Clay and Steve, best friends since grade school. Steve’s lips flat-lined. He jerked a thumb over one shoulder and then took off walking in that direction.

Bella’s heart did flip-flops all the way to the Miller’s Suburban, her thoughts snagged in a gnarly mess. How had she managed in such a short amount of time to not only run into Clay, but end up like a sack of taters in his arms?

To his credit, once they reached the vehicle, Clay set her down gently in the leather back seat.

Her pulse pounded as he searched her face through frown-hooded eyes. At long last he backed away, his face bathed in blatant distrust.

 

  • * *

 

“Your tailbone is fractured.” To emphasize his point Dr. Clint Nichols—a recent addition to Miller’s Creek hospital—pointed to the X-rays.

Sure enough, a tell-tale line crisscrossed her last vertebrae. Which meant there was nothing she could do except deal with the pain.

Bella focused her eyes on the handsome doctor’s face. “I injured it once before when I was in high school. During a volleyball game.” Only it hadn’t hurt quite this bad back then. “Guess this means a donut cushion and ice packs?” And lots of pain relievers.

“Oh yeah. How’s the pain?”

“Um…somewhere between unbearable and excruciating?”

He laughed out loud, not in an ‘I’m-glad-you’re-hurt’ kind of way, but as though genuinely amused by her lame attempt to be funny. “Want me to prescribe something a little stronger than over-the-counter meds?”

Bella shook her head from side to side. No way could she take something stronger and still function at school on Monday. Might as well just tough it out. “No thanks.”

Admiration spilled from his dark eyes as he helped her to a standing position. “You’re one gutsy lady.”

Not exactly the truth. Still it meant a lot to have someone see her in a different light. Especially after her run-in with Clay, who clearly still saw her tainted in shades of scarlet.

“You new here in town?” A soft glint of curiosity rested in his dark blue eyes.

“Yes and no. I lived here most of my childhood. Now I’m back, teaching music at the school.”

“Really?” He stopped fiddling with his charts. “What kind of music?”

“Elementary music and choir. Everything except band.”

Dr. Nichols moved to the door and patiently waited while she took small shuffling steps to join him. “So were you in choir when you lived here before?”

She nodded.

“You look really familiar. Were you in Area Choir by any chance?”

“Yeah, my junior and senior years.” At least until she’d messed up so badly.

“And what year was that?”

“I graduated in ‘93.”

“Ah, I’m a ‘96. Graduated from Morganville High.” He grew silent, but his direct gaze still focused on her with unabashed interest. “Here, let me help you to the waiting room.” He offered his elbow.

Bella hooked her arm in his as they traversed the hallway which reeked of disinfectant. As the double metal swinging doors of the waiting room clunked behind them, Dani and Steve both rose to their feet.

Dani grinned. “Well, Dr. Nichols, is she gonna make it?”

The doctor turned his head to make eye contact with Bella. “No doubt. Something tells me this one doesn’t give up easily.” A smile lit his face, and he sent a conspiratorial wink.

A furious pounding thudded against Bella’s rib cage, but she quickly squelched it by looking away.

A laugh sounded from Dani, but Steve’s features remained stony. The petite blonde stepped forward and replaced the doctor’s elbow with her own. “We’ll take it from here, Doc.”

Clint Nichols took one step backward, a smile curling his lips, his eyes still focused on Bella. “Good to know she’s in capable hands. Bella, why don’t you schedule an appointment for next Friday? Just so we can make sure you’re healing okay.”

“Will do.”

“See y’all around.” The doctor smiled at each of them in turn, then focused one last time on Bella. He waved a hand, pivoted, and strode back through the double swinging doors, his dark curly head still visible through the small squares of glass.

Dani gave a gentle nudge and sing-songed her comment. “I smell romance brewing.”

An odd mixture of fear and hope spiraled from Bella’s heart to her mouth, a tinny taste now prevalent. She released a half laugh and shook her head for added emphasis. “No. No, you don’t. Besides, he’s a few years younger than I am.”

“Never stopped you before.” Steve, who had remained completely silent up to this point, strode toward the sliding glass doors that led outside, his poison-laced words trailing behind him.

The words knifed into Bella’s heart. But even as she considered his statement, she also realized why it had been made. Steve Miller was the kind of guy who deeply loved his friends, his town, and its citizens.

And any affront to them—real or imagined—was also an affront to him.

 

  • * *

 

Though the sun had moved to high-noon position and grown warm, Clay spurred Rusty through the brushy undergrowth of scrub oak to the pile of wire and t-posts he’d left there for work on the fences of Miller’s ranch. Today he needed both hard physical labor and solitude to erase the heart-stabbing pain he’d felt since settling Bella into the back seat of the Miller’s Suburban and watching them drive away with a chunk of his heart.

He inhaled through his nose, the scent of cedar instantly bringing at least a small measure of comfort. He’d known for some time she was back in town and working at the school. Of all places. Since when had she earned a teaching degree? And were the kids of Miller’s Creek truly safe in her hands?

Questions continued to assault his brain as he dismounted and yanked on his puncture-proof gloves. He moved to the fence, stretched out the barbed wire, and secured it to the metal t-posts which had replaced the old cedar posts. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not put Bella—or her shameful past—out of his mind. Still just as gorgeous as ever, and just as able to re-open old wounds. And that wounded heart of his had hurled hurtful words her way. Words he never intended to speak, but that somehow brought a wicked satisfaction in seeing her flinch with pain.

Lord, forgive me and change me.

The sun bore down on him, continuing to rob the day of its coolness. A rivulet of sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging.

The undergrowth rustled behind him. “Thought I might find you here.” Steve Miller, his best friend and boss, sat atop his horse Biscuit. Though somewhat shaded by the brim of his cowboy hat, his eyes held understanding and compassion.

“Hey.” Clay turned back to his work and finished securing the strand of wire, then headed to the cool shade of a nearby live oak for relief from the sun and a swig of water.

Steve climbed from the spotted gelding and joined him in the shade. They both took a seat on the ground and rested their backs against the gnarly bark of the tree. “You okay?”

Clay swirled the cool water to wash away his cotton mouth, then rested his elbows on his knees, and lowered his head. “Yeah. At least, I…” Who was he kidding? He wasn’t okay. He tugged off his work gloves and slapped them against the ground. “Why can’t I get over her? It’s been twenty years, but seeing her this morning brought it all back like it was yesterday.”

Steve didn’t respond. Typical of his friend to just let him vent.

“Is she okay?” Clay couldn’t resist asking the question that had been on his heart since earlier that day.

“Broken tailbone, but that didn’t stop her from making a connection with Clint Nichols, who, as you well know, is younger than she is.” His words held underlying condemnation.

The ache in Clay’s chest intensified. So she was still the same old Bella. “I don’t wanna care for her, but I do.”

“She doesn’t deserve it.”

Clay released pent-up air from his lungs. No one deserved any good in this earthly life. That much he knew for sure. It was only by the grace of God that any of them enjoyed anything. God, help me remember that truth. Especially when it comes to Bella. Even as the prayer rose from his heart, he knew it was easier prayed than done. “Didn’t say I meant to act on those feelings. Sometimes love’s just not enough. Besides, maybe she’s changed.” Or maybe not.

“Maybe.” Steve’s one-word answer echoed his thoughts. His best bud peered out over the sun-drenched ranch land that had been in his family for generations.

“How did she get a job at the school anyway? Dani’s president of the school board, right?”

Steve nodded, but didn’t speak.

“Why would they hire someone like her to teach our kids?”

“Believe it or not, I asked Dani that same question.”

“And?”

His friend’s mouth tightened. “She said Bella came with a great set of credentials and high praise from references.”

A curt laugh fell from Clay’s lips. “Must have the wrong person.” Even as he spoke the words, a shard of regret pierced his heart. Time and difficulty—no, make that the Lord—had a way of changing even the most hardened hearts. Why not Bella’s? He picked up his gloves and wiggled his fingers into them, then stood. “Guess I’d better get back to work.”

Steve grunted and rose to his feet. “It’s Saturday, Clay. Why are you working on your day off?”

A rabbit they’d chased more than once. “Might as well be doing something productive.”

One corner of his friend’s mouth turned up wryly. “And what do you do just for fun?”

Fun? Since when had anything since high school been fun? He shook his head and straightened his grimy green John Deere cap, pulling the brim low. “This is fun.” He sauntered back to the fence.

A disbelieving snort sounded through Steve’s nose. He obviously wasn’t gonna let the matter rest. “Then why aren’t you working on your own place?”

Clay picked up the roll of barbed wire, cautious of the sharp metal thorns, and unrolled it to the next post. “My fences are done.”

Steve laughed. “Of course they are. And you wanted something difficult and solitary to work on to get your mind off Bella. How’s that working for ya?”

He chose not to respond. Steve knew him too well.

His friend let loose a soft chuckle. “Some day I’m gonna figure out a way to teach you the benefits of freedom.”

“I am free.”

“No, you’re not. You’re enslaved to hard work. You think it’ll help you forget, but all it does is help you remember.” Steve sauntered to Biscuit and swung his tall frame atop the horse. “You also need a woman. Just not her.”

Not true. He didn’t need anyone. Not anymore. Not since Bella had crushed his heart. Clay turned back to his work.

Steve’s voice drawled behind him, “See ya around.” As the sound of Biscuit’s hooves grew faint, Clay resumed his work with increased fervor, determined to prove his friend wrong. But only seconds later, the unvarnished truth hit him between the eyes.

He was indeed enslaved—not only to his work, but to his past—especially as it concerned the beautiful Bella. But how in the world was he supposed to free himself from the rusty chains that had held him captive for years?

Then another thought punched him in the gut. If he’d been blind to those particular chains, what other things had him imprisoned?

Chapter Two

Though moving slow thanks to her busted tailbone, Bella inched through the teacher’s lunch room line at school on Monday, her nose confused by variety of smells emanating from the kitchen. She recognized the hair-netted lunch room lady who handed her a tray as the mother of one her former high school friends. “Thanks, Mrs. Burns. How are you doing?”

“Fine.” The woman intoned the mono-syllabic answer without elaborating, her face a solemn mask.

“How’s Bridget?”

“Fine.”

Same one-word answer. Okay, so far her attempt to carry on a conversation wasn’t going so well. Was Bridget’s mom one more she could add to her Miller’s Creek opposition list?

Bella peered down at the meager lunch of five chicken nuggets, some mystery sauce in a white paper cup, green beans, and peaches, her mouth watering. Just not for this particular meal. The list of those who still saw her as a wild child grew longer by the day. Would she ever be able to get past…well, her past? She looked up once more at the diminutive woman, whose face was still as unanimated as before. “Thanks. Have a good one.”

“You too.”

Bella smiled. Not much, but at least it was a start. But as she entered the noisy cafeteria and headed toward the dreaded teacher’s table, a sigh of frustration fell from her lips. Most likely another day of being shunned and ignored. Sometimes she wondered why she even bothered. But she’d never make headway if she holed up in her classroom to avoid further hurt. Father, help me tear down this wall.

She set down her tray and gingerly lowered her weight to the hard round seat attached to the table. “Hi everyone.”

Her heart fell, much like a dirty napkin fallen to the cafeteria floor. No response other than a few eyes that briefly looked her way. Instead, the others kept talking about whatever topic had garnered their fancy on this particular day. Bella winced, partly from the pain of trying make her back side comfortable on the hard seat, partly from being ignored.

She glanced around the group, hoping to make eye contact with at least one of them. But no such luck. Over halfway through the school year, and still no success in breaking into their tight little clique. Her gaze landed on the woman at the end of the table, her nemesis from days long past. Stephanie Rollins Peters presided over the flock of teachers like the queen she believed herself to be. Not only was the woman a former classmate, but also the superintendent’s daughter. A sudden blast of intuition pounded Bella’s skull. Was Stephanie responsible for the coldness of the other teachers? If so, what piece of misinformation had she passed on?

The familiar ache lassoed her heart and squeezed. She picked up a chicken nugget, dunked it in the purplish-red sauce, then took a bite. Her face contorted at the nasty taste and texture on her tongue. She dropped what was left of the mystery meat back on her tray, doing all she could to chew and swallow the bitter bite. No wonder the kids chose not to eat cafeteria food. No wonder so many who couldn’t afford anything else simply went hungry.

She glanced up to find Stephanie’s cat-like eyes fixed on her.

“What’s wrong, Bella?” A derisive grin twisted her lips to one side. “Food not to your liking?”

A hot blush moved into her cheeks. Resolved to be kind no matter what the queen dished out, Bella smiled. “Not really. Sometimes I think they must serve whatever road kill they can scrape up off the road.” Bella forced a half-snort, half-chuckle, which sounded fake even to her own ears, but then stopped short.

No one else laughed or even cracked a smile.

Stephanie’s eyes glittered. “I hear you had a run-in with Clay on Saturday.”

Though Bella found nothing particularly amusing about the snide comment, several of the other women snickered.

Stephanie assumed a queenly smirk. The woman was more than aware of her influence and would use it in whatever way she found necessary.

Bella kept her gaze trained on Stephanie, refusing to back down to the intimidation tactics. “Yes I did. And I have a busted tailbone to prove it. Thanks for your concern.” An angry edge she hadn’t intended sharpened her tone.

The air grew oatmeal thick, and heads turned toward Stephanie in anticipation of her response.

“Kind of ironic, isn’t it? He broke your tailbone. You broke his heart.”

The snickers resumed.

She clamped her jaw tight. How she’d love to pick up that white paper cup of sauce and smear it all over Queen Stephanie’s face. But that was exactly the kind of behavior the enemy wanted, and she refused to give him an inch. Bella rose to her feet with what was left of her dignity, picked up her tray, and left the table.

The painful moment still lingered in her heart a few minutes later as she made her way down the main hallway toward the choir room. Her ruined reputation clung to her with sharp talons, even after all these years. Stephanie, and others like her, would make sure of it. Familiar fear curdled the one bite of poisoned poultry in her stomach. Would they ever give her a chance? And even worse, would this mess affect her job—work she truly loved and considered a calling?

Bella released air she’d inadvertently imprisoned in her lungs. Even as the questions reverberated in her head, she realized her culpability in the matter. Her reckless senior year had given the entire population of Miller’s Creek more than enough ammunition to blast her for a lifetime, something she could only blame on herself.

Just as she passed the office, the high school principal stepped into the hallway. “Bella, do you have a minute before your next class? I need to run a couple of things past you.”

She checked her watch. “I’m already set up, so I have a few minutes to spare.” Bella followed him into his office.

Mr. Dickerson closed the door and took a seat behind his oversized desk, while Bella cautiously rested her sore bottom on a faux leather chair. “Is there a problem?”

Her boss didn’t smile, but met her gaze directly. “There’s a student in your choir class—Jacob Clark.”

Bella nodded. A poor mixed-up kid who’d caused considerable trouble, despite her efforts to establish a rapport with him. “Yes.”

“His mother dropped by my office earlier today. Said you were detaining him after choir, making him late for his next class.”

“My intention isn’t to make him late. It’s to find out why he’s always disrupting our rehearsal.”

Dickerson’s eyes narrowed. “Hmmm. None of the other teachers are having any issues with him.” He paused long enough to take a breath. “His mother also insinuated that your motives in detaining him, might be…” A discomfited expression crossed his face, and he cleared his throat. “…might be less than pure.”

Heat flooded her face and moved to her head. “That’s absolutely not true. I’d never do that.” She swallowed against the bile that tried to crawl up her throat. “I’m telling the truth. Please believe me.”

“I do believe you, Bella, but please be careful. You know you can always bring him to the office if he’s a problem.”

True. But teachers who followed that protocol were often labeled as those who couldn’t control their classrooms, a label she didn’t want to add to her already lengthy list. “Yes, sir. I’ll keep that in mind for next time.” And there would be a next time. Of that she had no doubt.

“Something else. There’s a young lady, short red hair, a senior, who has quite the singing voice.”

“Miranda Jones?” Bella’s brain searched through past memories. “I think she goes by Randi?”

“Yeah. You know her?”

“She participated in the Fall Talent Show and did an amazing job. I’d love to have her in choir.”

“Good. I’d like you to talk her into it. Her family isn’t well-off financially. She could use the scholarship money that being in a college choir would provide.”

That she could do.

“And even if you can’t get her in choir, I’d like you to tutor her in private voice after school.”

“Yes sir.” She glanced at the clock above his head. The bell would ring any minute. “Is there anything else?”

“Nope.” He stepped toward her and helped her stand. “Still in pain?”

“Yeah, but I’m making it okay.”

“You haven’t used one sick day all year, which I greatly appreciate. But if you need some time off until your tailbone has healed, just say the word.” He laid one hand on her shoulder, a smile on his face.

“Thanks, but with choir contest coming up, I just can’t afford to miss right now.” She moved out the door he held open and down the hall toward her next class. The bell rang just as she reached the door. Last-minute stragglers, in a hurry to avoid a tardy slip, jostled her as she tried to enter the room. Her tailbone shrieked in pain.

She glanced around the classroom as she followed the last student in. On the whiteboard, someone had drawn a crude drawing of her holding a pitch fork. Two horns poked out the top of her caricature head.

Some of the students, who obviously read the fire in her expression, headed for their seats, silent and casting furtive glances her way. Jacob and his crew of cronies were the last to saunter to their seats, laughing and making snide comments all the way. True to form, Jacob perched on a seat in the midst of his tribe rather than the seat she’d assigned him last week.

Praying all the way, Bella walked to her podium with a calm she certainly didn’t feel. “Mr. Clark, you are once more in the wrong location. Would you please move to the seat I assigned you?”

“I don’t remember where it is.” He exchanged a sly grin with the buddy beside him, then peered back her direction.

From the other side of the room, Chloe Callahan rose to her feet. “Jacob, quit being such a jerk, and get in your seat. You sit between Tony and Drake, and you know it.” Hands on her hips, the petite snip of a girl with curly brown hair shot sparks at him with her eyes. “We only have a few weeks of rehearsal before contest, and you’re ruining it for all of us.” Voices of affirmation sounded, and heads nodded in agreement.

Eyes shifting from Chloe to his friends, the smile on Jacob’s face dissolved. He licked his lips and stood, intentionally kicking one of the metal folding chairs as he stomped to the correct seat.

Bella smiled her appreciation to Chloe. Crisis averted. At least for now.

The rest of choir class was thankfully uneventful, and by the time the bell rang, Bella was pleased with the group’s progress. Amazing what could be accomplished when everyone cooperated. The room quickly cleared. Only Jacob remained, sprawled in his chair. The angry expression had returned, along with a challenging tilt to his chin.

The skin on her neck crawled. In light of her conversation with Mr. Dickerson and the accusation leveled against her, this wasn’t a good thing. “Jacob, you may leave now. We’re going to pretend that the incident that took place earlier never happened.” She hesitated. He hadn’t moved an inch, nor had his expression changed. “I appreciate your cooperation during rehearsal today. Let’s see if we can repeat that behavior for the rest of the week.” She slammed her folder shut a little more forcefully than intended.

To her relief, Jacob stood. But rather than heading to the door, he stalked directly toward her, a sneer on his face. He came to a halt just a few short inches away. “My mama told me all about how you were in high school.”

Well, that explained the accusation. So Jacob’s mom was someone she knew. Or at least someone who knew her. She cleared her throat to buy time to think. Lord, give me words. Her anger instantly dissipated. “Jacob, I refuse to play these games with you. You have a great voice and so much to offer. I’d really appreciate your cooperation.”

Pure rage contorted his face. He raised one long finger and brought it to a stop right in front of her. “If you ever embarrass me again like you did today, I promise you’ll regret it for a very long time.” With his threat trailing behind him, Jacob strode from the room and slammed the door.

An instant ache developed behind her eyes. Somehow she had to pull herself together. She gulped in a great breath to slow her pounding pulse, then squared her shoulders and set about to get ready for the next class. A knock sounded just as she finished inserting a disc in the CD player.

She stepped to the door and sent a smile to Mrs. Blankenship, one of the first-grade teachers. Though it wasn’t really a surprise, she got no smile in return. As the students filed into the room, Bella once more battled an onslaught of emotional hurt and painful thoughts, comforted only by the sweet smiling faces of her first-graders.

Later that day, after her last class and before the final bell, Bella headed to hallway duty to make sure students left the building in a somewhat orderly fashion. The bell sounded, and exuberant students poured into the hall from every opening—talking, laughing, and slamming locker doors before they exited the building.

Bella’s breath caught in her throat. Jacob and some of his gang, laughing and striding her way, moved closer and closer. The murderous expression on Jacob’s face revealed his purposeful intent to intimidate. Unable to move from his line of fire because of the crowds, Bella did all she could to brace herself for what was about to happen.

With the full force of his weight, the bulky teenager shoved her with his right shoulder as he passed, and sent her sprawling to the floor.

A lightning-like jolt similar to the one she’d experienced on Saturday shimmied up her spine. She groaned, then crawled to her knees to grasp the wall for support.

Two hands shot out from beside her. “Here. Let me help you.”

She turned her head to see Randi Jones. The teen-aged girl, her copper-colored hair cropped short like a boy’s, placed painted-black fingernails on Bella’s arm and helped her stand.

“Thank you, Randi.” Bella shot a sheepish grin. “I took a spill on Saturday, and I’m still moving a bit on the slow side.” She smoothed her skirt, at once aware of the run in the knee of her panty hose.

The scrawny teen-ager, dressed in solid black attire, nodded toward Jacob and friends as they left the building. “I saw what he did. Don’t mess with him. He’s seriously bad news.”

“Then why in the world do you hang out with him and that crowd he runs with?”

Randi shrugged, her mouth moving in the opposite direction of her shoulders. “Guess ‘cause I don’t really fit in with the other kids.”

Bella ignored the shooting pain in her legs and considered Randi’s words. Hadn’t she felt the same way in high school? If the so-called ‘good kids’ didn’t accept you, it had a way of sending you to the other side in a place like Miller’s Creek, simply to have a place to belong.

Randi’s gold nose ring glinted in the fluorescent light of the hallway. “You gonna be okay?”

Bella nodded, then placed a hand around the girl’s shoulders. “I’m actually glad I saw you. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something. Do you have a minute?” She opened the door and motioned the teenager inside.

“Sure.” Much like a tomboy in her black Converse tennis shoes, Randi swaggered into the room and faced Bella. “Can’t stay long. I don’t wanna be late for work.”

“I won’t keep you long. Where do you work?”

“Grocery store. Now what did you wanna talk about?”

“I’d love to have you in the choir. Mr. Dickerson said it wasn’t too late. What class do you have fifth period?”

“Study hall, but I don’t know about joining the choir. I mean, I love to sing and all, but I know it takes time outside of school for contests and stuff, and I have to work so I can take some classes at the community college in Morganville next year. I want to start my own business some day.” The words gushed out in a string, followed by a boyish grin.

Bella couldn’t help but smile. The first pleasant one-on-one interaction she’d had all day, or maybe even all year. “Actually, the only extra-curricular activities are contest and the spring concert. Plus, I happen to know that the choir director at Morganville Community College gives hefty scholarships.”

“Really?” The tomboy’s eyebrows shot up her forehead. Then almost immediately her smile faded, and she lowered her gaze toward her black Converse tennies. “I don’t know, Miss Masterson. I’ll have to ask my dad, and I’m not sure he’ll agree to it.” She lifted her eyes. “Can I get back with you later?”

“Of course.”

As Randi exited the room, Bella raised a grateful gaze to the ceiling. “Thank You, Father. Please let this work out for Randi. She really needs it, and I really need her.” Needed someone who actually had something going on in that teen-aged brain of hers.

 

  • * *

 

The vast heart-of-Texas sky revealed a lighter hue in the east as Clay made his way to the ranch office early Monday morning. Thanks to near-freezing temps, his mug of coffee steamed a wisp of smoke into the air. Keys a-rattle, he used one hand to unlock the outer door and the other to bring the aromatic and tasty brew to his lips. Still too early for anyone else to be here, but that would give him a chance to look at the schedule for the day.

Clay hit the light switch as he entered the metal building. The room morphed from completely-dark to barely-lit and then to bright white as the fluorescent lights hummed and flickered to full strength. He downed the last gulp of coffee, released a satisfied “aah,” and clunked the empty cup to the desk. Though his old wooden desk wasn’t clean by any stretch of the imagination, at least everything was organized into piles. The exact same way his dad and granddaddy before him had operated in the role of Miller’s Ranch manager.

He ran a hand over the aged oak desk, once more reminded of his connection to this place. Though there were chores that weren’t particularly to his liking—just like any job—being ranch manager defined him like nothing else could. As if the good Lord Himself had ordained it to be. Yep, there was no doubt that this was his place in the world.

A sudden frown pulled his brows in tight. At least that’s what he’d believed until Bella Masterson had almost plowed him over. Since that day, he’d been able to think of little else. Interesting how he had no trouble handling a mad cow, bucking bronc, or unruly ranch hand, but thoughts of Bella took on a life of their own, rendering him helpless as a newborn babe.

He clamped his lips together. No matter what it took, he’d get over Bella, even if it killed him in the trying. The old saying definitely held true in this case. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. He might’ve been fooled by her once before, but it wouldn’t happen again.

Clay forced his mind to the ranch schedule, and was soon lost in the nitty gritty details of ranch management. About seven a.m., the sound of ranch hands gathering in the nearby big room at one end of the barn caught his attention. Clay snagged his clipboard and wandered out to the space to pour another cup of coffee and get the day started. He garnered the guys’ attention by letting out the shrill whistle that always signaled time for them to gather ‘round and pipe down.

“Morning, y’all. Forecast is calling for clear weather today, so we’re gonna take advantage of it.”

A few groans sounded.

“Might be a bit nippy, but you’ll live.” Clay looked down at his notes. He’d learned through trial and error that the best way to handle the workload was spread it out to a few guys. Then those hands would in turn head up a group to accomplish the work. “Shorty, you grab five or six and head to the north pasture to finish up the fencing. Bill, I’ll let you head up a team of seven to bring in any cattle that need doctoring. The vet’s dropping by later this afternoon.”

The door at the back of the room creaked open. A lanky young man entered and leaned against the back wall. Must be the guy he’d scheduled an appointment with for the ranch hand position. The other men turned to offer smiles, then refocused their attention on Clay.

“Butch, you’ll need a group of three to see if we have any new calves that need tending. And this time, make sure you check ‘em all carefully. No excuses.”

A rumbling mumble started in the vicinity where Butch stood.

One look at their faces was enough to know they weren’t pleased with their assignment. Didn’t matter. “If y’all have something to say, say it loud enough for all to hear.” He barked out the command and waited for a response. As he’d expected, there wasn’t one. “Any of you that are left over can help me with a few projects around the barn.”

A few came forward for instructions, but the rest of the men dispersed, sauntering to their jobs for the day. Clay looked toward the back of the room. Only the man who had entered late stayed in place, but he smiled and sent friendly greetings to the other men as they exited.

Clay’s eyes immediately narrowed, and his inner radar tower unfurled. Years of experience in this business had given him a sort of sixth sense about people, and sometimes those who put on a good show made the worst ranch hands. So far, this guy wasn’t off to a good start. Clay strode across the room. “You Frank Ziffarano?”

“Yes, sir. I go by Ziff.” The man grinned broadly, exposing perfect white teeth that gleamed all the brighter against his dark complexion. He held out a hand. “You must be Clay.”

“You can call me Mr. Barnes.” He ignored the man’s outstretched hand, pivoted his boots back in the direction of the office, and called out over his shoulder. “We’ll meet in here.” While part of him hated to be rude, it was the best way he knew to test the guy to see what he was made of. The ranch meant too much to him to just take on anybody. Hiring new hands was a part of his job he took very seriously. Especially here of late. All across the state, ranches were struggling to keep out the drug cartel and worse.

Boots scuffled against the concrete floor behind him. Kind of a lazy walk, but lots of cowpokes did that.

Clay entered the office and faced the man again. “You sit over there.” He jerked his head toward a rickety chair in the corner. Another tool he often to discover who could take orders and who couldn’t.

Ziff took to the chair with a scowl on his face.

Clay scribbled a note on his clipboard. “So tell me, Zaff—”

“The name’s Ziff.”

Clay didn’t look up. “Tell me about your previous experience in ranch work.” He released the words with just the right amount of gruffness, then raised his gaze to look the fellow square in the face.

Ziff shifted uncomfortably and broke his gaze. “Well, my last job was at a ranch near the Metroplex.”

“Which one?” Miller’s Ranch sold horses and cattle—and plenty of ‘em—to ranches all over the state.

“Rockin’ R.”

Well, at least the guy knew the name of a ranch near the Metroplex. Clay made a note to call Pete, the ranch manager at the Rockin’ R. “So you worked for Pete. Know him well.” He clicked his pen and returned it to his chest pocket.

Ziff didn’t verbally respond, but nodded his head with one short motion, his Colgate grin gone.

Clay scanned the list of other references on the application. “So if I call these phone numbers you listed, I’ll be speaking with someone you actually worked for?”

The chair squeaked as he squirmed. “Well, some are.”

He scribbled another note. This was far from his first rodeo. Other guys had pulled the same stunt of getting friends to pretend to be a former employer with glowing words of recommendation. The phone rang. Rather than pull it off the receiver, Clay punched the speaker button and continued to write. “This is Clay.”

“Morning, Clay.” Steve’s familiar voice sounded on the other end. “Listen, Butch knocked on my door a few minutes ago. Said you keep giving him the worst assignments.”

A derisive snort escaped. “Not true. Butch doesn’t like any job I give him.” The ball point pen scratched against the job application.

“Figured that was the case, but I told him I’d talk to you about it. You busy at the moment?”

“Yeah, I’m interviewing a guy for the ranch hand position.”

“The Ziffarano guy we talked about last week?”

Clay’s mouth went dry. “Yeah.” Steve had been more than impressed with the guy’s credentials, but he just didn’t have the nose to sniff out the great ranch hands from those that looked good only on paper. That was exactly why they was having so much trouble with Butch.

“I’ll be there in two shakes.” The line went dead.

Clay did his best not to give away anything in his facial expression. The excitement in his boss’ tone wasn’t a good thing. Now the guy knew he already had someone who wanted him for the job.

A minute later the door opened and Steve strode into the room, his howdy grin in place as he shook Ziff’s hand. “Nice to meet you. Frank Ziffarano, right?”

The scowl on the man’s face had completely disappeared, and he rose to his feet with a brilliant smile. “Yes, sir. I go by Ziff.”

“That oughta be easy enough to remember. I’m Steve Miller, the owner of this outfit. Just have to tell you that your application was very impressive.”

Ziff beamed. “Thank you, Steve.” He rocked back on his boot heels and shoved his hands in his jean pockets. “And I’m impressed by your ranch, sir. I can tell you keep things in tip-top shape around here.”

Clay clamped his jaw, laid down the clipboard, and leaned back in the chair, fingers laced behind his head. Surely Steve could see this guy for the slick car salesman he was.

Steve smiled widely. “So what types of ranch work do you have experience with?”

“All of it.” Ziff sent another slimy grin. “Caring for animals, working fences, training horses. I can even do mechanical and building work. At one place, I worked the managerial end of things while our foreman was in the hospital.” For the first time since Steve had entered the room, Ziff now looked Clay’s way, his face smug and confident.

“Sounds like just the kinda guy we’re looking for.”

White-hot pokers jabbed Clay’s insides. Had his boss really just let those traitorous words outta his mouth? Chomping at the bit to give ‘em both a piece of his mind, Clay instead gritted his back teeth together, swiped a hand across taut lips, and rearranged a desk that didn’t need rearranging.

“Have any more questions you want to ask Ziff?” Steve directed the question to Clay, then laid a hand on the guy’s shoulders as though they were best buds.

“Nah, I think you pretty much covered it.”

Ziff extended a hand Clay’s way, still in used-car salesman mode. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Barnes.”

Clay latched on to the man’s proffered hand and squeezed hard. “No problem.”

Ziff turned to Steve. “Don’t mean to be too pushy, but when do y’all expect to fill the position?”

Steve once more laid a hand on the man’s shoulder and headed toward the door. “We’re still sifting through applications, but Clay and I will talk about it and get back with you before the week’s over.”

At those words, Clay rested an elbow on the desk and massaged the achy spot between his eyebrows. Ay yi yi, what was Steve thinking? Obviously, he wasn’t. He pushed himself to a standing position and followed the two outside.

As they watched Ziff drive off, Steve sent the man a wave. “I like him.”

“Yeah, I could tell.” Clay headed back to the office. This was quickly shaping up to be a four-cups-of-coffee kinda day.

Steve fell into step beside him. “You didn’t?”

Clay yanked on the door a little harder than normal and left Steve to catch it on the rebound. “Let’s just say I’ve stepped in enough manure to know whether it’s workhorse or bull.” He let out an exasperated sigh as he strode into the office and fell to the chair, glaring at his boss. “I don’t trust that guy any further than I can throw him, and you practically hired him on the spot.”

A huge frown darkened his friend’s face, and his lips went flat. Steve leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed. “I think he’d be good to hire and take under your wing as assistant ranch manager. That way when you retire, he’ll be groomed and ready.”

Was that what Steve wanted? His resignation?

“Not that I want you to leave, but now that you’ve bought your own place, it’s gotta be on your mind.”

Yeah, he’d thought about retirement. But he had no plans to leave anytime soon. He was still a long way from being finished at this job. “Not planning on it.” His chin inched up a notch.

Steve cleared his throat. “Sorry if I barged in where I wasn’t wanted during the interview.” He stopped short, but the look on his face proved he wanted to say more.

“Go ahead and say what you wanna say. Don’t hold back on my account.”

“Okay, then.” Steve’s voice took on steel. “You’re great at your job, Clay, and I respect that. But I’m a pretty good judge of character too. I think Ziff would be a great addition to the ranch. I want you to hire him. End of discussion.”

The air thickened. He and Steve had been friends long enough to have weathered many battles, but just like with the hiring of Butch his friend had gone too far. Clay crossed his arms across his ever-tightening chest and squarely met Steve’s gaze. “Just let me do my job, will ya?”

“I think you’re forgetting one thing.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have a job.” Without another word, his boss stomped out the door and across the barn, slamming the door behind him.

Steve’s parting comment chafed against Clay all day. By the time to head out for the ranch’s Equine Therapy ministry, he couldn’t wait to leave his other work behind. As he hopped in his truck, a black limo with tinted windows passed by the barn and stopped outside the main ranch house.

Clay frowned and peered in his rearview mirror.

A back window lowered and Steve bent low to speak to someone inside.

Probably just some political big wig. As mayor of Miller’s Creek and owner of one of the biggest ranches in the area, Steve rubbed elbows with some pretty important people. Clay put the truck in reverse and then drove his truck the short distance to the ministry headquarters, a two-story Colonial where Steve had grown up.

As he parked the pickup and lowered the windows, a peace and joy he couldn’t fully describe descended. Already kids’ laughter and excited chatter reached his ears and brought a smile to his heart.

Clay hoofed it to the stables and began saddling horses, many of them rescues from owners who had neglected and abused them. He’d worked in cahoots with Steve to nurse the horses back to health, then trained them to see if they’d be gentle enough mounts for kids.

Since that time, Matt Tyler had counseled hundreds of kids who qualified for the program. Just like the horses, many were neglected and uncared for. Even abused. A situation that made absolutely no sense to his way of thinking.

Soon all the horses were ready and a line of eager kids gathered beside the stable entrance with adult volunteers nearby. Clay sauntered to the opening and smiled out at the kids. “Who’s ready to ride?”

Multiple hands shot into the air. “Me, me.”

“I am!”

“Can I go first?”

Clay motioned for them to be quiet by raising both hands and releasing a short, but shrill, whistle. “Okay, compadres. Y’all know the drill. What’s rule numero uno?”

“Wait your turn and be patient.” Little Jeffrey called out the answer first. Blind since birth, his parents had moved off in the middle of the night, leaving him behind.

Clay squatted in front of him and tousled the shock of reddish-blond hair. “You got that right, amigo. I think you get to mount up first.”

Moans and groans sounded from the other kids, but they stayed in place.

A short while later the nearby pasture was filled with kids atop horses led by volunteers. Clay rested both arms on the top rung of the wooden fence surrounding the area, the sun warm on his back. Life might be rough for all of them at times, but there was still much good in this old world. A blessing from the Lord he in no way took for granted.

But questions remained. Was Steve subtly insinuating that it was time for him to leave? Would his friend and boss hire Ziff in spite of his objections?

Then an even bigger question towered above the others and shook him to his core. What did Bella’s coming back to Miller’s Creek mean for him?

Chapter Three

Running late for his Wednesday night deacon’s meeting, Clay jumped in his truck, cranked the engine to life, and focused on the setting sun behind the tree-lined creek that bordered his property. Ahh. Nothing like a beautiful Texas sunset to put a man’s heart at ease. He glanced over to the build site as he bounced down the rutted driveway toward the main road. The slab had been poured earlier that day, inching him one step closer to making the dream of owning a home a reality.

But what good was a home without someone to share it with?

He pulled on to the farm-to-market road and draped both arms across the steering wheel as the last sliver of sun sank behind the trees. Within a couple of minutes, Clay reached the Masterson farm and made the turn north toward Miller’s Creek. Old man Masterson had long been known around these parts for both his sharp tongue and even sharper skills as a rancher and farmer. But here of late, his place seemed headed downhill, almost as though it hadn’t been tended to in months. He checked the lights of the house in his rearview mirror. Did the old man live there all by himself? Or did his beautiful daughter live there as well?

Thoughts of Bella immediately melded with his earlier thought about someone to share life with. At one time he’d hoped she’d be that person. Had thought she felt the same way about him. He gave his head a weary shake. Between his run-in with Bella and a different sort of run-in with Steve, the past few days hadn’t been particularly rosy. Clay’s thoughts continued to churn over his past with Bella and the spat with Steve until he arrived at church.

He climbed the concrete steps to the front doors, then removed his hat and made his way into the sanctuary. Already a few of the deacons mulled around. Steve stood near the front shooting the bull with Andy and Matt Tyler. Joining them was the new doctor in town, Clint Nichols.

“Hey, Clay. How’s it going?” Andy Tyler shot a broad and friendly grin.

“Can’t complain, I guess. Hey, Matt. Steve.” He nodded to both, then shook hands with Dr. Nichols. “Hey, Doc.”

Matt, well-known in Miller’s Creek for his affable nature, patted him on the back. “Good to see you, buddy. We were just talking about some folks that probably need to be added to our visitation list.”

“Such as?”

“Buck Masterson for one.” Steve made eye contact with Clay.

Was it his imagination, or did his boss’s words hold a challenge? Best not to even chase that dog. “What’s wrong with him?”

Andy frowned. “You don’t know?”

“Know what?”

“He’s been battling lung cancer for over a year. The scuttlebutt around town is that he’s going downhill in a hurry.”

The news knifed into him. Though he’d never been particularly close to Buck, he’d been close enough to Bella at one time in his life to be concerned. And the man was his next-door neighbor, for Pete’s sake. “I had no idea.” Was that why Bella had moved back?

His bones turned to wax at the answer. He’d accused her of far more sinister reasons. Clay lowered his head. Yeah. Definitely not his best week. “I’ll go see him tonight after our meeting.”

“I’d like to go with you, if that’s okay.” Clint Nichols spoke, his concern evident in both tone and expression.

“You bet.” His mind traveled to Steve’s description of taking Bella to the hospital. Had the new doc already fallen for her? If so, only heaven could help him. Maybe on the drive to the Masterson place, he could persuade the man to look elsewhere.

Steve laid a hand on Clay’s shoulder. “Can I talk to you a sec?”

“Sure.” He followed his boss down to the other end of the pews.

“Sorry I came across a little harsh the other day. Things have been tough here lately.” His friend didn’t elaborate, but the fatigue in his eyes bore testimony to the fact. Steve sent a half smile. “But I meant what I said about hiring Ziffarano. I can’t really explain at this point, but I still want to hire him.”

Clay released his frustration with a low whistle, but nodded in agreement. “Okay. I’ll try not say ‘I told you so’ when things head south.”

A voice called out, bringing the deacon’s meeting to order and an end to further conversation with Steve. The meeting was blissfully brief, and within a half hour Clay was on his way to the Masterson farm with Clint along for the ride. Clay pursed his lips. What was the best way to broach the subject of Bella? No need to beat around the bush, right? He cleared his throat. “Don’t know if you’ve heard it through the grapevine or not, but Buck’s daughter doesn’t have a great reputation in Miller’s Creek.”

“Hmm.” Nothing about Clint’s voice sounded even remotely interested in the conversation.

“Oh, she’s beautiful all right. I’ll give her that much. But she collects human hearts the way some people collect coins or stamps. Only fair to warn you.”

A tense silence permeated the pickup cab. The corners of Clint’s mouth pulled back into a tight smile. “While I appreciate your concern, Bella seems like a really sweet person.” Dr. Nichols garnered Clay’s gaze. “Besides that, I’m a big boy. If I need your input or advice, I’ll let you know.”

Hmph! Some folks wouldn’t be warned by the rattling of a snake either. Clay pulled in the driveway of the Masterson house and looked over at Clint. Yeah, he’d just had his hands slapped by the new doc, but the guy should probably be warned about Bella’s dad as well. “You know anything about Buck?” He swung open the truck door, illuminating the cab.

“No, but I’m guessing you’re gonna fill me in.”

“He can be pretty gruff. Mainly a lot of bark, but not too much bite.” Clay’s boots shuffled up the front walk, Dr. Nichols’ dress shoes tapping the concrete behind him. Clay rapped on the aluminum screen door, then took a step back.

Voices sounded from within, and the porch light switched on. The door opened, revealing shock on Bella’s face. “H-hi, Clay.”

“Hi.” A sudden and unexpected communication, much like an electrical jolt, passed between them. “We’re, uh, here to see your dad. Mind if we come in?”

Her face clouded over, concrete hard, and she made no move to open the door. Instead she crossed her arms in an ‘over-my-dead-body’ sorta stance.

To his right, Clint Nichols stepped forward and into the light. “Hi, Bella.”

A lovely smile immediately blossomed on her face. “Hi.” Her arms uncrossed, and she swung the door open. “Y’all come on in.” She led the way down the short hallway to the living room where Buck, hooked up to a tank of oxygen, reclined in his lounger. He didn’t stand or offer any welcome, but glared at them briefly before turning his gaze back to an old John Wayne western blaring from the TV.

“Daddy, these men are here to see you. You remember Clay, the manager at Miller’s ranch.” She held a hand out toward Clint and smiled warmly. “And this is Clint Nichols. He’s the new doctor in town who took care of me when I injured my tailbone.” Her gaze only met Clay’s for a split second, but long enough to show she held him responsible. Bella faced the doctor again, her eyes bright and lips turned upward. “Didn’t expect a house call though.”

Clint laughed out loud. “I reserve those only for my best patients, you know.” They launched into conversation like two friends who hadn’t seen each other in years.

A bonfire ignited in Clay’s gut and shot flames to the top of his head. Enough of this. He stepped toward the recliner and extended a hand toward the man who seemed much smaller than he remembered. “How you doing, Buck? Haven’t seen you around in a while. Didn’t know you’d been sick.”

Buck made scowling eye contact before he begrudgingly shook Clay’s hand. “Heard you bought the place next to us.”

Bella’s eyebrows shot upward, but she didn’t speak.

“Yep. Got the foundation for the house done and fences built. Hoping to get most of the work finished before summer.” Before the brimstone-scorching temps of a Texas July and August hit.

Now Clint stepped forward and offered his hand as well. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Masterson.” He sent a smile Bella’s way. One she returned. “Must be nice to have your daughter back in town.”

The only sound from Buck was a non-committal harrumph.

If Buck’s response bothered Bella in the slightest, she didn’t let it show. She turned to Clint again and initiated more conversation.

A sour taste landed in Clay’s mouth at the mutual interest between Bella and Clint. If the guy got his heart broken, it wasn’t ‘cause he hadn’t been warned. It was more than obvious that Hurricane Bella hadn’t changed much over the years. Time to bring this visit to a close. “Buck, we won’t keep you, but can we pray with you before we go?”

No verbal response accompanied Buck’s glare. Clay swallowed hard. Public prayer wasn’t exactly his strong suit, but unsure of what to do, he bowed his head and started praying anyway. “Dear Lord, thank You for this home and for our community and neighbors. I lift up Buck to You, and ask that You’d heal his body. Help Bella as she takes care of him. Help her do what’s right, and help them both to come to church. Amen.”

Clay raised his head to the same old glare from Buck and horrified expression on Clint’s face. But it was the fire in Bella’s eyes that scorched his insides. What was that for?

She stomped past him toward the front door. “I’d like to speak to you privately, Clay.”

Not an invitation. He followed, his thoughts scattering in all different directions, like a covey of quail in a spray of buckshot.

Once the door closed behind them, Bella pivoted, her face livid. “How dare you! I declare there’s nothing in that rock-hard head of yours but a rubber band holding your ears on! Of all the arrogant, self-righteous, pig-headed—” Her hands fisted in mid-air, and she released a guttural “Ugh!”

His boiling blood hit critical mass and unleashed his tongue without permission. “Why don’t you tell me how you really feel? And an explanation of why you feel that way would be nice!”

Though he saw it coming, there was no time to dodge. The full force of her open palm smacked against the left side of his face.

Bella’s eyes and mouth widened to an “O,” and her palms flew to rest on her own cheeks. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.” She raised trembling fingers toward his face, then yanked her arm back down, where she draped it and its partner around her waist.

Clay gingerly brought a hand up to his jaw, which stung like he’d come into contact with a nest of yellow jackets. “Holy guacamole, you she-devil! Do you have to draw blood too?” He sucked in air through his nose, his gaze latched on hers.

She snapped her head away, but not before he glimpsed the heartache oozing from her eyes.

A guilt-layered rock stuck in his throat. Not exactly how he’d pictured this scenario playing out. Time to eat crow, no matter how foul-tasting. “Sorry if I said something to set you off.”

For several long minutes she didn’t speak. Instead she paced to the other end of the porch and stared off into the darkness. Finally her voice sounded, surprisingly calm and controlled. “The prayer you prayed. I know you most likely meant well, but you came across as self-righteous and judgmental. How do you know we don’t already go to church—just some place else?” She slowly turned to face him, her face pale but purposeful. “If your intention was to get back at me through Daddy or your prayer, it’s not gonna work.” Her chin tilted upward, and her eyes shot sparks.

Well, if she could reference their shaky past, so could he. “Pretty stern words coming from a sinner like you.”

Bella froze, and a whole host of emotions washed across her pretty face. “Last time I checked, we’re all in the same boat. Even you.”

The words were whisper soft, but punched into his gut with the force of a jackhammer.

Without another word, she stalked past him and into the house, the door slamming behind her.

He stood there a moment, breathing in cool night air. Self-righteous? Judgmental? His face muscles twitched, but in the next second he realized the words she’d hurled his way might indeed be true. Lord, I’m sorry I came across as better than I am. No voice sounded in return, but a pack of coyotes howled in the distance. Time to straighten out the knots in this lasso.

As Clay tromped down the hallway toward the living room, laughter floated to his ears. He rounded the corner to see Bella, Clint, and even Buck sharing a belly laugh. At his expense?

All faces immediately sobered, devoid of any mirth as they looked his way.

This wouldn’t be easy, but apologies never had been for him. He faced Buck first. “Sorry if I offended you by my prayer, Buck. I didn’t mean to sound holier-than-thou or insinuate that you…” Man, this was harder than he’d expected. He shifted his gaze to Bella, silently pleading for help.

Her expression softened somewhat, but her eyes narrowed and her head cocked to one side. Like she didn’t fully buy his apology. She pressed her lips together briefly, then bailed him out. “Thank you for that, Clay.”

“Hogwash!” The word rifled from Buck’s mouth, and he pointed a bony finger Clay’s way. “My daughter changed to someone I barely recognized during her last year of high school. And it was because of your self-righteous attitude and big mouth! Looks like you haven’t changed much.”

 

  • * *

 

Bella swallowed against the knuckle-hard lump that had shimmied from her heart to her throat. Funny how Daddy had never communicated those thoughts to her. Immediately her mind shot to past memories. She’d loved Clay Barnes with a love so fierce it scared her. Had looked up to him. Wanted to please him.

Lips rolled between her teeth and gaze lowered, her heart ached, squeezed between past memories and concern for Clay’s feelings in the present. It was in that disease-to-please that she’d uncovered just how impossible the task was when it came to Clay. Yes, he was a good man in many ways. But like a burr under a saddle blanket, his attitude of being on a higher plane than her and the rest of the world had been a catalyst that helped turn her into an untamable bronc so many years ago.

A sad sigh escaped. If she couldn’t be good enough for him, the option that had made the most sense—at least to her high school girl mind—was to prove just how bad she could be instead. A mindset that had carried her to depths to which she’d never meant to stoop.

The bitter taste of disappointment landed in her mouth. But wasn’t that how sin worked? It always looked so appealing from the front side. Like the best option. Only from the place of having been through it could she look back and see it for what it really was. Complete failure.

Dr. Nichols stepped closer to Daddy, and once more resumed friendly conversation. Surprisingly her father responded, almost as though the human contact after long lonely months of being cooped inside was the sunshine needed to sprout green leaves after winter.

Her eyes shifted to the clock. Thanks to Clay barging in, unwanted and unannounced, she wouldn’t make choir practice at Lakeside Church. It was a good thing she and Keith had a backup plan in place. If she didn’t show, he handled rehearsal. A phone call later would give her a chance to explain, and if anyone would understand, it would be him.

Clay’s remorseful eyes met hers.

Good. But not good. The wall around her heart cracked within her chest, and she quickly glanced away. This wasn’t a side of him she was used to seeing, and it left emotional devastation in its wake.

“Bella, how’s your tailbone?” The question sounded from Dr. Nichols, who now sat on the brick hearth next to her father’s chair. One ankle draped across the opposite knee, his arms resting atop, seemingly comfortable and feeling right at home.

“Better, thanks.”

“And the pain?”

“Still there, but getting less noticeable by the day.” She opted not to mention her spill at the hands of Jacob Clark yesterday afternoon. Who knew what kind of response that would bring from Mr. Goody Two-Boots? She felt Clay’s eyes on her, but refused to make eye contact. Her heart just couldn’t handle it at the moment.

From her peripheral vision, she saw him turn toward Clint. “Guess we’d better be getting on back to the church.”

Finally. That was what she wanted and needed. Plus it would hopefully give her the opportunity for break-through conversation with Daddy. An open door she’d been praying for since she moved in last summer.

Clint stood and smiled at her broadly. “Good to see you again, Bella. Don’t forget to drop by on Friday so I can make sure you’re doing okay.”

She returned his smile. “Will do.”

Next the doctor faced Daddy. “And Buck, you try to stay out of trouble, okay?”

A soft chuckle rasped from the old man’s throat. “That’s mighty hard to do for someone like me, but I’ll try.” The two shared a laugh that warmed Bella’s heart to the core.

Clay shifted his weight from side to side, ill at ease, yet another side of him she hadn’t seen. He sent a goodbye wave toward Daddy, then headed to the front door. Clint followed, and Bella fell into step behind them.

At the door, Clay moved outside without speaking, but Clint turned her way. “Good night, Bella.”

“Good night.” As the two disappeared into the darkness, she clicked the dead bolt into place and stood there a moment, both palms pressed against the door, trying to make sense of the wash of emotions that swirled throughout her. Finally she gave her head a despondent shake. There was just no figuring out her traitorous feelings. She traipsed back toward the living room and plopped down onto the couch.

Daddy had un-paused the DVR, his focus once more on McClintock. She pressed her lips together. There was no way she could not address what had just taken place. “Daddy?”

“Hmm?” His gaze remained glued to the television.

“What you said to Clay. I never knew you felt that way.”

Again he didn’t look her way. Or answer. Familiar feelings of insecurity knifed into her. Did he at least love her down deep in a place he never showed?

An exasperated snort sounded. With brusque choppy motions, Daddy raised the remote and paused the movie, his face a cold stone.

She steeled herself for an angry barrage of words, but none came.

Instead he glared. “Let’s hurry and get this over with, so I can watch my movie in peace.”

Though his words ripped into tender flesh, she nodded. At least it was a step in the right direction. “I think you were right in what you said to Clay. A lot of what I went through in high school was my reaction to how he treated me.” Now how did she voice her own responsibility in the matter?

He didn’t respond, but leaned his head back against the recliner and eyed the popcorn ceiling, his mind no-telling where. “It wasn’t just his fault, Bella.”

She inhaled sharply, her nose immediately assaulted by the burnt odor of fear. It needed to be discussed, but how she dreaded it. “I know I’m to blame, too, Da—”

“Don’t go making excuses. You had a choice in the matter, and you made it. And ruined this family in the process.” Each word grew louder and more forceful. “No wonder people have such a low opinion of us. We raised you better than that.”

Smoldering embers flared to life, flames fueled by hurt, long pent-up words tumbling from her lips. “Did you, really? Mama maybe, but not you. When Ben died, you washed your hands of me.” She clamped her lips shut, struggling to rein in her temper. Hurtful words would only exacerbate the situation, not help. But how did she find a way to tell him that her search for a man to love her was partially his fault?

Curses fell from his mouth, his eyes narrowed to slits of spiteful hate. “Don’t blame me for your mistakes, girlie.” Daddy looked away, chest heaving and muttering under his breath. Then a second later, he unleashed the full scope of his wrath. “Sometimes I wish you’d died instead.”

Poison-tipped points pierced deep into her soul, to the place where the little girl in her still resided. Bella leaned forward, hands clasped to her chest, battling for breath. She’d suspected for some time that her father—in some twisted way—blamed her for Ben’s death. But never before had he spoken words that wished her dead.

A slow blink closed and opened her eyes, her mouth still a-gape. She attempted once more to gulp air into lungs that refused to cooperate. Desperate for oxygen, she breathed in deep and rose on shaky legs. Yes, she’d wanted this conversation. Had prayed for it. But at the moment she had nothing more to say. No way to communicate the depth of her pain and confusion.

She stumbled down the hallway toward her room, for the first time in her life wishing she was a crier. Anything to release this hurt.

Bella closed the door and flung herself—belly down—to the bed, feeling the need to pray, but having absolutely no words.

Chapter Four

After school the following day, Bella stepped out into the sunshine, relieved the gray clouds had left, if only for a few hours. Though the air held a hearty nip to remind her winter wasn’t over, at least the sunshine helped raise her spirits. No matter how difficult the situation with Daddy, God was still in control. That was the truth that kept her going.

She unlocked her car and climbed in. First a stop by Watson’s drugstore to pick up Daddy’s prescriptions and then home to an enormous list of oughtta-do’s.

As she pulled up to the recently-renovated drugstore, she spied the same young man she’d seen the day she busted her tailbone. This time he stood at the corner of the historic drugstore building, peering across the street toward the feed store. Her gaze followed his line of sight. Clay and Steve exited the feed store, deep in conversation. So deep they didn’t even realize they were being watched.

She made a mental note to mention it next time she saw Clay, then hurried into the drugstore.

A much-older and balding Ernie looked up from the soda fountain counter, an instantaneous grin creeping out from behind his over-sized moustache. “Well, I declare, if it’s not Hurricane Bella.” He stood and engulfed her in a hug.

“Good to see ya, Ernie. But please, lose the Hurricane Bella nickname, will ya? Haven’t you heard? I’ve been downgraded to a tropical storm.”

He laughed and pulled back, holding her at arm’s length. “Heard you were back in town. Teaching at the school, right?”

“Yep.” Should she mention the guy outside? Wouldn’t hurt. She lowered her voice and leaned closer to Ernie. “It’s probably nothing, but on the way inside I noticed a guy loitering on the corner watching folks across the street.”

He headed to the front glass window. “That guy there?”

She nodded.

“He’s the new hand out at the ranch.”

Oh. Well, that might explain his presence, but it sure didn’t explain why he was watching Clay and Steve so intently.

Ernie didn’t seem the least bit concerned. “You look the same as ever, Bella. Purty enough for a postcard.”

A flush worked up her neck and into her cheeks, especially at the frank appraisal of a quiet redheaded woman behind the counter.

Ernie must have read her thoughts, because he gripped Bella’s upper arm with one hand and held out the other toward the woman. “Bella, this is Dakota. You know Chance Johnson?”

“J.C.‘s grandson, right? Works at the hospital?”

The town cop nodded. “That’s the one. Dakota is his wife.”

Bella reached a hand across the counter. “Nice to meet you, Dakota.”

“You too. You here to pick up a prescription for Buck?”

Bella nodded, doing all she could to keep her eyebrows locked in normal position. Oh, the joys of small-town living, where everyone knew everyone else and their business.

“I’ll go get it for you.”

Bella thanked her and turned her attention back to Ernie. “So how’s it going?”

He gave his balding head a shake. “Got an old friend of yours in jail at the moment.”

“Who?”

“Remember Julie Banks?”

Remember her? They’d been best friends during high school. Two peas in a pod in more than one way. Julie had been a huge influence in her life, and not in a good way. “Yeah. How is she?”

“Sad story. She made a string of bad choices. Now she’s earned a reputation as the town drunk and druggie. I pick her up from time to time so she can have a bed to sleep in and a few square meals.”

Bella’s heart jumped to her throat and swelled. “What about her family?”

He shrugged. “Basically gave up on her. And I can understand it in some ways. You do all you can to help someone, but if they’re not willing to change…”

Bella’s mind raced. Surely something could be done. She eyed the clock. Precious daylight hours were quickly ebbing away. Maybe she should just steer clear of the situation.

Dakota returned, white sack in hand, then stepped around them and behind the check-out counter.

Her mind still in overdrive, Bella paid for the medications and then turned back to Ernie. “I’ll see you around.” She’d no more stepped out the door when she felt a cinch in her spirit.

Don’t give up on Julie. I didn’t give up on you.

She climbed in her car. But Lord, I don’t think I have time for this with everything else I’ve got going on.

Make time. You follow Me, remember?

The still small voice set off a wave of contrition that flooded Bella’s entire being. Yes, she followed Him, no matter how messy or inconvenient it might be. She climbed from the car and headed back in the drugstore. “Hey, Ernie?”

He looked her way. “Back so soon?”

“I’d like to visit with Julie if that’s okay.”

Without hesitation he rose to his feet. “You betcha.”

A few minutes later the two entered the concrete block building that housed the Miller’s Creek Police Department. A receptionist in uniform sat behind the counter. She and Ernie spoke a few words, then Ernie led her back to a steel door which he unlocked.

Bella peered behind a set of bars to a blonde-haired bony figure on a cot.

The woman pushed herself to a seated position and stared over at them, her eyes dull and lifeless.

“Hi Julie.”

“Bella? Is that you?”

Somehow Bella held threatening tears at bay and moved in through the door Ernie had unlocked. She took a seat beside Julie and pulled her into an embrace, more than aware that her life could’ve gone this direction as easy as a few bad choices and compromises. She pulled away, her hands still on Julie’s shoulders. “I’m here to help.”

Julie’s face contorted, accompanied by a hacking cough. When she was finally able to bring the cough under control, she shook her head sadly. “Not sure there’s any hope for me, but thanks. Lots of people have tried and failed.”

Now it was Bella’s turn to shake her head. “Let me introduce you to real hope. Okay?”

For the first time, Julie mustered the tiniest of smiles, revealing stained and rotting teeth. “I’d like that.”

 

  • * *

 

A yawn worked its way out of Clay’s mouth. He opened his eyes wide, squeezed them shut, then opened them wide again, all in an attempt to shake off the drowsiness. A week of sleepless nights and long work days would do that to a fella. He stretched both arms above his head and then let them drop to the armrests of the desk chair, glaring at the mass of unfinished paperwork before him.

With a disgusted sigh, Clay pushed himself to a standing position. He had to find a solution to this mess. Like now. Though his usual tactic of distracting himself with plenty of good old-fashioned work—both at the ranch and his own place—had been deployed, it hadn’t come anywhere close to working.

Bella claimed his every waking thought. And her words from two nights ago had worked their way under his skin like a cow tick in a dog’s fur. Was a judgmental mindset yet another thing he’d become enslaved to throughout the years?

Only one person on the planet knew him well enough to answer that question.

Clay shuffled to the door, grabbed his hat from the hook, and strode quickly across the crunching gravel parking lot toward his truck. A few seconds later, he pulled up outside Dani and Steve’s two-story farmhouse, built to resemble the original home built by Steve’s great-great grandfather. He clomped up the wooden porch steps and rapped on the screen door.

Angry voices sounded from within, but a second later, the door swung open to reveal Dani and the Miller’s little girl, Beth Anne.

“Uncle Clay!” Beth Anne struggled to escape the confines of her mother’s arms, and Dani allowed it.

He swung the little girl up in his arms, a twinge of envy ricocheting inside. What he wouldn’t give to have what Steve had. “Hey, Punkin.” He tickled Beth Anne under her chin, bringing forth giggles and pudgy hands which shoved his tickling fingers away.

“Stop it!” Breathless with laughter, Beth Anne squirmed, her words saying one thing and her actions saying the complete opposite.

Clay faced Dani, who stood with head lowered, fingertips swiping the area beneath her eyes. He frowned. Tears? Then it dawned on him. The angry voices, Dani’s sullen expression and tears. He’d interrupted an argument.

Steve’s boots clunked against the floor as he approached. “Need something, buddy?” His tone held both weariness and a calloused edge.

“I did have something to run past you…if you can spare the time.” Clay shifted his questioning gaze between the two.

Dani reached over and dislodged Beth Anne from his arms, then headed up the nearby staircase, the little girl loudly protesting the entire way.

Steve shook his head. “That girl’s got an ornery streak if I ever saw one.”

Clay’s eyebrows crawled up his forehead. Which girl?

His friend slapped a hand on his back. “Let’s grab some coffee in the kitchen and head to the study to talk.”

A few minutes later, each with cup in hand, they moved into the high-ceilinged room. Extra-tall book shelves lined the walls surrounding an old mahogany desk, command central for several generations of Miller men.

Steve motioned to one of two leather chairs, then took a seat behind the desk. “This about Ziffarano?”

Clay shook his head. He’d determined to let Steve make that call, in spite of several other applicants, all better qualified for the position. “Nope. My, uh, question is actually about me.”

Steve’s expression registered surprise. “Pretty deep subject.” His lips turned up at the corners, but he quickly hid the smile behind the rim of his coffee cup as he slurped the hot liquid. “What do you wanna know?” Now there was no hiding his amused smile.

Best to just get it out before he changed his mind. “Do I sometimes come across as self-righteous?”

Coffee spewed into the air. His friend used the sleeve of his pearl-buttoned western shirt to wipe down his mouth and desk, then turned his still-amused gaze back to Clay. “Never expected to hear that come outta your mouth.”

His hackles rose. “Just answer the question, will ya?”

“Okay. Yeah.”

Clay clamped his lips together. So Bella was right. “How long?”

“How long, what?”

Leave it to Steve to make him spell it out. “How long have I been that way?”

Steve shrugged. “I dunno. I guess, like…forever.” Now his boss guffawed. Clutching his belly, he bent low in the chair, his laughter growing louder by the second.

Clay pooched out his lips. What was so stinkin’ funny about that?

His friend apparently got the message, because the laughter came to an abrupt halt. Though Steve’s grin was still in place, his eyes held understanding. “I gotta get more caffeine before I tackle the why behind your questions. Come on.”

The two made their way back to the kitchen. Steve looked Clay’s way as he refreshed his cup. “So what brought this on anyway?”

Somewhat reluctantly, Clay rehashed his visit to the Masterson household Wednesday night after deacon’s meeting. “Buck holds me responsible for the change in Bella her senior year.”

Though he came close to spewing again, Steve managed to point his lips toward the cup this time, then looked up at Clay with a set jaw and wagging head. “C’mon, Clay. Don’t take that on. Bella was a hellion, plain and simple. And you and I—as well as most of Miller’s Creek—know it.”

“Yeah, but was my judgmental attitude to blame for her behavior?”

Steve considered the question momentarily, but with the same resulting head shake. “Please tell me you’re not thinking about…”

Clay disengaged from Steve’s probing eyes to peer out the breakfast nook window. So what if he was? It might be the only way of finding out if there could be something between them. Of finding out if she’d changed.

Steve’s cup landed against the granite counters with a heavy thud, steaming liquid sloshing over the sides. “Best let that sleeping dog lie, Clay.” His voice held the commandeering tone he often used as ranch owner and mayor.

Clay peered down into the dark liquid of his own cup, then raised it to his lips for a much-needed drink of the fragrant brew. He allowed the sharp taste to roll around on his tongue a second before swallowing. “I have to know.”

“No you don’t. Take my advice and steer clear. I don’t wanna scrape up what’s left of you like last time.”

Clay’s gaze moved back outside the breakfast nook window. No man got to a position of power and authority in a community like Miller’s Creek without wisdom and a lot of it. But while Steve, as his boss, might have a say in how he ran his professional life, matters of the heart were his own personal business.

Unexpectedly, Dani rounded the corner, all five-foot-two of her in cannonball mode, a dressing-down glare shooting from her eyes.

The hair on the back of Clay’s neck immediately snapped to attention.

“I overheard every word of your macho man-talk.” She spat out the words like a hissing cat. “I’ve never in my life met two more dim-witted hard-headed idiots.” She trounced out the side door, slamming it behind her.

Clay lifted his hat, smoothed down the prickles on his neck, and released a “whew” through puckered lips. Maybe his desire for female companionship had been misguided after all

When Clay made his way to his truck a few minutes later, his thoughts were once more on Bella, but also on the confirmation Steve had delivered concerning his self-righteous behavior. A sudden breeze whipped his hat from his head. Clay chased the runaway across the parking lot and caught it under a small grove of live oaks.

As he bent to pick it up, his knees buckled beneath him and landed in the earthy-scented ground.

Lord, forgive me, and help me do better.

Chapter Five

A bright swath of morning sunlight landed across Bella’s face. She cracked open one eyelid to glare at the clock, then squeezed both eyes shut and groaned. One hand slapped the bed until it landed on the spare pillow. She grabbed it to cover her face from the unwelcomed invasion of daylight. Didn’t the sun realize how much her body craved sleep? Especially on Saturday?

She rolled over on her left side and plumped the pillow beneath her head. She’d just about drifted back off to sleep when the shrill ring of the phone disrupted the silence. Bella released another angry groan and hugged the spare pillow closer to her head. Please, just a little more sleep.

Droopy eyelids moved her back into sleep mode, and her shoulders relaxed. Then a sharp rap sounded on the door. “Bella!”

Fury and lack of sleep propelled her to an upright position, and she flung back the covers. “What? Can’t a girl get some sleep around here?” She stumbled to the door and yanked it open.

Daddy dangled the cordless phone in front of her. “It’s your daughter.” He turned, oxygen tank in tow, and headed back down the hallway.

Bella clicked the door shut and brought the phone to her ear. “Hi, Chels. How you doing?”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing. You and PawPaw getting along okay?”

How was she supposed to answer that? Since their heated conversation Wednesday night, any communication with her father had been the shortest possible route to whatever needed to be said. Though neither of them were hurtful to the other, they also didn’t have a whole lot to say.

“Judging by your lack of an answer, I’d say that’s a negative.”

“It’ll get better.” It had to. After all, there was nowhere to go but up, right? Bella eyed her smushed bed-head hair in the mirror and made a half-hearted attempt to tame the unruly strands.

Her daughter’s sigh sounded through the phone. “Why you decided to move back to Miller’s Creek to take care of someone who doesn’t want you there is still beyond me.”

Hadn’t she questioned God about the very same thing? She sauntered to the bathroom and turned on the faucet, cupping a hand beneath the gushing water and bringing a dripping hand to her face to slurp in a drink. Maybe that would get rid of her foul-tasting morning breath. “We’ve been through this before, Chelsea. It’s what I felt the Lord leading me to do.” She raised the hand towel to her face to wipe off stray drops of water.

“And that’s another thing I can’t figure out. Why do you insist on following a lie perpetrated by men? Religion is man-made, a crutch people use to justify their bad behavior.”

“It’s not religion or a crutch.” Bella reined in her sharpened tone and raised eyes to the ceiling, praying for patient words. “I know you don’t believe the same way I do anymore. You’ve made that clear on more than one occasion. But it’s more than you think it is. It’s something I know at the core of my being.” Thank you, college professors, who had taken her money in exchange for her daughter’s faith.

A cynical snort echoed from her daughter’s end of the conversation. “Get in touch with reality, Mom. God isn’t real. Life just happens.”

Time to change the subject. While she dearly wanted to persuade Chelsea to a renewed way of thinking, at this point it would take divine intervention to turn her around, something she prayed for daily. “So back to my question. How are you doing?”

“Exhausted.” Chelsea launched into a diatribe about how she was overworked and underpaid, how she needed Bella back with her, how she and Greg would never be able to raise this new baby without her help.

Bella partially tuned out. The offer was incredibly tempting. How she’d love to live closer to this new baby. Not to mention the relief she’d feel getting out from underneath her life in Miller’s Creek.

In the next instant reality hit. God had brought her here for a reason, and the enemy would do anything he could to alter that plan. The Lord had brought her into this fire, and He would bring her out of it in a way that was for her ultimate good and His glory.

Chelsea’s tirade came to an end, giving Bella an opportunity to respond. “I’m sure you’ll be able to handle it all with no problem. Parenthood’s challenging, but you’ve got Greg to help you.” Help she’d never had.

“Mom, please.” Her daughter’s tone picked up a petulant plea. “Please move back to Waco. I need you.”

Bella shook her head. Chelsea wouldn’t like her response, but it had to be said. “I can’t.”

As suspected, her answer abruptly ended the conversation, and the phone went dead. Bella tossed the phone to the bed and brought fingers up to massage her achy forehead. She opened the dresser drawer to retrieve her running clothes. With all she had going on in her life at the moment, a run was the best medicine for what ailed her. Dr. Nichols had cleared her to exercise only yesterday, with the stipulation that she not push herself too hard.

Five minutes later she was out the door, reveling in the beauty of the late-winter day that felt more like spring. Wild plum blossoms released their sweet-smelling fragrance into the air as her feet pounded the pavement between her father’s house and town. The weight on her shoulders immediately dissipated. Though Chelsea didn’t approve and others believed the worst, God had her exactly where He wanted her for now. It wasn’t her job to figure out why. Her job was to trust and follow. When it was time to move on, God would let her know.

She neared the edge of town. No way would she take the chance of a repeat encounter with Clay today. Once she reached the city limits sign, she’d turn around and head back home.

Her thoughts turned to Wednesday night. Clay had barged in without so much as a phone call, wearing his self-righteousness like a medal of honor. Just as quickly, the following thoughts of Dr. Nichols brought on a frown. At her appointment yesterday, he’d suggested in no uncertain terms that they go out to a movie and dinner some time. Was that really a road she wanted to travel, especially with the prying eyes and wagging tongues of the entire town?

The green and white city limits sign came into full view, and in a few steps she reached it and slowed to a walk, hands on her hips as she gulped in air.

“Hello!”

Bella yanked her head toward the familiar voice. From a nearby porch an elderly woman waved and repeated her greeting. Bella waved back. “Hi, Mama Beth.”

Next to Mama Beth, a blonde head appeared from the shadows of the porch. Dani Miller, the one person most responsible for getting Bella the teaching job in Miller’s Creek. “Hey, Bella!”

“Hey! Isn’t it a gorgeous day?” Bella froze, unsure of her next move. It would be rude to just walk away from them. Rather than return home as originally planned, she strolled across the street toward the white picket fence which gleamed in the morning sunlight.

“Come on up to this porch for a visit,” said Mama Beth. “Do you like homemade cinnamon rolls?”

Bella laughed and patted her belly. “Never met one I didn’t like.” She unlatched the gate and entered the front yard through a rose arbor, the thorny canes just now sporting new leaves.

A minute later, as she savored the roll, Bella’s gaze drifted to the gingerbread detail of the old farmhouse. “I’ve always loved your house, Mama Beth.” Always wanted something similar to call home.

“Thank you, dear. I’m fond of it myself, though I’m starting to wonder if I can continue to care for it as I get older.” The woman, whose eyes held wisdom beyond that of anyone Bella had ever met, took a sip from her cup, then sat it on a nearby table. “Are you happy to be back in Miller’s Creek?”

Bella finished chewing the bite in her mouth, grateful for the opportunity to think through an answer to the unexpected question. She followed it with a swig of mellow coffee. “It’s been good in a lot of ways. Like this morning on my jog. I could smell the blossoms of the wild plum trees, and it instantly carried me back twenty years or more.” Instantly transported her to more carefree days.

“And I’m guessing it’s hard in some ways as well?” Mama Beth’s kind face held understanding.

How could she adequately verbalize the hurt she felt? And would the two understand? “Yeah.” A sad sort of laugh fell from her mouth, one she felt obliged to explain. “Seems like people around here are equally as determined to remind me of the past as I am to forget it.” She raised her gaze to theirs, unsure of what she’d see.

“Hanging out with Julie Banks sure won’t help.”

Though Dani spoke the words softly, they stuck in Bella’s flesh like goathead stickers. Steve’s wife was both a person of integrity and authority. The whole town loved her, much like they did her mother. And her support and friendship were important, but not at the expense of doing what she felt led by God to do. Bella smiled sadly. “She’s an old friend, and she needs my help.”

Mama Beth’s kind eyes took on unexpected hardness. “Careful there, Bella. I know your heart’s in the right place, but there are many in town who won’t interpret it that way.”

True. But just how was she supposed to show the people of Miller’s Creek she’d changed and help Julie at the same time? Her shoulders sagged. And if the two were mutually exclusive, which was more important? The answer hit her squarely between the eyes, catapulting words from her lips. “You know, it didn’t take me long after coming back here to realize I can’t control what other people say and do. I’m responsible to God and Him alone. He’s the One who brought me back here, and I think it was partly for Julie’s sake.” A stray question immediately lodged in her brain. But where did Clay fall into the equation?

“Well said.” Mama Beth’s expression held a mixture of steel and admiration.

Her daughter’s eyes glistened with tears. Dani leaned forward and placed a hand on Bella’s arm. “I’m so sorry for the way Steve and Clay have treated you.”

A wad of emotion landed in Bella’s throat, and uncustomary tears threatened to spill over. She blinked them back and sent an appreciative smile. “Thanks.”

“There’s just no cause for that kind of behavior, especially from grown men.” Dani flopped back in her rocking chair. “I’m so upset with both of them at the minute, I could just spit.” A surprising giggle gurgled from her upturned lips. “In fact, I think I did just that yesterday afternoon.”

Bella smiled and lowered her head. To her credit, Dani didn’t take the conversation any further. Didn’t engage in bad-mouthing others. So unlike Bella’s school colleagues with whom she shared an indigestion-filled lunch each day.

“Care to talk about what’s bothering you?” It was Mama Beth who asked the question.

“It’s just what I’ve already mentioned. My past and all.”

“I don’t mean to pry, so tell me to butt out if you want. But what happened?” Sincerity shone from Dani’s face. “I know you and Clay were a couple and that it ended badly, but that’s all I know.”

Bella breathed in deep. “It’s a pretty long story, so I’ll give you the condensed version. After the mess with Clay, people treated me badly. I responded by sowing wild oats.” Wild oats with results that followed her even still. “I got pregnant my senior year in high school. Once the father found out I was expectant, he left. But not until he made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with me or the baby. So I moved to a home for unwed mothers, got my GED, and then raised my daughter while I worked and earned my teaching degree.”

Mama Beth reached over and took her hand. “That’s quite a testimony, Bella. Not just to your character, but to God who delivered you.”

“I couldn’t have done it without Him. He’s been with me every step of the way.” She paused momentarily. “I’d like y’all’s advice about something.” Her eyes widened as the words popped from her mouth. Where had that come from?

“Ask us anything. Any time.” Dani’s blue-eyed gaze never wavered.

Wild horses galloped through Bella’s stomach. While she wanted to believe Dani—wanted to trust them both with her deepest thoughts and questions—were they truly trustworthy? Was any human? And even more importantly, would they use it against her at some point in the future like so many others? She mustered her courage, words gushing from her lips. “I just don’t know how to relate to Clay, with all that’s happened between us. On one hand, I want to clear the air. To see if…” How could she even say the words?

“If there’s anything left of your relationship?” Mama Beth knowingly finished the question for her, then paused a moment before continuing. “But on the other hand, you’re not sure how to go about it and uncertain if your heart can take it. I went through something very similar in my relationship with Bo.”

The older woman cocked her head to one side. “My advice is to let God lead. I know it’s tempting to try to make things happen, but I don’t think that’s a wise move.”

Immediate peace descended like soothing balm on Bella’s spirit. Hadn’t that been her prayer as she’d jogged into town? God opened and shut doors as He saw fit. No need to stress about it or over-analyze it. And it definitely wouldn’t do to get ahead of the Lord. She leaned forward to hug Mama Beth’s neck. “That’s exactly the affirmation I needed.”

The older woman’s eyes twinkled. “If I’ve learned anything in my years on this earth, it’s that as believers we must let go and move forward. Anything else just gives the past permission to put us in chains. And in my opinion, that’s just worship to the wrong god.”

By virtue of the person who spoke the words or because the Lord especially wanted her to hear and heed them, Bella didn’t really know. But she did feel a weight of responsibility to carefully consider them further. She rose to her feet, her gaze alternating between Dani and Mama Beth. “I really do need to be going, but thank you both for welcoming me in a place where I haven’t felt very welcomed.”

“You’re always welcome here.” The two women spoke the words in perfect unison, then looked at each other and laughed.

Bella joined in, said her goodbyes, and started the jog back home. In all the months she’d been in Miller’s Creek, she’d allowed the past—and especially people from the past—to keep her in chains. While she had no idea how to extricate herself, that didn’t absolve her responsibility to try.

Not by might or power, but by My Spirit.

Goosebumps raised flesh on her arms as the Bible verse reverberated in her heart and head. Sudden resolve pulled her shoulders up and back. God had dripped that scripture into her mind for a reason. Now her job was to continue to move forward and let Him work.

Lord, show me exactly what You want me to do. I don’t want to stay chained to the past, and that’s not what You want for me either. You take the lead, and I’ll follow. No matter what.

 

  • * *

 

The following Monday afternoon, Bella made her way down the high school hallway toward a group of kids congregated at the exit, her heels a-click against the tile floors. “What’s going on, guys?”

Jacob, who stood closest to the door, sneered. “Duh. It’s raining.”

No use in letting him get under her skin. She opted for a good-natured tease instead. “You’re not made of sugar, so you shouldn’t melt.”

His gang of friends burst into laughter. “Man, she got you good,” said one.

“Zing,” said another.

Jacob didn’t smile. In fact, his scowl deepened, and he jabbed an elbow into the side of the guy beside him. Then he jerked his jacket up over his head and headed out the door. As usual, the others fell in line behind him.

Within a matter of seconds the hallway cleared, and only Randi remained. What was a girl like her doing hanging around with that crowd anyway? Didn’t she know some would form negative opinions of her as guilty by association? Just like her efforts with Julie. The reminder that things were not always how they appeared brought a mixture of humility and warmth to her heart. Bella stepped toward the door, for the first time realizing how bad the rain really was. “Man, it’s pouring out there.”

Randi nodded, but said nothing.

Bella racked her brain for a way to pull the girl into conversation. Not just because Mr. Dickerson wanted it, but because she saw many of the same tendencies in Randi that had been her downfall as a student. Somewhat rebellious, but more a plea to be noticed. The determination to do things her own way, not knowing what it would cost down the road. “Could I get you to give me a quick hand in the choir room? The sooner I can get finished, the sooner I can get home in this mess.”

The girl sent a sideways grin. “Would you give me a ride to work afterwards?”

“You got it.” Bella stepped to the choir room door, Randi at her side. Did she not have a car? She opened her mouth to ask, but Randi spoke first.

“This doesn’t mean I’m going to be in choir, you know.”

Bella processed the comment before answering. “That’s your choice, but do you mind me asking why?” Hadn’t she already answered Randi’s objection about the extra time the class required outside of school?

“Don’t like all that fancy pants music, for one thing.”

A quick smile landed on Bella’s face. She opened the door and allowed Randi to enter first. “I used to feel that way too, so I understand where you’re coming from. If it’s any consolation, we only do the fancy pants music for contest. Our spring concert will be mostly popular music.” Which was exactly the sort of material the Miller’s Creek audience would want anyway. “I just bought a choral arrangement of the song you did at the fall talent show.”

Randi stopped in mid-stride, and her eyebrows shot up into the red shock of bangs that partially covered her forehead.

“And it has a solo.” Bella released the words in a sing-song style to tempt Randi further.

The girl rolled her lower lip under her front teeth for a moment. “Tempting offer.”

Bella laughed and set to work straightening the chairs and picking up trash and other items left behind by students.

Randi joined in. “I still need to get permission from my folks, and I’m not sure my dad will let me.” The petite teenager didn’t qualify the statement, but her face darkened at the mention of her dad.

Bella made a mental note to find out about Randi’s home life. Many times a student’s behavior and personality at school was a direct result of what kind of life they lived outside these four walls.

The two finished setting up the choir room just as an announcement sounded over the speaker. “Teachers, Miller’s Creek is under a flash flood warning, so you might want to get your stuff together and head on home. For those who can, our chief of police has asked for help. Crews are already at work filling sand bags to keep the creek from flooding downtown.”

A sick feeling landed in Bella’s stomach. Folks had worked so hard to make downtown Miller’s Creek attractive to out-of-town guests, a move that had become a source of revenue for the citizens. People from surrounding cities poured in to the Miller’s Creek on a regular basis for shopping and special events. How heart-breaking it would be for the town to have to start over. She glanced over at Randi. “Let me grab my things, and we’ll get out of here.”

Still dripping from their run to Bella’s car, they pulled up outside the grocery store a few minutes later.

“Thanks for the ride, Ms. Masterson.” Randi clutched her back pack in one hand and cracked the door open.

“You’re welcome. Stop by my classroom sometime tomorrow so we can talk more about choir.”

“Okay. And I’ll talk to Dad about it tonight.” The girl slipped out the door in the downpour and ran to the store, her black Converses sending up sprays of water from the one giant puddle that covered the parking lot.

Bella stayed long enough to make sure Randi made it safely inside, then turned the nose of her Volkswagen Beetle toward downtown. As she neared the area, her jaw fell slack. Already the roads leading from downtown to the creek were sectioned off with orange and white barricades. Cars and trucks parked wherever there was available space, and folks streamed past the barricades to large piles of sand dumped in the street.

Like a colony of bees, everyone worked as a team. Some filled sandbags in the pouring rain, while many shouldered heavy bags and carried them down the street. Others hoisted bags in place, creating a makeshift wall between the swelling creek and historic buildings.

“Holy cow.” The words fell from Bella’s opened lips as she slipped the Bug into a small opening between two large trucks.

She jumped from her car, immediately soaked to the skin, and looked down at her feet. Might as well shuck the high heels. They’d only hinder her ability to move quickly. Bella tossed the shoes into the passenger seat, slammed the door, and took off bare-footed at a full sprint.

Chapter Six

“Fill your trucks with shovels and sand bags and head downtown!” Clay, in a slicker that stretched below his knees to the tops of his boots, shouted the words to the ranch hands above the pounding rain. Streams of water dripped from the rim of his cowboy hat, rivered onto his shoulders, and down into the gravel of the ranch parking lot.

“But a lot of us need to take care of our own homes and families.”

The objection came from Butch. “I understand that, Butch. But only after we do this. The quicker we get started, the sooner we get finished.”

Butch sent a scorching glare and skulked away. The new guy Ziff shouldered up next to Butch, their conversation indiscernible in the downpour.

Clay hoisted heavy bag bundles to the hands until there were no more to hand out, then rounded up the last pile of shovels and headed to his truck. Once inside he peered up at the ever-dark gray skies. This wasn’t good.

He threw the truck in gear and punched the accelerator as close to the floor as he dared. Though the creek that snaked throughout the area was a source of both beauty and pleasure—and usually dry as a bone in July and August—it carried with it the potential for massive flooding in weather conditions like these. What made it particularly troubling in this case was the banks of the creek were already flooded and the surrounding ground saturated. Even worse, the lake dam lay upstream and showed signs of a potential break.

As he passed his land and neared the Masterson place, he craned his neck to see how high the water had risen. The creek ran between the two properties and was already up to the bridge. He sent a quick prayer heavenward for everyone’s safety, then gunned the engine. Hopefully, he’d have time to help in securing downtown and still be able to make it to his place to do the same.

Miller’s Creek proved to be a madhouse, with vehicles parked at every which angle and folks running through heavy rain. Danger came not only from the flood, but from potential accidents between cars and people with the poor visibility.

Steve stood near one of the barricades and motioned Clay his direction. Once his boss cleared the way, Clay entered the area and set to work, the ranch hands not far behind.

Within just a few minutes, the bags and shovels were transferred to a spot near big mounds of soaking wet sand. Then a peal of thunder rattled the earth, and the downpour increased in intensity, buckets of rain pouring from the leaden sky.

“Clay!”

It wasn’t the mention of his name, but the voice of the one who called it that immediately snapped his head to attention.

Bella raced toward him, shoeless, her dress dripping. She reached him and tucked soaking wet strands of hair behind her ears. “What can I do to help?”

Unable to speak, even if he’d wanted to, he handed her a shovel and bag.

Bella immediately plowed into the task at hand, using bare feet to punch the shovel into soggy sand, then filled the bag.

People came and went in the next hour, the white wall of sandbags growing as quickly as the flood waters, but Bella stayed at her post until the sand was gone. Then she hurried to another pile to join the people working there. Once all the sand was used up and bags were laid in place, the crowd dissipated quickly.

Bella, shovel in tow and still dripping water, jogged to where Clay loaded equipment into his truck. “Here’s your shovel.”

“Thanks.” He took the shovel in the still-pouring rain and tossed it into the bed of his truck. “Get in and I’ll give you a ride to your car.”

She sent a grateful smile, then moved to the passenger side and climbed in.

“Where are you parked?”

“On the other side of the square. Little blue Volkswagen.”

He allowed himself to look her way, his heart immediately entangled.

Arms crossed and shoulders hunched, she shivered with wet and cold. “I hope our farms are okay.” She spoke the words through chattering teeth.

“Creek was already up to the bridge when I drove through over an hour ago. Don’t much think you’ll be able to get home in a small car.”

“Well then, guess I’ll let you drop me off at the house if that works for you. I’ll find a way to get my car once this storm has passed.”

“Supposed to do this all night. I’m headed to shore up my barn and move the cows and horses to higher ground.”

Her face turned ashen gray. “I’ll bet you anything Daddy’s out in this mess trying to do the same.” She rubbed hands up and down her arms and peered out the window, her face bathed in concern.

He pulled into her driveway a couple of minutes later and killed the engine. “I’m coming in with you. If your dad’s out in this, I’ll help you get him back in. Then we can help each other out. Deal?”

“You got it.”

They hurried inside, and as Bella had predicted, Buck was nowhere to be seen. His oxygen tank and tubing sat near the recliner.

Bella brought both hands to her pale wet face. “Let me grab some shoes.” She disappeared down the darkened hall. Returning with an old pair of cowboy boots, she perched on the brick hearth, tugged them on, and then hurried to hooks near the back door to grab a rain slicker.

Once outside she lunged into a full run toward the gushing creek waters. “Daddy!” Bella hollered and ran at a full sprint. In a few minutes, she stopped long enough to point toward a lone figure in the distance, and then broke into another run.

Clay passed her by and reached the man first. “C’mon, Buck. Let’s get you back to the house. Bella and I’ll take care of this.”

Buck nodded wearily, his frail face white and dripping rain. “Already penned the animals. Just trying to set these old sand bags in place.” He wheezed out the words in spurts.

Bella put one hand around her father’s shoulders and pulled one of his arms over her head. Her eyes, especially large in her pale face, made contact with Clay’s. “I’ll get him inside and then meet you back out here Don’t worry, Daddy. We’ll do what we can to keep the flood waters back.” She led Buck toward the house.

It was the tenderness in her tone that grew hooks and latched onto Clay’s soul, the pain more sharp and real than any physical injury he’d ever endured. How could he keep from loving her? He tore into the work like one tormented. A few minutes later, his lungs pleading for air, he shoved a bag in place and stepped back to view the entire scene. No way would this be enough to keep the rising water at bay. And if the dam at the lake gave way, there was no telling what kind of devastation would result.

Bella ran up beside him. “It’s not going to be enough, is it?”

“Doesn’t look like it. How’s Buck?”

“Tired, but breathing easier. He’s dry and in his chair.” She moved to more of the water-logged bags and tugged them into place.

Clay joined in, admiration for her swelling in his chest. How had he forgotten this Texas tough-woman part of her? A part that had made him love her long before he ever said the words. His mind traipsed back to her work in downtown Miller’s Creek. Many had stayed just long enough to help out a little before they hurried on their way. But not Bella. She’d stayed the entire time in the pouring rain, barefoot and in a dress, and worked non-stop.

Once every bag was used, Bella faced him. “Thanks for your help, Clay. Not sure this will hold, but we’d better get to your place and round up your animals.” Not waiting for him to respond, she headed for his parked truck.

A minute later they neared a low crossing in the road, water gushing over the pavement. Clay eased the truck into the water and crossed without incident.

“I’ve never seen it this bad.” Bella’s whispered words matched the concerned frown on her face.

“Me either.”

Once at his place, he parked the truck in a high grassy area, well away from the creek. “Main thing I wanna do is get the horses in the barn and check for stray cows. If we can, we’ll herd them to the front pasture. They’ll be less likely to get hurt there.”

Bella nodded. “Got a spare horse and saddle?”

A crooked grin popped on his face. “Always.”

With one final look at each other, they jumped from the truck and into the driving rain. A little while later they both sat atop two of his horses in the metal barn, the noise of pounding rain almost unbearable. He peered over at her, his heart a-tug with emotions he didn’t even want to process at the moment. “Ready to ride?”

“You know it, cowboy.”

He swallowed against the dry mouth that had started with her smile, doing all he could to slow his galloping pulse. “Stay close. We might have to get out of harm’s way in a hurry.”

Though the rain didn’t let up, in a short amount of time they had most of the cattle headed toward higher ground. Only one cow refused to budge, forcing them to ride closer.

Bella pointed. “Clay, she has a baby.”

“Sure enough.” The newborn calf sheltered on the ground beneath its mother. Clay dismounted and cautiously stepped closer. Mama cows could be tricky to deal with. “I’m gonna have to carry this calf to the barn.”

“Will the mother let you?”

He twisted his head to one side to peer up at her, raindrops pelting his face. “Don’t know. If I can get the baby and myself up on the horse, I think she’ll follow. Can you grab my reins?”

She prodded her horse to a sort of side step that allowed her to grab hold of the reins he held up.

“Good. Now pull the horse closer so you can hold the saddle horn while I mount.”

Her face darkened, but she did exactly as he said.

He eased down on one knee, gently talking to the mother, and laid a hand on her side. “Easy, old girl. Don’t get mad, but I’m gonna take your baby to the barn.” Clay rested one hand on the calf, then slipped his other hand under the animal and hauled himself to a standing position. Relief whooshed from his lungs. So far, so good. He stepped toward his horse, the baby calf in his arms. Now if he could haul his weight and the calf’s weight to the top of the horse without a free hand. Yeah, right. Maybe if he was still twenty.

From the perch atop her own horse, Bella assessed the situation. “Tell you what. Let me move my horse around to the other side. That way you can wedge yourself between the two to help you get up.”

“Not sure I want to be the sliced ham in that sandwich.”

She shrugged. “Okay. Try it your way then.” A soft giggle sounded from her throat. “And you’re definitely not ham. You’re turkey.”

He had to chuckle, but then set about to prove he could manage without her input. Attempt after attempt failed. This was way harder than it looked. “Okay. My way obviously didn’t work. Let’s try it your way.”

Thankfully Bella moved her horse into position without the expected “I told you so.” A minute later, using the weight of her horse to keep himself from falling backward, Clay swung his right leg over the horse and rested the calf on his lap.

They headed to the barn, the mama cow right behind them as planned.

Once inside, Clay laid the baby in fresh hay near its mother, then rose to his feet and looked at Bella as she dismounted and approached.

Her face was awash with tender wonder as the baby suckled. She smiled and held up one hand. “Good job, cowboy.”

He high-fived her palm and grinned. “We make a pretty good team.” Even as the words left his mouth, he realized their truth. And wasn’t that what his restless heart longed for? A team mate. And based on what he’d seen from Bella in the past few hours, she’d make a mighty fine one.

Suddenly a loud boom erupted, followed by a deafening roar.

Bella yanked her head his way. “What was that?”

Only one explanation. The lake dam had broken.

Without taking time to answer and his heartbeat thudding in his ears, Clay latched on to Bella’s elbow and practically dragged her toward the truck as fast as they could go, praying all the way. Behind them, the roar grew louder, a quickly-descending wall of water.

 

  • * *

 

Bella trudged down the hallway to the cafeteria later that week, her mind replaying recent events. Clay had literally saved her life. The busted lake dam had wreaked havoc across the area, and the flood waters still hadn’t completely receded.

The raging water had not only destroyed property, but taken lives.

She tugged on the heavy door that led into the cafeteria, her ears immediately bombarded by students talking and laughing and her nostrils attacked by the putrid odor of cooked cabbage.

What would she have done had it not been for Clay? Though no one could get under her skin faster than Clay Barnes, he’d proved himself to be a stalwart friend, helping her clean up the mess on the farm. And she’d done all she could to return his kindness. Both had worked at their regular jobs during the day, then worked past sundown to help each other out. Though Clay could still be gruff, she’d held true to her resolve to treat him kindly no matter what. And so far the move seemed to be working. Already she’d seen glimpses of his softer side that had drawn her to him so many years ago.

She wandered through the lunch line in a daze, and then made her way toward the teacher’s table. Making headway with her colleagues would never happen unless she continued to befriend them. But why did it have to be so hard? She stepped resolutely toward the table, took a seat next to a lady she didn’t recognize, and sent her a smile.

Janie Hernandez, one of the fourth-grade teachers, sat across from her. She leaned closer to the new lady. “Brenda, this is our new choir and music teacher Miss Sebastian.”

Blood drained from Bella’s face, fueled by hurt and fatigue. No, Miss Sebastian was the previous choir and music teacher. She turned toward the new lady and held out a hand. “Actually my name is Bella Masterson. It’s nice to meet you, Brenda.”

The woman took her hand, her gaze alternating between Bella and the other teachers, as if searching for the socially-correct way to respond. “Thanks. I’m doing my student teaching with Mrs. Hernandez.”

“Well, we’re certainly glad to have you. I’m sure Mrs. Hernandez will be very helpful to you. She’s a great teacher.”

The tension melted. Brenda sent a relieved smile and picked up her fork. “Even after just one morning, I’ve learned so much from her.”

From the end of the table, Queen Stephanie released a sarcastic laugh. “Gee Bella, it must be embarrassing for the other teachers to not even know your name.”

Her anger ratcheted up a notch. She didn’t bother to look Stephanie’s way, but continued to stuff her mouth with what was supposed to taste like mashed potatoes.

Janie Hernandez leaned across the table once more, this time in Bella’s direction. “I’m so sorry, Bella.”

“No worries. I know you didn’t mean anything by it.” Bella forked a piece of over-cooked steak finger and shuttled it to her mouth, almost gagging at the leathery texture and rancid taste.

“I hear you and Clay are seeing each other again.” The words came from Stephanie.

Bella continued to chew her food, but with concentrated effort. Everything in her wanted to let loose with both barrels blazing. Yes, they were seeing each other. Just not in the way her tormenter insinuated.

“Are you seeing his younger brother again too?”

A racket louder than the wall of water she’d experienced on Monday roared in Bella’s ears, and her fork clattered to her lunch tray. She slapped both palms against the table and glared at Stephanie. “Curb your forked tongue, you snake, and quit talking about things you know nothing about!”

One corner of Stephanie’s mouth curled up ever so slightly. She didn’t respond, but stared Bella down and took another bite of food, a triumphant gleam in her dark eyes.

Bella turned her gaze to her plate, inhaling deeply to control her ire. Stephanie had goaded her into a trap, and in her fatigue she’d fallen for it. Now every person at the table saw her as painted in the scarlet light Stephanie had intended. Appetite completely gone, Bella gathered her tray and stood. She managed an apologetic smile in Brenda’s direction. “I hope to see you around again, Brenda. It was nice to meet you.”

All the way down the hall, Bella questioned her sanity at coming back to a place where she had so many enemies. She leaned her head against the cool metal of her classroom door as she unlocked it. Had she misunderstood God’s plan? God, what were You thinking in bringing me back here? I only came back because I thought it was what You wanted.

Heart aching and mind churning, Bella entered the choir room. In all truth, she’d prayed through the decision to return to Miller’s Creek on multiple occasions, seeking God and His direction. Had begged Him to send her some place else. She attempted to release the heaviness in her heart with a cleansing breath. Like it or not, good times or bad, God had His reasons for wanting her here. And here she would stay until He made it clear that it was time to move on. It was as simple—and as complex—as that.

She eyed the clock. Time to confront yet another problem. Jacob’s mother. With determined steps she traversed the space, entered her office, and picked up the phone. Her thoughts went back to Jacob’s comment about his mom knowing her. She offered up a quick prayer that God would give her wisdom. Bella double-checked the number on the bright pink sticky note and dialed, doing all she could to steel her nerves.

“Hello?” Even in one word, Bella sensed antagonism.

“Hi, Mrs. Clark. This is Bella Masterson, Jacob’s choir teacher. I was wondering if you and I could meet some day after school to discuss some things. I really want to find a way to get through to him.”

A disbelieving snicker sounded on the other end. “I’d be happy to. In fact, I can come right now.” The words held a bullying challenge.

This wasn’t going as well as she hoped. “Actually I have classes this afternoon. But what about right after school? Would that work for you?” She kept her tone as pleasant-sounding as possible.

“See you then.” The phone slammed on the other end.

The contents of Bella’s stomach bubbled into her throat. She yanked the phone away from her ear, dropped it to the receiver, and leaned back in her chair to stare at rectangular ceiling tiles, praying for an adjustment to her surly attitude.

That prayer was answered. Her afternoon classes, including choir, turned out to be the bright spot in her day. For whatever reason, Jacob had come to class sullen and withdrawn. Though he sang half-heartedly, at least he wasn’t belligerent and obnoxious. Her elementary classes also went smoothly, so that by the time the last bell rang, Bella felt much encouraged. She moved to her office to set up for the meeting with Jacob’s mom, grateful she could start off with good news.

A sharp rap at the outer classroom door drew her to her feet. She hurried to the door and opened it.

Her heart plummeted as the face of Jacob’s mother came into full view. Carla. The only person in the world who made Queen Stephanie look like a saint.

“Hi Bella. Bet you’re surprised to see me.” A wicked grin split the woman’s face. She shoved her weight into the doorway full-force, obviously intent on using the same intimidation tactics she’d used in high school.

It worked.

“Hi, Carla. Nice to see you again.” Even though she’d intended the words to be pleasant, they came out grim and pessimistic, with a hint of a tremor. Bella released a breath from puffed-out cheeks. Lord, I need strength.

Bella moved into her office and took a seat behind the desk. “Carla, I really do want to help Jacob.”

“Yeah, I remember your way of helping. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Though Bella’s anger flared white-hot as it had in the cafeteria, she refused to be goaded into words she had no business speaking for the second time that day. “Jacob did so well today. Though I’d still like him to participate a little more, he wasn’t disrespectful like he’s been in the past.”

“You just have it in for him since he’s my son.” Carla’s heavily-made-up eyes smoldered.

“That’s not true. I didn’t even realize you were his mother until a few minutes ago.”

“Well, my son isn’t disrespectful. If he were, he’d get a beating at home, and he knows it.”

Bella shivered as compassion for Jacob erupted inside. Was that the reason for his often rude and sullen behavior? Was he abused? Oh Lord, show me how I can help. “So you’re not even going to talk to him about his behavior?” No, she didn’t want him hurt, but she did want the situation addressed.

“Why should I?” Carla stood abruptly, knocking her chair backward.

Bella kept her gaze trained on the woman’s face, refusing to give in to the intimidation.

“I don’t know how someone like you even got a job teaching kids. You’re a lousy role model. No wonder Jacob doesn’t respect you.”

“Whether you and Jacob like it or not, I am still his teacher.” She intentionally kept her voice low and calm, but firm. “He will abide by my rules or suffer the consequences, not because I have it in for him, but because he needs to learn respect for authority. I only want what’s best for him.”

The disdain on Carla’s face proved that she hadn’t heard a thing Bella said. She pointed a stubby finger Bella’s way. “I heard you’ve been hanging out with Julie again. The whole county knows what she is. And if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll make sure this is your first and last year to teach in Miller’s Creek.” Her eyes diminished to tiny slits beneath heavy blue eye shadow. “In fact, I’m gonna do everything in my power to see that you never teach again. Anywhere.” With the arsenic-laced words hanging in the air between them, Carla stomped from the room.

The outer door slammed. Bella leaned her forehead against her palm, suddenly devoid of every ounce of energy. Not only would Jacob Clark continue to be a thorn in her side, his mother would see to it. And if the woman still carried the same gossiping tongue of her youth, she’d stay true to her promise to get Bella fired.

As she straightened her room and prepared for the next day of class, Bella did all she could to take her mind off all that had transpired that day, suddenly eager to be at home and working on the farm. Her eyes widened, and she brought fingertips to cover her open mouth. Was it possible that she actually looked forward to seeing Clay each day?

Her hands grew still as she considered the question and the implications of the affirmative answer. The interaction between them had in no way been as stilted and difficult as she’d imagined it might be. Instead, they’d settled into an easy and casual banter, with intermittent bouts of comfortable silence and companionship. Most of their conversation had centered around their work, Daddy’s illness, and Miller’s Creek, but every once in a while, their talk headed toward memories of the past, leaving her hopeful that they might someday be able to address the things that had ripped their relationship apart. How she longed to be able to explain, to voice her hurt, to apologize, to make things right between them.

Within a few minutes she finished her work and headed home for the day. Maybe this afternoon’s time with Clay would bring them one step closer to her dream of how things could be.

Bella entered the house to the ringing of the phone. She rounded the corner of the entryway as Daddy picked up the receiver.

“Mm…yello.”

His familiar phone greeting brought a smile to Bella’s face.

Daddy looked her way. “Yeah, she just walked in the door. Who’s calling?” He moved the mouthpiece away from his face and covered it with both hands. “Randall Evans?”

Okay, so this was a part of her time away from Miller’s Creek that no one—including her father—knew about. “Uh, could you tell him I’ll call him back on my cell phone?”

A dark cloud descended on Daddy’s face, but he relayed the message, hung up the phone, and shuffled back to his recliner. “Another boyfriend?” He didn’t even look her way, but the accusatory tone was there.

“Not exactly.”

“Then who is he?”

She shifted her weight from one foot to the next and sat her book bag near the end of the couch. “A friend.” That’s as far as she could go. Even if she wanted to explain, she couldn’t. Instead she headed down the hall to her room, closed the door behind her, and called Randall.

He answered right away. “Sorry if I contacted you at the wrong number. Figured the home phone number you gave me might be the safest.”

“I know a land line is more secure, but my cell phone is the best option right now.” Better to not go into specifics. “What’s going on?”

“Need your help again.”

“Well, I gathered that much. What is it this time?”

“Got a miscellaneous tip this morning that one of the head honchos in a gang out of Mexico might be headed that direction.” His tone never changed, but stayed low and steady—even monotone—a probable necessity in his line of work.

“And you want me to be your eyes?”

“Exactly. Don’t know a whole lot about this guy, except that in the past he’s operated as a ranch hand and used the ranch as a cover up for illegal activity.”

Which probably meant drugs, guns, and/or false documentation. And ranch? There was only one she knew of. Was the man she’d seen on two occasions somehow involved?

Randall interrupted her thoughts. “Looks like the main ranch in your area is a place called—”

“Miller’s Ranch.”

“So you know it?’

Her mouth went dry. “Yeah.” Would her work for Randall cause even more problems for her with Clay?

“Don’t sound so excited. If you can’t do it, I’ll look elsewhere.”

Her mind whizzed into overdrive. When she’d first started as an informant for Randall and his crew, it had been for the extra income. But surprisingly, she’d continued the work with a desire to see justice done and to protect the community in which she lived. Too many people wanted a safe and secure world, but weren’t willing to do what they could to make it happen. And that problem was getting worse, not better. “I’ll do it.”

“Knew I could count on you. Still have the secure email address I gave you?”

“Yep.”

“K. I’ll send info via that channel when possible and only call if it’s absolutely necessary.” He continued with a few more pertinent details, then signed off.

A tingle ran down Bella’s spine as she dropped her cell phone into her purse. Now in addition to her confusion over why God had brought her here, she’d be the eyes and ears for the Texas Rangers.

She gave her head a shake as her eyes widened. How on earth would all this pan out?

Chapter Seven

Clay rested his head against one fist, the other arm propped on his office desk, doing all he could to make his brain focus on the payroll paperwork in front of him. He tossed his pen to the desk where it landed with a thud and then brought a hand up to massage the bridge of his nose. The long hours he’d been pulling at the ranch, the Masterson’s, and his own place were obviously taking their toll.

He let both hands drop to the arms of the chair and gave his head a shake. No, it couldn’t be that. He’d always been a hard worker. Staying busy was a means of retreat for him.

Maybe his inability to focus came from trying to keep up with the new ranch hand. In a matter of days Ziff had worked his way into the hearts of Steve Miller and the rest of the guys. Clay ground his back teeth. Why did he still have the unshakeable feeling that Ziff was up to no good? On two different occasions, he’d witnessed the guy intentionally straighten up his act when Steve was around, then immediately resort to goofing off with the guys once the boss man was out of the picture. Worse yet, there was something sneaky and sinister about the new ranch hand. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Or was his tendency to be judgmental skewing his perception?

He lowered his face to his palms. Who was he kidding? The real problem was Bella. The sandy-haired beauty always wiggled her way into his affections, no matter how hard he tried to keep it from happening. Was the self-righteous she’d accused him of a coping mechanism to put distance between them as a means of protecting his heart?

He slammed a fist to the desk. This uncustomary introspection was driving him nutty. Move past it, Clay. Enough already. He forced his focus back to the paperwork. Once he got both his place and the Masterson place back to normal, he could retreat and extricate himself from the situation. But even as the thought bounced around in his brain, something told him it wouldn’t be quite so easy.

A half hour later he finished up the paperwork, stood, and stretched. Time to call it a day here and hit the work that awaited. After all, he’d never be able to distance himself from Bella until that work was done.

From outside the window, a car horn beeped. He moved to the glass and peered outside. Bella and her Volkswagen Bug. Across the parking lot Ziff and several of the hands stood shooting the breeze and laughing. Though he couldn’t make out what Ziff said as Bella climbed from her car, he could see her reaction. She smiled and called back to the handsome ranch hand, then waved a hand in the air. Whatever she said brought gales of laughter and grins from the men. She stepped around the front of her vehicle, and a second later, knocked.

Green flames roared to life bringing a burnt stench to Clay’s nostrils. He strode to the door. Wasn’t it bad enough that Ziff had worked his way into the circle of ranch hands? Did he have to go after Bella too? Or was it the other way around? He opened the door to see her still smiling, her green eyes instantly drawing him in and repelling him at the same time.

“Hey, Clay. I know you told me yesterday, but are we working on your place or mine today?” She sauntered in, dressed in boots, jeans, and a denim work shirt.

“Mine.” He reached for his hat.

“Don’t think I’ve met him before.” She motioned out the window toward Ziffarano. “New ranch hand?”

His mouth went dry as his heart turned to cold stone. “Yep.”

“What’s his name?”

Why did she wanna know? “Frank Ziffarano. Let me lock up, and I’ll meet you there.” His voice took on a sullen grouchiness.

She frowned. “You okay?”

“Yeah Just peachy.” He stepped outside without meeting her gaze and waited until she followed behind him so he could lock the door.

Her eyes locked with his, her features dark and troubled. “See you at your place.”

He nodded and sauntered to his truck. As he passed Bella’s vehicle, Ziff made his way across the parking lot to talk to Bella. Her smile had returned. No surprise there.

Clay had already been at work for fifteen minutes before Bella’s tires crunched against the gravel driveway. Fifteen minutes that had built his emotions from mildly perturbed to downright aggravated.

She climbed from the car and headed his way, tugging on work gloves. She entered the barn and stepped up beside him. “We should be able to finish replacing the tin siding on the barn today, don’t you think?”

He grunted. If she’d arrived fifteen minutes ago, maybe. The shiny piece of tin in his hands rattled out a melody as he carried it out the door and around to the side that had taken the most damage from rushing water. Bella held one end, while he screwed the other in place with his battery-powered screw gun. She continued to hold as he secured the opposite end, but remained silent.

“The baby calf and mama still doing okay?”

He nodded, but was still too angry to speak.

Within an hour, they’d completed the west side and moved to the east to remove tin that had ripped from its hex screws with the force of the flood. Still Bella said nothing, but worked alongside him, deciphering on her own what he wanted her to do.

Sudden guilt released on him like a torrent. Here she was giving up her afternoon to accommodate him, in spite of his anger and refusal to even carry on a conversation. “Thanks for helping me out, Bella.” He raised his gaze and sent a grateful smile.

“You’re welcome. I was starting to wonder what I’d done to make you mad.” A slow grin worked its way on her pretty face, and her eyes twinkled. “Or is lack of communication just become your standard mode of operation?” Her teasing tone let him know the intent of her question wasn’t designed to cause offense.

He mulled over the question anyway. In some ways her words rang true. As he’d aged, he’d taken on the tendency to clam up when something riled him. Why he didn’t know. Maybe an attempt to curb his tongue while he felt miffed. A chuckle fell from his lips. “You pretty much nailed it.”

To his surprise, she laughed in return. “Well, at least you own up to it.”

Clay secured one end of another piece of tin. Time to broach one of two subjects that had been on his heart all week. “Mind if I ask you a question?”

She giggled, but her expression revealed discomfort. “I think you just did.” She handed him another hex screw from the plastic container. “What do you want to know?”

He remained silent while the power tool was in operation, then stood. “Why did you leave, and why did you come back?”

Her face lost all light. “That’s two questions.”

“You can answer either.”

She leaned one shoulder against the barn and crossed her arms, her chin lifted slightly. “Why do you wanna know?”

“Just curious.” He lowered his gaze to the ground for a moment, then met her direct gaze with one of his own. “Actually I think I know why you left, so ignore that one and answer why you came back.”

She glanced away, working her lips back and forth. Obviously his words didn’t set well with her. “I’ll answer the first one to make sure you have the right answer. After you and your buddies ruined my reputation…”

“We didn’t ruin that. You did.”

“You played a part in it, no matter what you think.”

A cinder sparked inside him and ratcheted up a level. Nothing worse than someone who felt compelled to excuse their actions by blaming it on somebody else. He stepped over to the next piece of busted tin and began to remove it with quick jerky movement. “How’s that?”

Her lips skewed from side to side, a quirk she’d had as long as he’d known her. Usually appeared when she was working up courage. Whatever she needed to say was difficult, which meant it wouldn’t be easy for him either. “Just say it, Bella. Don’t hold back.” Time to face matters head on to see what was left when the flood subsided.

She swallowed, her eyes especially large and sad in her now-pale face. “I’m not convinced it will do any good at this point.”

“Sounds like a cop-out to me.”

He looked up just in time to see a whole host of emotions—confusion, hurt, anger—wash across her face. Then something he’d never seen from her. Ever. Tears. “Bella. I’m sorry if I…I didn’t mean to…” He clamped his lips tight to keep from rattling off more hurtful words and took an unsteady step toward her.

She backed away.

The tin he’d been working on slid to the ground, a sharp corner sinking into the muddy ground.

Her arms draped across her waist, as though protecting herself. She peered toward the quickly-setting sun, tears gleaming in the orange light.

“I’m really sorry, Bella.”

She swiped at her cheeks with her fingertips. “I’ve had a horrible day, Clay.” Her words were choked with emotion. “At school and here. I’ve put up with your grouchy mood, but I’m not gonna put up with your judgmental attitude.” She hurried inside the barn and returned with a new piece of tin.

He swallowed the guilty feelings, took one end of the sheet metal, and helped her carry it to the next spot. Okay, that subject hadn’t worked well. Maybe he should try another. Two questions hit simultaneously. Why hadn’t she returned to Miller’s Creek Community Church, and why had she spent fifteen-minutes visiting with Ziff? The first question was safer. “Why don’t you go to church anymore?”

Her face contorted. She dropped the tin. It clanged against a rock as she took off toward her car in long angry strides.

Okay, so that hadn’t quite come out the way he intended. Or was his judgmental attitude propelling him to attack? Clay laid down his screw gun and followed, his lips in a thin line. Didn’t Bella realize he was just trying to figure things out and make conversation at the same time? He caught up with her just as she reached her car. He latched on to her shoulder and whirled her around to face him. “Bella, just stop. Sorry. That ques—”

“No you’re not.” She yanked on the door handle and climbed in. “You’re just like everyone else in this town. Bound and determined to pull me back to the past, no matter how kind and helpful I try to be.” She slammed the door, started the car, and backed down the gravel driveway at a faster-than-normal pace, not once turning to make eye contact.

Clay watched until her little blue car disappeared down the road, then dropped his head to his chest. Once again, he’d failed. And big time. Could they ever get over the past? He gave his head a shake. Nope, that wasn’t the right question.

Would he—and apparently others too—ever let her forget it?

 

  • * *

 

Bella rolled over in bed and yawned, her fatigue just as prevalent as it had been all week long. It was much too early to be awake, especially on her one morning to sleep in. Last night’s sleep had been restless to say the least. Thursday’s meeting with Carla and run-in with Clay had once more riddled her brain with unwanted thoughts. To make matters worse, she’d sent Randall information about Frank Ziffarano last night, and had stayed up later than normal waiting for a reply that never came.

Another yawn escaped, and she peered at the popcorn ceiling of the room that had been her one place of escape as a young girl. Time instantly warped to the past as memories from the night of the Miller’s Ranch barbecue—the night Clay had completely misinterpreted a situation between her and Keith.

She brought both hands to cover her face, willing the painful memories back to the past. Down the hall, the phone shrilled. She forced herself to a sitting position, swung her legs over the bed while reaching for her robe, and then made her way to the door.

Just as she reached for the knob, Daddy bellowed something from the living room. Goodness, from all the commotion you’d think he was a rooster battling a chicken snake in the hen house. She hurried down the hallway.

He sat in his usual position—in the recliner she’d purchased for him last Christmas—the telephone in one hand. “It’s your boss.”

Her insides froze ice hard, but she somehow continued her trek across the room. Which boss? Mr. Dickerson or Queen Stephanie’s father? And why call so early on a Saturday? She pulled the phone from her father’s grasp and brought it to her ear. “Hello?”

“Hi Bella. Jeff Dickerson. Sorry to call you so early on the weekend, but I wanted to catch you while you were still at home. Carla Clark cornered me at Granny’s Kitchen last night.”

Her lungs deflated, and Bella squeezed her eyes shut. This couldn’t be good. She searched for words to fill the silent void, but nothing came.

“Said you threatened her in a meeting you had with her Thursday afternoon after school.”

“That’s not true!” The words escaped without fully thinking through her response, and her voice held so much defensiveness it wouldn’t surprise her one bit if he thought she was lying. “I promise I didn’t do that.” She made a concentrated effort to dial down the defensive tone. “In fact, I praised Jacob because he’d had a good day in class.”

“What else did you say?”

Bella’s thoughts raced back to the conversation. “I told her I’ve had trouble with Jacob being disrespectful, and she said he wouldn’t do that to a teacher for fear of getting in trouble at home.” No use mentioning Carla’s exact rhetoric until she had more facts. “I told her I wanted to help Jacob, but that he had to abide by the rules or suffer the consequences.” Had Carla taken that statement as a threat? She nibbled her bottom lip and waited for Mr. Dickerson to break the silence on the other end.

“I think I’ve already told you that none of the other teachers have complained about Jacob being a proble—”

“Yes sir, but I promise I didn’t threaten Carla. To be quite honest, she ‘s the one who threatened me.”

He cleared his throat. “This is quickly turning into a ‘he-said, she-said’ conversation, with no one to back you up.”

The way he phrased the comment stuck in her craw. No one to back her up, with absolutely no mention of Carla having another witness.

“I’d like you to write up a report about your conversation to give me on Monday. I’ll place it in your file in case you need it later. But the next time you call a parent-teacher conference you might want to have a witness there.”

“Yes sir.”

“See you Monday.” The phone line went dead.

“Already got yourself in trouble, haven’t you?” Daddy didn’t even look her way, but the biting words had the same withering affect as a scathing glare.

Why was history once more repeating itself? Had God intentionally placed her in a similar situation to see if she handled it better this time around? She took a seat on the sofa, her eyes pleading with her father to understand. To be her champion just once. “Daddy, please.”

Now he looked her way, but his face held nothing but contempt. “Don’t know why you even bothered coming back here. Didn’t you cause enough problems the first time around?”

Her gaze moved to the old shag carpet, sorely in need of replacement. Part of his scorn she understood. She’d brought shame on them all during her wild-child days, but those days were long past. And if the truth be told, part of her rebellion was his fault. Every girl wanted and needed her father, a benefit she’d never had.

A soft sigh left her lips. But the other side of his scorn puzzled her, as did the scorn of so many. She leaned her elbows against her knees and dropped her head to her hands. What had she done so badly that warranted this kind of treatment? Even as the question unleashed, the familiar voice of the enemy hissed in her thoughts. You deserve this and more.

True. The Bible said that the wages for sin was death. But praise God, that death sentence had been covered and lifted.

Run. She needed to run. To fly like the wind. To find someone who understood her pain. Someone that could help.

Mama Beth.

Without another word to her father, she moved around the couch and down the hallway to her room. A few minutes later she was out the front door, not in her usual jog, but in a full-out sprint, hoping against hope she could outrace the inner demons.

Finally, her lungs exploding and quad muscles begging for mercy, Bella slowed to a walk. Gasping for air, she placed her hands on her head to rid herself of the stitch beneath her ribs. As she neared Mama Beth’s historic charmer, voices drifted from the front porch. Dani again? She squinted her eyes to see through the shadow of the front porch. No, whoever it was, it wasn’t Dani. Instead a man and woman she didn’t recognize sat near the matriarch of Miller’s Creek.

“Hey, Bella.” Mama Beth stood and moved into the sunlight at the edge of the porch, waving both hands. “You look plumb tuckered out. Come on up and sit a spell.”

As though on a conveyer belt that led straight to Mama Beth’s front porch, Bella traipsed across the road, through the gate, and up the cobblestone walkway. Only as she reached the steps did she question the move. Who were these people? And why did she think she could talk to Mama Beth about her situation with them present?

She sent a shy grin and held out a hand toward a dark-haired woman with soulful eyes. “Hi, I’m Bella Masterson.”

The woman smiled back and took her hand. “I know who you are, Bella. I’m Gracie Soldano.” She peered over at the man beside her, love and affection shining from her eyes. “Gracie Tyler now.”

Bella gasped and held a palm flat at waist-high level. “Little Gracie?”

Musical laughter fell from the now-grown woman’s full lips, and her eyes twinkled. “Not so little anymore, but yes, I’m one and the same. And this is my husband Matt.”

The man with sandy-colored curls rose to his feet and extended a hand. “Nice to meet you, Bella.”

“Matt’s a counselor in town.” Mama Beth’s tone and expression held pride, almost as though Matt was more like a son.

Could this be the same Matt that Clay had mentioned in his work with the equine therapy ministry? Bella’s arms prickled with goose bumps. And hadn’t she been praying about someone to help Julie? “I have a friend I’m trying to help. Do you do addiction recovery work?”

“Absolutely.” He removed his wallet and handed her a card. “Call any time.”

“Pull up a chair and take a load off.” Mama Beth spoke the words, not in an unfriendly manner, but as one used to having people do what she said.

“Thanks, I think I will.” Bella grabbed a nearby ladder-back chair and set it next to Mama Beth. “How are you doing, lady?”

“Fit as a fiddle.” The comment was followed by one of her heart-warming cackles. “But judging by your all-out pace as you came around that corner, I’d say your fiddle needs a tune-up.”

“That noticeable, huh?” Bella leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, her hands crossed and dangling.

Matt laughed. “Leave it to Mama Beth to have you pegged before you even get here.”

Despite her chagrin at having Mama Beth announce her angst, Bella’s shoulders relaxed. These were good people. She eyed Gracie. “I still can’t believe it’s you, all grown up. Last time I saw you, you were what? Fifth grade?”

Gracie nodded. “Did you know that I wanted to be just like you? It was your singing that prompted me to sing.”

Her heart beat faster, the words like soothing balm on her wounded spirit. “Thank you, Gracie. You have no idea how badly I needed to hear those words today.”

“Rough week?” The question came from Mama Beth.

“In more ways than I can fully explain.” She made eye contact with the spry old woman. “I left the house this morning on a mission to talk to you. I’m just struggling to make sense of things.”

“Such as?”

At first Bella hesitated. After all, Matt and Gracie probably didn’t have the slightest interest in anything she had to say. But memories and words from the past mixed with the events of the prior week. It all spilled from her mouth in one conglomerated mess, ending on the situation with Carla and Jacob. “And though part of me wants to defend myself, my prior experience here tells me it just won’t work.”

“My goodness, you have had a rough week.” Mama Beth reached over and grabbed her hand. “I’m so sorry.”

Bella glanced sheepishly at Matt and Gracie. “Sorry about airing my dirty laundry in front of y’all.”

“Don’t apologize on our account,” inserted Matt quickly. “Sounds like you needed to get that off your chest.”

Bella nodded. And there was plenty more where that came from.

Mama Beth peered at her with a sideways glance. “So did you follow my advice from last week?”

Let God lead. Leave the past behind. “Well, I tried.” She’d done all she knew to do in letting God lead. Leaving the past behind? Well, not so much, but not because she didn’t want it to happen.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. If your experience is anything like mine, it won’t happen over-night. It’s a process, so be patient.” Mama Beth’s blue eyes shone with encouragement. Then just as suddenly, they hardened. “But I’d like to grab Clay Barnes by the ear and haul him to the woodshed.”

“I’m sure I just over-reacted.” The words in his defense poured unexpectedly from her lips. Since when did she excuse and even justify Clay’s behavior?

“Maybe, but Clay has a rough way about him. It wouldn’t hurt him to learn a few manners. And if I see him, I’m gonna let him know it.”

Bella longed to fall on one knee and beg the woman not to mention it, but she stopped short, deciding to change the subject instead. “I know this is off-topic, but do y’all know anything about Jacob Clark that might help me get through to him?”

Matt’s eyes clouded. “Yeah. His dad’s been in and out of prison since before he was born.”

The information scraped against Bella’s heart like sand-paper on soft pine. “I was afraid it might be something like that.” Profound concern crashed over her heart. The poor kid didn’t stand a chance if she or some other influence in his life didn’t make some headway. She rose to her feet. “I need to be going. Thank y’all for listening and for encouraging me. I feel a lot better.”

Matt stood and once more stretched out a hand toward her. “Sounds like you’ve got a lot to work through, Bella. Gracie and I’d be happy to include you in our prayers.”

She clasped his hand with both of hers. “Please do. I’m back in Miller’s Creek—not necessarily ‘cause I want to be—but because I think it’s what God wants for me. I don’t understand why, but that’s beside the point. So please pray I’ll get these knots untangled.”

“Will do.”

Gracie also stood and enveloped her in a hug. “We’ll definitely pray. And give me a call anytime you need to talk.” She handed Bella her business card.

Grace Tyler, City Attorney. A huge grin broke out on Bella’s face. “Local girl makes good.”

“That makes two of us local girls who made good.”

Bella’s eyes flooded with tears. So not like her to even cry, especially in front of others. Must be the fatigue. She reached up fingertips to brush tears away.

“Press upward, onward, and forward, Bella. No matter what.” Mama Beth spoke the words softly, her own eyes bright with tears. “I have a feeling the enemy is attacking you hard for doing what God wants you to do.”

Bella stooped low and hugged her neck. How was it possible that she had such a connection with this woman? It was almost as if her past experiences had melded into Bella’s, though years separated their two stories.

“And remember this—no weapon that’s fashioned against you will stand.” Mama Beth paused, and an odd look took up residence on her face. “That’s so strange.”

“What?”

“I was just about to tell you to come again, and that verse from the Bible fell out of my mouth instead.”

More goose bumps gathered, this time on Bella’s neck. Had the Lord deliberately given that message to Mama Beth to pass on to her? It certainly applied.

She wiggled her fingers at the other three, hurried down the steps, and back to the road. Yes, she needed to leave the past behind. But part of her present-day work meant doing all she could to address those past issues so she could dwell in peace in this place. But what if nothing came from her efforts? What if the situation continued to deteriorate? Then what?

The answer came immediately. Still she would stay true to whatever God wanted for her. No matter how difficult.

Once out of view of Mama Beth’s house, Bella retrieved her phone from a small pocket purse she wore across one shoulder. She wasn’t the only one who’d been hurt by Clay. In a second’s time her call to Keith went through.

He answered quickly. “Hey, Bella. What’s up?”

“Not much. Just wondered if you have time to meet me at Granny’s Kitchen for a cup of coffee.”

“Sure that’s a good idea? What if Cl—”

“He’s mending fences today.” Oh, the irony. “I don’t much think he’ll be in Miller’s Creek.”

“But his friends might be.”

Bella considered the statement while she walked in a small tight circle. True. But she was sick and tired of trying to please people all the time. “I don’t care.” Her eyes rounded. Had those words really come from her mouth? She smiled. God must be at work. “I know I see you twice a week at church, but we really haven’t taken the time to discuss some things. I’ve reached a point where it has to be dealt with. I’m tired of living this way.” Her tone took on an undercurrent of desperation.

“I’ll be there in a few.”

Ten minutes later, Bella strode in the front door of the downtown cafe and peered around the room. Keith hadn’t yet arrived. Instead her eyes locked with those of Frank Ziffarano.

He sent a wave and a smile.

Bella smiled back. Perfect timing to do a little side work. She headed toward a booth at the back. One that took her right past the handsome young man. She stopped at his table. “How’s it going? I haven’t seen you since—when?—day before yesterday?”

He laughed, an odd sort of laugh that immediately caught her attention. As if it were forced and purposeful. But that smile of his could light up New York City. “Yeah. Long time no see. Want to join me?” He held an arm out toward the other side of the table.

“I’m actually meeting someone in a few minutes, but yeah, I can visit with you until then.” She slid into the seat opposite him.

“One of the guys told me that you and Clay are good friends.”

“Yeah. He’s my next door neighbor and helps me out with my dad’s place.”

Something in his eyes seemed to mentally file that tidbit of information away. “Ah, I see.”

A waitress brought Bella a menu and mug and filled the cup with coffee. Bella took a cautious sip of the hot liquid, and then sat the cup down. “So what brought you to Miller’s Creek?”

If the question surprised him, he didn’t let it show. Instead, he averted his gaze while he cut off a bite of gravy-covered biscuit. “I worked up near the Metroplex for a while, but wanted a place that was less congested.”

Less congested or less surveillance? “I hear ya there. I much prefer a country setting myself. What kind of work did you do in the city?”

He ignored the question. Instead his gaze landed on her hands and then moved up to her face. “I see you’re not married.”

“Nope.”

“You and Cla—”

“Nope. Just old friends.”

He continued to stare at her while he forked the bite of biscuit and gravy into his mouth. Almost as if he didn’t believer her. One thought rose to the front of her mind and sent a shiver down her spine. This guy was dangerous. Cool as a cucumber and always on his game. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you. I’d say his feelings go deeper than just friendship.”

“Well, we’ve been friends for a very long time.”

He didn’t respond, but just continued to stare at her as he ate his food.

Bella tried not to let him rattle her, but had to force a smile that she hoped looked natural. “What about you? Do you have a special someone?”

For a split second, his face took on a bit of surprise at her forward question—as though he didn’t initially think her capable of turning the tables—but he quickly moved his mask back into place. Ziffarano gave his head a shake and sent another award-winning grin as he leaned forward. “I like to keep my options open.”

The suggestiveness in his tone and demeanor sent a wave of nausea crashing to her stomach. Somehow she had to extricate herself from this situation in a way that didn’t slam the door of communication between them. Randall was counting on her help. She somehow managed a soft laugh. “Me too.” She slid to the edge of the booth seat, pulling her coffee cup along the table. “And right now I’m opting to wait for my friend at another table. See you around, Frank.”

As she made her way to a booth at the back, she felt the man’s gaze searing a hole in her back. Hopefully he’d bought her lame attempt to keep the conversation light. By the time she reached her seat, he had disappeared. The waitress stopped by and Bella ordered a cinnamon roll while she waited for Keith to arrive. She also pulled up her email on her phone to see if there was any word from Randall. Nothing.

Keith entered the cafe just as the waitress brought her roll. Her friend slid into the booth with a smile, and then faced the waitress. “I’ll have what she’s having.” After she left with his order, Keith’s blue eyes sparkled. “I just gotta say that I’ve hoped and prayed for this day, but after all these years I just didn’t know if it would ever happen.”

Bella’s forehead wrinkled. “What?”

“You’ve needed to deal with a few ghosts for a while now, don’t you think?”

Yeah. Had needed to quit pretending everything was okay while things continued to slide downhill. And needed to be more direct in addressing situations rather than letting people believe the worst. “I want to understand Clay better.”

The smile disappeared. “Not sure I can help you there. He’s a hard man to understand. And even though I’m his brother, there are times when I question if I really know him at all.”

She slurped the fragrant coffee and allowed the warm mellow liquid to rest momentarily on her tongue. Her shoulder muscles relaxed while she contemplated Keith’s statement. “I need to come to a better understanding of why he reacted the way he did.” Bella paused, a sudden thought in the forefront. “And though I thought I had already done so, I’ve got to forgive him.”

“Maybe he’s the one you should be talking to about all this.”

Bella gave her ponytail a shake. “Not ‘til I’ve talked through it with you. After that I need to do a lot of soul-searching and praying. That’s the only way I’ll ever be ready to talk to Clay about this.” Even as she spoke the words, doubt trickled through her mind. Would she ever reach that place?

“You’re in love with him again.”

The words slammed against her with forceful truth she couldn’t deny no matter how badly she longed to. She met his gaze with an apologetic smile. “The weird thing is I don’t think I ever stopped. Even with everything that happened.” The words brought sudden clarity. How could she still love the one who had judged her, declared her guilty, and publicly condemned her without first checking his facts? Old wounds reopened in a heartbeat.

“You do realize he might never change?”

Bella nodded. That was a very strong possibility. No matter how much she loved him, it wasn’t enough. And he was the one who had to make it happen. Any interference on her part might circumvent the change he needed. She sat with head lowered, her mind rolling with questions and totally oblivious to everything else around her. Then two familiar boots parked themselves at the end of their table.

“Well, fancy seeing you two here together. Guess some things never change.”

The voice was unmistakable. Bella yanked her head up to see Clay’s departing back and hear the clomp-shuffle of his boots against the old hard-wood floors of Granny’s Kitchen. The clanging bell that sounded next echoed in her heart like a death toll.

Clay was exactly right. Some things—no, make that some people—never changed.

In the next second, out of her peripheral vision, she caught sight of Ziff at the checkout counter. His eyes were honed in on her despite the distance between them. A slow knowing smile curled his lips up in a sneer.

Bella lowered her gaze, disturbed by the knowledge that in their brief meeting today, Ziffarano had gained far more information about her than she had about him.

Chapter Eight

Clay made his way home Monday evening after work, still plagued by seeing Keith and Bella together at Granny’s Kitchen. Memories he’d thought long-buried had been resurrected in a split second. He once more battled against a mental image of the two at the Miller’s Ranch barbecue so many years ago.

Bella’s face on that night could only be described as joyful. Then after he’d kissed her for the first and only time, her response had been to run to the arms of his younger brother. And to this day, it gnawed a hole in his soul.

He pressed the down button on the truck window. Maybe a blast of fresh air would help clear his head. Bella had cornered him later that same night and begged him to listen and understand. But he’d had none of it. Had his response been the folly of foolish pride, or had there been something to her relationship with Keith as he’d suspected? And was the recent run-in at Granny’s proof that they still had a relationship?

Clay’s chin sagged to his chest. Part of his heart had died that night. A part he now desperately wanted back. Bad enough to do something crazy.

He pulled into his driveway and made his way to the almost-repaired fence. He should be able to finish the last of the repairs today. From behind him came the sound of another vehicle pulling into the gravel driveway. He turned and peered toward the gate.

Keith.

Hard feelings resumed and set off an ache in his chest. God help me. I still love Bella. And the idea of her loving anyone other than him hurt like no other pain he’d ever experienced.

Hands in pockets, Keith sauntered toward him. “Hey, Clay.”

“Hey.” He didn’t stop his work or make eye contact, but instead prayed for God’s help in keeping his tongue in check.

The tense silence between them stretched from seconds to minutes.

At last Keith cleared his throat.

Clay turned his head toward his brother. “What?”

Keith didn’t reply, but his characteristic good-natured smile stayed put.

“You’re holding out on me, brother. What is it you wanna say? I’m a man. I can take it.”

His younger brother pulled his lips into a firm line and lowered his head to the ground, deep in thought. After several long seconds, he looked back up at Clay, his eyes kind and apologetic at the same time. “Don’t much think you’re gonna like what I have to say.”

Clay swallowed against the knot that developed in his throat. He often didn’t like what his brother had to say, at least since the incident involving Bella. “Spill it, ‘fore I change my mind.”

Keith smiled ever so slightly and pushed his hands deeper into the pockets of his blue jeans. “Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He paused a split second to breathe deep, then pointed over to where several monarch butterflies clung to the Queen Anne’s Lace. Just above them floated several others. “See those butterflies stuck to that flower?”

Clay nodded. “Yeah. It’s like they can’t turn loose to do what they were meant to do.”

His brother’s eyes shone with an inner light. “Exactly.”

A frown knit Clay’s eyebrows. “What does that have to do with me?”

“It has to do with you because it has to do with Bella.” Now Keith craned his neck backward to look at the sky, his head shaking in exasperation.

Was he praying? Finally Keith ended his sky-gazing and looked at him so hard it was all Clay could do to maintain his gaze. “What?”

“Sometimes there are people who, from God’s perspective, have been transformed from caterpillars into butterflies. But because they get stuck in how others see them, they never learn to soar. Instead they’re confined to a life of crawling around because they’re chained to the past.”

Clay’s hackles rose and took his shoulders along for the ride. Was Keith talking about Bella or butterflies? Bella might be beautiful, but she was no butterfly. Like a bolt of lightning, another thought hit hard, bringing with it an electrical jolt. He brought a hand up to scratch the stubble on his chin. Or was she? He’d definitely seen a different side to her than what he’d expected, but just as quickly Bella had crawled back into her cocoon. Was she so hurt by the words and actions of others—him especially—that she was imprisoned? Was she helplessly beating her wings against bars that denied her flight?

His stomach roiled, and his lips and forehead went taut. He stopped tightening the barbed-wire on the section of fence he worked, and instead gripped the t-post in front of him. Lord, please help me. If that’s the truth of this situation, forgive me.

Clay returned to his work on the fence, once more trying to understand the situation with Bella. A question billowed in his mind. One for which he had to have an answer, but one he didn’t want to ask. He dropped his tools and faced Keith. “Do you love her?”

His brother nodded, the toe of his boot making a lazy circle in the grass and dirt. “Yeah, but she doesn’t love me. At least not that way.”

Clay frowned. She didn’t?

Keith lifted his head. “Hope you take this in the spirit in which it’s intended. You need to work through some stuff from the past—the part of your past that involves Bella. Until you do, things won’t get any better—between you and me, you and her, or you and God.” Keith sent one last sad smile, then turned and traipsed back to his truck, hands in pockets and shoulders slumped.

For several minutes after Keith left, Clay thought through his brother’s parting comment, doing all he could to come to grips with it. Was his brother’s assessment of the situation correct? And had he himself been so honed in on his own pain that he’d failed to see Bella’s plight? Exasperation escaped his lungs. He tied off the last piece of barbed wire. Though he didn’t relish the thought, he had to try to make amends with her. The work on Buck’s property wouldn’t get done otherwise. And if his brother was right, the work on his life and relationship to God and others wouldn’t get done either.

He grabbed his tools from the ground near his feet. Might as well get this unsavory chore over and done with. And if the Lord was willing, he also hoped to find out if Buck’s illness was the only reason Bella had returned, a subject he still had no idea of how to broach.

A few minutes later he reached the Masterson house and pulled into the driveway. A raging river of fear unleashed inside, his mouth instantly coated with some gummy, foul-tasting substance. All his life he’d been counted as one who knew no fear, a fact he’d considered true until that very minute.

Something Granddaddy had always said flitted to his mind. A chore undone only got harder. With a deep breath, he steeled himself and climbed from the truck. That was especially true with this particular chore. A chore he’d put on the back shelf for the better part of his life.

He stepped from the cab of the pickup and moved up the concrete walk to the front porch. An angry voice blasted from within.

“You ruined the good name of this family, and I won’t let you do it anymore. If it weren’t for you and your ruinous ways, things would’ve turned out much different.”

Buck’s acid-laced words churned inside Clay’s stomach as heat seared through him. Why was old man Masterson talking to his only child in that way? He puckered his lips at the implications, too many for him to enumerate at the moment. He pounded on the door, eager to bring an end to whatever tongue-lashing the old man had unloaded on her.

The door opened. Though Bella’s face bore no sign of tears, her eyes held heavy darkness.

“Did I come at a bad time?”

Her almost-imperceptible flinch revealed both the truth of Buck Masterson’s target and Bella’s embarrassment to have him know it. A wrath unequaled in intensity spiraled throughout him. Even his hurt and anger by Bella and Keith’s betrayal so many years ago couldn’t come close. His fists clenched and unclenched at his side and drew Bella’s gaze.

Her face softened in instant understanding. She opened the aluminum screen door to step out, pulling the front door closed behind her.

Clay clamped his lips in a firm line. No, Buck Masterson would get a taste of his own medicine for this. He made a move to bypass Bella.

“Clay, please.” She pushed against his chest with both arms as she whispered the words, her eyes pleading.

“How long has he treated you this way?”

She didn’t reply, giving him the answer he sought. Then a split second later a question socked him in the gut. And just how had this maltreatment affected Bella in high school? He knew the statistics from his training for the equine therapy ministry at the ranch. Girls with abusive and distant dads were much more likely to go looking for love in all the wrong places. To flirt with the wild side, not only in the hopes of finding love, but also to get attention from their fathers. He released a half-sigh, half-sob. Not only that, they were likely to accept abusive behavior from others without defending themselves.

He breathed deeply, hoping to quell the anger inside, then leveled his gaze at Bella. “We need to talk.”

“Agreed.” The reply came with no hesitation. “Let me get my gloves. We can talk while we work. I could use your help with the cows. Dad’s bad temper is partly because they need to be moved to a different pasture.”

Clay nodded. “Okay.” But that by no means excused Buck’s poor behavior. “We can drive to my house, saddle a couple of horses, and then move the cows to the back pasture.”

A few minutes later, Bella sat beside him in the truck, completely silent and her face somber.

Somehow he needed to bring up her father’s treatment of her without coming across as interfering. He made eye contact with her. “You doing okay?”

She blinked slowly and nodded, then rolled her lips between her teeth for a long minute. Finally she broke the prolonged silence. “I don’t like it when he comes unglued on me like that, but I’ve just learned to deal with it.”

Clay parked the truck outside the barn and headed inside. He thought through her comment as he saddled the horses. “Deal with it how?”

One shoulder hitched upward. “By just taking it.”

A sick feeling landed in his stomach. That was akin to taking a physical beating without at least raising hands to block the blows. What was the phrase used in the equine therapy training? Learned helplessness. The next thought increased the nausea. Just how much had she taken from him without any effort to defend herself?

The question knocked him to his knees in the mixture of spring green grass and mud. For a second he at least held on to the saddle’s billet strap, pretending to wrestle it into submission. But eventually he released even that façade. Lord, help me hold this conversation with her. The last thing I want to do is hurt her more, but I have to know.

He peered up at Bella’s beautiful face, framed by her wavy blonde hair. “Why’d you come back?”

For a long minute her gaze locked with his as she searched his face. She swallowed hard, but kept her eyes on him. “To help Daddy.”

A frown tugged the inside corner of his eyebrows downward. Though her answer was honest, he sensed that it was also incomplete. “Sorry, but I have a hard time understanding that considering how he treats you.”

“He doesn’t treat me any worse than some of the other people in this town. Besides, it’s not about me.” Her words once more carried the ring of those spoken in sincerity.

Clay pulled his gaze from her face and refocused on the saddle. Was it possible she was truly that kind and compassionate? That she would suffer abuse to help even her abuser? And exactly where did she stand when it came to faith in God?

The questions and resulting ache in his chest forced him to his feet. He took one step toward her and placed both hands on her shoulders. “Don’t know if it’s because I never truly saw you or because you’ve changed, but I wan to understand who you are and where you’re coming from.” He longed to ask how she felt about God, but feared making a mess of things once again.

Wistful longing oozed from her expression. “I want that too. Very badly.” Her eyes flashed with a determined glint. “But only if we can hash things out without hurting each other. I can only take so much, and right now I have my hands full with Daddy.”

Guilt rained down on his head, but he nodded. Yeah, he needed to be more careful in what he said and how he said it. “Deal.”

A few minutes later they both sat atop their horses and headed out through the countryside to move the Masterson cows to a back pasture. Being beside her on horseback brought back happy memories, ones that had somehow been pushed aside for hurtful ones. “Remember when we used to ride together? Just for the fun of it?”

A soft glow from within lit her face. “Of course I do. Those were good times.”

The conversation turned to specific memories of times they’d had together and with other friends. A short while later they brought their horses to a halt at the banks of the swollen creek.

“This is usually a good place to cross over.” Clay peered down at the rushing current and wider-than-normal creek.

Bella’s nose wrinkled. “That smell.”

Clay frowned and breathed in deep. Smelled like rain-soaked earth to him.

Beside him, Bella noticeably stiffened and brought a palm up to cover her nose. “Not sure I can take that smell. It reminds me of…”

“What?”

“Nothing. Can we find another place to cross?”

“Afraid this is as good as it gets. But I’m with you. It’ll be okay.”

The fear in her eyes didn’t subside one bit. “Then let’s go back the other way.” She even went so far as to partially turn her horse toward the main road.

Clay looked at the sky. Already their daylight was ebbing away. “Not enough time. Not if we want to move those cows to new pasture today.”

Bella glanced away to the rushing water. “You sure it’s safe?”

He nodded. While no situation was ever completely safe, he felt confident he could lead them both across.

Her face contorted, and she switched her gaze repeatedly from his face, to the creek, and back toward the road.

Alarms clanged in his head. Never in all his years had he seen her this way. Always she’d been calm, cool, collected, adventurous, and unafraid. Now she was a skittish colt, ready to bolt.

“Okay, but you go first.”

Without hesitation, he led his horse into the water. In less than a minute, he faced her from the opposite side. “Piece of cake.”

Bella swallowed hard and rubbed a palm across her nose as if the smell still bothered her. With slow, tentative steps, she eased her horse into the water, following in the exact same path he’d taken.

Then he saw it.

A water moccasin slithered across the surface of the water toward Bella’s horse.

The horse, wide-eyed, noticed the snake and moved to the right with a warning whinny. The move landed horse and rider in a drop off where the water was deeper and faster.

“Clay, help me.”

But before he could even prod his horse forward, Bella’s mount reared backward, dumped her in the swirling water, and took off down the fence line at full gallop.

Panic erupted in his chest as fear erupted on her face. She shrieked and furiously batted the water with both hands.

“Put your feet down, Bella!” Clay yelled the words, then dismounted, searching for the snake the entire time. He plunged into the swollen and cold creek water, praying neither of them would get bitten. In a flurry of movement, he swam to Bella’s side and tried to grab hold of her.

But her sputtering and splashing prevented rescue. “Bella!”

She looked his way, her face contorted and eyes wide with fright.

“Breathe and settle down. I can’t grab hold of you with you fighting me.”

The words worked, and a minute later Clay was able to pull her to the shore. He yanked a blanket from his saddle pack and placed it around her shoulders. “You okay?”

She leaned over, arms crossed around her waist, and coughed up a mouthful of muddy water.

All he knew to do was hold her shoulders while she vomited. But his mind raced. While the event had been frightening, he was pretty sure there was more to this story. Much, much more.

 

  • * *

 

Bella floated down the hallway toward the choir room, her heart lighter than it had been in a very long time. Yes, she had a long way to go in loosening chains from the past, but Jesus brought about more of the seemingly impossible with each passing day.

Her heels clipped to a stop outside her classroom, and she brought jangling keys up to unlock the door. While the situation between her and Clay was far from resolved, at least they were making great strides. The ordeal in getting Daddy’s cows to new pasture yesterday had shaken her to the core and brought back in a way she never expected the most defining moment in her life. She’d seen the questions in Clay’s eyes, but he hadn’t pressed her for answers. More proof that things were slowly but surely changing between them.

She stepped inside the choir room and reached for the light switch. Only the Lord and His work in their lives could be responsible for this change in her outlook on life.

Even Queen Stephanie hadn’t been able to rile her today.

A happy hum broke loose from Bella’s throat. She picked up the choir anthem she’d purchased specifically for the end of school concert and thumbed through the pages. Once contest was over, she could teach the kids more popular tunes to reward them for their hard work. She glanced down at her wristwatch just as the classroom door swung open.

Randi hurried in, her short red hair like a saucy cap over one eye. “Sorry I’m running late.”

“You’re not late. Right on time.” Bella motioned her over to the piano. “But we’d better get started if we’re gonna make it through this solo before the bell rings.” She perched on the piano bench, rested her fingers on the keys, and began the introduction.

Randi’s velvety alto joined in at the right time, the melody strong and certain. They reached the long high note at the end of the solo. Randi’s voice cracked and broke off unexpectedly, and her features darkened. Both hands moved to her throat in choke position. “I’m used to singing this song in a lower key, so I don’t think I can sing that note.”

Bella stopped playing. “Sure you can. Right now you’re trying to sing it in your chest voice, but it’s above your natural break.”

Wavy lines covered the teenager’s forehead, bringing forth a laugh from Bella. “Don’t worry. Everyone’s voice has that natural break. If you’ll switch over to head voice and support the tone with your breath, you won’t have a bit of trouble.” She took Randi through a quick lesson on the difference between head and chest voice, then ran her through a couple of vocal exercises. “Let’s try it again.”

This time around, Randi breezed through the entire piece, including the long high note at the end.

Bella grinned up at her. “Told you so.”

The girl’s face held a mixture of excitement and wonder. “Wow. Thanks for the pointers.”

“You’re very welcome. I’m so glad your dad let you join the choir.”

“Me too.” The words were followed with an unexpected frown. “I just wish Jacob would quit spoiling it for the rest of us. I heard a couple of girls who sit in front of me talking about it yesterday.” She paused, hesitation in her eyes. “They might quit.”

The words shot into Bella’s brain and ricocheted around, leaving added worry and fear with each point of contact. Contest was just a few days away. The group was already soprano heavy. If she lost two altos, it could completely destroy their chances at making a top rating.

The bell rang and kids flooded the room. Bella fired Randi an appreciative smile, then moved to stand by the door to welcome her students. Jacob and his crew skulked in just as the tardy bell sounded.

Bella gently tapped a couple of them, including Jacob, on the shoulder. “Good job, guys. You made it on time today.”

None responded except Jacob. He shrugged off her hand in an exaggerated twist of his shoulders and leaned away, his expression filled with hostility. “Don’t ever touch me again.”

Though she very much wanted to protest her innocence, Bella simply nodded. “Okay. Didn’t mean to offend you.” With a mother like Carla and a daddy who spent most of his time behind bars, a loving touch was just what Jacob needed. But it was also something of which she needed to be very, very careful. Just one mention of that sort of accusation would give Jacob and Carla all the ammunition they needed to carry out their threat of getting her fired.

She stepped to her music stand. “Good to see you all.” Bella quickly took roll via the new electronic system and sent the data to the office.

Jacob still stood next to the door, the scowl on his face more pronounced with each passing second.

Bella looked his way, doing all she could to keep a pleasant tone of voice. “C’mon, Jacob. Take your seat. It’s time to get started.”

He didn’t move.

Quickly running through her options, Bella chose to ignore him and instead spent the time rehearsing the choir on their most difficult piece for Saturday’s contest. Thankfully, the choir responded wholeheartedly. But halfway through the anthem—just as they reached the most difficult part of the song—a group of guys in the bass section began to laugh uncontrollably.

Bella whirled around to find Jacob right behind her. Though at first he appeared to be mocking her, he quickly dropped his arms to soldier position. The bass section laughed even harder.

“I’m not going to play these games with you. Either take your seat or I’ll—”

“Or you’ll what? Call my mommy?” Jacob sing-songed the words, then raised fists to his eyes. “Waaah. Teacher called my mommy.” He dropped his hands, his face a sullen mask. On his way past her, he stopped and leaned in close. “My mom could whip you with both hands tied behind her back.”

Bella leaned back, Jacob’s face still close. His words were true, but this wasn’t about her and Carla. It was about him. “I need to speak with you in the hallway right now, Mr. Clark.” She headed for the door.

Big mistake. Behind her, the guys laughed again. Over one shoulder, Bella glimpsed Jacob feigning a prissy walk. He came to a sudden halt when he noticed she’d stopped, eliciting more laughter.

Her anger reached the point of boiling over. She had no time for this, and neither did the choir. “Now, Jacob!”

He resumed his teen-aged boy swagger toward where she stood at the open door. As he passed, he leaned in close once more, a devilish grin on his face. “Alone with me in the hallway, teach?” Jacob stalked out into the hallway.

Bella followed, intentionally holding the door open and sucking in an extra-large breath to quell her anger. How did she even start to get through to this kid? And how did she protect herself in the process? “Jacob, you have got to get your behavior under control.”

“The way you got yours under control when you were in high school?” A scornful snicker fell from a curled upper lip. “Still have a wild side, teach?”

“You’re pushing me to the point where I will have no choice but to involve Mr. Dickerson. Is that really what you want?”

“Is that really what you want?”

Bella pondered her dilemma. If she sent him to the office, it would only fuel Jacob’s desire for retribution. Besides that, Mr. Dickerson had already indicated that he came closer to believing the Clarks than her. But if she allowed Jacob back into the classroom, it would only bring more of the same bad behavior. Leaving him in the hallway on his own wouldn’t work. If he got into trouble, she’d be blamed. “Believe it or not, Jacob, I want what’s best for you. Unfortunately, your lack of cooperation leaves me no choice. Grab your things and head to the office.”

His sneer morphed into something much more sinister.

She backed up against the open door and motioned for him to enter ahead of her.

As he passed, he brought his face very close to hers. “You’re gonna be so sorry.”

Most likely, but she had a job to do. That job involved getting this group of students prepared for contest. No matter what happened, she’d do it to the best of her ability. Even if it eventually resulted in losing her career.

Once Jacob left the room, Bella dived in to getting through the rest of their contest tunes, racing against the clock. They’d just made it through their first song, when the door opened.

Jacob strode into class and moved to his seat, while Mr. Dickerson took up a position near the door. Propped against the wall, he crossed his arms and looked on while Bella finished her class.

Nervous fear wound its way throughout her body and dried out her mouth. She raised her arms to conduct the second song, her fingertips shaking uncontrollably. Somehow she managed to make it through the rest of the rehearsal, focused on her goal of getting the kids ready for contest. Jacob, of course, played the part of the model student with Mr. Dickerson looking on.

The bell rang, at long last signaling the end of the worst class of her entire teaching career. She moved to the door to say goodbye to her students, Mr. Dickerson on the opposite side. Taking up the rear of the line were the two girls who sat directly in front of Randi.

No. Please not today. Not with Mr. Dickerson there to observe the whole thing.

Candy and Marissa stopped in front of her. Candy spoke first. “Ms. Masterson, we’ve decided to get out of choir.”

Though not at all an unexpected statement, Bella struggled to find words in response. “I hate to see either of you quit. And you’ll be letting down the rest of the choir. Contest is this Saturday. We need you.”

Now Marissa joined n. “I don’t think the choir’s going to do well. We’re just not ready.”

“Please reconsider. Why don’t you come talk to me after school, so we can hash this out?”

Neither one responded, but shared a look and left the room.

Bella raised her gaze to Mr. Dickerson’s, who still stood, arms crossed over his chest, his expression one of sheer displeasure. He raised himself to full height. “Bella, why did you send Jacob to the office?”

She relayed the story of his behavior during the first part of class. “I want him out of choir. As much as I’d love to reach him, I have the others to think about as well. He’s ruining the experience for everyone.”

“Not sure I can accommodate your request. In spite of your antagonism toward him, Jacob has asked to stay in choir.”

What? Why would he do that? The answer came immediately. For whatever reason, the teen-aged bully had made her his target. “Mr. Dickerson, if you won’t believe me, you can ask some of the other students in the class about his behavior.”

“Oh, I have.”

Bella’s eyebrows jumped upward.

“The problem is, I’ve yet to find one that completely sides with your version of the story.” He strode through the open door, his black dress shoes slapping against the tile floor as he strode toward the office.

Of course. Why hadn’t she seen it? If Jacob had picked up his mother’s bullying behavior, why would he only use it against her? Wouldn’t he also use it against the other students as well? She brought up a hand to massage the headache that had developed during class. Some students would never rat out a fellow teenager, even if a story was true. But surely at least one or two students would come to her defense. She gave her head a shake. What was it with her and impossible situations? Somehow she had to find a way, not only to reach Jacob, but also please her boss.

And at that moment, neither one seemed likely. Besides, in a weird sort of way, people-pleasing was just another set of chains to lug around. Jesus, continue to break chains in my life, no matter how painful.

Her heart continued the pleading prayer as she set about to ready the room for the afternoon’s elementary music classes. But soon other questions jumbled in her brain like a knot of slithering snakes. Would this whole scenario of false accusations play itself out in the same way as the past? Was it time to go over Mr. Dickerson’s head, and with what results? The superintendent was Queen Stephanie’s father, for Pete’s sake.

A weighty sigh sagged her shoulders. Maybe she should put Gracie Tyler on retainer just in case. That thought became even more significant as the final bell sounded later that day.

Her boss caught her just before she walked out the door. “The admin office called. Carla Clark has asked to be put on the agenda for the school board meeting on Monday night.”

Chapter Nine

Mid-afternoon on Friday, Clay followed his regular routine to see if the work he’d assigned the hands throughout the week had been done. Rather than saddle his horse, he opted to take the Mule, an all-terrain four-wheeler the ranch had bought a few years ago at his request. He scanned his weekly assignment sheet, then set off for the area where Ziff and some of the other guys had been working on fences.

As he bumped along uneven terrain, his thoughts honed in on Ziff. There was still something about the guy that rubbed him the wrong way. Maybe it was because he’d been dead set against hiring him, and Steve had over-ruled his decision. But to his way of thinking, Ziff’s charm and likability meant very little. While those qualities had their benefits, he’d much rather have a guy lower on the charisma scale and stronger on the hard worker scale.

He arrived at the new fencing within a few minutes, but even from a distance noticed the sagging barbed wire. Clay brought the Mule to a halt and killed the engine, then stepped to the fence to give it a closer inspection. While several fence posts had been set in place, the wiring part of the job was sloppily done. A quick glance down the fence line confirmed his suspicions.

A whole week of work wasted.

Frustration mounting, he crawled back in the ATV and headed further out, to where Ziff and the guys with him were supposed to be tagging baby calves. A plan hatched in his mind. Rather than drive into the area, he’d pull into a nearby grove of live oaks and walk in. A little surprise visit should give him the information he wanted.

A short while later, Clay crept through the shadow provided by the grove of trees, doing his best to dodge the briars that latched onto his shirt and clawed at his skin. The sound of laughter rang from the area ahead. He stopped behind a large oak, steadied himself against the gnarly bark, and peered out into the clearing. As suspected, none of the guys were at work, but leaned against their trucks while they shot the bull. Clay’s lips firmed into a cemented line. Time to pull the plug on this little party.

A mixture of ire, disappointment, and determination propelled him forward, out of the shade and toward the men. “Afternoon, gentlemen.”

All, except Ziff, jumped to attention at the sound of his voice. The new ranch hand continued to lean against his truck, hat pulled low to shade his eyes, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. “Hey, Mr. Barnes.” Rather than respect, his words held challenge, with a sarcastic emphasis on the word “Mr.”

Clay halted a few feet away and crossed his arms over his pounding chest, glaring at the men. “Just got back from checking your fence work, fellas. Sloppiest work I’ve seen in a long time.” His gaze landed on Ziff. “Now I see why.” He paused long enough to stare down each man individually, until one by one they lowered their eyes to the ground. “Wanna tell me why you’re just standing around when there’s work to be done?”

For a long minute no one answered, though a few shifted their weight from one foot to the other. Then a curt laugh sounded from Ziff. “Just taking a breather, boss man.”

Clay nodded. He could at least give them the benefit of a break. If that’s what it truly was. “How long of a breather we talking about?”

Ziff shrugged. “An hour or two. Give or take.”

A bitter taste landed in his mouth, and Clay struggled to bring his temper under control. “I want you all back at the barn by 4:45 sharp. I’m calling a meeting with Steve. We’ll discuss your shoddy work then. I intend to suggest that you each use your days off to take care of what should’ve already been done.”

Even before he made it back to the cool shade of the oak trees, the grumbling and complaining commenced. It was quickly silenced by the voice of Ziffarano. “Relax, guys. I’ve got this.”

Oh really? Well, he for sure wouldn’t hang up his ranch foreman hat that day until the snake oil salesman was on his way out the door.

At a quarter to five on the dot, Clay called the meeting to order with a sharp whistle. Steve stood nearby. First, he dismissed those whose work had been done the right way. “You guys have done a great job this week, so feel free to start your time off now.”

Though the hard-working hands appeared happy enough about the early out, they mumbled questions to those yet to be released and glared at Clay as though they blamed him for what was about to transpire.

“Now for the rest of you. I think you owe Steve an explanation for your shoddy work this week, as well as for the little party you were throwing when you were supposed to be tagging calves.”

The air in the room charged with tension, and the barn grew uncomfortably quiet. Steve’s eyes searched the faces of the group of men, his lips tighter with each tick of the clock.

Finally Ziff broke the silence. He donned a humble stance, his face apologetic. “I take full responsibility, boss. We had so much work to do this week that we hurried through the fencing job to get it done. And we weren’t throwing a party. We were tired and thirsty and had gone to our trucks to grab a drink of water.”

“That true?” Steve lobbed the question to the whole group.

They all nodded to the affirmative. Only a few did so with reluctance.

Clay snorted. “A pack of lies if I ever heard one. And a completely different story than what they told me.” He locked eyes with Steve. “I think these guys need to redo their work over the weekend.”

“I can’t.” The short sentence fell from Ziff’s lips. Of course.

All eyes turned his way.

“I promised my grandparents I’d be there for their fiftieth anniversary party.”

Steve gave his head an exasperated shake. “Y’all still have your weekend off. I’ll discuss this with Clay. If the work needs to be redone, you’ll do it next week.”

A collective sigh of relief sounded around the room as Clay’s temperature soared. He wheeled around and headed to his office. What had just happened? Instead of the smart-aleck slacker Clay had pegged Ziff to be, he’d come out of the situation looking like a choir boy.

Once in the office, past boiling point and closer to volcanic eruption, Clay chunked his clipboard to the desk. It clattered against the wood then skidded toward the lamp at one corner. Both clipboard and lamp crashed to the floor.

Behind him the office door slammed, and he whirled around.

His boss’ face held a conglomerate of emotions—incredulity, confusion, and more than a smidgen of anger. Both fists rested on his hips. “Want to tell me what’s going on with you that you’d pull a fool stunt like that?”

“I’m telling you, Steve. Ziffarano is not who you think. Not only is he a manipulative charmer, he’s a bold-faced liar. And you just fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.” His voice ratcheted up a notch. “If this were my ranch, he’d be outta here so fas—”

“Well, it’s not your ranch, so you don’t have to worry about it, now do you?” Steve pelted out the words, then clamped his jaw shut for a long minute. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you all of a sudden. My guess is you’re taking your frustrations with Bella out on the guys. And I just won’t stand for it.” He pivoted and strode from the office, once more slamming the door.

Part of Clay wanted to run after Steve, to explain how Ziff acted when he wasn’t around. To repeat what Ziff had said to him about the length of their so-called water break. But what was the point of even trying? For whatever reason, Steve had already made up his mind.

The thought brought a frown. Steve had changed, and drastically, over the course of the past few months. Was there more to this than met the eye? What could explain this complete reversal in his personality?

An hour later Clay drove toward the Masterson place, one question turning over and over in his mind. Had he made a huge mistake by putting all his eggs in the Miller’s Ranch basket like his daddy and granddaddy before him?

He pulled up outside Bella’s house and ambled to the front door, his ears attuned to any argument from within. Nothing, thank goodness. Clay rapped sharply on the door. Maybe there’d be an opportunity for him to tackle the subject of verbal abuse with Buck.

The door opened. Bella stared back at him, eyes dull and red-rimmed.

A frown pulled Clay’s eyebrows in tight. Had Buck been after her again? Without a word to Bella, he yanked on the aluminum screen, forced his way past her, and into the living room where Buck sat watching TV. Clay grabbed the remote from a nearby side table and clicked the off button, then focused his attention on the older man. “We need to talk.”

“About what?” Buck’s voice held the same gruffness he felt.

“You gotta quit coming down on Bella so hard. She moved here to help you out, but all you do is remind her of the past. An occasional expression of gratitude wouldn’t hurt you now, would it?”

Two hands wrapped around Clay’s upper arm and tugged. “Clay, stop it.”

“No, I won’t stop it. And it wouldn’t hurt you to stand up for yourself.” Even as the words flowed from his lips, images of dogs who shied away from even the gentlest of human touches popped into his head. Those continuously beaten down often did the least to defend themselves. Like they’d learned defeat and helplessness. “What did he say to you this time to make you cry?”

“I ain’t said a dern thing to her today, so don’t you come stomping into my house and making demands.”

Clay searched Bella’s face. If Buck hadn’t been the cause of her tears, then who? He clamped his back teeth together and swallowed. Great. He’d messed up again, and overstepped his bounds in the process. “I thought we might work on your fences. I’ll wait outside.”

She nodded, her eyes still dark with emotion. “I’ll get changed and meet you out there.”

As Bella made her way down the hallway, Clay cleared his throat and faced Buck. “It appears I owe you an apology, sir. When I saw she’d been crying, I thought you’d caused it.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed as he stared hard at Clay. “Guessing she had another hard day at school. She came home and went straight to her room.”

Another hard day? Hadn’t she recently mentioned a hard school day? But that was just in reference to the rigors of her job. Right? Or was she having trouble there as well as at home? The thought sent concern and compassion searing through his heart. He mumbled a goodbye to Buck and moved outside.

Bella arrived a minute later. She strode toward him, hair tied back and cowgirl hat in place. “Just saw a weather forecast. There’s a huge rainstorm headed this way. I reset our sandbags earlier this week. What about yours?”

He shook his head. There just hadn’t been time. Between being on call for the builders and putting out fires at Miller’s Ranch, he hadn’t had time to breathe.

“Okay, then. Let’s head to your place and git ‘er done.” Her voice held a toughness missing from earlier conversations.

His heart overflowing with gratitude that Bella would give up her Friday evening to help him out, Clay helped her into the passenger side of the truck then headed to the opposite side. Once more he prayed for the opportunity to regain her trust.

And for answers to his long list of questions.

 

  • * *

 

“Rough day at work?”

Bella’s heart bounced into her throat. Oh, she heard Clay’s question loud and clear—was touched by the concern in his eyes—but struggled to respond. Uncustomary tears threatened to spill over as they had off and on since Mr. Dickerson had delivered the news. “Yeah.” She couldn’t elaborate, even if she wanted to. Instead she strode to a nearby sand bag, hoisted its heavy weight to her shoulders, and carried it to their quickly-growing wall. As she made her way back for yet another bag, she peered up at the darkening sky. Would this be another gully-washer?

“I think this’ll have to do, Bella. We’d better get the truck and ourselves to higher ground before this storm hits.”

Agreed. The last thing she wanted was a repeat of yesterday’s water episode. With just the thought of it, the same sick smell, nausea, and gut-churning fear unleashed inside. Yet another chain from the past. She trudged to the opposite side of Clay’s truck, used the running boards to scrape mud from her boots, and then climbed in. “I noticed your house is taking shape. It’s gone up in a hurry.”

He cranked the ignition and the engine roared. “Yep.”

“I’d love to see it some time.”

Clay smiled his full cheeky grin, an occasion so rare it never failed to make her heart sing and her pulse thump a little faster. “And I’d love for you to see it.” He steered the truck through the pasture, and finally reached the gravel road and higher ground. A few minutes later, he stopped the vehicle near the front of the house and leaned forward to check the sky through the front windshield. “It appears to be lightening up some. Hopefully, that’ll give us time for the grand tour before it starts raining.”

Even as they approached the steps, Bella noticed the front porch taking shape. “Gotta love a house with a front porch. Just has a homey feel that makes you want to pull up a rocking chair and rock your cares away.” And she certainly had lots of those.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself. And this one will have views of our great Texas sunsets.” Clay pointed to the west. “At least on days when it’s not raining.”

Bella laughed at his dry tone. “Don’t gripe about it too much. We’ll be wishing we had it again in July and August.”

“Ain’t it the truth?” He stepped to one side and motioned for her to enter the front door opening ahead of him. “No doors or windows yet, but stud walls are up.”

She entered the cavernous space, dark except for the cloudy gray daylight that came in through the window openings.

“This will be a foyer.” He held out a hand in front of them. “Staircase will go over there.”

A sudden wave of shyness washed over her. Shyness? Really? With Clay? “Wow.” It was the only word she could think of at the moment, but at least it was accurate. Even without walls, doors, and windows, she could see the potential in this place. Her heart did a strange little flop in her chest. Her dream home. As though he’d peeked into the windows of her soul, snapped a photo, and then brought it to life. “Living room to the right?”

“Yeah. It’s open to the dining room and kitchen with a closed-in pantry, laundry room, and powder room.”

At just that moment the rain started, not in gentle drips, but roaring sheets.

“The master suite is to the left of the foyer.” His voice increased in volume to make himself heard over the driving rain.

She swallowed against her cottony mouth and moistened her lips, then tilted her head back to see the second story. “I’m guessing a couple of bedrooms and bath upstairs?”

“Yep.”

Their gazes met for just a moment, but Bella quickly forced her eyes away. This was the easy-going Clay she’d fallen in love with years ago, and it would do her no good to allow herself to be drawn in again.

“Guess we might as well park it in the living room until the rain stops. Might not look much like a fireplace at the moment, but it’s functional. I’ll grab some wood off the back porch and build us a fire.” Clay’s boots clomped from the room, sending off a hollow echo in her heart.

Lord, help. Bella released a burst of air between pursed lips and shuddered as goose bumps prickled the flesh of her arms. She ran her hands up and down her coat sleeves to ward them off. A fire would definitely be welcomed for warmth. Already the damp air sent a chill through her jacket. She rolled her bottom lip between her teeth. But did her heart stand a chance of getting away without a bruising, especially with her emotions already bouncing all over the place?

Clay entered and set to work building a fire in the open fire box.

As she watched him work, her thoughts returned to the way he’d attempted to defend her earlier that day. While he’d been somewhat misdirected and brusque, his actions had worked their way into her heart, still achy from the news she’d received at school.

The small fire crackled and popped, sending out the comforting aroma of mesquite wood. Her gaze once more latched onto Clay’s.

He patted the plywood subfloor beside him as he moved from kneeling to sitting. “Might as well take a load off.”

She swallowed hard and took a seat on the opposite side of the fireplace, avoiding his gaze. Take a load off her feet or her heart? Or both? Bella pulled her knees to her chest and stared into the dancing flames. Delicious warmth relaxed her shoulders and shattered nerves.

Wait. Her eyes popped open wide. She couldn’t afford to relax too much in this setting. Bella glanced over at Clay, his face lit with the yellow glow of firelight. “You look tired. Everything okay?”

He didn’t look her way, but released air through his nose. “Just struggling with one of the new ranch hands.”

The hair on her neck stood up on end. More info to pass on to Randall. “The Ziffarano guy?”

“Yep. I was dead-set against hiring him, but Steve insisted. He’s under-handed and acts one way around me and another around Steve. Like Jekyll and Hyde.”

“I’ve been meaning to tell you, but keep forgetting. I’ve seen him around town a couple of times. Once he was watching you and Steve from across the street.”

Even in the low light, his face darkened. “Where at?”

“He was on the corner by Watson’s while y’all came out of the feed store.”

His scowl deepened, and with an angry mutter he rose to his feet and grabbed a chunk of wood to throw on the fire. “I’ve got to figure out a way to make Steve see him for who he truly is. Maybe you could mention that episode to Steve for me. For whatever reason, he’s not listening to a word I say anymore.”

There was no keeping her eyebrows down or her sarcasm at bay. “Yeah, ‘cause Steve listens to every word I say.” She slapped a palm over her loose lips. “Sorry. That was totally uncalled for.”

“Maybe. Steve’s changed here of late. Don’t know why, and I can’t put my finger on it.”

This time she managed to keep her words clamped inside. Hadn’t Dani verbalized something similar? She made a mental note to ask Randall if Steve knew about the potential problem at the ranch. Bella looked up to find Clay’s probing eyes locked on her face.

The firelight highlighted the compassion in his eyes. “Wanna talk about it?”

“What?”

“Whatever is going through your head. And whatever it was that made you cry earlier today.”

A sigh escaped. Her temporary respite from thinking about her problems was now over. “Carla.”

“As in Carla Clark?”

Bella nodded. “She hasn’t changed much over the years.”

“Nope. And I hear her son’s just like her.”

“My heart breaks for him.” The concern that flooded her heart leaked out in her words. “I want to help him, but he’s giving me fits.”

“Have the principal bust his tail.”

An unexpected laugh erupted in her throat. “That’s no longer allowed.”

Comical incredulity landed on his face. “Really?”

“Things are a lot different than when you and I were in school.”

“I had my rear-end paddled enough to build up calluses.”

Bella laughed again. “You sure did.”

The conversation lulled, as though memories of a very different life yanked them to the past. Clay faced her. “So what options do you have?”

“I sent him to the principal. As much as I want to help him, I can’t let him ruin choir for the other kids. I asked to have him removed, but it’s a no-go.” She hesitated. Did she have the intestinal fortitude to reveal the news her boss had divulged at the end of the school day? Couldn’t hurt anything. It would be around town soon enough anyway. “The high school principal told me Carla called the main office and asked to be put on the agenda for Monday night’s school board meeting.”

“What for?”

Bella met his frowning gaze directly. Would he believe her? “She and Jacob both have it in for me.”

Clay’s eyes turned stormy dark. “As in trying to get you fired?”

Tears stung her eyes. She blinked rapidly and nodded. “I think they’re after even more than that.” The words came out in a whispered hush that melded with the hiss of the fire. “But even in this, I feel God with me. Isn’t that odd?”

His face registered a brief second of surprise, then he scooted closer and laid one of his work-roughened hands atop hers. “Not at all. One of my favorite Bible verses says God is close to the brokenhearted.”

Bella pressed her lips together to keep them from trembling as Clay’s eyes searched hers. How could he possibly know that particular verse had become a lifelong promise she’d leaned hard on through the years? And just the thought that his faith in God was more than Pharisaical religiosity brought hope to her heart.

Clay removed his hand and turned his gaze back to the fire. “You said Carla and Jacob are after more than your job. What does that mean?”

She sucked in a deep gulp of air, suddenly eager to speak the words that held her fearful heart captive. “They want to make it where I can never teach again.” This time there was no stopping the tears. One extra-large drop plopped to the plywood.

Before she realized what was happening, Clay cradled her in his arms. He yanked the cowboy hat off her head and tossed it behind him, stroking her hair. “I’m so sorry, Bella.”

Whether because of his nearness or kindness, she didn’t know, but her tears unleashed in a torrent. How long had it been since someone had held her close to comfort her? She searched through memory after memory with no affirmation. Had it ever happened?

Her heart pounded furiously in her chest. Somehow she had to break free of his embrace. An embrace that both soothed her wounded heart and threatened to be her undoing. She leaned her head back against Clay’s hand at the nape of her neck, hoping he’d let go.

But instead he lowered his lips to hers.

Drowning in a flood of emotions and memories far worse than the muddied creek, Bella gave in to his tender kiss for a moment. But just as quickly, thoughts of what had happened last time he’d kissed her took over. From sheer reflex, she used both palms to push hard against his chest, freeing herself from his arms.

Scrambling to her feet, she gazed at the hurt displayed on his face like that night so many years ago. How in the world was she supposed to handle all this? Only one thought came to mind.

Run.

 

  • * *

 

The ache in his chest intensified with each step. Clay raced after her, but forced himself to a halt at the front porch, his eyes honed in on Bella as she sprinted down the gravel driveway in the pouring rain. Even at her age and in her cowboy boots, she still ran like the wind, just as she had in high school. Almost as though chased by demons from the past.

His head sank to his chest. And she probably was. Demons his own foolhardiness had unleashed.

Clay leaned his back against the outside wall of the house and brought both palms to slide down his face and open mouth. He watched as Bella disappeared behind a bend in the road.

How had this all happened? A frown tightened his brow. Her vulnerability and hurt had tugged at his heart. All he’d intended was to hopefully bring her some comfort. Comfort she more than likely wasn’t used to receiving. When she’d pushed away, he’d seen the fear in her eyes, but like a fool had given way to the desire to kiss her for the second time in his life. Had painful memories diced her insides like they had his?

Boots a-scuffle against the plywood, Clay once more moved inside and to the fireplace, where he stared at the few coals remaining. How long he stood there, he wasn’t sure. The last coal changed from glowing orange to ashen gray. As he turned to leave, his gaze landed on her hat.

A wave of tenderness gripped his heart, and a soft smile landed on his lips. Heaven help him. He wasn’t over her by a long shot. Another thought followed right on its heels.

And he didn’t wan to be.

Clay sauntered to her hat and stooped to pick it up. Though part of him longed to take it to her right away, instinct told him the time wasn’t right.

His heart launched into a silent prayer. By the time the prayer ended, his heart had taken wings.

He donned his own hat and headed for the door. Bella would come for her hat when she was ready. In reply, the enemy’s voice immediately hissed in his soul.

Unless she decided not to ever come back.

Chapter Ten

Bella took her usual seat at the teacher’s table in the noisy cafeteria on Monday, not expecting this day to be different from any other. But before she even made contact with the seat, several teachers smiled her way, immediately sending uneasiness skittering through her insides.

“I’m so excited the choir made a first division rating, Bella. You’re doing a wonderful job with the kids.” The words came from Doris Smith, the school’s freshman English teacher.

Jennifer Jaynes nodded her agreement. “Me too. Someone told me this is a first for Miller’s Creek. My daughter will be a freshman next year. She loves to sing.”

Well, well, maybe things were finally changing. Bella closed her slack jaw and sent them both a smile. “Thank you. I wish y’all could’ve seen how excited the kids were.” Her mind traveled to two days prior. In spite of her fear that the choir wouldn’t perform well, the kids had stepped up to the plate big time, even minus the two altos who had quit and Jacob, who hadn’t bothered to show up.

“Too bad that might not be enough to save your job.” The spiteful words sounded from the end-of-the-table throne of Queen Stephanie. She cast a sideways glance at Bella. “Are you ready for the school board meeting tonight?”

Bella nodded without comment and toyed with her food, suddenly devoid of appetite. Could anything truly prepare her for the unknown? An onslaught of emotional backwash rolled over her, but she quickly forced her mind to God. No matter what happened, her life was in His care and control. On the heels of that thought came the ever-baying twin hounds of doubt and despair.

She tasted a few bites of the bland cafeteria food. It landed in a hard knot in the pit of her stomach, leaving queasiness in its wake. She toyed with the food a few minutes longer, nibbling here and there. Finally she released a sigh. What was the use? Might as well get some work done in her classroom instead.

As she made her way down the hall to the choir room, hideous thoughts about what might happen attacked. Stop it, Bella! She couldn’t control what people chose to think, say, or believe. But somehow she had allowed their opinion of her to serve as yet another set of chains.

Bella yanked open the door and entered the empty and dark classroom. The incident with Clay lent further proof. He’d neither called nor tried to visit since the night of the storm. Probably because, in his mind, he’d already blamed her. Already judged and condemned her and declared her guilty. Already slapped on the hand-cuffs and tossed away the key.

The thought infused her spine with steel. No longer would she allow him—or anyone else for that matter—to dictate through their poor behavior how she should act or feel.

What was the verse she’d read just that morning? Something about God breaking a yoke of bondage and tearing away shackles.

Sacred awe descended on her heart. He’d given her a promise, and she’d almost missed it. Everyone was in danger of being enslaved to a whole host of little-g gods—self, Satan, worldly ways, money—even the negative opinions and careless words of others. But only Jesus was a trustworthy Master. The Master she’d decided to follow when she gave Him her heart.

And that’s just what she planned to do. Follow Him. No matter what.

Lord, forgive me for allowing such trivial things to chain and consume me. Help me keep my focus on You instead of my circumstances. My life is Yours. Your will be done.

Gratitude coursed through every ounce of her being as Bella traipsed to the window and looked out at a sky full of parting clouds. Fingers of light stretched in every direction.

Thank You, Jesus, for the light-filled clarity You’ve given me.

Fresh resolve strengthened her heart, stabilized her spirit, and straightened her shoulders. As a Christ-follower she would love her fellow man and do all she could to serve them out of obedience to Jesus. But wear the heavy yoke of human chains? Never again. In fact, the school board meeting could take place without her.

At that exact moment, her cell phone vibrated and jingled in the pocket of her sweater. Bella retrieved it and brought the phone up to view the screen. Dr. Nichols? “Hello?”

“Hi, Bella. Clint Nichols here. Did I catch you at a bad time?”

No, he’d caught her at a good time. A very good time. “Not at all. I still have several minutes until my next class.”

“Good. I promise not to keep you too long.” He paused only a short second. “I know it’s last-minute notice, but I was calling to see if you would have dinner with me tonight.”

A satisfied smile tugged Bella’s mouth up at the corners. Hmm, attend her own execution or enjoy the company of a good friend and handsome doctor? No brainer. “I’d be both honored and delighted.”

 

  • * *

 

The words that fell from Steve’s lips buzzed in Clay’s brain like a swarm of angry hornets. “What do you mean Bella’s head is on the chopping block?”

The grim look on Steve’s face answered for him as the two stood on the front porch of the main ranch house. “Dani told me that Carla and Jacob Clark have leveled some pretty serious charges against her.”

“Bella told me something similar. That bad?”

“Bad enough that it could cost her job. Might even keep her from ever teaching again. Anywhere.”

A dull roar commenced in Clay’s ears. Never in his life had he wished for a chair more than this minute. If Bella lost her job would she stay in Miller’s Creek? And if she lost her career, how would she make a living?

“You okay?” Steve’s salt-and-pepper eyebrows had crinkled into a foreboding frown.

Good question. The truth hit Clay squarely between the eyes. No, he wasn’t okay. The woman he loved was in trouble, and lots of it. He gave his head a one-nod shake. “Y’all going to the School Board meeting?”

“Yeah.” His friend cocked his head to one side to peer at Clay through narrowed eyes. “Though I can’t figure out why, something tells me you’d like to tag along.”

Clay lowered his gaze to his boots. Without a doubt. Yet another first. Never in his life had he had the slightest inkling to attend a school board meeting. Meetings of any sort—at least in his book—ranked in the same category as a root canal. But Bella needed his support. He swallowed against the sour taste on the back of his tongue. How had this visit to clear the air with Steve ended in such an unexpected way?

A fierce need to defend Bella at any cost tightened his chest. Well, well. This was apparently the day for lots of firsts.

Steve stepped to the front door of the old home-place lookalike, but glanced back over his shoulder. “We’re leaving in about fifteen minutes if you want to hang around and go with us.”

“Thanks.” Clay took hold of the open door and followed his boss inside.

While Steve helped Dani get things ready, Clay stood near the dining room window and peered out, his mind racing ninety to nothing. He’d come over to mend fences with Steve and now it appeared he had a whole lot more mending to do. But would Bella have anything to do with him after the way things had ended?

He raked a hand across his lips and down the front of his neck. Memories of the long-ago past slithered into his brain. What a fool he’d been. He’d hung on to his self-righteous hurt like a rodeo champion to a bucking bull. Had used it to fuel his anger and justify bad behavior. Now a situation over which he had no control might take her away from him for good.

His shoulders sagged even closer to the floor. Lord, I’m so sorry. His apology ricocheted off the ceiling and lodged in his heart like the hot end of a cattle prod. Please help her. And show me what I can do or say to make a difference.

The phone rang. Then it rang again. Should he answer for them? It shrilled again. He crossed the kitchen floor in two strides and cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder. “Miller residence.”

“Glad I caught you. Any news?” The unknown male voice on the other end carried a secretive tone and a northern accent.

Clay’s mind raced. Was Steve involved in something dangerous? Should he reveal who he was? Before he could reach a decision, Steve entered the room and grabbed the phone, his face dark. “This is Steve. Can you wait a minute while I transfer you to a different line?” He punched a button on the keypad, sent a glare Clay’s way, then moved to the study and shut the door behind him.

Was the man on the other end of that phone conversation the reason for Steve’s changed personality? Or was it something different? Or maybe a combination of things?

Dani rounded the corner, Beth Anne on one hip. “Where’s Steve?”

“Taking a phone call in the study.”

She rolled her eyes. “That man’s on the phone more than I am. And here of late, that’s saying a lot.”

“Is Steve okay? I mean, he just seems different.”

Her shoulders slumped as she released a sigh. “Trust me. The same thought has crossed my mind.” Just as quickly her shoulders straightened and her chin took on a determined tilt. “But I’ll get to the bottom of it, even if it kills me in the process.”

The study door opened, and Steve’s boots sounded on the wooden floors. “Y’all ready?”

Clay followed the Miller family out to their SUV, his brain at full throttle, torn between thoughts of Steve and thoughts of Bella. After they dropped Beth Anne off at Mama Beth’s, they drove a short distance to the high school and pulled up outside. The full-to-overflowing parking lot set off another round of anguish in his chest. Apparently the whole town would be in attendance.

Clay’s eyebrows joined in the middle. “Why is the meeting here instead of the sup’s office?”

Dani turned to face him from the passenger side of the front seat, a sad smile on her face. “Mr. Rollins thought we might need the extra space.” Her big blue eyes clouded over and took on a tell-tale shiny sheen as she glanced around the crowded lot. “It appears he was right.”

His stomach rumbled—not just from hunger—but from pure fear. This couldn’t be good.

They all climbed from the car and made their way inside without small talk. Once in the double glass doors, Clay removed his hat and followed the crowd into the auditorium, Steve and Dani right behind him. The two men found an empty spot in the back and leaned against the cinder-block wall while Dani made her way around the perimeter of the room and up on the stage.

Was Bella already here? Clay peered around the crowded space, abuzz with the same chit-chat and laughter of any community gathering. No sign of her anywhere from what he could tell.

A few minutes later, Dani leaned close to the tabletop microphone directly in front of her and tapped it. “Y’all please take your seats. We’d like to get started.” She pulled away from the mic and gazed around the room, waiting for everyone to do as she’d asked. At just a little over five-feet, she’d already won the hearts and respect of all Miller’s Creek, and stood poised to step into Mama Beth’s shoes once the town’s mother moved on to a better place.

Finally folks sat down and shut their traps. Dani leaned in to the microphone once more. “We’re gonna start with Carla Clark’s agenda item. That way any of you who are here just for that can head home afterwards if you so choose.”

Heart a-gallop in his chest, Clay scanned the room. Were any of these folks here to support Bella? Or were they just interested in getting a piece of the action on the Miller’s Creek grapevine? The most likely answer set off another stampede inside him.

Carla swaggered to the front like the schoolyard bully she’d always been.

“Bella, are you here?” Dani peered around the room, and Clay followed her gaze. “If you are, you’re welcome to come up here to respond to what’s said.”

Clay scanned the room a second time, praying for a glimpse of Bella. When he saw no sign of her, he dropped his hat to the floor at his feet and brought both hands to smooth down the hairs on the back of his neck. Why hadn’t she come to defend herself? Could it mean that the accusations were true? Or was it possible that past experience had taught her it wasn’t worth the effort because no one believed her anyway?

“Looking mighty pale there, Clay. Need a seat?” Steve whispered the words loud enough for everyone around them to turn his way.

“It’s possible.” But unless he sat in the floor where he was, it wouldn’t happen. Every seat was filled, and others stood two and three deep around the entire auditorium.

Dani’s voice sounded through the speakers. “Carla, I’m turning the mic over to you. Please state your case in a timely fashion.”

Carla’s broad shoulders inched upwards and her fists clenched as she stepped in front of a nearby mic attached to a lectern. “Hey, y’all. I hate to be the one to say this, but we have a teacher in our school who is preying on our kids.”

A low rumble commenced around the room as heads turned to one another and then back to Carla.

“Most of you know our choir teacher, Bella Masterson. She grew up here. But how she ever got hired on as a teacher to our kids with her reputation, I’ll never know.” Carla’s gaze shifted to Dani.

To her credit, Dani didn’t flinch or look away, but leveled her steady blue-eyed gaze at Carla. “Please just state the facts, Carla.”

An even bigger scowl appeared on the large woman’s face. “Facts? I’ll give you facts. My son Jacob is in her choir class. He’s told me some things that would curdle your stomach.”

“Such as?” Dani quickly pelted the words, her expression unflappable and challenging.

“She keeps him after class and makes him late for his next class.” Carla hesitated, apparently scrambling for words. Or maybe trying to invent them on the fly. “Jacob says some of her actions and words toward him are…inappropriate.”

The previous rumble was replaced with out-and-out chatter.

“Please, let’s not jump to any conclusions.” Dani practically hollered the words into the microphone, trying in vain to get everyone to calm down. Finally, the chatter subsided enough for Dani to regain control. She pinned Carla to the velvet stage curtains with her steady gaze and stern demeanor. “Can you be more specific?”

The woman shook her head furiously. “It’s not stuff that should be repeated.”

The ensuing uproar erupted like a volcano, but this time it took a lot longer for everyone to stop flapping their lips.

Clay ground his back teeth together. This wasn’t looking good for Bella, in spite of the fact that Carla had refused to give any particulars. In a small town, all it took to ruin someone’s life was the mere suggestion of wrongdoing. Even as the thought dripped into his consciousness, it condemned him.

Steve laid a hand on his shoulder. “Sure you’re okay?”

Clay tried to speak, but nothing came out, words blocked by the log jam in his throat. He nodded instead, and turned his gaze back to the stage.

Dani stood as close to the microphone as possible, once more trying to calm the crowd. “Please listen up, everyone.” When the noise lowered enough for her to be heard, she continued. “The administration and school board will investigate this matter more closely and take action accordingly. It will also be addressed as old business in next month’s school board meeting.”

From her position at the side of the stage, Carla pounded a boxing-glove-sized fist on the lectern. “She needs to be fired now! Before she does this to any other kids!” She bawled out the words loud enough to be heard in the next county, but the person in the sound booth quickly cut the power to her mic. Like a stampeding buffalo, Carla tromped down the stage steps, her face barn-red and snarling.

All around the room folks gathered their belongings, all stirred up over Carla’s blatant insinuations. Once the room had cleared and silenced, the school board resumed their meeting.

As Clay’s brain replayed a jumbled knot of unanswered questions and the recent turn of events, the walls of the large room closed in and his head began to spin. He leaned over to Steve. “I’ll wait outside.”

How he made it out of the auditorium and through the double glass doors of the foyer, he had no idea, but as soon as the cool air hit his flushed face, Clay doubled over and lost the remains of his lunchtime sandwich in a nearby bush.

He wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve, one thought pounding into his skull like a sledge hammer on a t-post. He hadn’t vomited since he was a kid. But it wasn’t because of Carla’s gossip-mongering. It was because of his.

Dani and Steve exited the building half an hour later. By then Clay had managed to quell his upset stomach, but not the conviction in his soul. He met them at their vehicle. “Y’all have time for dinner out? On me?” Hopefully it would give him the opportunity to speak on Bella’s behalf and to ask Steve some much-needed questions.

His friend twisted one eyebrow upward, his stunned surprise more than evident. “In all my years of knowing you, Clay Barnes, I’ve never once seen you spring for a meal. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Then his lips went tight, like he wanted to say more. To his credit, Steve kept his mouth clamped shut, but his cloudy dark and narrowed eyes revealed suspicion.

So what? Steve’s comment grated against him like the icy sleet that often descended from December through February, Clay folded his long legs in the back seat of the Suburban. Steve might know him well enough to realize the soft spot in his heart for Bella, but in the end it wasn’t any of his dad-burned business. He yanked the door shut.

Slammed it so hard that Steve peered at him through the rearview mirror. “Soldano’s?”

Clay sent one curt nod then peered out the window all the way to the best Mexican food north of the border.

The threesome had just entered the restaurant when a familiar laugh jerked Clay’s head toward a nearby table. Dani must’ve heard it too, because already she made her way to the booth that housed Bella and the town’s handsome new doctor, Clint Nichols.

All the oxygen in the room vanished, and Clay’s deflated lungs lowered his heart to his stomach. When had the two started seeing each other?

Steve nudged him with one elbow, his eyes filled with understanding. “C’mon, let’s at least be sociable.”

Clay swallowed hard against his salt-lick tongue and fell into step behind him. Though every ounce of him dreaded being sociable in this particular scenario, maybe it would give him an indication of how Bella was doing in light of the recent accusations. He stepped around Dani and Steve to Bella’s side of the table. “Hey, Bella.” Should he mention that he had her hat? Or would that just bring up bad memories?

“Hey.” She didn’t glance his way, but instead picked up her glass of iced tea and took a swig, her attention focused on the conversation between the Millers and Dr. Nichols.

“Uh, I have your hat.”

“No worries. I have others.” She made no eye contact at all.

“You’re welcome to drop by sometime to get it.” He winced inwardly. Bad suggestion. Why would she want to drop by when on her last visit she’d left at full sprint?

Bella didn’t respond other than to laugh at something Clint said to Dani and Steve.

“I could bring it to your house.”

She glanced up at him momentarily, a tight smile pinching her lips, but quickly disengaged and lowered her head toward her fidgety hands. “You can drop it by the house anytime. Dad’s always there.”

In other words, he could drop by as long as she wasn’t there. His chest caved in. Just as he’d suspected. She wanted nothing to do with him. He frowned. Did that even include friendship?

Rather than try to carry on a conversation she obviously didn’t want, he faced Dani and pretended to listen to what she was saying. But in all truth, his noggin took off in an altogether different direction.

He really couldn’t blame Bella for her disinterest. Without bothering to hear her side of the story of what had happened so many years ago, he’d touted her presumed misbehavior to the wagging tongues of Miller’s Creek. And he hadn’t treated his own brother any better.

Clay awakened from his reverie long enough to produce a fake chuckle at whatever the rest of them were laughing about. Then his train of thought resumed. All the years since then of waiting for the right woman to come along, when he’d persecuted the only one for him and sentenced her to a fate worse than death.

Nagging guilt clawed at his insides. What a hypocrite. Now he couldn’t exactly sidle up to win her affections without looking like the stinking Pharisee he was.

His ears zeroed in on Dani’s half-whispered words. “It’s probably best that you weren’t there, but I would’ve at least given you the chance to defend yourself.”

Bella’s lips turned down at the corners, in spite of being firmly clenched in the middle. She shook her head vehemently. “You know, I’m over and done with that. I know I haven’t done anything wrong. All I tried to do was make a difference in the life of a troubled teenager. If the whole county wants to believe the worst, far be it from me to stop them.” Her gold-flecked eyes flashed with an inner light.

Remorse returned, once more churning up his acid-filled stomach, and his heart machine-gunned at a frantic pace. Were her words aimed at him?

As though reading his thoughts, her gaze locked with his, so lightning-bolt powerful that it threatened to buckle his knees.

Thankfully, Dani once more chimed in. “I totally understand. When I first moved here, I experienced the infamous Miller’s Creek rumor mill myself. I love this town with all my heart, but sometimes…” She reached across the corner of the table to pat Bella’s arm, making direct eye contact. “If you ever need to talk, just give me a call. And I want you to know I’m gonna do everything in my power to stop Carla in her tracks.”

Bella’s doubtful expression revealed her understanding of what the Clark woman was capable of. “Good luck with that.”

His thoughts exactly.

Late that night, torturously-long hours after seeing Bella on a date with Clint and a couple of hours of tossing and turning, Clay flicked on his laptop in the darkened living room of the ranch manager’s house. He blinked against the sudden glare of the bright white screen. Though he’d tried all his usual tricks to get some shuteye before his five a.m. wake-up call, nothing had been able to still his troubled thoughts. Then just a few minutes ago, a shot-in-the-dark plan had swaggered into his brain bringing a glimmer of hope.

Within a few second’s time, Clay pulled up the website of a florist in Miller’s Creek and placed an order. He wasn’t in a place to be able to encourage Bella personally, but maybe she’d be encouraged by the fact that she had a secret admirer. Secret, at least for now.

 

  • * *

 

“I’m headed out to gather the eggs.” Bella lobbed the words Daddy’s way.

He grunted, but didn’t comment.

She grabbed the wire basket near the back door on her way out. Tufts of spring green grass dotted the ground beneath the grove of live oaks. Boy, this place could already stand to be mowed. But the abundance of rain and flooding had left a muddy mess. A lot of warm sunny days were needed to dry everything out so that mowing would even be possible. Unfortunately those warm sunny days would also make the Johnson grass grow taller.

The bright blue sky and nearby song of a cardinal raised her gaze. How wonderful to see the sunshine for at least one day. A bright spot after another week of gray.

From the corner of one eye she spotted movement across the pasture at Clay’s new house. The sound of a diesel engine sputtered across the way as a white truck braked to a stop.

Her breath hitched in her throat. Seeing Clay at Soldano’s had been so much more difficult than she’d ever imagined. While she wasn’t upset with him by any means, she had to keep a distance between them until she figured out the conflicting emotions rampaging inside her.

The truck door swung open, but instead of the tall lanky cowboy she expected, a dark-haired man with brown skin jumped from the truck. His head moved from side to side as though scanning the area.

Bella took a step back to conceal herself behind a nearby tree. Ziffarano? Definitely. And was he connected to the case Randall had called about?

The mystery man reached into the bed of the truck and pulled out a long white package, then hurried around to the backside of Clay’s house.

Maybe it was time for a pretend jog over to Clay’s to see what was going on.

She’d just reached the gravel driveway as the man pulled the truck up to the road. Bella slowed to a stop, hands on hips, her shoulders heaving, and pretended to wipe sweat from her forehead.

The window on the driver’s side descended, and a handsome face with a toothpaste-white grin leaned from the opening.

“Hi.” Bella infused her voice with friendliness “Good to see you again.”

“Yes ma’am. Out for a jog?”

She nodded. “Thought I’d come see Clay. But you’re not him.”

Now his expression became guarded and a shadow crossed his face. “Nope. Boss sent me over to pick up a couple of shovels he borrowed from the ranch.”

Sirens went off in her head. Lie number one. Clay would never borrow tools from the ranch. He’d always been very particular about stuff like that. Besides, she’d already seen the man with a white package. What had he done with it?

She attempted a smile that she didn’t feel. “Well, I’ll just jog on. Maybe Clay will be home by the time I head home. If you see him first, tell him I said hello.”

“I would, but I forgot your name.”

Even the way he spoke the words made her skin crawl. “Uh, guess that would help. Bella.”

“Bella means beautiful.”

Her skin crawl continued. Clay was spot on in his assessment of this creep. But why was Steve so snowballed by him? “See ya around.” Bella waved and resumed her jog. Once the truck left the area, she’d circle back to check out Clay’s place and find the white package. Then she’d send Randall a message when she arrived back home.

As the white ranch truck passed by, Bella tried to do a quick glance in the back of the truck, but it was too tall. She watched the vehicle fade in the distance and then disappear behind a hill before she turned and headed in the opposite direction.

A few minutes later she crested the hill that marked the beginning of Clay’s farm, her heart beating out a funny little rhythm. Though the job at hand certainly played into her quickened pulse, the element of the unknown contributed. She was just about to turn onto the gravel road, but a glimpse of Clay’s truck in the driveway sent her eagerness for exploration into a tailspin.

He’d obviously arrived coming from Miller’s Creek, which provided another means of proving that the new ranch hand had indeed lied. Now what?

The decision was made quickly. There was no way she was emotionally ready to be anywhere near Clay Barnes.

Chapter Eleven

Clay entered the ranch office dabbing sweat from his forehead. Though it was just the end of March, breaking a sweat at the ranch was a daily occurrence, no matter what time of year. One glance at the mounting pile of unfinished paperwork on his desk drew his gaze to the clock. Time to check out to work on his own place, but when would the paperwork—much of it with deadlines—get done?

Thanks to the extra work created by flooding, he’d fallen behind on building his house. A house he very much wanted to have finished before the triple digits of a Texas summer hit. And if he didn’t get caught up soon, it meant canceling sub-contractors he’d scheduled months ago.

He released a grunt. He’d just have to take the paperwork home and work on it later tonight. Again.

Clay quickly gathered the work and headed out, but the phone rang just as he reached the door. It figured. He strode back to the desk and grabbed the phone. “This is Clay.”

“Hey, Clay.” Steve’s voice sounded through the phone. “Can you drop by for a few minutes before you leave?” His tone was curt, and his words offered no clue as to why.

“Sure.”

The phone clicked on the other end and brought a frown to Clay’s face.

What had put a bee in his bonnet? Last night after the school board meeting and dinner out at Soldano’s, they’d parted on friendly terms. Clay gave his head an exasperated shake and once more headed for the door. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time his best friend had a beef with him, and it most likely wouldn’t be the last.

He plopped the pile of papers into the front seat of his truck, then traversed the gravel parking lot, willing his bone-tired legs to carry him just a few more steps. A minute later, he rang the doorbell at Steve’s house.

Boots clomped against the hardwood floors inside, and the door swung open.

“Hey, Steve. What’d you need to see me about?”

His friend took a step back and motioned Clay inside, but his face remained a cold mask. “We’ll talk in my study.” Steve strode across the foyer and through the massive wooden doors, closing them behind Clay. “Have a seat.”

Clay didn’t budge as Steve stepped behind the mahogany desk of presidential proportions. “Think I’ll stand, thanks.”

“Fine. Have it your way. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like having it your way is what you’re accustomed to.”

What in the Sam Hill was he talking about? Clay chose not to respond. Best just to let Steve say his piece.

His boyhood friend raked a hand through dark hair now tinged with gray. “Dadburnit, Clay. I’ve had a rough day around here. The phone’s been ringing off the hook because of this situation with Bella. Not to mention—” He broke off and jerked a hand toward an empty chair. “For Pete’s sake, would you just sit down?”

Clay shook his head. “Not until you tell me what all this is about.” Steve could be hard-headed, but so could he. Turnabout was fair play.

Without warning, Steve jumped to his feet, face livid. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m your boss! Not the other way around! And this is my ranch. Not yours!”

A mixture of confusion and fury shot Clay’s blood pressure rocketing upward. He clamped his jaw to keep from responding in anger. That would only make things worse.

Like a pacing cougar, Steve pounced around the side of the desk. “Why am I all of a sudden getting so many reports of how poorly you’re treating the hands?”

The words pelted him between the eyes, dragging out an immediate frown. “From who?”

“It doesn’t matter who!”

“If someone’s making false claims like that, I at least deserve to know who.” Clay intentionally kept his voice low and slow, in sharp contrast to his rapidly-building Irish ire.

“Okay, if that’s the way you want it. Ziff. That’s who.”

No surprise there. A chuckle gurgled out. “Steve, you know good and well he’s had it in for me since you hired him. I tried to warn you about what he was like, but you wouldn’t listen.”

Steve’s lips pinched so tight, he looked ready to spit teeth. “Yeah, well this time, he brought a couple of the guys with him. They confirmed his complaint.”

Ahh, so that was Ziff’s plan. Undermine the boss so he could step in and save the day. Like that would work. Clay spread his boots apart and crossed his arms. “And they said what exactly?”

“That you speak abusively to the hands, that you’re tougher on Hispanics than others, and that you’re using the ranch truck, supplies, and workers to build your house.”

Now a hearty laugh erupted from his chest. “What a load of malarkey. You really believe all that?”

“Did you or did you not have a couple of hands unload some building supplies at your house last week?”

“Yeah, bu—”

“Steve!” Dani hollered from elsewhere in the house, followed by the sound of approaching footsteps. One of the doors swung open. “Oh. Hi, Clay. Sorry to interrupt.” She sent him a smile, then latched her eyes on Steve. Her cheery grin disappeared. “The superintendent called an emergency meeting of the school board. Can you keep an eye on Beth Anne?”

He shook his head, his face lined and his eyes hard. “I have work to do at City Hall.”

Her blue eyes shot sparks. “Fine.” She headed toward the door, but called out over one shoulder. “I’ll see if Mama can keep her. Again.” The over-sized wooden door slammed behind her.

Clay dropped his gaze to his boots and pooched out his lips. Man, these two needed some serious time away.

A frustrated sigh sounded from Steve, raising Clay’s gaze. His friend stood with lowered head, one hand massaging a spot between his eyebrows. Finally he lifted his chin, the whites of his eyes a tell-tale red. “Now where were we?”

“You mean the part where you were reaming me out, or where you were informing me of Ziff’s lies?”

Steve’s face took on an angry red hue. “You’re the one who admitted you—”

“You didn’t let me finish!” That. Was. It. Clay ripped his cowboy hat from atop his head and threw it to the floor. “You’re not the only one who’s had a hard day, so quit taking it out on me. That was a one-time incident, and only because we needed the flat bed you said I could use. We dropped by my place to unload my stuff on the way into town to get ranch supplies. C’mon, you know me better than that.”

Steve moved back to his desk and let his weight drop to the cowhide leather desk chair, his face a-wash with frustration. “I thought I did.”

His temperature gauge inched ever closer to fixing-to-blow-a-gasket levels. “Meaning what?”

“Meaning that you’ve changed since Bella’s been back.” Steve didn’t blink or move a muscle.

“No, I haven’t. You’re the one who’s changed. And I’m seriously concerned about you. Why don’t you tell me—or at least your wife—what in the Sam Hill is going on?”

Steve rested his elbows on the chair arms and steepled his fingers in front of him. “Just got a lot on my plate. But that’s not why we’re here. So don’t change the subject. You just don’t see clearly when it comes to Bella.”

Fiery lightning bolts surged into his veins. Bella was no one else’s business. He hadn’t let his feelings interrupt his work one tidbit.

Except for the clock on the nearby mantle ticking away the seconds, the room was silent.

Finally Steve broke his boss man power pose and rolled the desk chair toward the desk. “I’m putting you on probation until—”

Clay’s blood pressure shot past blowing-a-gasket and hit I-wanna-punch-something. “Probation!?”

“Don’t interrupt. You’re on probation ‘til I can somehow find the time to investigate this mess. But if even one hand quits because of you, I’ll…”

“You’ll what?”

“Fire you in a heartbeat.”

Like a razor-sharp tomahawk, the words sliced through his skin and landed in his heart. Clay broke off eye contact and released a low whistle. All the years of heavy toil to make his best friend even wealthier than he already was. All the years of putting his life on hold to do his job to the best of his ability, just like his Daddy and Granddaddy before him. He reached down, picked up his hat by the crown, and dropped it on his head, pivoting as he spoke, feeling calmer than expected over his decided course of action. “You don’t have to worry about any investigation.” His heart began to pound out an uneven rhythm that gained in intensity with each step he took toward the door.

“Why’s that?”

Without turning to face him, Clay released his words softly, but surely. “ ‘cause I quit.”

 

  • * *

 

The next day was both unnerving and joyful for Clay. Unnerving, because it felt odd to not be at the ranch, supervising the always-plentiful work. Joyful, because for the first time in his life, he felt free as a feather. Already he’d had a chance to catch up on work that should’ve been done two weeks ago. Now to make a trip to get the sheetrock. Once the rough-in plumbing and electrical were completed, he could start right in on the drywall work.

Clay pulled up outside B & B Hardware ten minutes later, climbed from his truck, and sauntered inside. Familiar voices echoed from the back of the store, where many of the town’s older guys usually congregated to shoot the bull, drink coffee, and spread gossip more efficiently than any woman ever dreamed about.

“Steve said Clay just up and quit on him.” That bellowing voice was unmistakable. Coot.

“Can’t believe Clay left him high and dry like that. That’s no way to treat someone who has paid your bills all your life, I’ll tell you that.” And that would be the town cop, Ernie. “How’s Steve supposed to run the ranch and Miller’s Creek at the same time?”

Clay kept walking, the old wooden floors a-creak and bowing beneath his boots. No surprise that his leaving the ranch had already hit the Miller’s Creek grapevine. Also no surprise—that without getting both sides of the story—they’d already sided with the mayor.

He sauntered toward the crew, a relaxed and friendly smile on his face. “Hey, fellas.”

The men all stopped talking and lowered their lips to the thick white mugs they held. Only Jerry, the owner of B & B, looked up at him, his face a business-only mask rather than the smile he usually had for his customers. “Can I help you?”

“Yeah, I need some sheetrock. I can get part of it in my pickup bed, but I’ll have to come after the rest or have y’all deliver it.”

“Okay, but you’ll have to load it yourself.” Jerry didn’t look his way, but fiddled with the order pad and pen.

So that was how it would be now that he was no longer associated with the ranch. “No problem.” The only sounds in the room were the sounds of shuffling paper and slurped coffee.

“How much you need?”

Clay pulled a scrap piece of paper on which he’d written the calculations from his chest pocket and read them off.

“Might take a while for me to get that much.” Again, Jerry refused to make eye contact.

“How long we talking?”

“Couple of weeks.”

A half laugh fell from Clay’s mouth. “Well, thank you much, but I’ll need it sooner than that. Guess I’ll make a trip to one of the big stores in Morganville.”

Jerry nodded and put the pen and pad back under the counter, for the first time meeting his gaze. “Sounds like a plan.”

As he turned to leave, Clay tipped his hat at the man crew. “Have a good ‘un, fellas.” His boots clomped against the creaky wood floor. Only after the bell above the door rang, signaling his exit, did the men’s voices resume.

Clay climbed into the truck and cranked the ignition. So this is how Bella felt when the whole town turned on her. And she was just in high school at the time.

The thought shot-gunned into his chest and left a big gaping hole.

 

  • * *

 

Bella dotted on a dab of lip gloss in front of the bathroom mirror, rubbed her lips together to spread it around, and then raised both hands to tousle her wavy hair into at least a semblance of order. Dark circles rimmed her eyes, but there were some things even the heaviest makeup couldn’t conceal. That was as good as it could get considering the strain of the past few days.

She flipped off the light switch and hurried down the hallway. Somehow she still needed to carve out time to investigate the white package incident. Randall had cautioned her to be careful, but also said it might be nothing and that they really needed more info. But every time she’d thought about checking things out, Clay’s pickup sat in the driveway. Was he on vacation or something? Or maybe a leave of absence to finish his house?

“Going somewhere?” For once, Daddy even turned his gaze from the TV and toward her.

“Yeah. Dani Miller invited me out to the ranch for dinner.”

His gray-streaked eyebrows shot up his forehead. “Moving up in the world, are you?”

Not exactly. He obviously wasn’t privy to the scuttlebutt around town. “I’ve warmed up a plate of leftovers for you. It’s in the oven whenever you’re ready.”

Fifteen minutes later, she pulled her powder-blue VW Bug up outside the Miller’s house. As she climbed from the car, she peered toward the barn. No sign of Clay. Good. But from a place deep in her heart, her traitorous spirit deflated. She’d missed him far more than expected.

She hurried up the steps of the home designed to look like an old farmhouse and rang the bell.

The door swung open a minute later. Steve. “Hi, Bella. Uh, Dani isn’t back from town yet, but you’re welcome to come on in.” His face held a coolness that didn’t exactly make her feel welcome.

“That’s okay. I’ll sit on the porch swing until she gets here.” She headed for the opposite end of the porch. To her surprise, Steve’s boots sounded behind her.

“Guess I’ll sit out here with you.” Even his tone held the don’t-want-to’s.

She swallowed hard and took a seat. Steve had made no bones about how he regarded her return to Miller’s Creek. What in the world would they talk about? Should she mention the suspicious scenario with the new ranch hand at Clay’s house?

“How’s school going?”

Great. Just the topic she wanted to avoid. “Well, there’s the good. The choir made a first division at contest. That’s a first for Miller’s Creek.”

Steve’s eyebrows inched upward behind a dark shock of hair. “And the bad?”

Heat rose from her chest up to the top of her head. With Dani being the president of the school board and him the mayor, he knew full well what the bad was. To top it off, he probably sided with those who had already decided she was guilty of the charges made against her. She moved her gaze to the barn. “How’s Clay?”

Now it was his turn to glow red. His face went through so many contortions, Bella feared what would come next. Thankfully, Dani’s Suburban pulled onto the gravel road about that time, driving so fast she spewed rocks and a fine cloud of white dust behind her.

Her friend came to an abrupt stop in front of the house, hopped from the front seat, and yanked open the back door to retrieve Beth Anne. “Hey, Bella. Sorry I’m running late!” The woman’s gaze traveled to Steve, and her smile faded.

Bella stood and made her way down the front steps. “Can I help with anything?”

Dani’s features oozed relief. “Yes, thank you. I have fried chicken and the fixings from Granny’s in the front passenger seat. Sorry it’s not the gourmet meal I’d planned, but it will have to do.”

Bella laughed. “I’m not a gourmet kinda gal, anyway. Fried chicken is exactly the kind of comfort food I need at the moment.”

Balancing Beth Anne on one hip, Dani made it up the steps with Bella on her heels.

Bella’s mouth watered from the smell of fried chicken emanating from the bag she carried. Questions rolled in her mind as she followed Dani into the house. Obviously the pint-sized blonde was miffed at her husband about something. Hopefully, this meal wouldn’t get too uncomfortable. Especially since she really longed for a chance to ask Dani about the school board meeting in a more private setting than Soldano’s.

Dani pointed to the massive granite-topped island. “You can just set that there. I’ll get some plates. Oh, and would you mind fixing everyone a drink?”

“Not at all.”

“The glasses are in that cabinet beside the fridge. We have Dr Pepper, iced tea, or water.”

“And juice!” declared Beth Anne, holding up her sippy cup toward Bella.

A laugh gurgled from Bella’s throat as she stooped low to take the cup from Beth Anne. “I like a girl who knows what she wants.”

Dani chuckled. “Then you’ve definitely come to the right house.”

After taking drink orders and filling glasses, Bella took a seat between Beth Anne and Dani.

Steve remained silent and elusive, making it more-than-clear he didn’t want her here. For that matter, it appeared he didn’t even want to be here. He at least offered the prayer, but then fixed his plate without eye contact or comment.

Bella frowned as she snagged a chicken breast and heaped a pile of Granny’s famous mashed potatoes on her plate.

“So Bella, I almost hate to ask, but I really want to know. How has your week been?” Dani’s face and voice held sincerity.

“Under the circumstances, not too bad.”

“Tell you what. Let’s enjoy our meal first, and then we’ll have a girl chat afterwards.”

Perfect. “Sounds good to me.”

For the first time since Bella had been there, Dani directed a comment toward Steve. “Thank you for sitting outside with Bella until I got here.”

“Welcome.” His voice still carried gruffness, and he toyed with the mashed potatoes on his plate.

Dani lowered her gaze and stabbed at her own pile of potatoes.

Awkward. Better to just focus on eating her food at this point. She bit down on the juicy chicken breast, the flavorful juices erupting in her mouth.

“So what all did y’all talk about?”

At least Dani was trying to carry on an amiable conversation.

When Steve didn’t look up or answer, Dani switched her gaze to Bella.

Bella swallowed the bite of chicken and followed it with a swig of iced tea. “Well, I told him about the choir making a first division rating.”

“I heard about that.” Dani’s smile widened. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” The table grew quiet once more.

“Is that all y’all talked about?”

Bella shook her head. But it was the only part of the conversation she really wanted to divulge to a woman who was already angry at her husband.

“What else?”

“He…uh…asked about the rest of my week.”

Dani stopped chewing and shot a disbelieving look her husband’s way. “Like he didn’t already know.” She stabbed at her potatoes again. “I’m so sorry, Bella.”

“No worries.” She took another swig of sweet tea. “Last time I checked, we all have bad days.”

“Ain’t it the truth?” Dani talked around a mouth-full of food, then added some more bites of chicken to Beth Anne’s plate. “We’ve had more than one of those around here lately.”

Bella’s shoulders stiffened. Surely Dani wasn’t about to divulge details.

“Between the school board stuff and Clay quitting—”

The fork slipped from Bella’s fingers and clattered against her plate as her mouth flew open. “Clay quit?”

“I figured you already knew.”

A river of hurt for Clay unleashed inside. Bella’s heart set off in one direction while her mind took off in another. Clay loved his work. Was proud to be a third-generation ranch manager. And he was very good at it. What had happened? She picked up her fork and at least tried to eat, but her concern for Clay made it impossible.

Now, of all times, Steve finally decided to speak. “Clay’s changed. And not for the better.”

Fire flashed across her heart and into her eyes. “Clay loved his job here, and did a great job at it. No telling how much of his own time he put into this place.” She hesitated. What kind of response would she get with her next bit of news? “By the way, I saw your new ranch hand at Clay’s house the other day. He said he was picking up a couple of shovels, but I saw him haul a long white package from the back of the truck and carry it around to the back of Clay’s new house.”

He ducked his head quickly, but not before she glimpsed the dark scowl that appeared on his face. Without comment, Steve stood, carried his plate to the sink, then stomped from the room. A second later, a door slammed.

Bella grimaced. Okay, maybe she’d gone too far. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not you. There’s something going on that he’s not telling me.” Dani’s lips quirked to one side. “I’m the one who should apologize.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Yeah. Pray.” Dani released a heavy breath, set her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on one fist. “Honestly, I think you’ve got your act together better than either one of us. I’m sorry you had to witness this.”

“It’s okay.”

“How are things going with Julie?”

Bella wiped her mouth. “Really well. She’s still gotta long way to go and still has missteps. But she’s getting there.”

“It’s really sweet that you’re taking the time to help her out.”

“She’s a friend. That’s just what friends do.”

Dani’s eyebrows wrinkled for a second. “I want you to know that no matter what happens with the Clarks, I will always be your friend.”

Bella smiled sadly at the sincere woman beside her. “That means a lot to me. Thank you.” She thought through her words for a moment. “The last thing I want is for this to blow up in my face like when I was in high school. Not sure I could handle going through that again. But if I do, I want to do it right.” A tremble sounded within her words.

“Understandable and noble.”

Once more Bella searched for the right thing to say. “I don’t know quite how to ask this, but do you have any news about the school situation?”

Her friend’s big blue eyes took on a combination of sorrow and compassion. “Yeah. I do.”

Bella bit her lip and wiped greasy fingers on the napkin in her lap. “Can you tell me?”

Dani shook her blonde head from side to side. “But you’ll know more tomorrow.”

A sad sort of half-laugh, half-cry sounded from Bella’s throat. “Doesn’t exactly sound like good news.”

“It’s not, but it could still turn out okay in the end.” Dani infused the words with cheerful and optimistic hope.

Cheery hope that Bella didn’t buy for a second. Dani was most likely just trying to put a positive spin on this nightmare.

Chapter Twelve

Bella rested her weight against the wall near the choir room door as the last choir student left the room. She brought both hands up to rub her throbbing temples. All week long, Jacob’s poor behavior had escalated, his obvious goal to goad her into losing her temper. That would surely be the match that burned her life to the ground. Or at least what was left of it.

The situation felt impossible, with no place to send him and no way to counteract his problematic behavior. Only by God’s grace had she managed to hang on to a calm spirit in spite of overwhelming fatigue. The Lord was surely her anchor in this storm.

A yawn escaped. Sleep had been in short supply. She forced herself to an upright position and began to re-set the classroom. The elementary music class she normally had during this time slot was gone on a field trip. Gratitude for the much-needed break and time alone with her thoughts belted out in a happy hum of a praise song she would lead the congregation in this coming Sunday.

Her thoughts unexpectedly turned to Clay, and she in turn offered them up in prayer. Why had he quit the job he loved? The job that defined him in so many ways? What had happened to break the relationship with his best friend?

An ache worked its way into her chest. And why in the world did she even care? She plopped down onto one of the folding metal chairs, trying to make sense of the various emotions intertwined inside her. Even with all the mess with Jacob, Carla, and the school board, the situation with Clay hurt even more. But why?

She leaned forward, elbows on knees, and planted her face in her palms. Somehow she had to move past this. Would a trip to his place to talk to him alleviate her questions and hurt, or would it end in the confusion of the last time, the time he’d kissed her and stirred up memories of the past conflict she hadn’t been able to shake?

A knock sounded at the door. Bella hurried down the risers to see the high school secretary standing at the door. “Come on in.”

Mavis Henderson shyly entered the room and held out an envelope toward Bella. “This was dropped off for you earlier in the day.”

Bella took the sunny yellow envelope from her hand. Another note from her secret admirer? She smiled. “Thank you, Mavis.”

The woman returned her smile, and closed the door close gently behind her.

She turned the envelope over in one hand and used the other to tear into her unexpected gift. On Tuesday, she’d received a dozen roses adorned with a gorgeous red bow. Yesterday it was a lovely poem and encouraging note. Bright spots in a dark week. Now this.

The card simply said: “Hope you have a great weekend. Treat yourself to something special.” Inside was a $100 gift card to the nicest dress shop in Morganville.

She brought fingertips up to the soft smile that landed on her face, once more touched by the generosity of this unknown person. Whoever the secret admirer was knew her well enough to know that she needed encouragement. Was it Clint? She closed her eyes and imagined herself finding a new outfit. Yes, this was the perfect way to spend her evening. A trip to Morganville and dinner out might just be the cure for what ailed her. And it might also soothe the pain of whatever message was to be delivered later that afternoon.

Just the thought sent a sour taste to her mouth that turned her stomach equally sour. Familiar queasiness returned. Dani had told her the bad news would come today. More than likely after her classes were over. But even that was a good thing. It gave her the weekend to come to grips with it, whatever it was. God, thank You for bringing good even in the midst of the bad.

Her phone buzzed in the pocket of her dress slacks. She tucked the envelope under one arm and answered. “Hello?”

“Clint Nichols, Bella. How are you?”

“Fine. How are you?” Her secret admirer just had to be Clint. Dinner Tuesday night, ice cream Wednesday afternoon. A long phone conversation last night. Yeah, it was him.

“Any news?”

“Not yet.”

“So sorry you’re having to go through this.”

Even through the phone, the sincerity in his voice was discernible.

“I was calling to see if you’d do me the honor of having dinner with me again tonight.”

How should she answer? Her mind went blank. She sorely needed his encouragement at the moment. He’d been a steady source of support. But was it fair to him when she wasn’t sure she could offer him anything in return? “Um, sure, I guess that would be okay.”

The phone grew momentarily quiet on the other end, and she could almost picture his frown. “If you already have other pla—”

“No. Not at all. I’d be happy to have dinner with you.” Even as she spoke the words, guilt gnawed at her conscience. “What time?”

“I can pick you up around six, if that works for you. There’s a new steakhouse in Morganville. I hear it’s very good.”

“Sounds great.” She tried to infuse her voice with an enthusiasm she didn’t at all feel.

“Okay, see you then.”

Bella slid her phone back into her pocket. What was wrong with her? Guys just didn’t come any nicer than Clint. He was a believer, active in church and the community, served as a deacon, and was handsome and well-off to boot. Besides that, he was single and available, something you didn’t find every day in a place like Miller’s Creek, especially for someone her age. And he’d expressed more than just a passing interest. Their time together had been easy and relaxed, and conversation had flowed easily, even if it had stayed pretty much in neutral and superficial territory.

She released a puff of air that fluttered her bangs. There was definitely something wrong with her. She’d always longed to find that special someone to spend the rest of her life with. But as the only parent to her beautiful and headstrong daughter, the timing had never been quite right. Now the time was right, and a great man had landed in her path. But something in her heart rang hollow.

Both hands waved in the air as a signal of defeat as she set about to finish getting the classroom ready, her prayers once more rising to the throne of grace. God, I don’t understand all this, but I’m trusting You to make the way clear.

As it always did when she turned a situation over to God, her anxiety ceased and His unfathomable peace followed.

Another knock sounded at the door. Bella raised her head to see Chloe through the tiny slit of a window. “Come on in, Chloe.”

The popular cheerleader with gorgeous brown ringlets entered, and on her heels, Randi, dressed in her typical black attire down to the black Converse shoes on her feet.

Bella felt her eyebrows crawl upward. An unusual combination to be sure. Two different ends of the social spectrum for high school. “Hi girls. Did y’all forget something?”

Randi was the first to shake her head. She exchanged a glance with Chloe. “We just need to talk to you about something.”

Chloe nodded in agreement, her hazel eyes especially large in her pretty face.

A fierce pitter-patter erupted in Bella’s chest. Oh no. Surely these two weren’t going to quit choir too. The Spring Concert would be an absolute disaster without them. Even worse, it would totally destroy Randi’s chance at getting a choir scholarship. Bella attempted a smile, but fell short. “Okay.”

“We just wanted to tell you how sorry we are about the way Jacob and his friends are treating you.” Chloe’s eyes filled with tears as she spoke.

Bella engulfed her in a hug, then gave one to Randi as well. Dared she ask them to speak these same words to Mr. Dickerson? No, she would leave it them and to God. Whatever the results, God was in charge, and His ways were always best. Even when they were difficult and impossible to decipher.

“We know about what Jacob and his mom did to you at the school board meeting.” Randi’s green eyes flashed with fire. “It’s just wrong. You’re the best choir teacher this school has ever had, and they’re trying to ruin it for everyone.”

Hearing the words from her newest choir student—and one who desperately needed the class to give her a good start to a successful life—almost did Bella in. She blinked back tears. “Thank you both. You have no idea how badly I needed your encouragement.” She was barely able to squeak out the words because of the lump in her throat.

For the first time, Chloe smiled. “We love you, Miss Masterson.”

“I love y’all, too.” She gave them both another hug before they left. As she watched the unlikely pair walk away from the door side by side, hope stirred in her chest. If she’d accomplished nothing more than uniting the two through a love for music, she’d done her job well. Even if that job was in jeopardy of being ripped from her grasp.

In spite of the awaited message of doom, the supportive words of Chloe and Randi carried Bella through the rest of her afternoon classes. As she last child exited the room, a spirit of victory rose inside. She’d made it through this week in spite of it all. Thank You, Jesus.

Then, as though on cue from some demonic force, Mr. Dickerson entered the room, a grim look on his face. “Hi, Bella.”

Her spine straightened, and unfathomable peace and joy flooded her heart, sending a smile to her face. “Hi, Mr. Dickerson. How are you?”

“Been better.” He paused. “You know I have bad news?”

“Yes sir, but it’s okay.” God would take care of her no matter what.

Relief cascaded over his features. “Glad to see you’re handling this well. The school board has decided to put you on probation.”

No surprise, but what did that entail?

As though sensing her thoughts, Mr. Dickerson continued. “You’ll still be able to teach, but if you have any more incidences with Jacob, it could result in immediate dismissal.”

Normally she’d just nod politely. Normally she’d just accept it as inevitable fact. Normally she’d keep words clamped behind clinched teeth. But for whatever reason, she didn’t feel normal today. “I understand, but I do want you to know I think it’s unfair and unjustified. I’ve done nothing wrong.”

His eyebrows appeared above his large dark-rimmed glasses.

Obviously not the Bella Masterson to which he was accustomed. “I’ve tried to handle the problems with Jacob in class. That only resulted in further misbehavior. I’ve tried sending him to the office. That resulted in a pack of lies that put my job in jeopardy. At what point do teachers in my circumstance receive support from this administration?”

He blinked slowly. Just blinked, his mouth agape. Then he turned and walked from the room.

 

  • * *

 

Later that evening, at six p.m. on the dot, the door bell rang. Clint. Bella wiped sweaty palms on her slacks and moved to the door.

But instead of Clint, it was Clay who stood there, an uncustomary peaceful smile on his face, his hat removed as a sign of gentlemanly respect. “Hey.”

She returned his one-word greeting and scanned his face, hoping for some clue as to how he was faring emotionally without the job that so encapsulated who he was.

“Mind if we talk a minute?”

Bella glanced at her wrist watch. “Actually I was just about to leave.”

“Won’t take long.”

The last thing she wanted was the same hurt look she’d glimpsed in his eyes Tuesday at Soldano’s when she’d had dinner with Clint. Nor did she want to hurt him by turning him away. “Okay.” She swung open the door, but rather than let him in, she stepped outside. “I had dinner at Steve and Dani’s last night…” How did she even continue this line of conversation?

His face clouded over. “And?”

She moved her gaze to a pearl-buttoned snap on his plaid shirt, her mind racing to find the right words. “I…uh, heard that you quit.” Her gaze moved back up to his. “Are you okay?”

The hard lines of his face softened, along with his eyes. “Actually better than expected. How are you?”

“The same. Better than expected.”

Now his lips formed a full smile, his dimples setting off the grin that had so captivated her heart as a teen-aged girl. “Atta girl. Glad to hear it.” Just as quickly his frown returned, and his eyes traveled to his boots. “I know you were about to leave, but I was wondering if you had plans for later this evening.” Hopeful eyes returned to her face. “Thought maybe we could catch a bite to eat.”

She shook her head forcefully. “I’m sorry, Clay. I already made other plans.” The situation with Ziffarano. How could she segue into that and get him out of here before Clint arrived?

At just that moment, Clint pulled his silver sports car into the driveway and climbed out, handsomely dressed in a sports coat, light sweater, and slacks. He grinned and hurried up the walkway. “Hi, Clay. Hi, Bella. Wow, do you look beautiful or what?”

A searing flush worked its way into her cheeks. She ducked her head to avoid the hurt in Clay’s eyes. “Thanks.”

Clint stretched out a hand toward Clay. “How you doing, buddy?”

Clay took his hand. “Good, good.” He released the handshake and met Bella’s gaze with pain in his eyes. “Best be heading on. Good to see you again, Bella. Tell your Daddy hello for me.”

“I will.” She brought her lower lip between her teeth and bit down. Clay sauntered away, his shoulders slumped dejectedly, and his hat still in his hands.

Everything inside her wanted to run after him, to tell him how she really felt, to send Clint Nichols packing. But one look at Clint’s happy face brought her racing thoughts to a standstill. She’d agreed to go out with him. It was only right to follow through. And hopefully she’d one day get the chance to explain it all to Clay.

If he ever let her in again.

A few minutes later, Bella sat beside Clint in his fancy sports car, trying to rid her heart of the memory of Clay’s retreating figure.

Clint flashed a brilliant smile. “Thanks for agreeing to go out with me on such short notice. My life is just crazy, and I rarely know in advance if I’m going to have an evening free or not.”

“You’re very welcome. Thanks for the invitation.” Would she have accepted had she known the invitation from Clay was coming? “A doctor’s life must be rough at times.”

He shrugged, his dark curly hair cropped close to his head, giving him the appearance of a windblown New Englander, fresh from his yacht. “No different than any occupation, I suppose. No different from being a teacher, right?”

She nodded, her gaze averted to peer out the windshield.

“Did you get the news you expected?”

Once more she nodded. “Yeah.” Just answering the question set off a bad taste in her mouth that swirled its way to her stomach. “I’ve been put on probation. I still get to teach, but if there’s one more incident with Jacob, I’ll more than likely be fired.” That wasn’t the worst of it. Often a stigma was attached to teachers with that sort of history, one that could ruin her career as a teacher for good.

He reached over, gently took hold of her left hand which rested on her lap, and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m really so sorry, Bella. No wonder you seem sad tonight.”

She faced him and managed a weak smile. “I really will be okay.”

To her surprise, he brought her hand to his lips and planted a soft kiss. “Yes, you will, my lady. I will see to it. You know that you have my full support.”

Bella struggled to control the rush of emotions and questions that unleashed simultaneously. Was God opening a door between her and Clint? If so, why didn’t she feel differently about him?

For the rest of the trip to Morganville, they rode in silence, her hand still in his. While part of her was drawn to Clint Nichols, it was very much the same as a beaten dog responding to a hand of kindness. It just wasn’t right of her to give him any encouragement past that—no matter how badly she needed his friendship and support.

A knife-like pain shot through her heart and brought with it unexpected clarity. That was especially true since she was helplessly in love with another man. A man who might be a little rough around the edges, but deep down, one with a heart of gold. Now if she could only find a way to peel back the layers and expose it. She released a small sigh. So many questions remained.

Was her love for Clay enough for them to get past their rocky past? What would be the cost of finding out? And could her heart take it?

 

  • * *

 

A sliver of brilliant orange sun peeked out above the trees on the horizon as Clay moved around the corner of the Masterson house early Saturday morning. He stepped up to the back door and rapped softly on the aluminum screen frame as Buck had instructed.

The old man promptly opened the door, oxygen tank in tow. Without a word of welcome, he swung open the back door and then shuffled back to his recliner.

“Good morning, Buck.” Clay entered the house and followed him into the living room, offering as much of a smile as he could muster. He would at least be grateful. After all, the man was yet another in a long string of those who had given him part-time work. His nest egg had already taken quite a hit from the construction of the new house. Without his hefty check from the ranch, he’d been forced to find work to keep his savings from fading into oblivion.

“Not much good about it that I can tell.”

Clay nodded, then lowered his gaze to the floor. Yeah, when life dealt you the hard blow of disease that limited your movements so severely, it would be hard to see any good at all. How could he bring some light into the man’s life without sounding critical and judgmental? “Might be hard to see, Buck, but there’s still good in your life.” Starting with Bella. What had prompted her to give up whatever life she had somewhere else to move close to a person who treated her with such contempt? No, make that two persons, and possibly even more thanks to his loose lips so many years ago.

He released a breath through his nose, once more praying for the opportunity to find out. If things worked according to plan today, not only would he earn income, but also the chance to speak with Bella. And if things worked really well, he’d take her out for dinner and conversation like Clint had the night before. The very next thought brought his expectations down a few notches. Maybe Clint was a better match for Bella. He could definitely provide for her financially. To top it off, he was a great guy. They just didn’t come any nicer.

He whisked the thoughts away. Now to the work at hand. “What is it you need me to do?”

“The place is overgrown, with no telling how much good wood rotting away on the ground. I want all the dead and lower branches trimmed off trees and picked up from off the ground. Then I want it cut into firewood for next winter.”

“Sure thing.”

“And one more thing.” Buck’s expression was set in concrete.

“What’s that?”

“Stay away from my daughter. She’s been seeing a lot of Dr. Nichols here lately, and I think he’s a better prospect for her.”

The confirming words drove a stake right through his heart. So he wasn’t the only one who thought so. But could Clint possibly love her more than he did? The thought hunched his shoulders. Bella was easy to love, and not just because of her outward beauty. In fact, that was a miniscule part of his attraction to her. Beneath that lovely exterior lay a woman of integrity and character. “No one loves her more than me.” The words escaped before he had a chance to reel them in.

“Hmph.” Buck turned his focus to the TV and used the remote control to increase the volume, his not-so-subtle way of dismissing him.

Clay stepped out the back door and around to his pickup, checking the nearby trees as he went. Wouldn’t hurt to start here and make his way to the outermost pastures. Within a few minutes, he’d procured his chain saw from the pickup bed and moved to the furthermost tree in the front yard, a Bradford pear that had seen better days. He yanked on the starter rope, and his trusty old chainsaw roared to life. First he cut off a dead branch barely attached to the tree, then moved to one that was starting to split.

He’d barely begun his cut when the front door swung open, and Bella appeared, dressed in a blue robe and fluffy house shoes. Uh-oh. Judging by the glare on her face, he was in big-time trouble. Clay lowered the chainsaw and killed the motor.

“What in the tarnation do you think you’re doing at this hour of the morning?” Bella stood hands akimbo, her demeanor like that of a snarling badger.

“A man’s gotta make a livin’ somehow. ‘Sides that, I didn’t know you were still asleep, Princess.”

Her facial expression didn’t change immediately, but like the dawn of a new day, one corner of her mouth turned up, followed by a sliver of a smile which quickly blossomed into a full-blow grin. She brought a hand up to a mass of mussed hair. “Had breakfast?”

“Nope.”

“As you were, cowboy. You’re not getting paid to stand around lollygagging with me.” She followed her comment with a teasing wink, then re-entered the house.

Clay released a chuckle that gave his heart wings, fired up the chainsaw, and got back to work.

A half hour later Clay picked up the wood he’d cut and carted it to the covered patio, Bella reappeared, this time dressed in jeans, boots, and a western shirt. “Breakfast is ready.”

Good. The smell alone had set his mouth to watering and his stomach to grumbling. But as he neared the place where Bella stood, the sight of her dressed like she had in high school—like the Texas country girl she was—toyed with his emotions. “Breakfast smells delicious.” His voice unexpectedly cracked like that of a middle-school boy.

“Yeah? Well, you might wanna reserve judgment until after you’ve tasted it.”

Clay removed his hat and followed her indoors. Buck already sat at the table.

“Here, let me take your hat. You can sit over there.” Bella took his hat and pointed to a spot near the back bay window next to Buck. She hung the hat on a spare hook by the back door and took a seat across the table from him, then reached one hand toward her daddy and one toward him. “Clay, would you offer the blessing?”

Her eyes held a look he couldn’t quite figure out. Was she testing him? He took her hand and bowed his head. “Good Lord, thank You for this food and the one who prepared it. Show us Your ways and help us to follow. Use this food to nourish us that we might be better servants for You. In the name of Jesus, Amen.”

When his eyes once more met hers, the questions in her eyes had turned to something else. Admiration?

She loaded scrambled eggs on her plate, then passed them to Buck.

Buck scowled at Clay as he passed the eggs on to him, giving no doubt as to how he felt about Bella’s invitation to join them for breakfast. “Bella doesn’t usually fix this kind of breakfast on Saturday mornings. Her morning to sleep in, you know.”

Clay winced inside as he took the bowl of steaming yellow eggs and scooped some onto his plate. He handed the bowl back to Bella. “Sorry I woke you up.”

She waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Beauty sleep is highly over-rated anyway.”

Buck wasn’t so kind. “I figured you had more sense than to start on the trees by the house.” He poured a big ladle-full of sausage gravy onto the fluffy biscuits then handed the bowl to Clay.

A second later Clay forked into the soft biscuits and gravy and brought a bite to his lips, relishing the taste and texture on his tongue. How long since he’d been treated to a homemade breakfast like his Mama used to make? Not only was Bella pretty as all get out and a hard worker. She flat knew how to cook. “Breakfast tastes great, Bella.” He took a swig of the mellow coffee she’d poured for him.

She beamed. “Glad you like it. After I get this mess cleaned up, I’ll join you in cutting and hauling wood.”

“No need. I’m paying him good money.” Buck’s tone was flat, his scowl still firmly in place.

“Then all the more reason for me to help. It won’t break that over-stuffed piggy bank of yours.” The words flew easily from her mouth, not in unkindness, but with enough steel to let her daddy know how she felt.

Clay’s eyebrows rose. Had she finally decided to speak up for herself? “Glad to have your help.” He opted not to look at Buck, pretty sure he knew what he’d see on the man’s face.

True to her word, Bella joined Clay outside after she cleaned up the breakfast dishes, tugging on her gloves as she approached the tree in the back yard. While he finished cutting the downed branches into eighteen inch sections, she loaded the crook of her arms with the cut pieces and tramped through quickly-growing spring grass to deposit them on the wood pile.

Clay killed the motor on the chainsaw. “That should just about do it here. Wanna move to the front pasture?”

“Sure thing. I already put a cooler full of water in your pickup.” She slanted her head to the left, peering at him with a sideways glance. “Not like a seasoned cowboy to go off and forget the water.”

Busted. Clay grinned back at her. “Truth be known, I wanted the chance to talk to you today, so I was gonna use the need for water as a way to meet my objective.”

Bella laughed and gave her head an I-can’t-believe-you-did-that shake. “Sly old ‘coon. C’mon, help me carry this last load to the wood pile.” She grew silent and troubled her lip like she always did when something was bothering her.

“Go ahead and spill it, Bella. Something’s on your mind.” He followed the words with a soft smile.

“It might be nothing, but I saw the new ranch hand at your place last week while I was out for a jog.”

The hairs on the back of his neck tingled. Ziff at his place?

“He said something about picking up shovels you’d borrowed from the ranch. But I saw him carry a white package behind your house. Something about the whole thing just didn’t ring true to me.”

Shovels? White package? He raised his gaze to Bella’s, her face awash with concern and questions. He slipped a calm mask in place. “Nothing to worry about, but thanks for letting me know.”

Just before noon, Clay cut the last of the wood from the front two pastures, rivers of sweat pouring down the back of his neck. At least the work had provided the opportunity to think through Bella’s words about Ziff and develop a plan of action. He moved over to where Bella stacked wood in the pickup bed. All morning she’d worked tirelessly, cutting his work load—and his paycheck—in half. But he wasn’t complaining. Spending time with her was worth a year of paychecks.

Clay leaned against the truck, removed his hat to let the spring breeze dry his hair, face, and neck, and swigged long and hard from the red Solo cup Bella provided. “Aaaah. That water tastes good.”

“Can’t imagine why. Looks like you’ve sweated out all that you’ve taken in. You really shouldn’t take so long between water breaks, you know.”

“Same could be said of you.” Even as he spoke the words, he reveled in the fact that she cared enough about him to mention it.

She smiled that brilliant smile of hers. The one that always cracked open the wall around his heart a little wider. “Okay, let’s get this chore finished.”

“Slave driver.” He accompanied the comment with a lopsided grin.

Within a few minutes all the cut wood was loaded in the pickup bed, she joined him for a drink of water once again. “Ready for some lunch?”

“Always.”

“Won’t be near as hearty as breakfast, but I bet I can round up a few sandwiches. Then we’ll dump this load of wood and head further back for the afternoon.”

“Sounds good to me.”

A half hour later, they’d just finished lunch and moved on to unloading the wood when Clint Nichols slipped his sporty little car into the driveway and hurried over to them, his smiling eyes for Bella alone. “Looks like you’ve both been busy this morning.”

Bella smiled, but then turned her gaze to Clay. Was that an apology in her eyes? “Yep. Daddy wanted us to clean up the dead wood around the farm.”

“You should’ve called. I could’ve helped.”

One look at the man’s hands revealed that he wasn’t a manual labor kinda guy. Was that more proof that a hard worker and outdoor girl like Bella didn’t belong with the doctor?

An uncomfortable silence developed, like Nichols had something to say, but didn’t want to say it in front of Clay.

Bella looked at both of them in turn, then shifted her weight as though scrambling for words. “Pretty day, isn’t it?”

“Beautiful,” agreed Clint, a slight smile on his lips. “That’s why I came over. Thought you might want to spend this lovely day with me and my boat on the lake.”

Her face literally went white as a sheet.

Clay’s thoughts immediately turned to the day she’d fallen into the creek. Was this another piece to that particular puzzle?

She swallowed hard, her gaze shifting between both of them. “I, uh, really need to help Daddy and Clay today.”

It was all Clay could do to keep his eyebrows from shooting up his forehead. Bella was actually turning down a date with the doctor to help him? His thoughts ricocheted inside his brain like a bullet in a barn. What did this mean? He chided himself. Don’t even go there, Clay. Probably doesn’t mean a thing.

Clint nodded graciously. “No problem. I’ve got plenty of work to do myself, but it paled in comparison to spending the day with you.” Without warning, his right hand snaked out and grabbed Bella’s, raising it to his lips for a kiss.

Bella yanked her hand away, with a half-laugh that revealed discomfort.

Clint’s smile faded slightly. “Well, guess I’d better be on my way. See you later.” He tucked his fingers into the pockets of his dress jeans and strode to his car, giving a quick wave as he pulled away.

Bella headed to the pickup for another load of wood, and Clay fell in behind her. After they deposited the wood to the pile, she faced him, her face still bearing the discomfort it had taken on the minute Clint Nichols arrived. “Ready to head out again?”

“Maybe.”

She raised both eyebrows and peered at him from the top of her eyes. “What exactly does that mean?”

“It means I want us to go out tonight.”

For an eternal minute she just stared at him, her gaze searching his. His insides turned to mush at her perusal, and a nerve jumped in his jaw.

“Okay.” She moved around him and headed to the truck.

He watched her easy country-girl gait, thousands of questions assaulting his brain. For whatever reason, she’d said yes. Though he didn’t deserve it, at least it gave them the potential to mend the broken fences between them.

As Clay once more fell into step behind her, he sent a prayer of thanksgiving to the good Lord for yet another chance, tacking on a plea that he wouldn’t mess it up this time around.

Chapter Thirteen

For at least the millionth time Bella checked her appearance in the bathroom mirror later that day. Another round of butterflies burst forth in her stomach, and she brought a hand to her abdomen. There was no way she could clear her mind concerning Clay until she’d uncovered some much-needed answers to what had happened so many years ago. Though every fiber of her being dreaded the process, it had to be done.

She straightened her shoulders and peered into the mirror, trying once more to silence her jumpy jackrabbit-like nerves. Clay would be here any minute. She grabbed her purse off the bed and headed down the hallway.

Daddy sat in his usual place, but at least looked her way when she entered the room. “Going somewhere?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Clay asked me out, and I accepted.”

“Pretty foolhardy, if you ask me.”

“Well, I didn’t ask you, now did I?” As soon as the words escaped her mouth, immediate guilt descended. She’d never get through to Daddy with snarly words. “Sorry, Daddy. I shouldn’t have been so disrespectful.”

He didn’t respond.

Bella stepped to the nearby sofa and fell to a seated position, once more drawing his attention. “I’m doing this because I have some questions about me and Clay that need to be answered.”

“Seems to me he answered pretty clearly last time by smearing your name all over Miller’s Creek.”

She licked her lips, trying to rid her tongue of the sour taste. True. But people could change. Hadn’t her own life borne testimony to that fact? “People can change, Daddy.” A prayer winged from her heart that the small changes she’d glimpsed in her father would continue.

Surprisingly, he nodded, his jaw in a bulldog-type pose. “Reckon so.”

From outside, a car door slammed, then boots sounded on the porch, followed by the doorbell.

“See you later.”

His aged eyes met her own. “Don’t let your kind heart take you down the wrong road, daughter.”

Bella nodded and blinked back tears. Was he finally coming around? Did he really see her as kind-hearted? And how long before they could talk about the incident that had divided them since her childhood? How much time did he have left? “I’ll try.” She stood and moved to his side, stooping down to kiss the top of his head. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.” The words came out gruff and hoarse.

Words she hadn’t heard from his lips in a long time, if ever. Knowing she couldn’t look down at him without bursting into tears, Bella hurried to the front door and stepped outside.

Clay stood there, a heart-stopping grin in place. Upon seeing her face, his smile was replaced by a frown. He cocked his head to one side. “You okay?”

She nodded and joined him on the porch, closing the wooden door behind her. “Yeah, just trying to understand my Daddy.” And the man in front of her.

Clay fell into step beside her as she moved off the porch. “He didn’t treat you badly over our date tonight, did he?”

“No. But he did warn me to keep myself in check.” As soon as the words sounded, she wished them back in her mouth. Whatever had possessed her to reveal so much from the get-go?

He opened the passenger side door of his truck, waited until she was seated, and then strode around the front and climbed in.

At first they drove silently to Morganville, Bella berating herself for the hastily-spoken words. Judging by the frown on Clay’s face, his thoughts centered on the past. Though the topic needed addressing, maybe they should keep the conversation easy to begin with. “Where are we headed?”

He smiled over at her. “Thought we’d piddle around at our old stomping grounds.”

Whether in response to his Texas country idiom or cheeky grin, Bella didn’t know, but a smile wriggled onto her face. “Do tell.”

“There’s a shindig at the county fairgrounds. Several country bands and a carnival. Thought you might enjoy it.”

Sheer joy took up residence inside her. Two could play this game of country slang. “Might? It’s been a ‘coon’s age since I’ve been to a carnival.” She swung her left knee into the seat and turned to face him. “Sounds like my cup of tea.”

“I thought so, too.” He grinned once more, then quickly faced the road in front of them, a slight smile still in place, but once more lost in thought.

They arrived a few minutes later. Clay parked the pickup among a sea of other pickups, and the two joined the milling throngs of people streaming into the fairgrounds. Like kids in a candy store, Clay and Bella laughed and made their way through several rides. Just as the sun began to set on the horizon, they walked up on the line to the Ferris wheel. They climbed aboard a few minutes later as orange, pink, and gold streaks painted the sky.

The ride jerked into motion, pulling them higher. Bella peered over at Clay, her heart light and carefree. Though his face was lined and leathered from hours of work in the hot Texas sun, in her mind’s eye he was still the lanky young man who had captured her teen-aged heart. Lord, help us talk about the past in a way that gives us both answers and honors and glorifies You. Keep us from hurtful words. She cleared her throat and gazed out over the distant pastures dotted with live oak, cedar bushes, and mesquite. Was there any place she loved more?

The thought took her by surprise. Yes, she still loved this spot on the planet, in spite of the scars embedded in her heart.

“Don’t reckon there’s any place on earth I’d rather be than right here.” Clay’s words mimicked the thoughts of her heart.

“It is definitely gorgeous. In a rustic sort of way.”

His solid gaze turned her way. “Wasn’t talking about the view.”

A strange little dance erupted in her heart and tingled up her neck. How should she respond? Might as well use the segue opportunity to speak her mind. She paused long enough to suck in a deep gulp of air. “What happened to us, Clay?”

He shrugged, his gaze still on the beautiful scenery laid out before them. “Wanted to ask you the same thing.” Now his eyes turned her way, so full of raw pain that she flinched.

“I never meant to hurt you.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me about you and Keith?”

There. The questions she’d been dreading now laid bare between them. “I know it doesn’t sound like much of an answer, but there really wasn’t anything between us besides friendship.”

His lower lip moved into staunch formation beneath his upper one, and his gaze moved away. “Sure looked like more than that from where I was standing.”

The memory flooded back with fresh intensity. She and Keith had moved behind a building at the Miller’s Ranch barbecue to talk. That’s when he’d kissed her, just a split-second before Clay showed up. “It wasn’t like what you thought.” Even to her own ears, the words sounded weak. Like the reason wasn’t good enough. Like an excuse.

“Then how was it?” His pain-filled expression turned her way once more, as though every line in his face had been forever rutted by the pain she’d caused.

“I tried to tell you back then, but you refused to listen.”

He lowered his head, his lips pinched as he considered her words. “True. I was hurting.”

Compassion flowed like a stream from her heart, and she laid a hand on his arm. “I know you were hurt, but so was I.” She peered down at her hands. When had they started looking like the hands of an old woman? “Keith kissed me, Clay. Not the other way around.”

“You allowed it.”

Heat flooded her cheeks. Yes. She’d allowed Keith’s kiss, not from affection, but from feeling sorry for him, a shameful memory that had haunted her ever since. That one small act, given from pure motives and a lack of thinking, had wounded all three of them. Was there any going back?

Now he looked over at her, his eyes accusing as he gave voice to the accusation. “You allowed it, even knowing how I felt about you.”

“I know, and I’m sorry.” The words gushed out, filled with the angst she felt inside. “But you’ve got to know it wasn’t because I cared for him in the same way.”

His look turned to one of disgust. “That makes it even worse.”

“Stop judging me for once, will you? It’s not what you think. I felt sorry for him, but I…” She quickly closed her mouth, pinning her lips between her teeth.

Clay looked over at her, his face hard and his jaw pulsing. “But you what?”

Might as well get it out. “I loved you.”

He winced as though stabbed by her words. “Well, you sure had a funny way of showing it.”

“That’s the pot calling the kettle black.” Now the hurt in her own heart unleashed, propelling words from her mouth. “One minute you treated me like the love of your life, and the next you held me at arm’s length, as if I was unclean or something.”

His jaw continued to pulse erratically, but his eyes softened. “I’ve never been so scared in all my life. I loved you. Wanted to spend my life with you. But you were still in high school. I couldn’t move too fast. I had to wait.”

The words instantly brought clarity to a lifetime of fog-ridden thoughts. So he hadn’t been judging her, but himself. “I’m sorry, Clay. I misunderstood…”

He shook his head vigorously from side to side. “Not completely. Looking back, I see how judgmental I was, trying to get a speck out of your eye when I had a beam in my own.”

They sat silently for another minute or so, their post-sunset surroundings now bathed in the bluish light of dusk. Bella searched for words to ask the question that had plagued her for so many years. “Why did you make me out to be a scarlet woman to the rest of the town?” Would she ever move past that age-old hurt? Especially the humiliation she’d experienced at the high school awards ceremony, where she’d been publicly disgraced and held up for ridicule.

“Why did you become one?”

She’d asked him first, but at the same time, this was a question she sorely longed to answer. She raised her left shoulder in a half shrug, her lips following suit. “I figured if everyone believed it, I might as well give them what they wanted.”

His mouth and eyes opened in shock, and he immediately snapped his lips together. He let his head hang low for a long minute, then raised his pained gaze to hers. “I’m so sorry, Bella. Forgive me?”

The earnestness in his eyes was more than she could bear. The Ferris wheel shuddered to its first stop, with them on the lowest rung. The carnival attendant stepped forward and opened the metal gate for them.

Upon exiting, Clay stepped up beside her and latched on to her hand, his eyes pleading. “Please, Bella. Please forgive me.” He searched her face with such tender scrutiny that she felt her heart would burst in the process.

Forgiveness wasn’t an option for believers. And in truth, she’d forgiven him a long time ago. “I already have.”

He released her hand and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you.”

“Will you forgive me, too?”

Clay pulled back, his grin back in place. “Done deal. C’mon. The smell of those fried turkey legs is about to do me in.”

A short while later they sat at a red-and white checkered picnic table with complete strangers, gnawing at turkey legs and corn on the cob, white cups full of foaming Dr Pepper within arm’s reach. In the distance, from the direction of the concert pavilion, country music began to play.

“Sounds like our kind of music, doesn’t it?” Clay spoke the word through a bite of turkey.

Bella laughed, her thoughts instantly on memories of dancing with Clay under the stars at the annual Miller’s ranch barbecue. “Definitely.” Would this precious time together end that way? An instantaneous thought pricked her mind. She still had to tell him about Chelsea. Had to explain the reason she’d left town her senior year. Would it ruin the fragile truce between them? Her eyes closed at the pain in her chest. Please, no.

“I know we still have some talking to do, but first I want dance with you.”

A sudden school-girl shyness descended, and heat crept into Bella’s cheeks. This leather-faced cowboy with hands calloused by hard work wanted to dance. With her. Could it possibly be true? Already she felt the promise she’d made Daddy start to slip by the wayside. Would there be any restraining her heart if she danced with him?

Clay hurriedly finished his meal, then grinned over at her. “Hurry up, would ya? I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

Bella laughed and pushed her food away. “Okay, okay.”

After dispensing of their trash, Clay gripped her hand as they strode toward the rodeo arena. The dirt had been covered with large sheets of plywood and on top of that, hay. In a second’s time, the two joined in the line dance already underway.

The next song began, much slower and softer than the first. Clay stepped back and opened his arms wide in an invitation to join him. Though fear rattled her insides, she stepped forward, her gaze locked with his.

In perfect synchronization they stepped together to the country ballad, her heart pounding against her ribs. Chelsea. She couldn’t let this go any further without mentioning Chelsea. The thought of breaking his heart weighed heavy, but better now than later. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, her cell phone vibrated in her back pocket. Who could that be? Daddy? Was he okay?

She disengaged herself from Clay’s embrace and yanked the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

A voice sounded from the other end, but the music sounding from a nearby speaker was so loud that she couldn’t make out the voice or the words. She plugged the other ear with her free hand. “Just a second. I can’t hear you. Give me a minute to get away from the music.” She pushed her way through the crowd, more than aware that Clay was directly behind her.

Once in the parking lot, she moved past several rows of vehicles until the music played in the distance. “Okay. Now say that again.”

“Bella,” her son-in-law’s frantic voice sounded through the phone. “Something’s gone wrong. Chelsea’s been care-flighted to the hospital.”

“What?” Panic edged her tone, drawing a concerned look from Clay. Lord, please. “I’ll get there as soon as I can. Baylor Scott and White?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.” Hands shaking wildly, Bella pulled the phone from her ear. As though spinning on the Tilt-a-Whirl, the parking lot, carnival lights, and lights from the rodeo arena swirled together. She laid a hand on her stomach.

Clay stepped forward and placed a hand on both her shoulders. “You’re as white as a sheet. Bad news about your dad?”

She shook her head, tears swimming in her eyes. Not exactly the way she’d hoped to break the news. “No. My daughter.”

 

  • * *

 

Sharpened fingernails of anxiety raked against Bella’s insides as she and Clay pulled off of I-35 in Waco. As if it wasn’t enough that her daughter’s and grandchild’s lives could be in danger, Clay hadn’t spoken one word since they’d left the fairgrounds.

Her silent companion turned into a parking lot. Like the Texas mud in the hundred-plus heat of August, his face remained hard and unyielding.

Once a parking spot had been procured, the two hurried inside without conversation. Bella forced her thoughts to her daughter as she half-ran to the receptionist’s desk. If Clay wanted to be a judgmental jerk, so be it. Chelsea needed her. “My daughter, Chelsea Williams, was brought in earlier tonight.”

The nurse typed on her computer. “She’s in surgery. I can take you to the NICU waiting room if you’d like.”

Surgery? “Please.” Though Bella didn’t turn to look his way, she heard the sharp slap of Clay’s boots against the tile floors behind her as she followed the young woman.

Greg, his face white and worried, stood as they entered the waiting room.

She engulfed him in a hug and kissed his cheek, trying to keep her own anxiety from leaking into her voice and causing him further concern. “Hey, son-in-love. How’s our girl?”

“In surgery. The umbilical cord is twisted around the baby’s neck.” Greg pulled back from her embrace, his gray-blue eyes swimming with tears. He blinked them back and stretched out a hand toward Clay.

“Oh, this is a fr…uh, this is Clay Barnes. Clay, my son-in-law, Greg.” In her hurt, she couldn’t even look at him, nor could she control the icy edge to her tone.

Clay thankfully shook Greg’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

At just that moment, a man in blue scrubs entered the room, his mask pulled down around his neck. He moved to Greg. “Congratulations. You have a healthy baby girl.”

The words sunk in deep, the miracle and awe of a new baby sweeping over Bella. She was officially a grandmother.

“And my wife?” Greg’s hoarse whisper matched his pale face.

“She’s a trooper. I think she’s gonna do fine. Give the nurses a few minutes, and you should be able to go see her.”

“I’m her Mom. Can I go back too?”

The doctor grinned tiredly. “As long as it’s okay with him.” He nodded sideways toward Greg, then pivoted on one heel and sauntered from the room.

From within her purse, the cell phone jingled a different tune. What now? Bella rummaged in her purse and retrieved it, then brought it to her ear. “Hello?”

“Hi Bella. This is Chance Johnson at Miller’s Creek General Hospital.”

The blood rushed from her head, making the room swim. No. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. “Is Daddy okay?”

“We have him stabilized, but I wanted you to know he’s in the hospital.”

For a long minute, no words would come, but she somehow managed to find them. “I…I’m in Dallas with my daughter. Do I need to—?”

“No, he’s fine and resting comfortably. Buck told us where you were and how to get hold of you. And he gave me strict orders to tell you not to hurry back on his account.”

A half-smile landed on her face. How like her Daddy to boss her around, even on his sick bed. “Please tell him I’ll get back as soon as possible.” Her eyes wandered up to Clay’s face, still baked-mud hard, his eyes hooded and dark, his mouth turned down at the corners and clamped tight.

The call ended with Chance’s goodbye. She yanked her gaze from Clay’s, and dropped the phone in her purse. “Daddy’s in the hospital in Miller’s Creek.”

Greg frowned. “Do you need to go back?”

She shook her head. “Not until I see Chelsea and my granddaughter.”

“You stay.” For the first time in what felt like forever, Clay spoke directly to her. “I’ll go back and take care of Buck. You should be able to rent a car when you’re ready to come ho—.” His hardened tone broke off momentarily. “Back to Miller’s Creek.”

Relief mixed with blood-boiling anger. So that’s how it was. Miller’s Creek wasn’t her home in his eyes. Had it ever been?

Chapter Fourteen

Clay passed the familiar green-and-white city limits sign of Miller’s Creek on his way into town after what had been a frustrating turn of events and very long night. A dark-blue bank of clouds, pink around the edges, threatened rain. The perfect analogy of his stormy relationship with Bella.

He reached for the extra-large coffee he’d purchased at a truck stop when he stopped for gas, took a swig, and dropped the cup back in the holder. They’d been so close to getting things back to where they’d left off so many years ago. The feel of her in his arms, her nearness, her beautiful face lit with a happy smile.

An exhausted sigh sounded from his lips, and Clay gave his head a quick shake, partly to shake off his sleepiness, but mostly to rid his thoughts of what might have been. Just when was she planning on telling him about her daughter? Ever? And why did she still carry the last name of Masterson? The questions—and the probable implications—rolled in his mind in one tangled knot-of-a-mess.

The clouds above thundered, broke open, and poured out sheets of rain pounding against the truck just as he pulled up outside the hospital. The facility was a recent addition to Miller’s Creek thanks to the money Dani had invested in the town. He killed the engine, climbed from the cab, and ran inside. A few minutes later he stood beside Buck’s bed and reached out a hand. “Hey, Buck. How ya doing?”

“Fair to middling, I guess.” His tone held more than a little snappiness.

For some reason, the short-tempered reply brought a smile to Clay’s lips. The old man was definitely okay if his caustic tongue was still intact.

“Pull up a seat.” Buck pointed to a nearby chair.

“No, thanks. Been sitting all night. Just got back into town.”

“Chelsea okay?”

The mention of Bella’s daughter instantly sobered him. “Yeah. You’re a great-grandfather. Congrats.”

Buck half-snorted through his nose, but didn’t make any sort of response past that.

Clay frowned. Did he dare ask Buck the questions that had plagued him all the way to Dallas and back?

“Guess Bella told you?” Buck stared off in the distance.

“Told me what?”

“About how she got pregnant in high school, and why she left Miller’s Creek?”

A sharpened dagger of guilt stabbed Clay’s heart, and he winced. What was it Bella had said just last night? Something about how she’d decided to live up to the rumors all those years ago. Was he the cause? The thought brought a downpour of more stabbing pain. His judgmental attitude and treacherous tongue had unleashed a furious storm with repercussions that stretched far and wide. And on top of all that, he’d completely cut off any chance for her to explain about Chelsea.

“You don’t deserve her, you know.” Buck’s words were softly spoken, and his direct gaze rattled Clay to his core.

He nodded, but couldn’t speak. The old man spoke truth. He didn’t deserve her. “I’m gonna head on home for a shower, but I’ll be back later today to check on you. Need anything before I go?”

Buck shook his head, his gaze once more distant.

Clay patted his shoulder, then turned and strode from the room. Once the door clicked behind him, he stood for a moment in the hallway gathering his troubled thoughts. Though his body begged for sleep, he had work to do first. Work that began with Keith. His brother, of all people, would have answers. Answers he might not want to hear, but answers that were sorely needed. First, he’d head home and take a shower, then head to the little church on the far side of the lake.

An hour later, he exited his house, the rain still pouring and the land around him flooded. Lord, please keep the creek from over-flowing again. And help me clean up the mess from the flood I started so many years ago. Though his backside protested at the prospect of more sitting, he somehow managed to force his body into the cab of his truck and pulled from the driveway for the half-hour drive to Keith’s church.

Expecting to see only his brother’s truck in the church parking lot at this early hour, Clay’s eyes widened to see cars everywhere. Were they running so many that they had moved to two services? He hurried inside the building, his brother’s voice sounding from the pulpit mic. “Bella called earlier. Chelsea was rushed to the hospital last night with pregnancy complications. They did an emergency C-section. Baby, daughter, and new grandmother are doing fine.” Keith’s gaze met his as the congregation erupted into applause.

Clay moved to a spot at the end of the back pew and took a seat. Keith knew about Chelsea? And why was he announcing all that to the congregation. How did they know Bella?

Keith pulled his guitar strap over his head. “So y’all are stuck with me this morning.” His brother perched on a stool and drew another microphone closer. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Bella wanted me to remind y’all to pray for Buck. He was taken to the hospital last night. I spoke with him on the phone a few minutes ago.” His brother released a gentle laugh. “He’s the same old Buck.”

Again the congregation joined in their laughter.

A tight frown cramped up on Clay’s forehead. And they knew Buck, too?

Keith began to softly strum his guitar, and a few minutes later the congregation joined him in singing song after song of praise. One in particular dug its way under Clay’s skin.

“There is power in the name of Jesus,” Keith crooned the words, “to break ev’ry chain, break ev’ry chain, break ev’ry chain.”

The song squeezed his heart. Oh God, break those chains in my life.

A minute later, his brother set aside the guitar and moved to the pulpit. “As we’ve just declared in song, our God is mighty to save. It’s only in the name of His Son Jesus that the chains that bind us can be broken. Only in Him can we be truly free.”

His gaze met Clay’s, and a silent message echoed in the space between them. “I had planned to continue our study of Ephesians, but earlier this week I just sensed that God wanted me to speak about freedom in Him. So let’s turn to some Bible passages that speak about breaking chains. Let’s begin with Luke 4:18.” A verse appeared on the projector screen as Keith read the words. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners.”

His brother looked out across the congregation. “These words were first prophesied by Isaiah hundreds of years before Jesus walked the earth and clearly reveal God’s plan of redemption. Jesus also read them at the start of his earthly ministry to show everyone who He was. As the promised Messiah and God in the flesh, He came to break chains and set people free.”

Clay’s heart pounded. He’d heard these words a hundred times, but today—in light of the situation between him and Bella—they took on added significance.

“So many things in this world seek to enslave us.”

Across the room heads nodded in silent amen’s.

“We’re enslaved by stuff, the opinions of others, our jobs, judgmental attitudes, and so much more.” Whether intentional or not, Keith’s gaze landed on Clay, then quickly moved on. “In fact, all these things are both sin and death, because the wages of sin is death.”

Keith glanced down at the Bible in front of him. “Jesus died to free us from all of it. Listen to this verse from Galatians 5:1: It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Starting in verse thirteen of the same chapter, Paul says this: You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Hadn’t that proved true in his relationship with Bella? Clay forced his thoughts back to the words Keith spoke.

“We often limit the works of the flesh to things like sexual immorality, but Paul takes it even further in verse nineteen with things like idolatry, witchcraft, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and other such things. And when you look at the contrasting works of the Spirit in verse twenty-two, you’ll notice the list starts with love.”

A knife of regret plunged into Clay’s heart and shot pain across his chest. He stood condemned. He’d given in to those works of the flesh in the situation with Bella and Keith.

His brother flipped back a few pages in his Bible. “Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.’” He paused and looked out over the congregation. “In John 8, Jesus spoke these words to a group of Jews who believed in Him. He told them flat out that obedience to Him would reveal that He was the Truth, and only that Truth could set them free.” His brother glanced downward for a second before once more turning his gaze to the crowd. “And like the typical human beings they were, they mentioned their heritage as Abraham’s children, which they saw as saving them from slavery.”

Across the room, people sat motionless and completely quiet, sensing like Clay, that a very important truth was about to be delivered.

His brother’s face grew solemn, and his eyes pleaded. “Folks, if you don’t hear anything else I say this morning, hear this. Often the very thing we look to as keeping us from being enslaved is the very thing that enslaves us.”

The words were delivered softly, but with great impact.

“We build houses, thinking they can keep us safe. We hoard money in bank accounts and 401Ks, thinking that money will deliver us. We wage both political and very real wars, believing that government and military might are the answer. But putting our trust in any of that is nothing but idolatry and the slavery that comes along with it. Only Christ is worthy of our trust. Only He can make us truly free.”

Keith paused once more. “But we must not use that freedom to satisfy our flesh. Instead we’re to use that God-given liberty to serve others in love.”

A wad of emotion lodged itself in Clay’s throat, and he swallowed to relieve the ache it caused. The full impact of Keith’s words hit him between the eyes. What had he thought would keep him from being enslaved? His work for Steve and Miller’s Ranch? That had proved to be nothing but a lie.

He dropped his elbows to his knees. What about his own piece of property? Had it become a little-g god in his life? His head nodded involuntarily. Yes, it was true. He’d allowed the place God had blessed him with—and the work that came with it—to consume him. To think it would give him the freedom he sought, when in all truth his freedom came from only One.

A sudden realization slumped his shoulders even further and forced a gasp from his lungs. Worst of all, he’d allowed himself to be enslaved to a resentful and unforgiving attitude toward Bella. Had given in to the fleshly works of anger and jealousy. Had used hurtful words against her to make himself appear superior. Had spouted his self-righteousness and her supposed lack thereof to all of Miller’s Creek.

His head drooped low in contrition. Oh, God, I’m so sorry for my sin. For my slavery to stuff that has no place in Your kingdom. Please forgive me. Help me make things right with others and live a life of service, because You alone are worthy.

Uncharacteristic tears stung his eyes, and he worked to keep them at bay by blinking.

All around him, people rose to their feet as Keith strummed the guitar and began to sing. “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thou blood was shed for me.”

Clay stood, his throat vibrating with a hum, his vocal chords stirred to life after long years of silence. The hum surprised him, and sent his brain on a quest for answers. In his anger, he’d allowed the song inside him to be stilled. Stilled by an event that happened so long ago it felt like a different lifetime of a completely different person. Yes, he was without one plea other than the blood of Jesus.

He joined in on words of recently-recovered wealth. “And that Thou bidst me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come. I come.”

An unfamiliar verse of the song raised Clay’s head to the screen. “Just as I am, Thy love unknown hath broken every barrier down; now, to be Thine, yea Thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” The song swelled as the congregation sang the words with heartfelt determination, and Clay joined in with the same determination coursing through every fiber of his heart. Yes, the only thing—no, the only One—he ever wanted to be enslaved to was Christ. He was indeed the only One who could bring true freedom and tear every barrier down.

The song came to an end and his brother raised a shining face to the congregation. “Thank you for recommitting yourself to the source of our freedom. I sensed it in the way you sang the song and in the love for Christ shining from your eyes.”

He paused long enough to swallow, then raised an arm Clay’s way. “I’d like to recognize a very special guest, my brother Clay Barnes.” People turned his way with welcoming smiles Keith continued. “As always, after the service I’m available to speak to anyone. Clay, please close us in a word of prayer.”

At first, panic erupted in Clay’s chest, but he quickly stilled it with thoughts of the One who had saved him—not only from sin, but from himself. “Jesus, we thank You that our true freedom is found only in You. Help us to let go of anything that chains us so we can live in a way that recognizes You as our only true Master and King. In Your name we pray. Amen.” God, let it be true in my life.

As the prayer closed, Clay lifted his head to see people flowing toward him. How many hands he shook in the course of the next few minutes he had no way of gauging, but there must have been at least a couple of hundred. Which was all well and good, considering that every time he glanced toward the front, he saw Keith in prayer with a person and several others waiting nearby.

How had he allowed feelings of enmity to keep him from even his own flesh and blood? The question humbled him. As the church building emptied, Clay picked up his hat and Bible and moved closer to the front where his brother stood praying with one last person.

A second later, Keith patted the man on the back with a few softly-spoken words, then raised his gaze toward Clay with a quick and ready smile. “Hey, brother.”

“Hey.” Clay stepped forward and enveloped him in a hug. “Thanks for that message. Just what I needed to hear.” He couldn’t stop the huskiness that developed in his throat.

Keith shrugged good-naturedly. “God’s the One who laid it on my heart this past week. I had no idea you’d be here to hear it. And it’s a message we all need to hear from time to time. No one’s immune to the tendency to wander into slavery to the wrong things.”

Clay ducked his head, his fingers working furiously against the felt rim of his cowboy hat. “Yeah, but I’ve been enslaved longer than most.” He cautiously raised his gaze, somewhat fearful of what he might see.

Instead of the told-you-so look he half-expected, a radiant smile lit his brother’s eyes. “Glad to hear God is breaking through those chains for you. I’ve been praying for it…let’s see…” Keith looked up to the right, “for almost twenty years, isn’t it?” He finished the comment with a teasing wink.

A laugh bubbled out of Clay’s belly. “You weasel. Just like you to rub it in my face.” No resentment leaked out in his words, more proof God had truly set him free. “You have a break before the next service?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. Let’s go get some coffee and talk in my office.”

Perfect. He fell into step behind his brother. A minute later they both sat in overstuffed chairs with steaming cups of coffee. Clay raised the cup to his lips and took a sip.

“So what brings you to our little church this morning?”

“Little? Looks to me like y’all are bursting at the seams.”

Keith nodded. “God has definitely blessed us.”

Clay’s eyebrows hustled up his forehead. “I’d say. Why didn’t you tell me things were going so well?”

“Maybe because you didn’t ask.”

Good answer. One that landed a sliver of guilt inside. He’d been so focused in on the past and his prideful resentment that he hadn’t let it cross his mind. Clay struggled to find words to explain.

“No need to explain, Clay. I think I know why.” Keith’s voice was low and slow, bathing Clay’s heart with healing balm. “I really have prayed for this day for a very long time.” He raised blue eyes heavenward as though sending up silent thanks, and long enough for Clay to catch their moist sheen.

“I’ve been such a fool. I’m sorry”

Keith shook his head. “No need to apologize. I let go of it a long time ago.” He paused and frowned, evidence that he had more to say. “But I’d like to explain what happened if you’d let me.”

Clay released a slow whistle from pursed lips. Was he ready for this? “Go ahead.”

“I loved her, Clay. But that night at the Miller’s Ranch barbecue, I sensed that she loved you, that something had happened between you to make her love you instead of me.” He moved his gaze away, focused on nothing but the past. “She told me she had something she wanted to tell me in private, so we moved away from the crowd.” Keith grew quiet and his face took on deep hurt before he turned his eyes once more on Clay. “You know that sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you feel like someone’s about to deliver bad news?”

Clay nodded. “Been there a few times myself.”

“That was the feeling I got, like it was one of those ‘I care about you, but not in that way’ kind of moments. I panicked and did the only thing I knew to do to keep her from saying what I didn’t want to hear.”

Keith’s story totally lined up with Bella’s. “You kissed her.”

“Yeah.”

He allowed his mind to travel back to the scene, the pain still as fresh as the moment he’d walked up on them. “But she let you.”

Keith nodded in agreement. “Yeah, but not from love.” He stopped abruptly, his eyes dark and stormy. “It hurts to admit it, but it was from pity. She felt sorry for me.” Several seconds ticked by from a nearby clock. “She knew me well enough to know what was happening and why.”

Clay let the explanation sink in as the clock ticked off more time.

A questioning expression landed on his brother’s face. “You were with her when she got the news about Chelsea, weren’t you?”

“Yep.” Keith’s penetrating gaze searched his face for clues.

“You didn’t know she had a daughter?”

He shook his head. “No. I mean, I always suspected she left town for something like that, but I wasn’t sure.” Clay paused. Could he muster the courage to ask the question that burned holes in his soul? The question that Bella had answered from her perspective. “Did she…I mean, uh…was it because of me that she…?”

Keith didn’t answer for what seemed like an eternity. “I won’t lay all the blame at your feet, Clay, but I do think your words and actions played into the situation.”

Clay’s chin sagged toward his chest, and he breathed, open-mouthed, in an attempt to put suddenly-rare oxygen in his lungs.

“Buck and Bella also played a part in what happened.”

Keith’s words raised his gaze and interest. “Speaking of, have they been coming to church here?”

“Yes, they have. Bella’s been leading our music program since she moved back.” A sudden darkness descended on Keith’s features.

Her coming back had been hard on both brothers. “Bet that was hard for you.”

“Part of me hoped the years had changed her feelings toward me.” He leveled honest eyes toward Clay. “But she still loves you.”

“So you’ve said before.” But was it true?

Keith’s voice broke through his foggy thoughts. “I think she’ll always love you, in spite of the hard-headed old mule you can sometimes be.”

A chuckle rumbled from Clay’s chest and curved his lips up at the corners. “Mule-headed. Ain’t it the truth?” In the same breath, he prayed there was still a chance for them. “And Buck? When did he start coming to church?”

“Within the past few weeks. I see a slow-but-sure healing in his relationship with Bella, one that only God could bring about. And they both need it desperately.”

“Do you know what happened between them?”

“Bits and pieces.” His eyebrows rose perceptibly. “But it’s not my place to tell you. If you want to know, you’ll have to ask them.”

Clay’s thought skipped to how hard-hearted he’d been on the trip to Waco. He’d love to know more of Bella’s story, but had his poor behavior slammed that door shut forever?

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

“Ugh! Why is this so hard?” Chelsea brought the blanket up under her arms, laid a very angry baby Sophie on her lap, and rested her head against the pillows behind her, her gaze fixed on Greg. “I know you wanted me to breast-feed, but this just isn’t going to work.”

Bella moved to the side of her daughter’s bed. “Why don’t I feed her a bottle while you rest? You can try again later.”

“Sure.” Chelsea appeared almost relieved.

Bella stepped back to the rocking chair, swaddling Sophie up tight in her blanket. Within a few minutes, she’d stopped crying and gone back to sleep. A small smile moved to Bella’s face. She’d fallen in love with the baby girl immediately, just as she’d known she would. Thank goodness, the scare she’d given them all last night had been short-lived, yet another perfect grace gift from God. She raised her gaze to Chelsea and Greg.

Dark shadows rested under her son-in-law’s eyes as silent communication transpired between him and Chelsea. “Don’t worry about it, Chels. It’s probably just because you’re tired.”

Her daughter’s head shook vehemently from side to side. “Based on how much she’s been crying, I have a feeling I’m going to be tired for at least a year. If it’s not working now, what makes you think it will work later?”

Bella rolled her lips between her teeth and moved her gaze back to her sleeping granddaughter. Though Chelsea had many great qualities, she was also spoiled, a fact that Bella took full responsibility for. In her attempts to be both father and mother to her only child, the end result was a whiny and immature young woman, intent on getting her way. Having a baby to care for—even though unplanned—might be the best thing for her.

A knock sounded at the door, and Greg moved to open it.

Dr. Moberly entered the room, a nurse on his heels. The doctor stepped to the bedside and smiled down at Chelsea. “How are you doing this morning?”

Chelsea mustered a weak smile. “I’m tired, but okay.”

“Glad to hear it.” The doctor turned to face Bella and the baby. “And how is Sophie?”

Bella smiled. “Sleeping like a baby.”

Soft laughter sounded around the room, then the doctor’s face sobered. “I want to talk to you about some of the complications Sophie might experience as a result of the umbilical cord being wrapped around her neck.” He paused as Greg took a seat on the opposite side of the bed and took hold of Chelsea’s hand. “Though it’s still too early to tell, she might experience developmental delays and possible learning disabilities. That’s not uncommon at all, so I don’t want either of you to be alarmed. Most children, with the right help, can overcome those delays and disabilities.”

Chelsea’s gaze fell to her lap, her expression dark and foreboding.

“But it’s not something to worry about at this point,” the doctor added. “Have you been able to nurse the baby?”

Her daughter shook her head. “I don’t think that’s going to work, so I’d like to put her on formula right away.”

“Okay.” A small frown developed between his eyes. “If y’all need anything, let us know.” He leaned across the bed to shake hands with Greg. “And congratulations again on your beautiful baby girl.” He left the room, the nurse once more following behind.

The door closed and Chelsea released her frustration, both fists landing on either side of the bed. “Why did this have to happen to me?”

Now Bella couldn’t stay silent. “It didn’t happen to you. It happened to your daughter. Whether you’re prepared for this or not, you have a baby to take care of, and she needs you.” She rose to her feet, careful not to awaken Sophie, and handed her to Chelsea. Her daughter took the baby, but judging by the dark cloud on her pretty features, wasn’t happy about it. “I’m going out to grab a bite of breakfast and to get some fresh air. Do either one of you want me to bring something back for you?”

The new parents both shook their heads, their faces registering the fatigue of the past several hours and the shock of responsibility of a new baby to care for.

Bella breathed in deep. How well she remembered that shock at her young age, especially with the numbing realization it would be a task she’d carry out alone. “I’ve got my cell phone. Just text me if you change your mind.”

As she neared the cafeteria, Bella’s attention was captured by a picturesque garden scene through a large plate-glass window. Yes, she needed physical food, but she needed spiritual sustenance even more. A few minutes later she sat outside on a bench nestled between trees bright green with spring leaves. Oh, Lord, show me what to do. Every fiber of my being wants to help raise this baby, but I don’t think that’s what’s best for Chelsea.

Her thoughts turned to Miller’s Creek. The one place she’d sworn to never return had been the place to which God had led her. And despite all the headaches, worry, disappointment, and struggles—for whatever reason—it still felt like where she belonged. At least for now. In spite of what the Lord wanted to accomplish through her, He also wanted to grow her more into the likeness of His Son. And that often meant difficulty and even suffering.

An image of Clay rose to her mind, stone-cold and silent, his lips pressed in a line so taut you could hang clothes out to dry. All the way to Waco. Would there be any chance with him after this? She leaned forward and placed her elbows on her knees, allowing the weight of her head to sag her shoulders and push a puff of air from her lungs.

Lord, I don’t know what to do about Clay.

Bella squeezed her eyes shut, her forehead creased in a frown, doing all she could to tune out the ever-present hum of I-35 traffic and hone in on God. A thought exploded in her brain and seeped down into her heart. In spite of everything, she still loved Clay. Still longed to get through to him. To help him understand. To help him break free of judgmental attitudes and false assumptions.

Show me what You want for me, Lord.

Spiritual steel straightened her spine. Time to get some breakfast and get back up to her little family. God was still in charge, no matter how difficult life could be. And she was still His soldier, with all-important work to do.

A half hour later, after eating a semi-tasty meal in the hospital cafeteria, she rapped lightly on the door to Chelsea’s room and cracked it open. “It’s me. Can I come in?”

Greg and Chelsea both responded to the affirmative, with odd cheery voices which contrasted sharply with the couple she’d left less than an hour before.

Bella moved tentatively into the room, questions pounding against her brain. What had brought about the change in her daughter so quickly? She looked from Chelsea to Greg, both of them beaming. “What’s going on?” And did she really want to know?

“We’ve come up with the perfect plan.” Chelsea’s tone held excitement, and her beautiful eyes lit up to match her tone.

Bella froze. Why did she get the feeling this plan included Chelsea getting everything she wanted while making life more difficult for everyone else? “That’s good. I guess.” She once more shifted her gaze between Greg and Chelsea.

“We know it’s been really hard on you in Miller’s Creek, with all the stuff going on at school and having to deal with Grandpa and the farm.”

“And all the flooding and that guy next door.” Greg chimed in, his voice not quite as enthusiastic as Chelsea’s.

Her daughter’s face grew even more animated. “We want you to quit your job and move in with us. It’s the perfect solution for everyone!”

Bella moved to a nearby chair and took a seat, trying to wrap her head around the offer and how to deliver the news that it wouldn’t happen.

Chelsea continued to prattle on. “Greg and I can both do our work and you won’t have to live in a squatty old town like Miller’s Creek.”

Bella tensed. She loved that squatty old town. Loved the fresh air and the peace and quiet. Loved the hometown atmosphere that seemed to flow more freely than the creek, starting at Mama Beth’s front porch.

“It would save us money by not having to pay for child care, and we could rest easy that Sophie was in the best possible hands.”

Manipulative. Her daughter was manipulative. She’d known it, but hadn’t seen it to this extent ever before. Bella released a slow measured breath.

Chelsea continued to spout reasons why Bella needed to make this move. “You told me Grandpa was going down in a hurry. There’s an assisted living place right down the road from where we live. Y’all could sell the farm and use the money to put him there.”

Daddy in a city? That would send him to his grave in a hurry, and just when she was starting to sense a change in his heart toward both her and God. Yes, they still had a lot to work through. A part of her wanted to hit the road immediately to take advantage of every moment they had left. Had it not been for Clay’s earlier test to say that Daddy was resting, cared for, and appeared to be himself, she’d probably already be headed that way.

“And if Sophie does have developmental problems, I know that you wouldn’t rest until you’d researched every possible angle to help her through it.” Chelsea now cocked her head to one side, her lips curved in the perfect smile, her eyes practically shooting out cartoon hearts. “So what do you say?”

God, help me out here. Yes, the plan Chelsea proposed would give her the opportunity to be a bigger part of her granddaughter’s life, something she very much wanted. It would provide her housing and work until she could locate another job and find a small house or apartment. The move would help circumvent the situation at school in a job she stood to lose anyway. But what about Daddy? And what about Clay? Most importantly, what about staying true to the task God had given her?

“Mom, you know this would work.” Now Chelsea’s voice took on a pleading tone.

It was more pressure than she could stand at the moment, so Bella momentarily tuned Chelsea out, her thoughts focused on Clay. There was every chance in the world that mule-headed man would never change his ways or accept her. She closed her eyes against the stab of pain in her heart. But God could and did work miracles. She’d seen miracles already in both Daddy and Clay. She raised her gaze to her daughter’s, steeling herself against the battle that would certainly ensue. “Part of me wants to, Chelsea, but I can’t.”

Immediate tears streamed down her daughter’s cheeks, and her smiling face turned to petulant anger. She crossed her arms and looked up at her husband. “I told you it wouldn’t work. I told you she wouldn’t care.”

Bella stood and moved close to the bed. “That’s not true, Chelsea.” The words that tumbled from her lips sent a sudden shock of surprise jolting through her body. At one time she would have just taken the hurtful words without reply. God was obviously doing a work on her too. “I do love you and Greg and baby Sophie.” Her gaze fell on the sleeping baby, so peaceful and pink and lovely. How easy it would be to lay it all aside for this little one.

Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked to keep them at bay. Probably just stress and fatigue. Bella turned her gaze toward Chelsea. “I have to do what I think God is leading me to do. That’s the way I’ve always operated. You know that.”

More hurtful words unleashed from her daughter’s angry lips, but to Bella’s ears it sounded as though the words were coming from deep inside a well. She struggled to focus on her daughter’s words.

“That’s exactly why I don’t believe in your God! All my life, you’ve tried to cram your phony-baloney religion down my throat.”

“Not true. And at one time, you professed to believe in Him. What changed?”

“I learned the truth in college. All over the world, there are religions that spout the same hurtful rhetoric, with people deceived into living their lives to principles that they don’t fully embrace or live by. The truth is that there are many ways to God, if he exists at all. We get to choose what we follow.” Chelsea slumped back against the pillow, her arms still crossed. “And honestly, your God demands too much. Think about it. You’ve intentionally put yourself through hurtful situations because you thought it was what God wanted you to do.” Her daughter’s tirade stopped momentarily, her face hardened to gray cement. “And I’ve been the sacrifice. Which is exactly what is happening here. You care more about God than you do your own daughter!”

Bella allowed the words to sink in, her tears now surprisingly far away. A peaceful smile curved her lips. “You’re right. I do.” She reached fingertips toward Chelsea’s cheek to stroke it the way she did when her daughter had been little and lovable. “But that doesn’t negate how much I love you.”

Chelsea flinched and moved her head away. “No you don’t. If you loved me, you’d help me out here.” More tears fell down her daughter’s cheeks. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to do this.” Now sobs sounded from Chelsea, and she raised clenched fists to her eyes, her shoulders shaking.

Every motherly instinct inside Bella longed to reach out to her child, but now wasn’t the time. “Chelsea, I want you to hear me out.”

A few seconds later, her daughter took a cleansing breath and raised her tear-streaked face, eyes still laced with poison.

“You may not believe it right now, but I do love you. Because I love you, I’m trying to do what’s best for you rather than what you want.” Hadn’t she had this same conversation with God when she felt Him leading her back to Miller’s Creek?

Her daughter’s eyes narrowed, but to her credit, she kept angry words locked behind tight lips.

“There’s a little girl here who needs you—her Mommy—to help her not just survive, but thrive. Yes, I could step in and do that for you.”

“You were a good mother, but I’m not like you.” Chelsea sniffed, her gaze trained on her lap. Well, at least a little humility was a step in the right direction.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t do this. Mothering takes practice, just like anything else. Part of being an adult is learning to rise above our circumstances. That’s why I choose to follow God. He helps me do just that.” A song of praise unleashed inside her soul. Life had been far more difficult than she’d ever imagined. Miraculously, He’d always seen her through, and had grown her in the process. Bella scooted onto the edge of the bed, her weight propped up by the one foot she left on the floor.

“I just didn’t expect life to be this hard.” Chelsea returned her gaze to Bella. “Please, Mom. I need your help.”

Bella nodded. “Yes, you do, and you have it. Always. But sometimes help comes in unexpected ways. I believe with all my heart…” She swallowed against her engorged throat. This ranked right up there with moving back to Miller’s Creek on the hard-to-do scale. “…that I’m doing the right thing for all of us.” The last few words barely squeaked out of her mouth, and she raised her gaze to Greg.

Surprising appreciation and gratitude flowed from his dark eyes.

She flashed him a smile. So the plan had been Chelsea’s all along. He’d never wanted her to move in with them, but had given way to Chelsea’s demands in an attempt to make her happy. Bella turned her smile on her daughter. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that you will not only be able to handle this situation, but excel at it.”

Chelsea whisked tears from her cheeks with two short swipes of her fingertips. “So there’s nothing I can say or do to change your mind?” She refused eye contact.

Though Bella’s shoulders remained upright, inside her spirit sagged. So Chelsea’s prior actions had all been a finely-crafted scheme. She’d always been able to turn the tears off and on to her advantage. A fine-toothed pain scraped against Bella’s heart. She stood and smoothed out the wrinkles of the pants she’d lived in for the past twenty-four hours, then reached out hands toward the sleeping Sophie.

Unexpectedly, Chelsea yanked her knees away, moving the baby out of Bella’s grasp.

Bella raised alarmed eyes to those of her daughter.

Cold distant anger smoldered in their depths. “If you’re not going to be there for us, don’t expect us to be there for you.” The dagger-sharp words were softly spoken, but hit their intended mark.

“I never said I wouldn’t be there, Chels. I’ll help anytime I can. You know that.”

Her daughter didn’t answer, but continued her knifing glare.

An ache sharper than anything from her hurtful past swooshed through Bella like the hot summer winds that dried green grass to crunchy brown. “Chelsea, please don’t do this.”

“Honey, she’s your mom and Sophie’s grandmother.” Greg’s tone matched the shocked look on his face.

“You can leave now.” Chelsea spoke the words matter-of-factly and without looking up.

Bella closed her eyes against the pain and breathed a silent prayer for strength. She moved to retrieve her bag, but turned as she reached the door, her gaze on Greg. “Please let me know if you need anything.”

He nodded, his dark eyes full of apology.

“I love you all.” Bella took a deep breath and stepped into the bright white light of fluorescent-lit hallways. Numb, and still in shock, she stumbled down the hallway to the elevator, not fully focused on her whereabouts until she reached the noisy hum of traffic outdoors. Thankfully a cab was parked right in front of her.

Minutes later, from the backseat of a taxi cab that whisked her onto the interstate toward a car rental service, Bella closed her eyes and unleashed her pain in prayer. God had a reason for everything, and for whatever reason, her current place of service—and her heart—was in Miller’s Creek, with a troubled student, an emotionally-distant father, and a man she’d fallen in love with all over again.

 

  • * *

 

“I’m not asking, Clay. I’m begging. I need you back at the ranch.” Steve’s face and voice both held sincerity. “I messed up, and I’m sorry.”

Clay shook the rain from his hat and slicker and shoved his shovel into yet another pile of sand he’d had delivered to shore up his property from the ever-encroaching and swollen creek. Part of him longed to say yes right then and there. But with both the Masterson property and his property to care for and Bella and Buck to look after, how could he? On top of all that he still needed to continue looking for the white package Bella had mentioned. Already he’d just about turned the place upside down, but with no results. The question at the top of his mind rolled off his tongue. “Ziff still there?”

Steve’s face immediately clouded. “Yep. And he’s staying. I, uh, promoted him to manager after you left, but he needs some training. You’re the only man for the job.”

Ziff was ranch manager? Had Steve completely lost his mind? He continued his work, and at the same time checked the condition of his heart. Which one of them had read Ziff correctly? Obviously, his best friend held a completely different opinion of the man. He gave his head a shake. At least for now, his priorities lay elsewhere. And the thought shocked him to no end.

“Please, Clay.”

Clay once more sent his shovel into the wet sand pile, then lifted his gaze to Steve’s fatigued face. “Wish I could, but I have other work to do at the moment. It’s nothing personal.”

Steve’s lips puckered and then flat-lined. “Okay, but the offer still stands.” He offered up a hand shake and quick pat on the shoulder, then made his way back toward his truck, head lowered.

At just that moment another round of heavy rain began to pour from the sky.

Clay looked up at the dark clouds. Judging by their color, this rain wouldn’t end before sunset. Best to clean up a bit and then go check in on Buck.

A half hour later, Clay pulled into the parking lot of Miller’s Creek Hospital, his heart especially raw from the conversation with Keith earlier that morning. He’d spent all afternoon working at his place, hoping the work would mend both his heart and his property. No such luck. Would Buck be willing and able to answer questions about Bella?

He stepped out of his truck and jogged through the rain and into the hospital. After a few quick strides to the elevator and down the hallway he rapped on Buck’s door.

“Come in.” The old man’s words seemed to take more effort than usual.

Clay gingerly opened the door to find Buck gasping for air. Alarms clanged in his head, and he hurried to his bedside. “Did you buzz the nurse’s station?”

Buck, with great effort, shook his head from side to side.

Without hesitation, Clay reached for the red button that dangled from a cord on the side of Buck’s bed. Voices and footsteps neared, and a nurse and Clint Nichols entered the room.

Clay moved out of the way as they worked.

“Hey, Buck, how are you feeling?” Clint asked the question even as he checked the data on the machines at the end of Buck’s bed.

“Not so…good.” Buck fought for breath. “…can’t breathe.”

Clint turned to the nurse. “Let’s increase his oxygen and get a morphine drip.”

Morphine? The word sent fear on a rampage inside Clay. Wasn’t that something they did for patients near death?

Dr. Nichols took a seat on the edge of Buck’s bed. “Okay, Buck. I need you to do all you can to hear me.” He placed a hand on each of Buck’s frail shoulders.

Almost immediately, Buck’s panicked breathing eased.

Clint checked the machine again, his hands still on Buck, then turned his gaze back toward him. “We’ve increased your oxygen, but I want you to know it may or may not help. When lung cancer reaches this stage, the lungs lose their ability to absorb the oxygen.”

Buck nodded, his eyes bright with sudden tears.

“That’s why I’ve also ordered a morphine drip. If you start feeling like you can’t breathe, you can punch the button for morphine. It will ease that sensation in your lungs.”

Buck nodded again, but his eyes held fear. He looked up at Clay. “Have you heard from Bella?”

Clay reached for his phone. How could he have been so stupid? He’d sent a text early that morning and then silenced his phone for church. But with his troubled thoughts had totally forgotten to turn it back on. His eyes searched the screen. Three missed calls and a couple of messages. All from Bella. He un-silenced the phone and turned on his voice mail.

Bella’s voice sounded. Even through the phone he caught the fatigue—and was it hurt?—in her voice. “Hi, Clay. It’s me. I’m on my way back home. Just checking to see how Dad’s doing and what room he’s in. Give me a call when you can.”

Clay allowed the voice mail to continue.

Her voice sounded again, but this time with more agitation and anxiety. “Clay, stop being so mule-headed and call me back!”

Mule-headed. His brother had used the same terminology, a favorite description for him today. He looked over at Buck and Clint. “She’s on her way back to Miller’s Creek.”

Relief flooded Buck’s eyes. “Good.” Then his eyes took on their customary hardness. “You gonna call her back?”

“Yeah. I“ll step outside and be back in a few.” He hurried out the door and down the hallway toward the portico. Though it would be noisy because of the pouring sheets of rain, at least it would give his own lungs the air they suddenly lacked.

He hit the reply button and brought the phone to his ear.

Bella answered immediately. “Clay?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Sorry I didn’t answer your calls. I turned my phone off for church this morning and forgot to turn it back on.”

“It’s okay.” She paused a moment. “Sorry I called you mule-headed.”

“Where are you?”

“About thirty miles out. I would’ve been there sooner, but it took forever to get a rental car and the rain is awful. How’s Daddy?”

Clay inhaled sharply, sending up a prayer for wisdom in how he delivered the news. “He’s not doing well, Bella. I’m so sorry.”

“What room?” Now panic filled her tone.

“212.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” The line went dead.

Lord, keep her safe in this storm. Clay pocketed his phone and looked up at the heavy rain pouring from the sky. Bella wouldn’t hesitate to endanger her own life to reach those she cared about.

He strode back down the hallway and took a place at Buck’s bedside as Dr. Nichols and the nurse left the room. “You seem to be breathing easier.”

Buck gave one short nod. “You get a hold of Bella?”

“Yep. She should be here in a half-hour or so. The rain’s pretty bad.”

The old man frowned, obviously as perturbed by that news as he was. “Hope she doesn’t kill herself trying to get here.”

“She sounded pretty upset.”

Buck’s eyes turned stony. “What did you tell her?”

Clay swallowed hard. “That you weren’t doing well.”

The old man clamped his lips together.

Clay’s eyebrows traveled high up his forehead. Well, that was a switch. The old Buck would have unleashed a freight train of curse words. Had Bella’s love and care finally softened her father’s angry heart and brought about the sudden change?

Without warning, a sob escaped Buck’s mouth and his head fell back against the pillow. Unchecked tears coursed down his leathery cheeks. “I’ve been such a fool!”

Clay shifted his gaze to his boots. God, help me know how to help him. He raised his eyes and moved a chair up close to the bed. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Buck. We all are at times.”

A half-laugh sounded from Buck as he used the back of one hand to dab tears. “Guess you would know. When it comes to Bella, we’re both fools.” The old man’s tears returned with intensity. “All her life she’s tried to please and be kind and loving to both of us. And in return we’ve given her nothing but heartache. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why she loves either one of us. And I sure can’t figure out why she came back for round two.”

That was the second time that day that someone had mentioned Bella’s love for him. Clay’s head drooped. What was it that others could see that he hadn’t? Had his own judgmental attitudes blinded him to that love?

“I’m gonna tell you something you might not know.”

Maybe this would answer his questions. Clay raised his gaze to Buck, whose eyes were trained on the ceiling or some unknown spot beyond.

“Bella had a twin brother.”

A frown creased Clay’s forehead. Brother? A fact she’d never divulged in all the years he’d known her.

“He drowned in a boating accident before we moved to Miller’s Creek.”

A sudden image of Bella as a young child appeared in Clay’s brain, probably not long after she and her family had moved to Miller’s Creek. Even as a young girl there had been a certain sadness in her eyes, a tender vulnerability he’d sensed in her even way back then.

“We were on the lake when our boat capsized during a freak rainstorm. My wife’s life jacket got caught on one of the hooks on the side of the boat. I had to get her loose. She was panicking, and I almost couldn’t get her free. By the time I got to Bella, Ben was already gone and Bella was screaming.” He broke off, his lower lip trembling. He raked a hand across his lower face. “She said he’d let go of her and gone under.” Buck’s shoulders sagged and shook as he battled heavy sobs. “I tried to find him, but couldn’t. And—” Now Buck made no attempt to stop the tears.

Clay latched on to Buck’s hand and squeezed tight. No words would come, but that was okay. The man obviously had to work through this painful memory.

Several long minutes later, his tears spent, Buck weakly rested his head against the pillow, his gaze on Clay. “After that, I pushed her away. Blamed her for something that wasn’t her fault. She was only seven years old.” He gave his head a shake as if to dislodge the guilt-ridden thought. “Even told her she should’ve held on to him tighter. That’s an awful heavy load to lay on the shoulders of one so young.”

Tears stung his own eyes as he thought about the sad-eyed girl Bella was back then. Clay released a breath and blinked against tears. Even as a seven-year-old, Bella had simply accepted the accusations of others without trying to defend herself. The thought stabbed holes in his heart.

Buck squeezed Clay’s hand to get his attention. “You’re doing the same thing, Clay. Don’t let your own stubborn and prideful conclusions keep you from setting the record straight. Her wild days were partly my fault for not being a good-enough daddy. Yes, she made mistakes, but she’s done the best she could to overcome them, including leaving that mess behind her and moving forward with her life.” A dark frown clouded his shrunken features. “With her back in Miller’s Creek, it’s an opportunity for both of us to make things right. I intend to do so when she gets here. I hope you’ll do the same.” His watery eyes held a sincere plea. He squeezed Clay’s hand again. “Don’t lose your chance with her.”

Clay’s jacket pocket sounded with the ring of his phone, and he released Buck’s hand to retrieve it. “Bella?”

“I just pulled into town. Is Daddy all right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Be there soon.”

Clay held the phone to his ear a second longer, longing for yet more words from her lips. Was it already too late? Had he lost that chance Buck had mentioned? He dropped the phone in his pocket and looked up at Buck. “She just got into town. Do you mind if I go downstairs to meet her?”

For the first time that he’d ever remembered seeing, Buck smiled, ever-so-slightly. “Please do. Just don’t hog all her time. Take as long as you need to make things right, but don’t forget that I need to set the record straight, too.”

His chest tightened, and more tears stung his eyes. He tried to reply, but couldn’t. In the end, he just nodded and stood, then made his way to the door and out into the hallway.

Everything—including legs weighted in quick sand—moved in slow motion. Why couldn’t he move faster? It was like running from something in a dream, with no forward progress. Clay longed for more speed as he headed to the elevator. That confounded machine took eons to close the door, move downward, and shudder to a stop at the first floor. Clay pounded on the door in an attempt to make it open faster. He was off the elevator before the door fully opened, in a half-jog to the sliding glass doors that led to the portico and parking lot.

Just as he reached the door, he heard Bella’s voice. His head snapped toward the sound. She stood just down the hallway to the right, in an embrace with Clint Nichols who tenderly planted a kiss in her hair.

Chapter Sixteen

Bella met Clay’s hurt gaze about the same time Clint kissed the top of her head. The resulting hardness in his features she’d seen often enough to recognize immediately. Face unyielding, he’d exited the hospital doors without so much as a wave. Once again, the man she loved with all her heart had read more into what he saw than what was actually there.

Without warning, the room spun out of control as a wave of fatigue swept over her. She pulled away from Clint’s embrace and leaned her weight against the wall.

His dark blue eyes took on concern. “You okay?” He stepped forward and took her hands in his.

Oh no. What she read in the depths of his eyes sagged her shoulders. She closed her eyes. Yes, she was at least partially to blame. In her quest to move past her hurt and forward with her life, she’d obviously led Clint to believe there was the potential for more than friendship. Bella brought a hand to her forehead. But that was before she’d fully realized the depth of her feelings for Clay. Now that she knew she loved him, a serious talk with Clint was in order.

“Bella, look at me. Are you okay?” Clint raised her chin, which effectively focused her eyes on him.

“Yeah, just a little dizzy spell. I’ll be okay.”

“When was the last time you had something to eat or drink?”

Good question. She thought back through the tumultuous preceding hours, once more bringing a hand to her forehead to rub away her confusion. Had it been breakfast that morning? “Earlier today, I think.” Think, Bella, think. What’s most important right now? Clint. She had to tell him. No, that could wait. Maybe she should grab a snack and can of caffeine. Her head snapped back to the doors where she’d just made eye contact with Clay. That was her heart stomping his boots across the puddled pavement to his truck. No. Daddy. She looked back up at Clint. “I’ve got to see Daddy.”

He nodded. “Okay, but I’m escorting you to his room, and then I’m bringing you a proper meal.”

She opened her mouth to reply, but he planted a finger on her lips.

“Hush. I insist. I can’t have my favorite patient landing on her tailbone again, now can I?”

Somehow she managed a half-smile, though she couldn’t bring herself to look him in the eye. That busted tailbone seemed like a lifetime ago. “Okay.”

Clint reached for her hand, but she dodged the move and latched on to his elbow instead.

They made their way to the elevator. Clint pushed the button for the second floor, and turned his head her way. “And you will eat. Understand?”

Bella couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, sir. And thank you.”

Clint placed his opposite hand on top of hers, still clinging to the crook of his arm, as the elevator door opened and they stepped off. “Good girl.”

As soon as she saw her father, all else was forgotten. “Daddy!” She ran to his bedside and plopped down in the chair next to his bed, dodging wires and tubes to lean her head against his chest.

He brought a hand to rest on her hair.

A longing ache, deep and painful, lodged in her chest. What she wouldn’t give to have had him hold her like this as a little girl. All throughout her life her attempts to get a boy to love her were nothing but a flimsy human attempt to have this daddy-daughter love.

Daddy’s chest heaved.

Was the weight of her head making it difficult for him to breathe? Bella raised to an upright position, scanning Daddy’s face for clues. The sight tugged at her heart.

Rather than gasping for air, he cried. And not just any cry, but a hard sob that crinkled his face and washed his face with tears. “I’m so sorry, Bella. Please forgive me.”

She lifted one hand to her cheek and placed her other hand on his sun-roughened version. Both were wet with tears. “Shh. It’s okay. Please, Daddy. Don’t cry.”

Sobs still wracked his body, but he brought her hand to his forehead, his head bowed.

An ache threatened to rocket her heart from her chest, and the woozy feeling returned. C’mon Bella, think. What was most important? She fought through her fatigued and foggy thoughts.

Only one thing.

Who knew how much time Daddy had left? Though it was clear from this unexpected emotional reaction that he wanted to talk about the past, there was something far more important for them to discuss. God, help me. Hold me up. Clear my foggy brain and strengthen my heart. Free my tongue from any chains, and grant me the ability to speak clearly, fearlessly, and with boldness. But also help me share You with gentleness, respect, and love.

Her father’s cries stopped. Now was the time. “Daddy, I want to talk—not about the past—but about the future.”

Though his eyes swam with tears, his lips were curved in a smile. “Okay.”

Compassion melted her heart and tugged her head toward her left shoulder. “I love you so much, Daddy.”

“I know you do. You’ve proved it over and over again. I love you, too. Sorry I’ve done such a pitiful job of showing it.” He shook his head from side to side and leaned his head against his pillow, his eyes trained on the ceiling. “I’ve wasted so many precious years and opportunities. Been such a fool.” His lower lip quivered.

Bella leaned forward and placed her other hand on top of his. When had he gotten so frail? “It’s okay, Daddy. That’s all in the past. It’s over and done with. If there’s anything I’ve learned about this life, it’s that holding on to what’s already happened doesn’t help a thing.”

Now his gaze was once more fixed on her, the tender smile back in place. “So wise and beautiful, Bella. I’m a blessed man.”

The words he spoke opened her eyes wide. Blessed? Since when did Buck Masterson ever use such a word? Later. She’d think about it later. “I want to talk about an even bigger blessing.” The words rolled off her tongue effortlessly, and she sent a silent prayer of gratitude spiraling upward. That statement was definitely not something she’d normally say to her daddy. But time was short.

Buck laughed. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you in so many words, daughter. Pastor Keith came by right after lunch. I gave my heart to Jesus.”

Her head swam again, but for all the right reasons. She searched for words. “I don’t know what to say. It seems too good to be true.”

He laughed, but with a raspy sound that led to a cough and deep gulp of air. “Think I used those same words in my conversation with the preacher.” Daddy’s loving gaze rested on her. “I owe it all to you. When you came back to Miller’s Creek to take care of me, I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t want to believe it. Part of me still wanted to punish you and keep you at arm’s length, but your love did a number on me.” He paused long enough to draw in another deep breath of air, his face alternating between a light pink and ghastly gray. “Then why I started going to church with you and met so many wonderful people…” His voice broke, and fresh tears trailed down his cheeks. He brought a hand up to swipe at his face. “Don’t know why I’m crying so much. Haven’t cried in years.”

Bella smiled and patted his hand with a laugh. “If ever.” A sudden thought dawned. Maybe she was more like him than she thought. She’d never been prone to tears either, in spite of a life of torturous heartache.

He swallowed hard, his eyes tender. “Thank you for loving me in spite of my foolishness, Bella. I love you, and I’m eternally grateful.” Daddy brought her hand to his lips and kissed it.

She closed her eyes as wave after glorious wave of joy broke over her, washing away years of hurt. Daddy would be with her and Mama in heaven.

The door to the hospital room opened, and a nurse bustled into the room pushing a cart with two food trays. Clint appeared in the doorway behind her. He glanced at them both and smiled, then gave a wave. “I’ll be back later to check on you both.”

Over a tasty meal of baked chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and hot rolls that melted in your mouth, Bella and Buck laughed and reminisced. At times Daddy would lean back and suck in a deep breath. But every time he caught her worried gaze on him, he sat up straighter and pretended he was fine.

Though his pretense wasn’t lost on her, Bella said nothing. His heart was right with God. No matter the personal loss she had yet to face, that one fact alone made everything else okay.

After they’d finished their meal and the nurses had cleared away the dishes, Bella once more perched in the chair beside her father’s bed as they reminisced. A sudden frown settled on Daddy’s forehead.

Bella moved to a standing position and leaned closer. “Daddy? You okay?”

He nodded, but weakly leaned his head back against his pillow. “Yeah, just tired.” A wince revealed that he wasn’t being completely truthful. “Did you see Clay when you got here?”

The question took her by surprise. “Yeah, but he left.”

The frown on Daddy’s face grew darker. “Darned fool of a man.” Then he gave his head a shake. “Takes one to know one.” He squeezed Bella’s hand. “Clay may be a judgmental old fool, Bella, but he’s a good man down deep. Be patient with him.”

She swallowed hard and nodded. Yes, Clay, in spite of all his faults, was a good man. That was the one thing that allowed her to love him with every fiber of her being.

“Don’t let him push you away. And don’t take it personally when he tries to do just that.” Daddy opened his mouth and gulped in several deep breaths of air, like a catfish or bass coming to the top of the farm’s fishing tank. “Some of us men folk just have trouble expressing things, as you well know. Keep showering that same love on him that you showered on me. He’ll come around.”

Yes, but that was for another time.

“If you don’t mind, I’m gonna give myself a shot of morphine so I can hopefully get some rest.” Daddy once more sent a loving smile. “From the looks of it, it wouldn’t hurt you to get some sleep as well.”

She patted his hand and stood. “I’ll try, but I’m not leaving.” Bella pointed to the recliner. “You get some sleep, and I’ll move over there to at least rest my eyes.”

He squeezed her hand with a smile, then released it to latch hold of the morphine pump.

Bella had just reached the recliner, when he spoke again.

“Bella?”

She turned to face him. “Yeah?”

“I love you.” He smiled that love, then closed his eyes, his chest rising and falling ever so slightly.

“I love you too, Daddy.” Bella sat in the recliner and leaned it back to raise her feet, her eyes turned toward him. She’d just watch him until he went to sleep, then she’d call Clay.

At first following through with her plan was easy as her mind rehearsed the events of their past few happy hours together, but physical and emotional exhaustion from her weekend weighted her eyelids, and she succumbed to sleep.

Bella’s dreams were interrupted by an unfamiliar buzzing sound. She opened weary eyes, unsure of her surroundings. The hospital.

At that moment the door swung open, the room immediately filled with nurses and doctors.

Daddy.

She stood, careful to stay out of the way. But within a few minutes of watching them work it was obvious Daddy had taken his last gasping breath on earth and his first sweet breath of heaven.

 

  • * *

 

Clay stood in a darkened doorway of the basement at Miller’s Creek Community Church and stared out over the large crowd gathered for the luncheon preceding Buck’s funeral and graveside service. In spite of the mingling crowd and subdued chatter, his gaze honed in on only one.

Bella.

Though her puffy eyes revealed her sorrow, an unexplainable joy radiated from her beautiful face. On one side of her sat her son-in-law, and beside him a young woman who looked very much like her mother. She held a sleeping baby, Bella’s new granddaughter.

On the opposite side of Bella sat Clint Nichols, also dressed in a suit.

Clay looked down at his best pair of jeans and boots and blew out a heavy breath between pursed lips. She deserved so much better than him, and obviously Clint Nichols made her happy.

A familiar face appeared in the doorway before him. “I wondered where you were.” Keith frowned. “Why are you hiding in the dark?” His brother turned to look out over the crowd. “Ahhh, now I see. You’re watching Bella.”

“Is she okay?”

Keith’s eyes narrowed. “Sounds to me like that’s a question you should ask her.”

Clay gnawed at the inside of his bottom lip for a moment. “Maybe I will. She…uh…looks happy, even in spite of losing Buck.”

“As well she should. When I visited Buck Sunday after lunch, he gave his life to Christ.”

His knees buckled, but he quickly straightened them. No wonder the old man had been so emotional and verbal as he warned about losing Bella. “I’m glad.”

“Me too.” His brother paused as a small frown wrinkled the area between his brows. “Clay, if you want to talk to her, just do it.”

Easier said than done. “I’ll wait for a better time.”

Keith’s face darkened, and he shook his head. “You’ve been putting this off forever. There is no better time than now.”

Yeah, time to change the subject. “Y’all made a good call in moving the meal and funeral service here.”

“Our little church just isn’t big enough. I appreciate you arranging to have the service here.”

“Happy to help.” Now to find a way to exit before his brother turned the talk back to Bella. “Got some stuff to take care of. See ya’ later.” Clay strode to the hallway where Steve and some other men stood. Now for the next part of what he needed to do.

The past several days had given him plenty of time to think, and though Bella occupied most of that head space, Steve and the ranch had also come to mind. He couldn’t just sit back and take the chance that Ziff would run the ranch into the ground. The place meant too much—to him, the Miller’s, and Miller’s Creek. The town depended upon the well-being of the ranch. Though he and Steve weren’t necessarily seeing eye-to-eye at the moment, he sure didn’t want his friend deceived by the charming Ziff.

Clay moved into the circle of men standing with Steve.

“Well, if it ain’t Clay Barnes!” Coot, the Miller’s Creek resident with a ten-gallon mouth, bellowed out the words loud enough for all of Texas to hear and leaned his pot-belly and bright orange suspenders in for a handshake. “Long time no see.”

“Been busy at my place.”

“So I can tell. Every time I drive by there, you’ve done something new. That house is looking mighty fine. Now if you can just find someone to share it with.” He wheezed into a round of laughter and elbowed the guys on either side of him.

The careless words ripped open old wounds. But Clay chose to ignore the comment and looked at Steve. “Can I talk to you in private?”

“Sure.” Steve tipped his hat to the men in the group. “See y’all around.”

Clay fell into step beside Steve as he made his way to a sunlit glass door. They moved to stand beneath a large oak that flanked Miller’s Creek Community Church. Clay faced his friend. “I’ve decided that if the offer still stands, I’d be happy to go back to work for the ranch.”

Steve’s gaze, hooded by his dark bushy eyebrows against the glare of mid-day, stayed steady. “Even if that means working with Ziff?”

“Even if.”

Curiosity poured from Steve’s face. He looked at Clay from the corner of his eyes. “Careful now, Clay, or you’ll get whiplash. What brought about the sudden change of heart, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Clay swallowed and glanced out toward the church’s gravel parking lot. He’d have to be careful not to reveal his plan to uncover exactly what Ziff was up to. “The ranch means a lot to me. And now that my house is almost done…” And now that he’d decided to step away from a relationship with Bella. “I’d like to come back to work.” None of it was a lie.

For the first time, a semi-smile landed on Steve’s mouth. “I fully expect you to go to your grave working, Clay. You’re definitely your daddy’s son.”

“Yep.”

Steve’s smile faded, and he stuck his fingers in his jean’s pockets. “Your main work will be training Ziff. You okay with that?”

Clay spit out the sour taste that landed in his mouth. “Not sure if that will work, but you’re the boss.” At least he’d be able to keep an eye on the guy.

“Why won’t it work?”

“Know I’ve mentioned it before, but Ziff ain’t the kinda man who takes to training.”

His friend’s bottom lip firmed. “Haven’t seen that in him at all.”

“Didn’t much expect you would.”

Even in the cool shade of this gorgeous April day, the air took on an electric tension. He’d better find a way to dispel that tension before Steve decided not to hire him back on.

“I mean no disrespect to you or Ziff, Steve. I’ll be happy to do whatever it is you want me to do.” He held out a hand toward Steve. “Still friends?”

Without hesitation, Steve yanked a hand from his pocket and took Clay’s hand in his own. “Always. Can you start Monday morning?”

“Sure. But is there anything wrong with tomorrow?”

Now a hearty chuckle sounded from Steve’s mouth. “Workaholic.”

“Slave-driver.”

The two shared a laugh and moved from beneath the shade and back to the door. Just as they reached the building, the door swung open, and Bella moved out into the light of day. She smiled, somewhat timidly. “Hi, guys.”

“Hey.” It was Steve who replied, as Clay’s brain had gone numb and incapable of forming a coherent response.

Bella’s beautiful eyes, made even more stunning by long dark lashes, flitted to him, soft and pleading. Enough to make a man come undone. “Clay, can I talk to you a minute?”

Without meaning to, he nodded his assent.

Steve obviously took that as his signal to leave, because he stepped around them and into the building.

Bella searched his face with those probing eyes of hers.

It was more than he could bear. He lowered his head. “Sorry about Buck. Keith told me about his decision.”

“Yes. One of the best God-gifts I’ve ever received. I can’t tell you what a difference it made in Daddy.”

He could hear the joy in her voice and imagine her radiant face, but couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Not without losing every ounce of the resolve he’d carefully bricked into place. “That’s good.” He raised his eyes to the oak tree he and Steve had stood under just a few minutes before. “What did you wanna talk about?”

Her penetrating gaze burned a hole in the left side of his head, but finally she spoke. “I…uh…want us to get together some time to talk about…you know…some of the stuff between us.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed uncontrollably as he swallowed against sudden fear. Hadn’t he caused her enough pain and misery already? Clint Nichols was a much better option, and it was high time he let her know it. “Bella, thank you for wanting to sort it all out, but I just don’t think it’s gonna work. Let’s save ourselves the time and heartache and just move on.” Without another word, he did just that. Somehow he managed to put one boot in front of the other and move away from her for good. But at a huge expense.

A big bloody chunk of his heart now lay in the dirt at her feet.

Chapter Seventeen

On her way back from the teacher’s break room Bella’s gaze landed on the clock above the exit door. Good. There was just enough time to look through the choral music library in search of a new piece for the choir. Though it was her first day back after Daddy’s death and Clay’s distance, she was determined to do the best she could with her students before the school year ended.

Loss once more snaked out its tentacles and squeezed her heart. So much loss in such a short time. Daddy was in heaven. And Clay? She choked back a sob.

“Bella.”

She turned to see Mr. Dickerson in the doorway that led to the office, studying her intently. A little too intently. “Yes, sir?”

He smiled pleasantly. “May I speak with you for a moment?”

“Sure.” She followed him into his office, doing her best to keep her impatience at bay. Hopefully she’d still have time to find a new piece for the choir.

Her boss closed his office door behind him, an atypical move.

Bella frowned. Always before he at least left the door partially open.

Her principal perched on one corner of his desk near where she sat. “So sorry about your father. You doing okay?”

Unexpected tears sprang to her eyes, a common occurrence since Daddy died. And she never knew when those tears would happen. “Most of the time.” She raised shaky fingers to catch a tear before it dripped over the rim of her lower eyelid.

“You know if there’s anything I can do to help…”

Though the words sounded kind, something about them rang false. A sour uneasiness landed in the pit of her stomach. “Thanks.” She lowered her gaze, puzzling over the man’s odd behavior. Maybe it was just his way of being kind. Surely that’s all it was.

Mr. Dickerson cleared his throat, drawing Bella’s gaze to his. “You know, I have a lot of pull with the administration. I can turn things around for you, if…” He left the big two-letter word dangling.

Now the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She willed her feet to a standing position. Was his suggestion what she thought, or was she making a mountain out of a molehill? “Thank you for your help. I…uh…I really need to get to the choir room to do some work before the bell rings.” She moved toward the closed door, holding her breath. Would he follow? In the longest second of her life, she latched on to the door knob swung it open, and scurried from the room in a half-walk, half-run.

Bella felt the eyes of Mavis Henderson on her, but she didn’t slow down. Once in the choir room, she leaned against the closed door, her thoughts rampant and uncontrollable. Please not this in addition to the situation with Jacob. Her mouth went dry. Mr. Dickerson was in a position of power over her. With Jacob’s accusations and her past, did she stand a chance in Miller’s Creek?

Fear clawed its way into her throat and on up to her brain. God, help me.

Don’t be afraid, Bella. I’m with you wherever you go.

Immediate peace dripped through her veins, relaxing tense muscles and banishing fear. She closed her eyes, gratitude pouring from her heart. There was absolutely no need to fear. No matter what, God was in control. Even if her suspicions of Mr. Dickerson were true, he didn’t have as much power as he thought. She belonged to One who cradled her in His Almighty hands, and there was no greater security than that.

Bella stepped toward the three large file cabinets that housed the music library. The song she sought caught her eye. One she’d learned during her time in high school choir and had eventually led her to the Lord when life fell apart. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Short and sweet, it was the perfect anthem to introduce to the choir to keep up their classical music training while they prepared for the end-of-school concert.

She pulled the box and bumped the file cabinet drawer closed with her left hip. Within a few minutes, a copy of the anthem rested in each choir member’s slot. Bella moved to the laptop she had connected to a large-screen TV and located two YouTube videos. Satisfied, she stepped back, hands on hips, and glanced at the clock. Perfect timing.

The bell rang, and the kids started to filter in. Several hugged her neck and told her how sorry they were for her loss. Surprisingly, every student, including Jacob, were all seated when the tardy bell rang. She stepped onto the podium and smiled. “Thank y’all for the flowers and cards you sent me last week. I know we haven’t been together even a full year yet, but I truly love you all.” She opened her music folder on the stand in front of her. “I have a new piece for us, only eight lines of lyrics, but a great classical music piece by Bach. It was one of my favorites when I was in high school, so I hope you like it too.”

She grabbed her folder and walked to the piano. “Let’s just go over the melody first to acquaint you with it. Sopranos, you carry the tune.” She pounded out the notes and sang along with the girls. After that came the same process with the altos, tenors, and basses. “Okay, now let’s add that all together. I’ll play your parts to help you hear it.”

The choir sang through the piece perfectly. The time they’d spent on reading music and hearing intervals throughout the past several months had definitely paid off.

Bella beamed, her heart swelling. “Lovely for your first time through. Y’all have come such a long way. Our arrangement of this song is exactly the one that Bach wrote, except Bach originally wrote it in German rather than English. Let’s listen to the song on YouTube.” Bella clicked on the link. A second later strings sounded, rolling out the triplet notes of the song her heart would always love.

Once the video ended, she faced her class. “How many of you have heard of Josh Groban?”

Immediately, the girls oohed and aahed and broke into conversation.

Bella laughed. “I’m glad you approve, because now I want you to hear his version of the song. Listen carefully, because I want to know how the two versions are the same and how they’re different.”

Once more she clicked a link and the music sounded. As her students viewed the video, she searched their faces, sheer joy bubbling up inside. How she loved the times when they cooperated and engaged with the lesson. Days like this made her job especially enjoyable. The video ended, and all the students began talking at once, excitedly calling out various answers.

Bella stood back and soaked it in, a happy smile covering her face.

“I really like this song.” The words came from Chloe. “It’s about God, right?”

“Yes. And in the title, Jesu, pronounced Ye-zu, is Jesus.”

“Very cool.” Fascination covered Chloe’s features.

“But what does it mean?” This question came from Randi.

She stepped onto her podium. “Well, it’s basically listing all that Jesus is—joy, the object of our desire, wisdom, light, the Word of God, our Creator—”

“But I thought Christians believed that God created everything.” The objection came from Jacob, but his words weren’t laced with the usual derision and belligerence.

“We do, but we also believe that Jesus is part of the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—and that all three were involved in creation.”

He appeared to accept her statement, listening intently, an ever-so-slight smile on his lips.

Bella glanced down at her music, suddenly at a loss for words. Could it be true that Jacob was finally coming around, and in such a miraculous way? She breathed out a silent prayer that it was so, then picked up her folder and moved back to the piano, motioning for the students to stand. “Let’s try it now with the accompaniment.” Her fingers rolled out the triplets, and she nodded for the students to come in at the appropriate time. Once the song finished, a holy hush descended on the classroom, just as real as any church worship service.

She stood slowly, and placed a hand on her chest as she faced her students, tears brimming in her eyes. Somehow she managed to squeak out a “thank you” right before the bell rang.

On their way out the door, several of the girls, including Randi, stopped to give her another hug. The room cleared, but Jacob remained. He lowered his head a bit shyly in a totally uncustomary move.

“Did you need something, Jacob?”

“I…uh…know you don’t normally want us to take our music home except on weekends, but could I take a copy of that song we learned today to show my mom? I think it would help her.”

“Sure.”

For the first time ever, he smiled at her. “Thanks, Miss Masterson. Sorry about your dad.”

She waved as he left the room, then fell into the nearest chair, her mind in a state of bewilderment. In spite of her recent loss, this day would remain forever bright. Remembered as the day she somehow managed to get through to Jacob.

For the rest of that day and into the next, Bella’s heart was like that of a once-chained bird set free. A joy beyond comprehension flooded her being to the point that a happy hum erupted at every opportunity. She’d just finished setting up her classroom after lunch when Mr. Dickerson entered the choir room, his eyes dead cold compared to yesterday’s scenario.

Her heart ramped up to a moment of panic, but she quickly remembered God’s words to her yesterday. He was with her. She breathed deep to quell her accelerated heart rate. “Is something wrong?”

“Guess you didn’t learn your lesson the first time.”

Her eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”

“You were warned that any more situations with Jacob Clark could cost you your job.”

“But Jacob is doing so much better. I think he’s finally come around.”

Her boss held up the sheet music she’d given Jacob yesterday. “He and his mother were both highly offended that you turned yesterday’s choir class into a Sunday School lesson.”

“But it wasn’t like that.” Each word lessened in volume and intensity. It didn’t matter. Nothing she could say would change his mind. And she wasn’t willing to play his game to earn support.

“The superintendent has asked me to get a substitute for you until next Monday’s hearing to determine what will happen next. I’m guessing you’ll be a no show like last time.”

Her brain and tongue went numb.

“The meeting’s set for 6:30 at the auditorium.” Without another word, the man pivoted and exited the room.

Shock set in, her legs heavy as cement pillars. She stumbled into her office to gather her belongings. Though part of her longed to sit in the floor and sob, she grabbed her things as quickly as possible. As she turned to lock the door, a group of teachers stood talking in hushed tones right outside the main office.

Queen Stephanie presided.

 

  • * *

 

Clay arrived at the ranch early on Monday and sauntered across the gravel lot toward the ranch house. So far he’d loved being back at the ranch, even as just a ranch hand, but the situation with Ziff had played out just as he had expected. His boots thudded against the wood porch, and he rapped sharply on the door. Maybe this would give him the opportunity to let Steve know.

His boss met him at the door, his face grim. “Come in.”

As they made their way toward the kitchen, Steve looked over one shoulder. “Guess you’ve heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Bella’s been temporarily dismissed from her position at the school.”

The words sent an icy chill through his veins. “What for?”

The two men entered the kitchen where Dani flipped pancakes on a cast iron griddle at the stove. “Hey, Clay.”

“Hey.” He turned his focus back to Steve. “You didn’t answer my question. What for?”

“I’ll let Dani explain it.”

She grimaced. “I’m guessing y’all are talking about Bella. She seems to be the main topic on the Miller’s Creek grapevine over the past several days.”

Several days? This had been going on that long, and he was just now hearing about it? His thoughts turned to last Tuesday afternoon as he’d driven the northern perimeter of the ranch. An overwhelming sense that Bella needed him had hit from out of nowhere. He’d known that something was wrong. But rather than rush in and mess things up again, he’d spent the next few hours praying as he worked.

Dani flipped a pancake and looked back his way. “Jacob and Carla Clark again. This time in protest over a song she introduced to the choir. They say it has too many religious overtones and that she overstepped her bounds in explaining the lyrics to the class.”

Clay swallowed. Leave it to the Clarks to keep things stirred up. “So what’s gonna happen?” Even to his ears, the words held an ominous foreboding.

“She was already on probation, so there’s a good chance she’ll lose her job. They already suspended her, and there’s a town-wide meeting tonight. You know everybody and their dogs will be there, just like last time. Nothing like a carcass to bring out the flies.”

Another meeting? Bella hadn’t shown up at the last one, most likely because she didn’t see the point in trying to defend herself. Why would this time be any different? He raked a hand across his head and released a breath. What had happened to their little town? What had happened to the days when they could open the school day with prayer? “Is the administration and school board gonna back her up on this?”

“I certainly am.” Her blue eyes flashed with fire as she plopped steaming pancakes on a plate and handed them to him. Just as quickly, the fire in her gaze fizzled, and her shoulders slumped forward. “Unfortunately, not everyone on the board or administration feels the same. I’ve already had several phone calls from people who found Bella’s conduct questionable and worthy of dismissal.”

His eyes bulged. “Just from talking about a song?”

Her shoulders heaved as a sigh sounded. “I don’t get it either, Clay, but a lot of folks—even church folks—say there has to be a separation of church and state. That we can’t have teachers indoctrinating our students with Christianity against their will.”

Clay set the plate down on the granite island with a thud, his appetite for the sweet-smelling breakfast suddenly gone. Letting his actions speak for themselves, he strode out of the house and toward his pickup.

Behind him, the house door slammed, and Steve’s voice sounded. “Clay, wait up.”

He slowed his pace, but didn’t stop walking. Fury propelled him forward.

His friend reached his side, his steady eagle-eyed gaze forcing Clay’s attention. “You still love her this much?”

Now Clay stopped, unable to move another inch. He bent forward at the waist and put his hands on his knees, feeling more than a little nauseous. “More than ever.”

“But I thought…”

“Clint Nichols loves her too. He’s a better match.” He wearily raised his tall frame to a standing position and made eye contact with his friend.

“Says who? You?”

Clay nodded.

A curt laugh burst from Steve’s lips. “And you’re such an expert on the matter. What if Bella loves you too?”

What if? Hadn’t both Keith and Buck confirmed it? Well, she’d learn to love Clint given the time. “Can we just drop it?”

His boss eyed him warily for a minute longer. “Okay. The reason I invited you to the house this morning was to see how things were going with Ziff.”

Another sore point, but the opportunity he’d prayed for. “Don’t really know. He’s been sending me to the far side of the ranch every day, almost like he wants to keep me as far away from the office and him as possible.”

His friend’s face darkened. “I’ll say something to him. I really want him to get some pointers from you on ranch management. Has he already given you your assignment for the day?”

“Yep. Keeps a big chart drawn on the white board, and has me in the same place he’s had me since I came back to work.”

“What does he have you doing?”

“Checking fences and cattle. Moving rock and downed trees while I’m at it.”

“No training?”

“Nope.”

Lips pursed, Steve rubbed his chin, then once more turned his gaze to Clay. “Tell you what. Tell him I told you to shadow him today, so you can give him some pointers. I’ve got some phone calls to make, but I’ll check in with you later to see how it went.” He headed back to the house.

Clay’s eyebrows inched up his forehead. Well, this was gonna go over like a baloney sandwich at a steakhouse. He scratched the back of his neck. But maybe the situation would at least help Steve question Ziff’s behavior.

Then a stray thought lodged in his brain. How could he possibly keep an eye on Ziff and Bella at the same time? No matter. Come even the high water of the flooded creek, he would be at the auditorium that night to speak in Bella’s defense.

He had barely taken two steps when Ernie, in one of the town’s police cars, pulled into the gravel parking lot and came to a stop beside him. The window rolled down. “Hey, Clay.”

“How’s it going, Ernie?”

“Been better actually.”

Clay frowned. “What’s going on?”

Ernie poked out his lips, taking his caterpillar moustache for a ride. “Just came from your place. Someone called the Sheriff’s Office with an anonymous tip that you were hiding drugs on your property. They found a package, and I’ve been sent to carry you in for questioning.”

His brain went numb. Would Ziff go this far? He was still trying to find his words, when Steve walked up. “I’ve got this, Clay. Go on to the barn. We’ll come get you if you’re needed.”

Clay’s gaze locked with Steve’s, his friend’s comment all the motivation he needed for his speaking ability to return. “But I want to defend myself and set the record straight.”

Steve’s mouth was clamped in the thinnest line ever. “I’m asking you to trust me this time around, buddy. There’s more at play—and at stake—then what you realize. Please go to the barn.”

Though it took every ounce of willpower in his body, Clay nodded slowly. “Okay.” He gave Steve and Ernie one last look, then headed to the barn, his mind reeling.

Apparently, both he and Bella needed defending.

Chapter Eighteen

Bella watched the seconds tick off the fireplace mantle clock from her seat in Daddy’s recliner. The chair still bore the light scent of his aftershave, and heaviness once more descended on her heart.

How long had she been here? She leaned forward and placed her head in her hands, one of many positions between which she alternated as she waited until time to leave for the meeting.

Jesus, I’m not sure I can do this. Panic once more rattled her ribs and sent her shoulder muscles to a taut salute.

You can do all things through Me.

She squeezed her eyes shut. Yes, she believed that. But did she believe it enough to act on it?

Follow Me.

This time the voice was softer, yet even more insistent.

The Bible verse she’d read just that morning instantly came to mind. Whoever would follow Jesus was called to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him, no matter the cost. She leaned back, once more checking the clock. For so many of her young adult years, she’d thought of that cross as some sort of burden to bear, but now she knew it as so much more.

The first audience of those words would have been very familiar with the cross of the Romans. A torturous death designed to warn onlookers to toe the line. To that first century group of listeners, the cross surely meant only one thing. Death.

A sudden chill shook her from head to toe, and she rubbed her upper arms lightly to tame the goose bumps into submission. Yes, just the idea of stepping into that over-crowded auditorium full of accusing eyes felt like death.

Lord, please don’t make me go through this again. She’d prayed the same one-sentence prayer for several days, ever since she’d been sent packing last Tuesday. But in her heart of hearts she knew that for whatever reason, this was the path down which the Lord led.

She stood and moved to the bay window to peer into the back yard, her arms still crossed. The simple act of standing infused her bones with steel. She still couldn’t figure out why God would put her through this, but she had to go and speak in her own defense. An act totally unnatural to her.

Once more she mentally rehearsed the words she’d written down just last night. But would words fail under the microscope of all of Miller’s Creek? And even if her words came out as intended, would anyone believe her? Her gaze traveled back to the clock. Time to go.

Bella squared her shoulders and moved to the table to pick up her keys and purse. No matter where Jesus led, she had to follow. She’d made it her life practice since her time as a young single mom. This was just another occasion of marching into the fire of the battlefront, falling in line behind her Commander-in-Chief. The One who would never fail her.

 

  • * *

 

Clay removed his hat, laid it on a nearby chair, and made yet another lap around the interior of the ranch office meeting room. He came to a stop and stooped low to check on the horse with the wounded hoof.

Same as it was ten minutes ago. Where in the tarnation was Steve?

He raised his tall frame to a standing position and yawned, twisting from side to side with elbows raised to release muscle kinks between his shoulder blades. Once more he peered toward the office where Ziff had positioned himself all day, hunched over paperwork. If the man was surprised to see him there, he hid it miraculously well.

Clay tightened his lips. He’d carried out Steve’s orders to a T. Had gone to the barn as instructed, despite the false accusation—and evidence—against him. He’d told Ziff exactly what Steve had said about spending the day in training. But Ziff had only shrugged and said okay, but that he’d be doing paperwork all day. He had even offered to show Ziff a few shortcuts he’d learned in handling the paperwork, but without any response from the man.

Clay skewed his lips to one side. Was the guy just faking it, or was he actually working? Payroll paperwork was a huge pain, especially as federal tax time drew near. So it was certainly possible that Ziff had a lot of it to do. He called out across the wide space. “Ziff, it’s past quitting time. Anything I can help you do?”

The man looked up from the desk, his smile a bit too cheery. “No thanks. You can head on home if you’d like.”

Clay eyed the giant clock on the back wall, the one he’d often used to call late ranch hands to account when they were late for work. The town meeting would start soon, and he needed to be there. “Nah, that’s okay. Steve said he’d stop by to chat with both of us, so I’ll stick around a while longer.” Had the mess with the Sheriff’s Office and Ernie taken all day? He resumed his walk around the inside of the red and white metal building, once more counting his paces.

He thought through Bella’s comment about Ziff at his place and started to mention it—more to pass the time than anything. But something stopped him. Wouldn’t be smart to play those cards too soon.

Finally at twenty minutes after six, the door opened and Steve strode in, his frustration apparent. “Sorry. Look, we’ll just have to try this again tomorrow.” He checked the watch on his wrist. “I’ve still gotta drop Beth Ann off at Mama Beth’s. Dani’s gonna have my head on a platter for running behind.”

With each word, Clay’s temper heated. Dani would kill Steve only if she beat him to it. He’d spent a whole boring day with nothing to do and nothing to show for it. Wasted time was worse than wasted money, especially when his reputation and Bella’s were both on the line. Add to that his desire to hopefully speak to Bella before everything started. As it was, he’d be doing good to get there in time to find a few inches of floor space. He clenched his teeth to control his itching tongue. “I’ll tell Ziff.”

Steve nodded and disappeared out the door.

Clay closed the distance between the door and the office where Ziff still worked. “That was Steve. He said we’d talk tomorrow. I’m headed home.”

Ziff nodded, but then turned his face back toward his work.

Clay crossed the space again, in a half jog, shoved open the door, and let it slam behind him. The fresh air and sunshine would normally have eased his stretched-to-the-max nerves, but not today. Not when Bella needed him so badly.

Gravel crunched beneath his tires as he backed out, the western sun hitting him full in the face. He reached to pull the brim of his hat lower. His hat. Where was it? Ah, the chair near the horse stalls.

Yeah, it would take longer than he wanted, but this time of day he needed his hat. Not bothering to back up, Clay left the engine running and hurried back inside. He almost let the door slam behind him again, but something made him catch it, his ears honed in on Ziff’s voice.

“I’m only gonna tell you one more time. Get the next packages here ASAP! The owner and his blood hound are both gone to a meeting in town. If we have any chance of carrying this off, this is it.”

Ziff grew quiet, obviously listening to whoever was on the other end of the conversation.

“I’ll be waiting.” The land line phone slammed against the receiver and steps sounded, coming in Clay’s direction.

Now what? His brain whizzed through the possibilities. Clay backed through the still partially-open door, then waltzed in through the opening as if he’d just arrived.

Ziff looked up, mouth and eyes wide open. “What’re you doing here?”

“Forgot my hat.” He pointed to the chair on the other side of the room and took nonchalant strides in that direction. “Thought I might need it for the drive into town.” Clay launched into a silent prayer as he passed by Ziff. Good grief, now his back was to this guy. He reached out to snag his hat, and placed it on his head about the same time that the cool muzzle of a gun poked into the back of his neck.

“You heard everything, didn’t you?” Ziff’s voice was a mixture of sneer and fear.

His ticker pumping faster than it had in years, Clay slowly lifted both hands to show he was unarmed. “Heard what?”

Now the gun behind him clicked, so close that Clay caught every nuance of sound. A pistol. Which meant Ziff was close. Lord God, help me. In a whir of action, Clay both ducked and delivered a sharp elbow to what he hoped was Ziff’s face.

A crunch sounded as his elbow undoubtedly made contact with a chin. Ziff grunted. Clay spun around just as the man’s head pounded against the concrete floor. His body remained still, his eyes closed.

Clay released a deep breath and reached for the gun. then released the trigger from its cocked position. He checked Ziff’s pulse. Knocked out cold for now, but that wouldn’t last long. Hmm. Wouldn’t work to leave him just laying around for when his amigos showed up.

He sprinted to the office and yanked open the right side top drawer. Yep. Still there. He grabbed the roll of duct tape and hurried back to Ziff’s motionless body. Seconds later, he had the man gagged and bound. Completely wrapped from head to toe in gray duct tape, Ziff looked more like a cocoon than a cowboy. Now where to put him until he could take a stand for Bella and get back out here? Not here for sure.

There was really no other choice. He’d dump Ziff in the back of the pickup and call Ernie on his way into town. He released a somewhat frantic sigh. Hopefully the timing of all this would work out for everyone involved.

Clay carted his gray cocoon to the pickup bed, and then quickly pulled away, driving as fast as he dared and praying he wasn’t too late.

Chapter Nineteen

A sweat broke out on Bella’s forehead, her thoughts jumbled. She stood outside the school doors, much like a helpless child. Through the over-sized windows she saw the hallways thronging with people. More passed her by and entered where she still could not force herself to go.

This felt just like a time long past. A time she’d come to an awards ceremony. But instead of being recognized for her good grades, she’d been publicly disgraced. She’d been alone that time, too.

That event, in combination with Clay’s treatment and her father’s distance, had pushed her over the edge. Back then she’d come expecting something good. Not so this time around. Now here she was, once more on trial, once more held up for public ridicule, this time for answering a student’s question.

Her eyes focused on the door, then on the faces of those who passed. Not one looked her way or acknowledged her presence.

Lord, tell me again why You’re making me do this?

I am with you.

True. So she wasn’t exactly alone, even though it sure felt like it.

Bella sucked in a deep breath and released it, lifting her chin. It was time. She entered the building. Now suddenly all eyes were on her. She glanced through a crowd of accusing eyes, praying for at least one person whose gaze didn’t hold condemnation.

There were none.

Inside the auditorium to her left, a speaker sounded. “Time to get started. Please find a seat.” The voice belonged to Dani.

The auditorium was standing room only. Not one seat sat empty. The only available space was near the front steps. Okay, so be it. Let them be forced to stare at the one they intended to do away with. Lord, help them see me as a person with flaws, but whose innocence is in place in this situation. She took tentative and shaky steps toward the front, her eyes straight ahead as she marched to her execution. And if they refuse to see the truth, give me the strength to endure this.

Dani attempted to quiet the crowd. “Let’s begin with a word of prayer.”

The irony of the moment wasn’t lost on Bella. They still prayed at public meetings, but she wasn’t allowed to speak truth to a student’s question?

“Dear Lord, we pray for Your wisdom and peace in all we do tonight. Make us quick to notice our personal faults. All of us stand guilty before You, the One whose verdict is the only one that counts. Guide our attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.” Dani raised her head, a gentle smile on her face, and made eye contact with Bella.

That one smile was all Bella needed. Regardless of how this ended, she had a true friend in Dani Miller.

The wife of the mayor turned back to the crowd. “We need to keep tonight’s proceedings as structured and free from argument as possible. It’s my intent to allow those who have a say in this matter to speak individually, after which we’ll take our vote.” She looked over to Jacob and Carla, who stood on the opposite side of the stage, and motioned them toward the mic. “Jacob and Carla, you may say what you feel needs to be said about the situation at school, but please keep your remarks brief and impersonal.”

Carla shoved her broad shoulders past Dani, Jacob at her side. She unfolded a piece of paper that sent pops of sound through the microphone. “I asked Jacob to write down what happened at school, and I’m gonna read what he said.” Her head lowered to the paper. “On Tuesday, April 7th, during choir class, Miss Masterson taught us a song about Jesus. She even said he was light, joy, wisdom, the creator of the universe, and the word of God. When I asked about the creation part, she said something about Jesus being three people, including God.”

A sudden realization sent chills through Bella’s body, and she shivered in response. She wasn’t the one on trial. Jesus was.

That’s why you’re here. To testify about Me.

A sorrowful ache tightened her chest. Lord, I’m sorry for making it about me. Help me bring You honor and glory. May I make You known to everyone gathered here. Now cement ran down her spine and hardened. She might have trouble standing up for herself, but never would she miss the opportunity to stand up for Jesus.

From the back of the auditorium, light flashed as someone entered the darkened room from the bright hallway. Bella gulped. She’d recognize that silhouette anywhere. Clay. The thought sobered her. He wasn’t one to speak much anyway, especially in large crowds. But given his response to her the day of Daddy’s funeral, his attendance here was probably not to her advantage.

Carla finished speaking, then turned to strut across the stage and down the stairs, Jacob still at her side. Around the room, the crowd erupted into whispered conversation.

Dani stepped to the lectern and pulled the mic lower. “Is there anyone else who has something to say in this matter?”

Mr. Dickerson, who sat on stage behind Dani with the Superintendent, other administrators, and school board officials, stood and made his way to the microphone.

Panic erupted in Bella’s chest. This wouldn’t be good. She’d refused him, and he’d see to it that it cost her.

He smiled becomingly at the audience. “First let me say how much our administration and school board appreciates your support of our schools. Your presence tonight proves it.”

The crowd erupted in applause.

His face took on a pseudo sadness, and both hands gripped the sides of the lectern. “I never enjoy this part of my job, but I think it’s only fair to point out that Miss Masterson,” his eyes cut her way and then back to the audience, “has been given chance after chance to do the right thing. Her refusal to do so only proves her insubordination and lack of respect for this community.” He paused once more, and his head and shoulder slumped forward for effect. “It is therefore my recommendation, and the recommendation of the administration, that Bella Masterson be relieved of her duties with no further compensation.”

The audience erupted again, this time with applause. Some even jumped to their feet with whistles and cheers as Mr. Dickerson returned to his seat.

Dani pulled down the microphone to adjust it to her height. “Let’s quiet down so we can finish these proceedings.” Despite her short stature, Dani was a force to be reckoned with. Her face brooked no argument as she stood glaring out over the crowd. Finally the people grew silent and took their seats. Dani looked Bella’s way and motioned her over, a compassionate smile of friendship on her face.

Bella swallowed hard and filled her thirsty lungs with air, then climbed the stairs. Even if this chance to speak for Jesus cost her everything, still she would follow.

 

* * *.

 

Clay’s heart pounded like a herd of mad cows as Bella made her way to the microphone. Even from his position at the back of the crowded auditorium, he could see the determined tilt to her chin despite the accusations leveled against her. Admiration for her courage welled in his chest, and tears stung his eyes.

Dani reached out and took hold of Bella’s left hand and squeezed.

He lifted a prayer of gratitude that at least someone had enough sense to reach out to Bella in encouragement, something he’d hoped to do before the meeting got underway.

Bella faced the crowd with squared shoulders, her eyes especially large in her face. “I know that based on my past actions as a student in Miller’s Creek, that I don’t exactly have a stellar reputation.”

A few snickers sounded across the room as loose-tongued gossipers turned toward each other with crude comments.

Bella hesitated only briefly. “But whether you believe it or not, I’m not the same person I once was, something that I very much attribute to the work of Jesus Christ in my life.”

The whispers grew more prevalent, a sibilant hiss, as angry glares turned her way.

Clay’s jaw unhinged. When had Miller’s Creek become so unrecognizable? When had the mention of anything related to God become politically incorrect and a cause for malice?

“I’ve done nothing related to my job at the school for which I apologize. I’ve fulfilled my duties to the best of my ability, including taking the choir to their first-ever top rating. I’ve done what I could to treat all students fairly and to reach out to them. The claim that I tried to shove religion on students is completely false. My faith is a huge part of who I am, and it has changed me. While I hope others recognize a difference in me, I never used my position to proselytize students. In the incident mentioned by Carla, I was simply trying to answer a student’s questions as truthfully as possible.”

The rumble in the crowd grew even louder. And angrier.

Bella faced the administration, seated in chairs to her left. “And to answer Mr. Dickerson’s charge of insubordination, I would ask him which of his educational requests I ever failed to address.” Her features hardened, and some sort of challenge oozed from her face.

Clay sucked in a deep breath. Had Dickerson made some non-work-related demands on her that she refused to give in to? As though on cue, Dickerson dropped his gaze. Clay swallowed against the bile that rose in his throat. So it was true. Bella was being punished by her immediate superior for not giving in to his demands.

She once more faced the crowd. “I love Miller’s Creek and the people who live here. And after all these years, I still consider it home.” She paused to moisten her lips, a move she often made when gathering her words. “But if Miller’s Creek has become a place where people are penalized for speaking truth—where people are presumed guilty without checking the facts of the false charges brought against them—then I’m not sure I want to call it home any longer.”

For the first time since Bella took the stage, the audience grew completely quiet.

“I hope and pray that this community and school will once more return to the qualities and values that made it great.” Her voice grew softer, but the words now carried more impact. “To be more specific, I pray it returns to following God.” She allowed her gaze to travel over the entire expanse of the audience, and then smiled sadly at Dani and left the stage to silence rather than cheers.

Dani’s jaw was set bulldog hard, and her blue eyes flamed as she stepped to the podium. “Is there anyone here who would like to speak a word on Bella’s behalf?”

Clay’s heart sprinted and then split in two. One half shook with fear over speaking to a crowd this size. Give him a whole barn full of cowpokes and he had no trouble expressing himself, even if it was as short and sweet as possible. But a whole room of people, many of whom were already chomping at the bit to run Bella over?

But the other half. Oh, how the other half of him longed to step forward, to be her knight in shining armor for the first time in his life.

Just as he made a move to walk forward, his younger brother stood from his position down front and walked up the left side of the stage.

Clay released a breath and leaned back against the wall. Once more his brother had stepped in to take his place.

Keith pulled the microphone to his chin. “Most of y’all probably don’t know it, but Bella has been leading the music at our little church by the lake. She’s done a wonderful job.”

A smattering of applause sounded from around the room, obviously those who were a part of the little lakeside church.

“I can attest that since her return, Bella has never exhibited anything but the highest moral standards and character.” His gaze focused to the darkness at the right side of the stage, where Bella stood. “I think it would be a huge mistake on the part of this school and community to let her go.” Keith turned and left the stage to another smattering of applause.

Clay’s heart took to thumping again, a voice inside urging him forward. But how could he say anything else than what Keith had so succinctly expressed? What would people think if he stood up for the one he’d once publicly condemned?

A mouse of a woman he didn’t know hurried up the steps, her face flushed. She yanked on the microphone, her hands shaking. “Some of you know me, but others don’t.” Her words carried a tremble. “I’m Mr. Dickerson’s secretary.” She swallowed hard. “I know it will probably cost me my job, but I think it’s only fair to tell you what I overheard. Mr. Dickerson tried to bully Miss Masterson into what he wanted in order to save her job. She didn’t fall for it.”

Dickerson jumped to his feet. “That’s not true!”

The woman didn’t even look his way as she hurried down the steps to a crowd of people that had broken into outright chaos.

Clay’s lips pinched to a firm line.

Dani marched to the microphone, her eyes even more a-blaze. “Everyone calm down and get quiet. Let’s get back to what we’re here for.” She stared at the crowd until they quieted. “Anyone else have something to say?”

A skinny figure with stringy blonde hair stepped down the aisle.

Clay did a double take. Julie? Since when had she been able to put one sober foot in front of the other?

Julie stepped behind the mic, her discomfort and unease very apparent. “Y’all all know me as the town drunk. You probably also notice that I’m sober, and I have been for several weeks now.” She peered over at Bella, who swiped at her cheeks. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Bella. She stepped into the mess of my life and got me some help. I’ll be eternally grateful.”

Now Clint Nichols made his way to the steps on the right side of the stage, his nice attire the perfect complement to his profession and good looks. The handsome doctor hugged Bella on his way up the steps. The doctor smiled out at the crowd, almost like that of a politician. “Good evening, everyone.”

A round of responses sounded from the crowd.

“Times like this are never easy for anyone. Emotions and knee-jerk reactions can take over if we don’t make an effort to carefully listen to all that is said and use our best good judgment.” He smiled over at Bella, and she returned his smile. “I’ve had the distinct privilege of getting to know Bella over the past few months. And like Pastor Keith Barnes, I can attest that she has never conducted herself in any other way in my presence, except that of a true and gracious lady. I hope you’ll take the time to get to know her. Honestly, it’s your loss if you don’t. Give her a chance. I truly believe that if you do, you’ll grow to love her as much as I have.” Once more he smiled Bella’s way.

“Oh, enough of the lovey-dovey stuff.” Otis Thacker raised himself to a standing position on the left front, his scowl and grouchy voice firmly in place. “I’ve seen enough smoke to know when there’s a fire. I say it’s time for a vote.”

“Hear, hear,” came a voice right behind Otis as Stephanie jumped to her feet. By virtue of her status as the daughter of the well-respected superintendent, the woman’s opinion would carry a lot of weight. But surely just about everyone in town knew her as a malicious gossip. “It’s time to vote to rid our schools of someone who by her own words proved that she doesn’t want to be here.”

Shouts of agreement sounded, many standing to hurl ugly words.

Enough of this mess. Before he quite realized what was happening, Clay’s feet took on a life of their own and catapulted him toward the stage in long strides. What on earth was he doing? And just what did he expect to say?

The pounding of his heart morphed into peals of thunder that boomed in his ears, a mixture of fear and anger over how Bella was being treated. With each thud of his boots against the wooden steps leading up to the stage and dreaded microphone, the noise from the crowd softened. Were they actually taking their seats?

He strode across the stage and came to a stop directly beside Dani.

She placed a hand over the microphone, her eyes narrowed perceptibly, then took on a slow look of respect. “You’re here to defend her?”

He nodded.

A huge smile blossomed on her face, and she moved aside so he could speak in the microphone.

Clay’s mouth felt drier than the creek in a ten-year drought. His gaze meandered to where Bella stood at the edge of the stage. Even from a distance, the impassioned plea in her eyes was enough to unclamp his lips and unleash his tongue. “Most of you know me from my work at Miller’s Ranch. I grew up in Miller’s Creek. Born and raised here. Went to school here.” He paused. “You might also know that many years ago I had a relationship with Bella, one that ended with lots of hard feelings and accusations.”

The low whispers began once more.

“I’m here today to tell you that in my hurt, I totally misjudged the situation and misrepresented Bella to anyone who would listen. I was wrong.”

The crowd grew still and quiet.

“In my recent dealings with Bella and her dad as my next-door neighbors, I’ve come to see Bella in a new light. One that goes right along with what Keith and Clint just said. She’s a great person.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “Y’all know I’m usually a man of few words. But if any of my words ever carry any weight, I hope tonight’s the night they do. I consider myself a good judge of character. In my line of work, it’s crucial that I do so.” He once more glanced at Bella, the soft light in her eyes sending a stab of pain to his heart. “To get rid of Bella based on those who paint a false picture of who she is would not only be stupid, it would be wrong.”

How he got down off the stage and from in front of the glaring lights, he had no idea. Only when Clay leaned his weight against the wall at the back of the room did he hear Dani giving directions for the vote. What had he even said? What words had slipped from his lips? But even more importantly, did it make any difference for Bella and her situation?

He stuck around only long enough to cast his vote. More than anything, he longed to stay and see how the vote turned out, but there was the situation with Ziff to take care of.

Within a minute, he was at his vehicle, peering in the bed of the truck. No Ziff, which meant that Ernie or someone from the Sherriff’s Department must have him by now. A quick trip to the police station would let him know his next course of action.

Chapter Twenty

“The votes have been counted, and I’m delighted to announce that the vote is in favor of allowing Bella to keep her job.” Dani spoke the words, and surprisingly, many jumped to their feet in applause.

Bella smiled her appreciation at both Dani and those applauding the decision, convinced that her job and career would have been lost had it not been for those who had spoken on her behalf. Especially Clay. In spite of how he’d treated her all those years ago, he was a well-respected member of Miller’s Creek. He didn’t speak often, which meant that when he did, people paid attention. Simply put, his seldom-spoken words—especially in a public forum—carried weight.

She glanced around the crowd, now dispersing, hoping to catch sight of him, but with no success.

“Congratulations, Bella.” Dani stood nearby, on the edge of the stage, her face aglow.

Bella stepped up the steps and hugged her neck. “Thank you, sweet friend. Words can’t express how much I appreciate all you’ve done for me.”

“My pleasure. I hope you have many more years with the Miller’s Creek schools. We need dedicated teachers like you.”

The words were like balm to Bella’s spirit.

At just that moment, teen-aged girl squeals sounded in Bella’s ears. Chloe and Randi bounced up the steps and engulfed her in a dual hug.

“Man, that was so cool how all those people stood up for you.” Randi’s eyes sparkled.

Chloe nodded in agreement. “Especially that last guy.”

Bella’s heart caught in her throat at the mention of Clay, but she managed to smile at the girls. “Thank y’all for being here.”

“See you in choir tomorrow.” Randi gushed the words over one shoulder as the two waved goodbye and headed down the steps.

Behind them stood Julie, beaming from ear to ear.

Bella hurried to her and wrapped both arms around her, rocking from side to side. “I know that took a lot of courage to stand up in front of all these people. People who have probably at one time looked down their noses at you. Thank you for your help.” The last few words grew husky with threatening tears.

When Julie pulled back, there were tears in her eyes as well. “I’m the one who’s grateful for your help, Bella. I can’t even begin to verbalize it.”

“Well, why don’t we celebrate with ice cream at Dairy Queen.”

A huge grin appeared on Julie’s face. “My treat.”

Bella laughed. “Okay, okay, but first I need to stop by classroom to get something. Wanna tag along?”

“Sure.”

“The box I need is filled with years of my personal music, so I’ll need to pull my car around.”

Within a few minutes they stood outside the choir room door. Bella made a move to unlock the door, but it was already unlocked. “Hmm, that’s odd. I guess the janitor failed to lock up.” She reached inside the door and flipped the switch. The fluorescents quickly flickered on. Good. Everything looked normal. She entered the space, Julie a few steps behind, and then moved toward the office. She swung open the heavy door and hurried to the bulging box on the other side of her desk.

No sooner had Julie entered the space behind her, the door slammed shut.

Bella jumped and jerked her head upward. Jacob. Never had she seen his face so dark and turbulent.

She forced herself to a calmer rate of breathing and took a step that placed her between Jacob and Julie. “Hi Jacob. Can I help you?”

One corner of his lip curled upward and his fists were clenched. He opened his mouth to speak, but then out the plate glass window the choir room went completely dark.

“Is that normal?” Julie’s question echoed the thoughts in her head.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been here this time of night. Maybe the lights are on some sort of timer or motion sensor.” Bella took a step toward her office door just as a faint click sounded in the choir room.

Her breath rate once more rocketed upward. Someone had just locked the outer door that led to the hallway, blocking all chance of escape.

 

  • * *

 

Clay arrived at the Miller’s Creek Police Station within a few minutes of leaving the high school, his prayers still lifting on Bella’s behalf. He strode into the police station.

Ernie sat behind the counter. “It’s about time you got here.” The town cop deadpanned the words, then stood. “I was about to come hunt you down.”

“Good to see you, too. Is our captive awake?”

A frown tucked Ernie’s eyebrows in tight. “What are you talking about? I thought you had him.”

Air whooshed from Clay’s lungs, and his thoughts spun like a whirlwind. “I told you I had to stop by the high school. I figured you’d come get him.”

Now it was Ernie’s turn to turn gray. “So you don’t have him?”

Clay grit his back teeth together momentarily and raked a hand down the back of his neck. “He wasn’t in my pickup when I left the school a little while ago. I just assumed…” Yeah, that’s what he got for assuming. He stepped toward the door. “I’m heading back to the school. He has to be around there somewhere.”

“Right behind you.”

Not caring if Ernie busted him later for speeding, Clay drove as fast as he dared back toward the school. Bella was still there, along with most the town. What would Ziff do to save his neck? The possible answers that whirred through his brain forced his foot down further on the gas pedal.

Clay tore into the parking lot, now much less crowded than earlier that night, confirming his suspicions that most had come to watch the show rather than support the school. He braked quickly and jumped from his truck, Ernie right behind him.

“I’ve called for backup from the Sheriff’s department.” Ernie machine-gunned the words. “I also called Steve. I figured as mayor he needed to know. He was here at the meeting, so he’s waiting for us at the front door.”

The two men strode through the parking lot and reached the front door as Steve swung it open for them. They stepped into the foyer.

“Meeting still going on?” Clay eyed his boss.

Steve nodded, his face grim. “Yeah, but they’re wrapping it up.” He hesitated briefly. “You guys should know that this is a bigger deal than you think. I’ve been working with the FBI for a few months now, and Ziff is on their radar. They should be arriving by helicopter any minute now.” Again he paused, but only long enough to release a pent-up sigh. “And they’re bringing the Texas Rangers with them.”

Ernie released a low whistle.

Clay’s cell phone jingled in his hip pocket. He made a move to silence it, but thankfully noticed the screen. Bella. He pushed the speaker button. “Bella? You okay?”

“Yeah. I’ve got you on speaker phone.”

Alarms rang in his brain and stretched hi nerves stretched as tight as they could go. Something was up. That wasn’t her normal mode of operation, and it also meant that someone was listening. Ziff? “Okay.” He exchanged a knowing glance with Steve.

“We’re safe, but there’s someone here who wants to talk to you.”

We’re? Who else was with her? Beside him, Steve tensed.

“Hey, Mr. Barnes.”

The blood rushed from his head and turned ice cold. “Hey, Ziff.” It was all he could do to keep his voice steady.

“Guess about now you’re wondering why I’m with the beautiful Bella. Or should I say where I am with the beautiful Bella?”

Clay’s heart pounded. Lord, please keep her safe.

“She and her friends are safe.” Ziff’s voice paused menacingly. “Safe at least for now. But I am going to need a few favors in exchange.”

“Go on.”

“It appears that I need to take a last minute trip. That means I’ll need a vehicle with a full tank of gas. Oh, and why you’re at it, I’ll need enough cash to get me to the border.”

“You got it. And where do I deliver the vehicle?”

Ziff’s curt laugh sounded. “Nice try, boss man. I’ll tell you that later.”

“Might take a while to get all that rounded up.”

“You’ve got fifteen minutes before I dispose of the first hostage. And if you call in the big guns, I’ll dispose of all of them at once.” The line went dead.

Clay immediately flew into action. “Steve, call the FBI and tell ‘em to land elsewhere. Ernie, you do the same for the Sheriff. Now!”

But it was too late. The loud thumping blades of a helicopter rotor sounded outside.

Chapter Twenty-One

Judging by the look on Ziff’s face, he heard the helicopter about the same time she did. Bella swallowed hard. This wasn’t good.

Ziff hurried to the window, peered out the blinds, and let out a string of curse words in both English and Spanish. In a whir, he worked the phone, probably re-dialing Clay.

Bella’s hunch proved correct.

“You don’t listen very well, Mr. Barnes.”

Though she couldn’t make out what he said, Bella heard Clay’s panicked voice on the other end.

“Yeah, well your time has now been cut down to ten minutes.”

Bella glanced over at both Jacob and Julie. Both of them were scared to death. Lord Jesus, help me keep my wits about me. Show me what to do and what to say. Protect us.

His chin still oozing blood, Ziff copied Clay’s phone number from her cell phone onto a sticky note from her desk. Next he removed the phone battery, then pointed the knife he carried at Julie, his eyes panicked. “Julie, take Bella’s phone down the hall to a trash can and toss it.”

Bella’s eyes widened. Ziff knew Julie? But she hadn’t given him her name. The answer came immediately. Drugs. She locked gazes with her friend.

Julie’s eyes pleaded for understanding. She took the phone from Ziff and headed to the door.

He followed and opened the outer door for Julie. “And if you try anything funny, you know we’ll hunt you down and kill you.” He looked back at Bella. “And your friends.”

There were more of them? Were they in the immediate area?

Though her face was pale with fright, Julie maintained her composure and simply nodded.

“I’ll stand here to watch, so don’t mess with me.”

With Ziff’s attention momentarily focused elsewhere, Bella made eye contact with Jacob. “You okay?” She whispered the words.

He nodded. “My dad knows him.”

Bella released a silent breath. So Ziff had been in operation in the area for quite a while. Not just the short few months he’d worked for the ranch. “Does he recognize you?”

Jacob shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“I’m going to try to get you and Julie out of here.”

Julie returned at that moment. Ziff let her in and followed her into the office. He pointed the knife at Jacob. “Have a phone?”

Jacob nodded, pulled his phone from his back pocket, and handed it over.

Bella sucked in a deep breath. It was now or never. “Ziff, I have a way to get you out of here.”

For a long minute, he said nothing. Then his dark eyes narrowed. “Do tell.”

“My car is parked at the end of this hallway. We should be able to get to it and drive out the back across the playground.”

Ziff’s lips worked back and forth, as though considering the idea. “Okay.”

“But it’s just a Volkswagen Bug, so there won’t be room for Julie and Jacob.”

He grew silent once more, and began pacing back and forth rubbing his chin gingerly.

Bella tried to encourage the other two with her eyes. Hopefully this plan would work, and the other two could go free. Once they were out of the way, she would try to find a way to free herself.

Ziff opened the office door, then pointed his knife at all three. “We’ll go check it out through the door window. If the coast is clear, we’ll make a go for it. It’s our best option at this point.” He shifted his gaze between Julie and Jacob. “But you two are sticking with us ‘til I tell you otherwise. Got it?”

They both nodded.

The hallway was completely dark and silent. So silent that Bella’s ears honed in on their breathing and shuffling steps. Once at the window, they peered out toward her car.

“They have this exit covered, just as I expected.” Ziff leaned back against the brick wall, his face barely illuminated by the low light coming in the door window. “But I think we can make it work. Julie, I’ll let you go first, followed by him.” He nodded sideways toward Jacob. “They won’t fire at that point, for fear of hitting one of you. That should give Bella and I time to get in the car.”

Bella’s heart raced. Lord, help us all get out of this alive.

“Give me your keys.” She handed them over.

Ziff moved behind Jacob and hooked one arm around his neck, brandishing his knife. “No funny business, or I’ll kill you.”

Wide with fear, Jacob’s eyes turned toward Bella.

“It’s okay, Jacob. Do what he tells you.” Now if her encouraging words would only stop the pounding of her own heart.

Ziff pointed Bella’s key fob toward the car and unlocked it, then nudged her toward the door and cracked it open. “I’m sending out a hostage at a time! Hold your fire!”

Bella struggled to focus on the outside flurry of movement and hushed talking through the light from the setting sun.

Finally a bullhorn sounded. “Got it. We’ll hold fire,” said a voice she didn’t recognize.

With his free hand, Ziff grabbed hold of Julie and shoved her out the door. She ran as though her life depended on it.

For a brief moment, Bella’s heart seemed to stop, then resumed beating once Julie made it to safety. Then it stopped again as a tall lanky figure in a cowboy hat appeared near where Julie had just disappeared. Clay was here!

Ziff moved forward to the cracked door again, his voice once more bellowing in her ear. “I’m coming out with the other two.” As if to drive home his point, the knife moved a fraction closer to Jacob’s throat. Rather than pushing Jacob out, Ziff grabbed hold of Bella with his other arm and used her and Jacob as a shield. The threesome entered the bright spotlight of the setting sun, inching their way toward the Bug.

“Open the door, Bella.”

She followed his instructions.

Just as Ziff was about to let Jacob go, a gunshot sounded.

Whether accidental or not, Bella didn’t know, but in a split second Ziff had somehow managed to shove all three of them in the Bug, started the car, and sped across the back playground, quickly leaving the school behind.

 

  • * *

 

“I hope you’re satisfied!” The red-faced federal agent stood two inches from Clay’s face and machine-gunned the words. “Your actions may end up costing those two hostages their lives!”

Clay swallowed, but not even sticks of dynamite could dislodge the lump of fear and emotion in his throat. Death was the last thing he wanted on the list of consequences. When he’d heard the bullhorn go off, he’d run as fast as his legs would take him, praying for a glimpse of Bella.

That’s when the young officer, who was now getting his own ear full, had misfired his gun. Clay’ss lungs deflated. And now Bella, Ziff, and Jacob Clark were headed who knew where. Probably the border.

“Sorry.”

Around him, police and federal agents raced to their cars and the helicopter blades once more stirred up dust. All of them took off in pursuit of the little blue Bug that carried his racing heart along for the ride.

In a matter of minutes the area cleared out. Now what? Clay spun around, his eyes searching for Julie. He spotted her nearby, but Steve stepped in between them.

“You okay?”

“No I’m not okay! He has Bella. I told you he was no good.”

His friend sighed. “I’ve known that from the get-go, Clay, but I was working with the Texas Rangers to hopefully bust up the drug operation Ziff and his compadres are running. In fact, Bella was too.

Clay’s eyes widened.

“Surprised me too. Also made me respect her a lot more.”

Out of the corner of one eye, Clay spotted Julie walking away. “Sorry, buddy, but I need to talk to Julie and then do what I can to help find Bella.” Within a few giant strides, Clay caught up to Julie. “Is Bella doing okay?”

Tears streamed down her pale face, and she shook her head from side to side. “For now.” She swatted at her wet cheeks, then turned her tearful gaze back toward him. “She’s the one who came up with the plan to save me and Jacob.”

Though the news shook him, it didn’t exactly surprise him. That’s just how Bella rolled. No matter how much hurt or danger she might be in, she was always trying to help others. “Did he give any indication of where he planned on taking them?”

She shook her head a second time, sniffing. “No, but you can be sure that once he no longer needs them, he’ll kill them. And if he doesn’t, the people he works for will.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Though the helicopter and its nighttime spotlight had eventually caught up to them, Ziff had miraculously managed to get away from it by driving her car into a forested area. Then he ditched the car, and for what had seemed like hours, had urged her and Jacob forward on foot in the darkness. Finally they had come across an abandoned farmhouse.

Now they all set in the pitch black darkness, within arm’s reach of Ziff.

Bella allowed her achy lower back to slouch into the wall and released a sigh. Between their long trek and the emotional exhaustion of a long and trying day, it was all she could do to keep her eyes open. Think, Bella!

To her right, Ziff shifted and the light from Jacob’s cell phone partially lit the space. He raised the voice to his ear. “Made it to an abandoned shack. Judging by our direction and the trees in the area, we’re somewhere near Houston. Last highway number I saw was 2666.”

The room went silent, except for a barely discernible voice on the other end.

Ziff’s voice sounded again. “Got someone in the area?”

Bella reached to her left and came in contact with Jacob’s hand. She squeezed it, hoping the move would encourage him. He squeezed back.

“Good. We left behind a light blue Volkswagen, and I’d guess we’re a couple of miles to the right of the road. How long do you think it will be?”

Bella strained her ears, hoping she’d be able to hear the answer. No such luck. How long did she have to convince Ziff to let Jacob go? To find a way to free herself? Her spirit sagged. This wasn’t looking good for either one of them. Once Ziff’s friends arrived, the man would have no reason to keep them alive. “Lord, help me know what to say and do.” Bella tensed. She’d meant those words to sound in her head, not from her lips.

Ziff clicked the end call button and laughed. “Praying? Really? Like that will do you any good. So you’re a Christian.”

“Yes.”

His scoffing laugh sounded again. “Know what me and my people do to the Christians in our country?” His accent thickened, as though mentioning his native land brought him back to his lingo.

“No.” But she could imagine.

He leaned close, his breath hot against her cheek. “We make their lives so miserable that they admit there is no God.”

Her thoughts raced. How could she use this line of conversation to save Jacob?

Ziff’s voice hissed again in her ear. “If they don’t cooperate, we kill them.”

Her pulse pounded in her head.

“We tell them to renounce their faith or be driven from their homes and face starvation. They become outcasts to their communities and families until they comply.”

How was she supposed to respond to such words?

The room was completely silent for a long time. Finally Ziff broke the silence again. “I gotta use the bathroom. Don’t try anything while I’m gone, or you’ll be very sorry.” The sounds of him standing and shuffling from the room brought the moment she’d prayed for.

Bella leaned close to Jacob. “Make a run for it. I’ll do what I can to distract him and keep him from following you.”

“I’m not leaving you behind.” His whispered words brought light to her heart.

“Thank you, Jacob, but I’ll be okay.”

Ziff’s footsteps sounded. He once more slumped to the floor beside Bella. He was quiet for a long time, then in a flurry of unseen movement, he grabbed hold of her arm and jerked her in front of him. Then she felt the sharp blade of his knife at her throat.

“Let him go, Ziff. He’s just a boy.”

“A very brave boy at that. I heard every word.”

Her heart leapt to her throat. There was no use denying it.

“Tell you what. Just for fun, let’s play a little game.”

“Okay.” She’d do whatever she needed to do if it meant helping Jacob get free.

“Deny Jesus, and I’ll let you live. If not, I’ll kill you right here and now, in front of him. Then after that, I’ll kill him.”

Immediate tears sprang to her eyes. “I can’t, but please don’t hurt him.”

“Do it.” He pulled the knife closer against her throat.

“Jacob, I can’t.” The words came out as a sob. Lord, help me know what to do.

“It’s okay, Miss Masterson. I wouldn’t do it, either.” Jacob’s voice sounded surprisingly calm.

“Do it!”

As soon as the words left Ziff’s mouth, the front door banged open, followed by bright lights and many footsteps. To her surprise, Ziff released his grip on her, and she scrambled across the floor and out of his way. Before Ziff had time to respond, he was taken down and cuffed. She turned to Jacob and engulfed him in a hug, tears of gratitude for his safety streaming down her face. “Thank you God.”

Jacob cried too, and hugged her back. Finally, both of them done with tears, they pulled back.

With all the lights in the room, Bella focused in on Jacob’s face, barely cognizant of the others in the room. His face held a peace she’d never glimpsed there before.

Jacob smiled back. “He’s real, isn’t He?”

Bella nodded, a smile on her lips and tears once more stinging her eyes. “Yes, Jacob, He is indeed real. Very real. That’s why I couldn’t deny Him. He’s always been there for me.”

“How did you know He would save us?”

“I didn’t. But even if He chose to let me die, I know I would go to be with Him. I wasn’t afraid for myself. It was for you.”

He nodded. “I somehow knew that, so I started praying. As soon as I thought the name of Jesus, I was completely at peace. It was the coolest thing ever.” His smile disappeared and a small frown appeared between his eyebrows. “I’m so sorry for the way I’ve treated you.” His head lowered. “It’s no excuse, but I’ve had a rough life. I thought if I took it out on other people, it would make me feel better.” His sorrowful gaze returned to hers.

“I understand completely, Jacob. And it’s okay. God has a reason for everything He allows into our lives. He can use anything to draw us closer to Him, if we let Him.”

At that moment, an unknown officer approached. “You two okay?”

They nodded simultaneously.

“After we take your statements, we’ll get you home.”

Bella exchanged a relieved smile with Jacob, her heart crying out grateful praises to her heavenly Father for his deliverance and salvation. And the kind of freedom found only in Him.

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Bella returned the smile of her fellow teacher as she delivered the second-grade students to their room.

“Bye, Miss Masterson.” The softly-spoken words came from Priscilla, a little tow-headed girl with long braids and glasses atop her pug nose.

Bella bent low with a smile. “Have a great summer, Priscilla. I’ve enjoyed being your music teacher this year.”

The little girl’s snaggle-toothed grin appeared. “See you next year.” She turned and moved to her desk, braids swinging back and forth behind her. Bella shut the door and headed back down the hall way toward the choir room.

Would she even be here next year? God, what do You want me to do?

The question continued to reverberate in her heart, just as it had every day since the town meeting and the ordeal with Ziff. Yes, her job had been spared. And yes, she’d been offered a contract, probably thanks to Clay’s words.

How his speech had ripped into her heart. It couldn’t have been easy for him to admit he’d been wrong, especially in front of a crowd that size, but he’d done it, bringing with it a flicker of hope that things would improve between them.

Bella pushed air through puckered lips as she entered her classroom. But in spite of Clay’s words on her behalf, she’d seen very little of him since that day, and usually only at a distance. From the back patio of her house she’d glimpsed him making finishing touches on his house, but hadn’t worked up the nerve to actually go and speak to him. Instead she’d hoped and prayed for him to make that move. If he wanted things the way they used to be surely he would say so.

She gnawed her bottom lip and stepped into her office. Once again, the events of that night so long ago flashed through her memory, but were immediately replaced with the fragrant perfume of the dozen roses she’d received earlier that day. Yet another gift from her secret admirer. Bella reached out a hand to finger the velvety petals.

The handsome doctor had called on more than one occasion to ask her out to dinner or a movie. Each time she’d declined, not willing to give him hope of a relationship her heart just didn’t feel. How could she? Especially when that heart belonged to only Clay, the one who had broken it more times that she cared to admit.

Oh, Lord, show me what to do.

In My timing your answer will come.

The same words that had pounded through her brain each and every time she prayed that particular prayer.

The door to the classroom opened, and Randi, a broad grin on her face, stepped into the room and then the office.

“Hi, Randi.” Bella couldn’t help the smile that landed on her face. The red-headed student was definitely one of her two biggest success stores for the year.

“Hi, Miss M. Guess what?” She help up a single piece of paper and waved it in the air. “I got the choir scholarship.”

Tears immediately sprung to Bella’s eyes. She bounded from her chair and around the desk, engulfing Randi in a bear hug. “I am so proud of you.”

Randi pulled away and swatted at tears of her own. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Oh, yes, you could have. God has given you a beautiful voice, and I know He will lead you to use that gift for Him.”

A bashful grin appeared on Randi’s face, and she ducked her head. “Another thing I have to thank you for. Thanks for taking me to church with you. I feel like I’ve been set free from so many things that would’ve been nothing but a dead end for me.”

Bella nodded. Those dead ends she definitely knew about. Had experienced them firsthand. A prayer of gratitude winged from her heart to God’s throne. How like her heavenly Father to use her in a way that not only brought good into the life of another, but had brought healing to her own heart in the process.

“Well, I’ve gotta get going, or I’ll be late for work.”

“Need a ride?”

Randi grinned again. “I’d love one.” She eyed a couple of boxes on a nearby chair, and her smile disappeared. “Can I help you carry some things out?”

Bella nodded.

For a long moment, Randi just stood there, as though mulling over words. “It’s really none of my business, but are you staying in Miller’s Creek?”

“I honestly don’t know at this point.”

The young woman frowned briefly, then headed for the boxes and easily hoisted them into her arms.

Bella smiled and picked up her purse and the vase of roses. A minute later they exited the door and out toward the parking lot. Today her car was especially easy to spot, because a large cluster of helium-filled balloons bounced in the breeze from the car’s bumper.

“Flowers and balloons?” Randi’s eyes cut her direction.

An uneasy laugh fell from Bella’s lips. “Yeah, go figure.” She arrived at the balloons bound up with the same big red bow and a card dangling from a matching ribbon. Though there was no need to read the card, she latched onto it and read “From Your Secret Admirer.”

“Looks like a reason to stay in Miller’s Creek to me.” Randi spouted the words and moved toward the passenger side.

Bella climbed into the driver’s seat. That would be true if she could return Clint’s feelings. But she couldn’t, so it was actually just one more reason to leave.

After dropping Randi off at the grocery store for her after-school job, Bella made her way home. There was still plenty of work to do to the place. Mara Callahan, a fairly recent transplant to Miller’s Creek and a Realtor, had given her several suggestions for getting the property ready for the market. Maybe she’d have everything figured out by the time she finished boxing up items, held a garage sale, and made the improvements. At least she had a peace about that part of her future. The farm was too much to manage by herself. Even if she ended up staying in Miller’s Creek, it would be in a new location.

Her phone buzzed just as she pulled into the driveway. She put the car in park and killed the engine, then reached for her phone, glancing at the screen. Chelsea.

“Hi Chels.”

“Hi, Mom.” Her daughter’s voice held cheer. “Guess what your grand-daughter just did? She rolled over.”

Happiness flooded Bella’s heart. That was a good sign. So far Sophie had been right on track developmentally. And Chelsea was handling motherhood far better than expected, especially considering her rocky start. “That’s wonderful, Chelsea. I can tell you’re thrilled.”

“Only one thing would make me happier.” Even over the phone her tone held insinuation. “Have you made a decision yet?”

“No. I’m still praying through it.”

Now her daughter’s exasperation sounded through the phone. “How you could even consider staying in Miller’s Creek after how you’ve been treated is beyond me. Especially after the ordeal with that Ziff guy.”

Though Chelsea had made great strides in the motherhood department, she still had a long way to go in coming back to God. Best just to stand firm and let God handle it in His own timing. “I know it’s not what you want for me, but until I feel a peace about leaving, I just can’t do it.”

“You don’t have to go into the God lecture.”

“I’m not. But based on how He has moved in my life in the past, I trust that He can and will lead me according to what He wants.”

“I know, I know. And you’ll still follow Him even if it hurts.”

Bella nodded. Yes, she would. “I have no choice.”

Chelsea pleasantly ended the conversation, promising to call later that week. At least a fragile truce had replaced the hurtful distance that followed Sophie’s birth.

As Bella climbed from the car with the bundle of balloons in one hand and the roses in the other, she glanced across the pasture and creek just as Clay pulled into his driveway. He climbed from his truck, shoulders somewhat stooped. But his typical cowboy saunter gave no clue to his current frame of mind. She waited, hoping he would turn her way. He didn’t. Her forehead wrinkled. Should she at least go see him? Maybe that would give her the answer to that final puzzle piece.

Sudden resolve straightened her spine. Yes, it was the right thing to do, and it should give her the answer she sought. She stepped firmly toward her house, unlocked the door, and set the balloons and roses inside. Then she took off at full stride toward Clay’s house.

Her resolve weakened as she moved up the steps, her gaze on two rocking chairs that sat near the front door. Had he found someone else? Feeling far less than confident, she rapped on the door. From within, Clay’s boots scuffed against the floor, and a second later the door swung open.

“Hi, Clay.”

His eyes registered a brief moment of surprise, but his leathered face remained composed. “Hi. Need something?”

She shook her head, suddenly feeling like the shy school girl she’d been when she first sensed his interest in her. “No. No, not at all. Just thought I’d stop by to…uh…say thank you for what you did at the town meeting.”

His still-hatted head bobbed toward the floor. “Needed to be said.” His voice conveyed nothing but politeness.

Bella remained quiet, her eyes trained on his face as he raised his gaze back to hers. If only there were some sign that he still cared for her. If only his eyes would blink or his lips would smile. If only that look that made her breath hitch in her throat would appear on his face. Nothing.

Disappointment shifted her head and shoulders downward. “All of Miller’s Creek is talking about how you singlehandedly took down Ziffarano. Sounds like the ranch has had quite a bit of excitement.”

“Not as much excitement as what you went through.” A brief flicker of some unknown emotion flitted across his face. He shifted his weight from one boot to the other. “Glad it’s over and things are back to normal. And glad you and Jacob weren’t hurt.” His voice hitched a little, but his face remained an enigmatic mask.

Obviously he was ready for their conversation to end. “Well, I just thought I’d stop by to say thank you.” She turned to leave.

“Wait.”

She spun back around, her heart hopeful. “Yeah?”

He stepped out onto the porch and closed the front door behind him. “Last day of school today, wasn’t it?”

She nodded.

“Heard they offered you a contract.”

“Yeah.”

“You gonna take it?”

In that one simple question, her heart ripped from her chest, once more exposing a big, gaping wound. She searched his face. Please let there be something there that answered the question of her heart. “There’s still one part of the puzzle that I need to figure out before I can truthfully answer that question.” Her eyes honed in on his face.

An ever-so-slight crease developed between his eyes, and then reverted back to the leathery mask he usually wore. “Well, I hope you find the answer.”

For a long minute their gazes locked until Bella felt like her lungs would explode. She pulled her eyes from his. “Thanks. Well, I’ll let you get back to your rat killing.” She sent the biggest smile she could muster under the circumstances. “The house is looking good.” Looking like her dream home. But obviously one he had no desire to share with her.

 

  • * *

 

Summer could definitely be felt in the warmth of this June day. Clay stretched out his long legs on the front porch of his now-completed house and took another sip of the dark and aromatic coffee. The only thing the house needed now was a woman’s touch in decorating the place. Well, that, and a woman.

Once more his thoughts turned to Bella, questions abounding like a pit of rattlers slithering in and around one another.

Lord, if You want us back together, please let her decide to stay in Miller’s Creek. And show me if she’s in love with Clint so my heart can let her go for good.

The prayer of his heart reverberated in his head. Based on their conversation earlier in the week, Bella was still undecided, a fact that repeatedly pricked his conscience. Was it his own judgmental attitudes and wrongdoing that caused her indecision? Or was it that in combination with others who had also picked up the injustice and used it to emotionally incarcerate Bella?

He gave his head a shake to rid himself of the torturous thoughts, then rose to his feet. Enough of this circular introspection. It was getting him nowhere when there was plenty that needed to be done. The first of which was heading to the feed store to pick up a salt lick for his mama cows and some chicken feed for the new baby chicks.

A few minutes later he pulled from the driveway and headed toward Miller’s Creek. As he neared the Masterson place, he stomped on the brake, his jaw agape.

A “For Sale” sign with Mara Callahan’s picture sat proudly in the front yard, and a bright yellow Penske truck was parked in the driveway. This wasn’t good. Not good at all.

As he passed, he craned his neck to peer out the window, hoping for some sign of Bella. Nowhere to be seen. In a fog, he continued toward Miller’s Creek, his thoughts in turmoil. How could he let her go without at least trying to clear the air between them?

His lips flat-lined and clamped together, and he stomped on the brakes, screeching to a quick halt. Easy answer. He couldn’t. No matter the outcome.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“I took your suggestion and repainted the master bedroom and bath.” Bella swung open the bedroom door and gestured for Mara Callahan to enter first. It had been a busy few weeks, but hopefully the improvements she’d made would help the place sell quickly and for a good price. Plus, it had given her much-needed time alone with God, to pray through her situation and for those she loved.

The tall brunette, whose broad smile and raucous laugh had immediately cinched their friendship, entered, nodding her approval. Of course, it didn’t hurt matters that one of her star choir students was the woman’s step-daughter. “You’ve done a great job, Bella. There’s not a doubt in my mind that I can get you top dollar for the property. I can’t tell you how many people have come to the office looking for a small farm with a house in decent condition.” Mara grinned at her momentarily, but then the smile faded and she frowned. “Have you decided what you’re going to do yet?”

Bella shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. I still don’t have any clear direction from God, and until I know something for certain I’m not moving. Right now the plan is to take an apartment in town for the short term.” But she’d specifically prayed that if God wanted her elsewhere, that answer would be made clear before she unpacked the moving truck that sat in the front yard.

Mara’s tawny brown eyes narrowed perceptibly. “You need a man.”

The unexpected comment brought immediate laughter from both of them, but Bella shook her head forcefully and held up both palms at chest height. “No, I don’t.” She paused, her heart and mind immediately on one person in particular. “I need the right man.”

A knowing look appeared on Mara’s face. “Oh, you’ve got it bad, don’t you?”

Bella nodded, immediately miserable.

Her new friend leaned over and engulfed her in a hug. “That’s how it was for me, too. I needed Carter, but I was so very gun-shy, so afraid of allowing myself to feel for him.” Now she paused, one corner of her mouth turned up wryly. “Especially since it was an all-or-nothing deal. Take Carter and take his God.” Her grin erupted once more as she turned her eye-twinkling gaze back to Bella. “I have no regrets on either one.”

The doorbell sounded, bringing a frown to Bella’s face. “I wonder who that is.” Please no more secret admirer gifts from Clint. She turned and headed toward the front door, Mara falling into step behind her. Bella reached the front door and opened it, but immediately lost her breath at the dark figure silhouetted in the door frame. “Hi, Clay.”

“Hi.” A dark scowl blanketed his face.

For a moment an electric silence fell on the three. Bella swung her gaze from Clay to Mara.

Her friend searched her face, encouragement shining from her eyes. How good it was to have a friend who understood her heart for this cantankerous old cow poke. “Bella, I’ll call you later. I have an appointment to get to.” She sent Clay a polite smile as she shuffled past him and into the yard.

“Uh, come in.” Bella backed up and held out an arm for Clay to enter.

He removed his hat and entered the empty space. “You’ve been busy.”

She nodded and tugged her bottom lip between her teeth. His words carried a thinly-veiled accusatory tone. Was he angry over her leaving?

Clay’s lips punched out in a thoughtful pose, and he lowered his eyes to the cowboy hat in his hands. A second later, he raised his gaze back her way, his head tilted to one side. “Guess you’ve decided to leave Miller’s Creek.” Though the words were spoken as a statement, his expression held questions.

She shook her head. “No, I still don’t have that missing puzzle piece I mentioned a few weeks ago.” Unless maybe Clay was here to hand over that piece.

Once more his gaze lowered toward the floor, and he remained silent for a long minute. Then without comment, he stepped to the still open front door, donned his hat, and stepped out into the sunlight. A few seconds later, the engine of his pickup roared to life, then grew fainter as he pulled away.

For a short while angry thoughts unleashed in a fury, like a herd of wild horses released from a corral. Then in the next moment, reality punched her in the gut, and she crumpled to the floor with a moan, tears cascading down her cheeks.

She’d found the missing piece to the puzzle, but it made a completely different picture than what she’d hoped for. So much for the apartment in town.

How long she laid there sobbing, she really had no idea. In some ways it felt like a lifetime, as though the angst in her heart combined with all the other times she’d mourned either for him or because of him. But in another way, it felt like only a few minutes, interrupted once more by the ringing doorbell.

Bella rose to her feet, took a moment to swipe at her tear-dampened cheeks and regain at least some measure of composure, then hurried to the door and the now incessant ringing.

The same familiar figure filled the doorway, his eyes trained on her face. He swallowed hard, but turned his head away, as though even looking at her hurt him.

Oh Lord, will this pain between us never end? “You’re back.”

He nodded, but didn’t look her way. “Yeah. Before you leave here, would you mind stopping by my house? I…uh…I’d like to show you something.”

Stop by his house? On her way out of town? On her way away from the place she hoped to once more call home? A sudden flare of anger was immediately replaced with cold, hard apathy. “Sure. Whatever. I’ll finish up here and be down there in a few.” Then with a calmness that surprised her, she shut the door and moved into the kitchen to finish packing the last box.

 

  • * *

 

Bella took one last look at the brick ranch-style house, then climbed into the front seat of the small moving truck. With this latest development, she needed to get on the road as soon as possible. A quick phone call to B & B Hardware had secured a trailer for her Volkswagen bug. After stopping by Clay’s house, she’d have the men at the store attach the trailer so she could move her belongings and car closer to her Chelsea, Greg, and Sophie.

Though the thought still hurt worse than any pain she could remember, this was apparently the path chosen for her. And no matter how painful, God always brought about great good in the most difficult of circumstances. It was just a matter of maintaining her trust in Him, even in the midst of heartache and devastation.

The engine chugged to life. She placed the truck in gear and headed toward Clay’s new house.

He stood on the porch, his tall frame leaned against one of the cedar posts.

Her heart pounded. Even after all they’d been through, he still had that affect on her, made especially heartrending considering that this would be the last time she’d see him. Bella backed off the gas pedal intentionally for that very reason, dragging her feet over this last meeting with him, much like a reluctant child at bedtime. Would her broken heart ever mend?

She heaved a resigned sigh, then opened the truck door and slid from the seat.

Clay didn’t move a muscle as she approached, his face the normal enigmatic mask that told her nothing.

“What did you want me to see?”

He stepped to one side, revealing the two rocking chairs behind him, one adorned with a familiar-looking over-sized red bow. “Care to rock your cares away?”

Bella’s eyes widened and her jaw fell open. The same bow that adorned all the gifts from her secret admirer. She moved her gaze to his face. “It was you.” The words fell from her lips in a whisper.

Now the faintest of smiles appeared on his face, erasing some of the lines the sun had placed there. “Yep.”

“But I thought…”

“Me too.”

“Thought what?”

His smile grew. “That we were done.” Now his eyes softened, revealing tenderness and unleashing her pulse to gallop unhindered. “Both Keith and Buck told me you loved me, but I couldn’t quite believe it was true.” He paused. “You do, don’t you?”

Bella closed her eyes at the exquisite pain that knifed into her heart. When she opened them, his questioning gaze was still honed in on her. “With all my heart.”

In less than a heartbeat, Clay was down the steps and engulfing her in a hug. Then he pulled back to kiss her tenderly. After a long minute, he moved away, holding her at arm’s length. “Don’t know how you could still love me after all I’ve put you through.”

She sent him a wry grin. “Me either.” Then she stood on tiptoes to plant a quick kiss on his lips.

He released her and moved up the steps to take a seat in the unadorned rocking chair, gesturing for her to sit in the chair beside him.

She complied. “The house looks stunning. You’ve done a great job.”

“It’s a dream come true in many ways, but there’s one thing it needs to make it complete.”

“What’s that?”

A peaceful gaze took up residence on his face, one both uncharacteristic and familiar at the same time. “You, Bella.”

Could it possibly be true? Lord, is this what I want, or is it what You want for me?

Clay continued, his eyes now scanning the tree-lined horizon. “All my life I’ve been waiting. And it kills me to know that I had all I needed at one time and threw it away on a stupid misunderstanding.”

“Make that a judgmental and stupid misunderstanding.”

A chuckle sounded from his chest as he turned a loving gaze her way. “Deal. I was judgmental, Bella, and I’m so sorry for how I hurt you.”

“All is forgiven.”

He leaned forward and planted a kiss on her forehead, then left his lips resting against her skin as he breathed in deeply. “I’ve been such a fool.”

“We all are, Clay. Please don’t chastise yourself over this. Let it go. I have.”

Clay leaned back and smiled gently, his usually hard features softened. “You’re way too easy on me.”

She shook her head. “No, God is gracious to both of us. Now are you gonna show me the inside of this house or not?” Her heart pounded again. Was it possible that the bow on the rocking chair was an invitation of sorts? And if so, when would he ever get to the point?

Hand in hand, they entered the front door. Though the rooms were basically unfurnished, the attention to detail astounded her. “You did all this work?” She ran her fingers over the beautifully-stained oak fireplace surround, complete with the Texas Lone Star.

“Yep. I take it you approve?”

She shook her head. “I don’t like it at all.”

His eyebrows shot upward under the brim of his cowboy hat.

A grin spread across her face. “I love it. It’s absolutely perfect.”

In a sudden rush of movement he was down on one knee, one hand in his left jean pocket. “Bella, I love you. Will you marry me and share this place with me?”

Peace settled over her heart. “Without a doubt, yes.”

He brought his hand from his pocket, a simple, but elegant ring clutched between his calloused thumb and index finger. Clay reached for her hand and slid the ring into place. “This was my mom’s ring. If you prefer another one, I—”

She tossed her hair from side to side. “I love it, Clay.” Bella held up her hand to view the ring better, then reached both hands in front to cup his face. “But more than anything, other than my Lord and Savior, I love you.”

Now he stood and pulled her to him as he kissed her once more.

As she reveled in his love for her, her mind returned to when she’d first felt God leading her back to Miller’s Creek. Even though the concept of freedom had run constantly through her mind, all year long it had felt as though she was enslaved. All year long she’d questioned God’s purpose, and at times His goodness.

But this had been His perfect plan all along.

First to break the chains between her and Daddy. Then to break the chains that allowed her to speak words of defense for both herself and her Lord. And with this latest turn of events, even more chains had been broken.

A laugh gurgled from her throat, drawing an inquisitive look from Clay. And she was still enslaved. Not to people or their opinions, or even to her love for Clay.

Instead she was enslaved to One. The One who had never left or forsaken her. The One she followed into true freedom. He was her Truth for always and forever, and that Truth in so many ways had set her free. And in the process He’d given her back the love of a lifetime.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Red, white, and blue banners danced in the breeze at Miller’s Ranch on this hot, but oh-so-appropriate Independence Day. Bella took in the scene from an upstairs bedroom of Steve and Dani’s house. Already the sun sank low on the western horizon, and strings of patio lights and twinkle lights flickered on. More people than she dared think about milled around, laughing and chatting. What she wouldn’t give to have Daddy in their number.

She gulped in a deep breath and blew it out in a cleansing breath just as a knock sounded at the door. “Come in.”

Dani entered, her toothy grin broad and her blue eyes wide. “You look stunning.” She tugged on Bella’s white ruffled country dress and pointed downward. “Those boots are to die for.”

Bella laughed. “Glad you approve.” She laid a hand on her tummy.

“Butterflies?”

“Butterflies couldn’t cause this much damage. Must be chickens.” Even her words came out shaky and breathy. Like there just wasn’t enough oxygen in the room.

Dani giggled. “Well, those old chickens can just find another spot to roost. It’s almost time. You ready?”

Instantly her nerves disappeared. “I’ve been ready for a long time.” That’s why she and Clay had decided not to have a long engagement. They’d already wasted enough time. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

“The bridesmaids are waiting at the bottom of the stairs with Trish. I’ll go tell the guys that we’re ready to start.”

“Dani, thank you for all the work you and Trish have done to make this possible, especially on such short notice. I can’t thank you enough.”

“My pleasure.” She reached up to hug Bella’s neck. “Besides, it worked in my favor. I’ve never seen our ranch manager so happy.”

Bella laughed and followed Dani out the door and down the stairs. Chelsea, Julie, and Gracie, dressed in chambray blue versions of the dress she wore, stood near Trish at the front door. Beth Anne held Trish’s hand, her tiny feet booted with a miniature version of Bella’s boots. They all looked up as she descended.

“Mom, you look gorgeous.” Chelsea’s smile spread from ear to ear.

Bella reached the bottom step and leaned in to kiss her daughter on the cheek. “Thank you, darling.”

Trish handed her a bouquet of bluebonnets, sunflowers, and white daisies. “Here’s your bouquet.”

“Where did you find bluebonnets this time of year?”

The dark-eyed beauty raised her eyebrows. “Wasn’t easy, but the story takes way too long to tell.”

“Thank you so much, Trish. I really appreciate everything.”

Steve’s sister smiled. “No thanks needed. I love planning weddings.”

“She’s the best in town,” added Dani. “Oh, wait she’s the only one in town.”

They all joined in laughter.

Dani clapped her hands. “Okay, girls, assume your positions. I’m headed out to round up the guys.”

“Good luck with that.” Gracie’s softly-spoken words were barely heard.

“Yeah.” Julie smiled. “Might be easier rounding up a herd of cows.”

“True.” Dani whisked out the door.

Bella took her place at the back of the line, and followed Trish and the bridal party out the door and onto the porch. Perfect timing. The sky to the east was already a purple-y blue hue and stars dotted the sky.

Finally—after all these years—she was about to become Mrs. Clay Barnes.

Within a few minutes, all the guests were seated under the stars and the country and western band began playing the song that held such a special place in both Clay’s heart and her own. The last of the bridesmaids traipsed down the aisle just as the band reached the climax of the song. “God bless the broken road that led me straight to you.”

Yes, God, thank You that You use our broken roads to lead us into the freedom You want us.

Neither butterflies or chickens were present as she locked eyes with Clay and floated down the aisle toward him.

Tears swam in his eyes above a cheeky grin. He grabbed her hand and squeezed. “You look beautiful.”

“You do too, cowboy. You’re definitely a sight for these sore eyes.”

The light smoldering in his eyes almost did her in.

“Thank you for waiting for me all these years.”

“Sorry I made you wait so long.” He leaned his forehead against hers.

Keith’s voice sounded through the mic. “Okay, you two. Can we get this ceremony started?”

The crowd laughed.

Bella smiled back over one shoulder, humbled by the good friends that surrounded them on this day that marked both the end of a long struggle and beginning of her freedom journey. She marveled at God’s goodness and His work. “Hurry it up, Keith. I’ve been waiting a lifetime to be Mrs. Clay Barnes.”

The grin appeared again on her groom’s face. “I like the sound of that.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, can we get this over with?” The impatient words came from Steve Miller, who stood directly behind Clay as the best man. “Good gravy, but I’ve got a front row seat to a mushy movie.” He followed the comment with a teasing wink.

Clay chuckled and looked up at his brother. “You heard the boss man. Let’s go.”

Bella latched on to the elbow of her forever cowboy and faced Keith, once more thanking God for the blessing of broken roads and the freedom that came from following Jesus wherever He led.

 

  • * *

 

His wife.

Clay smiled down at the beautiful woman in his arms as the band finished another round of “Bless the Broken Road.” Was this a dream? He squelched a sudden desire to pinch himself. “I love you, Mrs. Barnes.”

“And I love you, Mr. Barnes.”

Gracie tapped Bella on the arm, an apologetic smile on her face. “Sorry to break in, but I need Bella on stage.”

Clay frowned. “What for?”

“That’s for us to know and you to find out.” Bella sing-songed the words and followed them with a teasing wink.

His bride followed Keith and Gracie up onto the stage and picked up a microphone. “Y’all help me welcome my sweet friend, Gracie. She’s going to help me sing a song I wrote especially for this service. And the brother of the groom, Keith Barnes, will be accompanying us.”

Polite applause sounded across the crowd.

“Before we start, I’d like to say something about this song, more as an explanation and word of testimony than anything. Today is a day that we celebrate our freedom as a nation. And freedom is something we all hold dear. But oddly enough, this song is about following Jesus.” A smile lit her gorgeous face. “Y’all might wonder why I would sing a song about following on a day that’s all about freedom.”

Bella nodded to Keith, and he began to strum the guitar. His wife once more faced the crowd. “Last year, before I moved back to Miller’s Creek, I could not get the concept of freedom out of my head. It was if the Lord lodged it in a crevice of my brain. The word popped out at me from so many places. Not long after that I felt Him leading me back to take care of Daddy.” Her words grew husky.

She lowered her head for a moment. When she looked back up, tears dripped onto her cheeks. “Sorry. I didn’t expect to get emotional about this.”

Clay’s heart shifted inside his chest, searching for space to beat unhindered. It was all he could do to keep his boots nailed to the floor instead of running up on the stage to rescue her.

“I didn’t want to come back here. I fought against God and questioned why. But in the end, He reminded me that my job was to trust and obey. To follow Him no matter what.” She blinked back tears. “But guess what I found in following Him?” The crowd didn’t move a muscle or make a sound, their eyes glued intently on Bella.

“I found freedom.”

Clay bowed his head. Lord, thank You for bringing her back to me. Help her get through the song without crying.

But there was no cause for concern. Bella’s professionalism took over, her voice sure and steady.

Words about being shackled by chains from the sins of the past sounded from her lips, and set off an intense ache in Clay’s chest. Not just her sins, but his as well. That was the nature of sin. It enchained both you and others.

The second verse brought tears to his eyes. Thank You, God, that Jesus nailed our sins to the cross so we would have an example to follow.

But it was the chorus that winged its way into his very soul.

“Still I will follow the path You’ve laid out for me;

In spite of my sin, Your truth set me free.

Unending grace, and mercy anew.

Still I will follow, for all my tomorrows.

Still I will follow You.”

The words to the chorus appeared on a nearby screen. “Y’all sing with us.” In a moment Clay could only describe as the most sacred moment he’d ever experienced, the crowd joined in singing words of commitment to Christ.

The song came to a close just as the firework display began, and Bella joined Clay a few seconds later.

“I didn’t know you could write music.”

She smiled and set his heart to fluttering once more. “Yeah, well, there’s a lot about me you still have to learn. And I suspect the reverse is true as well.” She snuggled up closer and planted a kiss on his lips.

He pulled back, a satisfied grin on his lips. “Wanna run away with me?”

To his surprise, she shook her head from side to side.

“You don’t?”

“I’m through running. But I am ready to start this journey with you at my side following Jesus all the way.”

“Me too.”

As they moved up to the seats Trish had positioned for them to enjoy the fireworks, Clay’s heart busted forth in silent praise. Only God could have orchestrated events through rough roads to bring about a freedom that far exceeded any other. He took a seat next to his wife and rested an arm around her shoulders as fireworks decorated the night sky.

And how like the Lord to do it in such a way that brought both of them full circle in the place they were meant to be.

 

THE END

 

  • * *

 

Thanks for taking the time to read Still I Will Follow. 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. Part of the proceeds from my books are also used to support other Christian ministries.

2. Take a moment to leave your honest review on various sites. This helps authors as well as potential readers.

3. Share this free book with family and friends via word of mouth, email, and social media.

Thank you so much!

Dear reader friends,

 

Thank you so much for your patience and encouragement as this book was delayed for so many reasons. During the course of the past year, the Lord has taken me through my own testing time of learning to follow Him no matter what.

 

If, like me, you look at the crazy world around us and wonder what has happened to life as we once knew it, please be encouraged by this truth: Though times have changed, our God hasn’t!

 

No matter how difficult times get. No matter how much Christian values are sneered at and trampled. No matter how much persecution believers experience worldwide. We must continue follow Jesus, the author of the only freedom which can never be taken away.

 

So march on, fellow soldiers. Follow Him, no matter what.

 

Still I will follow,

Cathy

 

 

About the Author

 

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 and rabbits, 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. Cathy also loves to connect with readers in the following places:

|*] [*Facebook |*] [*Pinterest |*] [*Goodreads |*] [*Twitter [*|*]

Cathy’s Books[
**
**
**]Miller’s Creek Novels[
**]Texas Roads[
**]A Path Less Traveled[
**]The Way of Grace[
**]Pilgrimage of Promise[
**]A Bridge Unbroken[
**]Crossroads[
**]Still I Will Follow[
**
**]Other Fiction[
**]Pieces On Earth (Christmas novella)[
**
**]LifeSword Bible Studies & Daily Devotionals[
**]The Fragrance of Crushed Violets[
**]Believe & Know[
**]New Beginnings[
**]The Power of Godly Influence[
**]Life Lessons From My Garden

BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

 

 

1. In the story Bella follows Jesus back to the place she swore never to return -- Miller's Creek. Where do you sense Jesus leading you? Do you ever sense Him testing you to see if you will indeed follow Him, no matter what? If so, how?

 

2. Like Bella and Clay we often find ourselves chained to the past. What are some ways the Lord has enabled you to overcome the chains of your past that enslave you and hold you back? What things or situations have you chained right now? What are some of the common chains that bind us all? Who is actually behind our enslavement to all things other than Christ? How can we use this knowledge to serve both believers and unbelievers?

 

3. Besides hurt and misunderstanding, what are some of the other chains Bella and Clay must learn to release? How do they do so?

 

4. On her own personal journey to freedom, Bella impacts the lives of many. Which lives does she influence, sometimes without even recognizing it? What is the lesson here for each of us? What is the connection between following Jesus and serving others?

 

5. In our individual quests toward freedom in Christ, the enemy often trips us up with lies. What lies do Bella and Clay believe about themselves? How do they break through these lives to live in freedom? What lies do you believe about yourself that are keeping you from the freedom Christ died to give you?

 

6. Especially in the American culture, we’ve been trained to see freedom as our right to do what we please when and where and how we please. How is this different from the freedom Christ gives us? What is the connection between freedom and following Jesus?

 

7. How does the situation with Bella’s dad bring Clay and Bella together? How does it force them to deal with the chains from their past? How do Clint, Julie, Steve, Ziff, and Jacob complicate matters? What other complications arise during the course of the story? How can you use these story elements to help you with the complications you face in following Jesus and pursuing His freedom?

 

8. How does Ziff’s trumped-up charges against Clay help him better understand what Bella has been through? How does it change him?

 

9. Of all the secondary characters, Steve seems to be the one that has changed. What are some possible reasons for the change in his personality? What reasons are hinted at in the story?

 

10. Clay is rough and brusque, judgmental and critical, the sort of person many of us would shy away from. As the story progresses, we glimpse another side to him. What is that other side, and how does it help us understand Bella’s feelings for him? Is there a “Clay” in your life? How will you reach out to them?

Special Thanks

 

No novel is the work of only one. That is certainly the case for this book.

 

First I want to say thanks to the world’s best husband. He not only helps me with book promotion and story ideas, but works hard so that I can spend my time at writing books. These past few years have been tough for us in many ways, but he has remained a steady hand in an increasingly unsteady world. Travis, I’m so grateful God saw fit to give me you. And as always, I look forward to the next chapter.

 

Another person that needs a hearty ‘thank you’ is my mom, who serves as a friend, advisor, and my Central Texas book distributor! She’s my Mama Beth. Love you, Mom!

 

I thank God regularly for my Miller’s Creek Main Street Team members. They go above and beyond in helping me out with sharing news about the books and serving as beta readers. Their contribution to my writing ministry is invaluable to me.

 

And I would be remiss if I didn’t take time to thank each of you, my reader friends. Your prayer support and encouragement literally astounds me. May our Lord richly bless you for those prayers and encouragement. I pray my stories are a return blessing to you. Thank you.

 

Special thanks to Debbie King for allowing me to use yet another of her gorgeous photographs for the cover of this book.

 

And to Jesus, the One I follow and serve. Thank you for serving mankind by giving Your life. Your truth does indeed set us free. And not even the schemes of the enemy can snatch away that freedom. Praise the Lord!

 

CROSSROADS Sneak Peek Chapter

 

Out of pure reflex, Mara stiffened her right leg and stomped the brake pedal to the floor, tires a-screech against the asphalt as the undeniable odor of burning rubber reached her nose. She gritted her teeth, her breath in rapid spurts, and yanked the steering wheel hard to the right. Her clenched jaw relaxed just enough to spout words that had conglomerated in her sour-tasting mouth. “Please don’t let me run over this stupid animal.”

Just who did she think she was talking to? She shrugged. No one. Nothing. Thin air. Her salty lips had simply taken on a life of their own without permission. The new-to-her Cadillac Escalade finally bounced to a halt, and her body echoed the move.

Once her brain stopped sloshing around in her skull, Mara jerked her head to the left to see the armadillo—almost the exact color of the pavement—waddle nonchalantly through the bar ditch and under a barbed-wire fence. The squatty body animal disappeared behind the thick growth of mesquite, cedar, live oak, and clumps of prickly pear cactus.

She brought a trembling hand to her throat and willed her shallow breaths and racing heart to a slower pace. Yet another thing to adjust to in the small back-roads country town of Miller’s Creek.

Critters.

She sniffed at the still form of a black and white pile of fur in the road next to her. The rancid smell of squished skunk—who hadn’t fared as well as the armadillo—stung Mara’s nostrils, bringing tears to her eyes and wrinkles to the bridge of her nose.

Yeah, she’d experienced rural Texas before, but it had been years, her childhood a murky fog that took up residence in the distant recesses of her mind. Had she blocked out painful memories by imprisoning that part of her life behind lock and key?

Her gaze flitted to the dashboard clock, and set her into instant motion. “Oh no. Please no.” This couldn’t be happening. Not on a day when she actually had a prospective customer to help pay her bills and feed her family. She quickly released the brake and pressed the accelerator, the horses beneath the hood rapidly roaring to life and charging down the road.

Now she’d never make her four o’clock appointment with Carter Callahan. Of course it wasn’t as though he’d given her ample time to find him a house. He’d called right before lunch and said he needed a house, and then promptly ended the call with some mumbled excuse about being on duty and without giving any details as to what kind of property he wanted. Fearful that as a policeman on duty he had more important matters to deal with, she’d opted not to call back. Instead she’d spent her afternoon viewing possible properties to show him.

Mara quelled her anxious thoughts with a sip of warm and non-fizzy Diet Coke, the flat and tepid liquid leaving the after-taste of artificial sweetener on her tongue. She made a face and clunked the can into the console drink holder. Was this her third one today, or her fourth? She inched the accelerator closer to the floor.

At five minutes after four, she pulled up outside the building she’d leased from Otis Thacker, more proof of the number one rule in real estate. Location, location, location. Nestled between recently-renovated turn-of-the-century buildings on the picturesque town square, and boasting creamy-white Austin stone, cinnamon-colored cedar posts, and rustic tin roof, the place screamed central Texas. The perfect store front for her new business, one that needed to turn a profit. And soon.

The unlocked seat belt slipped from her fingers and clanked against the door as she scooped up her purse and manila file folders. She climbed from the SUV, glanced down the thick slab of elevated sidewalk, and slammed the door.

No sign of Carter Callahan.

Had he come and left already? More than a little disgruntled at the missed appointment and chance at a potential sale, she trudged to the door. At some point, she’d just have to bite the bullet and hire a receptionist for times like these, but with money so tight, it was hard to justify the expense.

Mara moved across the large open space dotted with office furniture she’d purchased at a hotel sale, and into her office, where she plunked the folders atop the granite-looking counter top behind her desk. Next she slung her suit-case-sized purse—an ironic microcosm of her hectic life—onto the desk, contents spilling from inside. She snatched up her eBay iPhone, and fingers ablaze, punched in Carter’s number, scrawled on a nearby pink sticky-note. The electronic beeps from her phone bounced off walls and oak floors.

“Police department.”

A disgusted sigh whooshed from her lungs. Not exactly who she’d hoped for. “Ernie? Is that you?”

“Yep. Mara?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Sorry to bother you. I’m trying to reach Carter Callahan. Is he there by any chance?”

“Nope. Just left. Said he had a couple of errands to run.”

Hope ignited in her chest. Good. Hopefully he hadn’t forgotten her. But how much longer would she have to wait? “Did he happen to say what errands?”

“Something about paying the electric bill and stopping by the post office to mail a package.”

Her spirits instantly deflated. Okay, so maybe he had forgotten her. “If you happen to see him would you have him call me at the office?”

“Okey-dokey.” Ernie drawled out the words, Texas-style, right before the line went dead.

Mara eyed the clock. How could he be so inconsiderate of her time? Yeah, she’d been late too, but she’d dropped other things to get there as soon as possible. As the second hand of the clock ticked off the ever-fleeting time, she ticked off her to-do list for the rest of the day. Pick up Ashton from the daycare by five. Cram down a few bites of leftover goulash before the Miller’s Creek Talent Show rehearsal. Follow up on a few leads and hopefully line up showings for the next day. The rehearsal should be over by seven or seven-thirty, which would give them ample time for outdoor play, Kindergarten homework, and Ashton’s nightly bath before story time and bed. Then…

Her thoughts strayed to yet another evening by herself, and unexpected loneliness landed like a lead blanket. A solitary sigh escaped. She’d known being a single parent would be difficult. Had known moving to a new place to start a business would be challenging. But one thing she hadn’t taken into consideration was the mind-numbing isolation of interminable nights.

Mara gave her head a gentle shake, careful not to dislodge the rock hard hair-sprayed bun she’d crafted early that morning to keep her naturally curly hair in check.

Snap out of it, Mara.

Life in Miller’s Creek was certainly better than living with the man who no longer loved her. She rubbed the bridge of her nose. No use dwelling on it. Giving in to the Black Abyss would be counter-productive and foolish. She had to find a way to distract herself from the depression that threatened to swallow her alive.

From outside her office the front door bell buzzed, announcing a visitor. Carter hopefully?

Mara stood, wiped sweaty palms against her polyester skirt, pasted on her most brilliant business smile, and moved to the main office, her high heels clicking against the wooden floors. She extended a hand toward the larger-than-life man silhouetted against the backdrop of front plate-glass windows. “Hi, Carter. I’m Mara Hedwig. So nice to finally meet you in person.”

He engulfed her hand with both his bear paws, an equally large grin splayed on his scruffy-but-handsome face. “Hey, Mara. Sorry I’m late. Blame it on my crazy life.”

His crazy life? He had no idea what crazy was until he’d experienced just a fraction of the la vida loca she lived. She bit back a retort. “Well, we’d best get a move on it if we’re going to get to these houses I’ve lined up for us to see. Let me get my things.” She clicked back to her office, sipped a quick drink of her fourth Diet Coke, and grabbed the folder with Carter’s name scribbled on it, along with her purse and keys.

A few minutes later they stood outside on the sidewalk in the humid-hot dog days of a sizzling Texas summer as Mara locked up the building and moved toward the driver’s side of the Escalade. “We’ll go in my car.”

Carter released a low whistle as he folded his over-sized frame into the leather passenger seat. “Business must be good.”

Not exactly. But definitely the impression she wanted to make, and the reason she’d purchased this way-too-expensive gas-guzzler. According to the latest real estate how-to book she’d read, potential clients were drawn to perceived success.

Rather than responding to his comment, Mara smiled politely, clicked her seat belt into position, and cranked the engine to a gentle purr. Two minutes later they pulled up outside the first place, a tiny frame house within easy walking distance of the town square and Miller’s Creek police department. She glanced at her expensive-looking knock-off wristwatch as she parked. If she could get him in and out of here in five to ten minutes, she might just be able to keep her five o’clock deadline. “Here’s our first listing. A one-bedroom, one-bath, detached home with a carport.”

Carter’s dark eyebrows met in the middle. Not a positive sign. “Don’t think this one will be big enough for me and my daughter.”

“Daughter?” Mara’s frozen smile melted from within, her stomach churning up bitter acid in response. “Sorry. You didn’t really give me a chance in our phone conversation to find out what you were looking for. I assumed you wanted a place for just you.”

He shook his head. “No. My teenage daughter Chloe lives with me now. The apartment complex we’re in isn’t ideal, and we’re beyond over-crowded.” His gaze focused somewhere down the street. “Didn’t know one teen-age girl came with so much paraphernalia.”

“Oh.” Mara pursed her lips, her brain clicking through options like a line of people at a Six Flags turnstile. “Well, if this one’s too small, we won’t even bother with it.” At least that would save some time. She opened his client folder and whisked through a few papers, quickly spotting the information she sought. “The next house I lined up is a two-bedroom, two-bath, probably more suited to what you’re looking for.”

Carter grinned to reveal even white teeth that practically sparkled against his tanned skin. He scratched his chin whiskers. “Sounds more like it. Definitely don’t enjoy sharing a bathroom with a teen-aged female. Don’t get a whole lot of mirror time anymore.”

Mara laughed as she pulled away from the curb. Like he needed mirror time. “Just so you know, I’m pretty sure the teenage girl doesn’t like sharing a bathroom anymore than you do.”

His charming smile and deep chuckle set off a strange twist in her stomach.

Okay, back to business. Now would be a great time to ask a few questions. “Other than the two beds and two baths, is there anything else you’re looking for?”

“Not really. All comes down to space and budget.”

Mara released a semi-silent sigh of relief as she turned a corner. Good. He’d brought up the money issue first. “How much are you wanting to spend?”

“I’d like to keep it close to what I’m paying for the apartment. Seven hundred a month.”

Quick calculations erupted in her head. Thirty year mortgage, twenty percent down. He’d be able to afford over a hundred thousand with no problem. A smile flickered inside and worked its way to her face. Which meant that after splitting realtor’s fees with the listing agent she could plop at least three grand in her almost-depleted bank account. “I’m sure we can find you something very nice for that amount.”

Carter’s eyes widened. “Really?” His tone held shocked surprise.

“Really.” Mara pulled up in front of house two and grimaced inwardly. Ugh. The old bungalow had definitely seen better days and was well under what he could afford. But this wasn’t a good way to impress a new client. Oh well, at least she could see what he liked and disliked about the place, info that would make further research all the easier.

They stepped from the vehicle at the same time and made their way down the narrow and crumbling sidewalk to a small stoop of a porch. Mara retrieved the key from the lock box with fumbling fingers, painfully aware that Carter used the time to scan the declining neighborhood. Rats! Yet another minus to add to his list of negatives about the place.

He stepped up beside her. “Well-established neighborhood. I like that. We don’t get too many calls from this part of town. I like that even better. Mostly older folks around here.”

Mara swung the front door open, filing his comments within compartments in her brain to add to her files later that night. “So you’d rather have friends for your daughter in the neighborhood?”

Carter’s face took on an indiscernible look. “Not really, but I guess it depends on the friends.” His tone held a trace of sarcasm.

Her eyebrows climbed despite her attempt to keep them down. Over-protective dad? Poor Chloe. Mara held one hand toward the tiny living space. “This, of course, would be your main living area, and it leads to an eat-in kitchen.”

Carter sauntered across the stained and tattered carpet to the kitchen, his eyes roving over every square inch. “More outdated than what we’re used to, but it’ll do.”

This time Mara locked her eyebrows in down position and forced her lips into a placid smile. Hello. Could he not see how horrible this kitchen was? No telling how many layers of grease coated the mustard-gold stove or what kind of creepy-crawlies lurked in darkened crevices. Not to mention the musty smell. Yeah, time to move on. “The bedrooms are this way.” She took off down the hallway, then flattened herself against the wall to allow his brawny build to pass by. “The first doorway on the left is the second bedroom, and across the hall is a bath.” If you could call the postage-stamp-sized bath a room.

He poked his head around the door frame of the pink-tiled bathroom and grimaced. “It’s a bit tight for me. And pink’s definitely not my color.” His gaze roved to the low shower head. “I’d have to chop myself off at the knees to fit under that thing.”

“This isn’t the master bath. Maybe it’s more your size.”

He scratched his head. “Maybe, but I’ll probably give Chloe the master. Trust me, she’ll need it for all her stuff.”

Mara traipsed to the master bedroom with the en suite bath. It wasn’t much bigger than the first.

Though Carter didn’t speak, she could tell by the turn of his lips that it wasn’t to his taste. “How big is the back yard?”

“Fairly large, actually.” She moved to a window and peered out the dust-covered blinds, then stepped aside for him to look. “It would give you plenty of space for entertaining.”

One side of his upper lip curled. “Yuck. Yard work. And just so you know, I’m not much into entertaining. Just need enough space for the dogs.”

She should’ve seen that one coming. He was definitely the dog type, which meant he definitely wasn’t her type. Not that she was on the market anyway. “So you’d rather have a small yard?”

“Definitely. Don’t mind yard work, but my free time is next to nil.”

She nodded. “I totally understand.” Understatement of the millennium. “Are you interested in this one at all?”

“Maybe. How much?”

“Well under budget at fifty-five.”

A puzzled expression clouded his face. “Fifty-five?”

“Yes. Fifty-five thousand. Is that a problem? I’m sure you’re pre-qualified for more than that.” She hesitated. “Aren’t you?”

His chuckle broke lose along with a sheepish grin. “Uh, I’m looking for a place to rent. Not to buy.”

Steam built in her ears and threatened to explode out the top of her head. Well. He could’ve at least asked if there were rentals available when he called. All this time she’d assumed he was looking to buy. And she’d make next to nothing on finding him a rent house. Her smile slipped, but she ducked her head and headed to the front door without comment.

Once she’d turned off the lights and secured the house, Mara hurried to the SUV with Carter right behind. She inched the speedometer needle a hair above the speed limit as they made their way to the final house for the day. What was the best way to broach this subject of rental houses? She cleared her throat and assumed her best business voice. “You should know that the next house I have lined up is also for sale. Sorry about the miscommunication, but my business revolves around sales. Since you didn’t mention rent houses, I assumed you wanted to purchase a home.”

“You don’t do rentals?”

She sent an apologetic smile. “Not at this point. And quite honestly, I think you might have trouble locating a rent house in a place the size of Miller’s Creek. Most people only rent when they become desperate and can’t sell their house.” She peered in the rear view mirror as she slowed to a stop at an intersection.

A heavy sigh sounded from the other side of the car. “Problem is, I don’t wanna buy. Chloe graduates next May, so I’ll more than likely move to a bigger place where there’s better pay. Need the extra income to send her to college.”

Mara pulled the SUV onto the shoulder of the road and braked to a stop, then turned to look at him squarely. Might as well end this now so she could get on with the next portion of her day’s crazy agenda. “So you don’t want to see the next house?” She sent a quick glance to the dashboard clock. Hopefully he’d take the hint. Already she was late in picking Ashton up from the daycare.

“You need to be somewhere?” One dark eyebrow cocked upward, reminding her of the furry caterpillars that had already made their appearance in the trees outside her front door.

“Not if you’re interested in buying this house.” Sometimes bluntness was the only thing that got through to this kind of guy. She bit back the urge to tell him how he’d wasted her time. Time she wanted—and needed—to spend with her daughter.

He considered her words. “I have an idea. Let’s swing through the Dairy Queen drive-thru so I can pick up a burger. I missed lunch, and my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut. Then we’ll hop on over to that other house. Maybe I just need to bite the bullet and buy a house.”

His first words had generated an automated response of ‘you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me’ in her brain. Had he not followed them with the hint of a possible purchase, she’d be dropping him off and pronto. She gulped deep breaths of air to squelch her growing frustration at his devil-may-care attitude. Okay, she could do this. After all, she was a mom, right? She’d grab some chicken nuggets for Ashton at the DQ to save time. Not the healthiest meal, but on their tight time frame it would have to work. Another plan hatched in her mind, and a triumphant grin landed on her lips. And the daycare was on the way to the next house, so she might as well pick Ashton up on the way.

Ten minutes later, the SUV now flooded with the smell of fast food—Mara pulled back onto the highway as Carter noisily dug around in the bulging white paper sack. He pulled out a small white box with red lettering and sat it on the console between them. “Here’s your chicken nuggets.”

“Oh, they’re not for me. They’re for my daughter. Her day care is on the way to the next house, so I’m going to pick her up. Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” He spoke the words through swollen cheeks, much like a squirrel during nut season, his voice muffled by the wad of burger in his mouth. As they pulled up outside the daycare, Carter stuffed in the last morsel of his double-patty burger with bacon and cheese and licked his fingers with a slurping sound.

Mara ignored his caveman manners, put the vehicle in park, and killed the engine.

Carter lifted his gaze. “Hey, this is Mama Beth’s daycare.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Mind if I go in with you?”

A wild chase of panic and frustration erupted inside. Would they ever get through this house showing? “Sure. Why not?” A dead-pan tone crept into her voice as she exited the Escalade and hurried to the front door to punch in her security code. A second later they entered the sprawling ranch house which had been converted to a daycare, each room set up for various activities especially geared to preschool-aged children.

Dani Miller rounded the corner of the hallway, a baby on her right hip. “Hi, Mara.” Then she looked past her to Carter. “Well, what are you doing here, big guy?” She eased around Mara to give him a sideways hug.

Carter laughed, a rich melodious sound that echoed through the space. “Mara’s showing me some houses, but wanted to stop and pick up her daughter. So I thought I’d come in and say hi.”

A strange calculating twinkle developed behind Dani’s big blue eyes. “Ah, I see. Y’all follow me. The kids are outside.”

A minute later they stood in the fenced-in play yard beside Mama Beth, who looked out over the handful of children yet to be picked up. Ashton leaned against the elderly woman’s right side.

Mara knelt in front of her daughter and enveloped her in a hug. “Guess what I have waiting for you in the car?”

Ashton smiled a tiny smile, the fatigue of the day resting in her eyes. “What?”

“Chicken nuggets from Dairy Queen.”

Instead of being happy about the uncommon treat of fast food chicken nuggets, her daughter pointed to Carter. “Who’s that?”

Mara latched on to her daughter’s finger and pulled downward, then rose to her feet. “Don’t point, sweetie. It’s impolite. I’m showing Mr. Callahan some properties.”

Mama Beth made eye contact. “Can I speak with you just a moment before you go?”

Did these people not realize her stretched-to-the-max schedule? “Certainly. Go get your things together, Ashton. I’ll be inside in a second.”

“I’ll help.” Carter winked at Ashton and elicited a contagious giggle from the little girl. The two headed inside where Dani still cared for the bed babies.

Concern hovered in Mama Beth’s blue eyes as she laced her fingers in front of her. “I don’t mean to make you worry, Mara, but I’m a little concerned about Ashton.”

Mara’s heart stopped momentarily, then resumed beating at a quicker pace. “Why?”

“She’s just been so tired when she gets off the school bus. Today she curled up in a corner and went to sleep, even with the other children playing and making noise.”

Mara kept a straight face. “Kindergarten’s a big change for her. I’m sure that’s all it is.”

“Well, you’d be the one to know.” The woman didn’t sound convinced. “I just wanted to make you aware.”

“Thank you.” Mara laid a hand on Mama Beth’s arm. “I appreciate you looking after her so well. I’ll definitely keep an eye on her.”

This seemed to satisfy the older woman, so Mara said her good-byes and hurried inside.

Carter and Ashton stood near the front door, unaware of her approach. With her typical child-like curiosity and grown-up demeanor, Ashton cocked her head to one side and looked up at Carter. “Are you going to be my new daddy?”

“Ashton!” Mortified, Mara hurried down the hallway to her daughter’s side, grabbed the heavy backpack from her arms, and took hold of her hand. “Sweetie, let’s not ask people that question, okay?”

“Why not?”

Mara stepped outside to the vehicle, then opened the back door for Ashton to crawl in. “Because it’s not polite or relevant.” Once her daughter was securely buckled in, Mara slid into the front seat, unnervingly aware of Carter’s amused gaze latched onto her every move. Without giving him the satisfaction of acknowledging his amusement, she handed the box of chicken nuggets to the back seat, started the car, and backed out of the parking lot.

The car grew more quiet and awkward with each passing moment. And even worse, it was becoming all-too-apparent that she was hopelessly lost. On today, of all days. Had she missed a turn?

“Where is this place anyway?” Carter whispered the words, almost as though afraid of igniting her already-short and frazzled fuse.

Mara yanked the steering wheel sharply to the right, careened the car off into the grass at an intersection in the middle of nowhere, threw the gear shift into park, and reached for her county map. How could she have been so stupid not to get the location firmly fixed in her mind before bringing a client? “I think we’re on the right road. And why are you whispering anyway?” The words belted out of her mouth as she slid her right index finger across the map to locate the road she needed.

“Ashton’s asleep.” His voice still in whisper mode, he jerked his head and left thumb toward the back seat.

She pulled down the rear view mirror. Sure enough, Ashton’s head lolled to one side, eyes closed, the unopened box of chicken nuggets clutched in her hands.

Alarms rang in Mara’s head and heart, but she quickly pounded them into submissive silence. Nothing to be overly-concerned about at this point. She sent a weak smile Carter’s way. “Must’ve had a busy day at school. Probably just missed her nap.” Without waiting for his response, she turned her attention back to the map.

“What road are you looking for? Maybe I can help.”

Mara checked the folder for the address. “Um…County Road 2142.”

A cheeky grin appeared on his face. “Other side of town.” He pointed to the map. “We should’ve turned left instead of right.”

Ugh. Fifteen minutes in the wrong direction? Mara semi-folded the map and tossed it to the floorboard. “Sorry. I’m still learning these back roads.” She adjusted the rearview mirror to check for traffic, put the car in gear, and whipped around to drive the other direction, still battling panic at the sight of her sleeping daughter’s paler-than-normal face.

“No prob. Maps can be confusing.” Carter’s sincere tone calmed her frayed nerves.

Twenty quiet minutes later, they drove onto a dirt driveway of a small rock house. A quick glance in the mirror confirmed what Mara expected.

Ashton was still asleep.

Now what should she do? “Um, I can let you in the front door to look at the place while I stay outside with her.”

A frown pulled his dark brows together. “Why don’t you just let me carry her? I don’t mind.”

Mara nodded her okay and moved to the back door to release Ashton’s seat belt. Carter leaned in from the other side, his broad shoulders filling the doorway. He easily lifted her little girl from the seat. Ashton stirred momentarily, then rested her head on Carter’s thick shoulders, her strawberry blond waves bright against his dark shirt.

Mara swallowed back a sudden onslaught of emotions and hurried up the front porch. Thankfully the lock box cooperated, and in a minute’s time they entered the house, soft snores sounding from Ashton. The living room, though large, smelled of dust from months of disuse. Mara wrinkled her nose. “A little smelly.”

“Just needs to be aired out.” Carter’s dark eyes scanned the space as he carefully cradled her daughter in his arms. “Really hadn’t thought about a house in the country, but I like the space. And the peace and quiet.”

“If your daughter drives, it would mean extra gas money each month.” She clasped her hands in front of the electric blue business skirt she’d donned early that morning. The one she couldn’t wait to exchange for a pair of sweat pants.

He nodded. “Good point. But let’s go ahead and check out the rest of the house while we’re here.”

“Of course.” Mara hurried him through the rest of the house, discreetly checking her watch as they entered the last bedroom. “You could use this for guests or a home office.”

“You need to be somewhere?”

Man, nothing escaped this guy. He must have eyes in the back of his head. “We have an event this evening, but business comes first.” She injected a happy sing-song to her words.

Carter’s jaw clenched and pulsed. “Uh, no. Your family comes first.”

“I know that, but this is more important than what we have scheduled for this evening.” Sort of.

Without another word, and with disapproval oozing from his face, Carter strode from the room and down the hallway toward the front door, the old floors squeaking beneath his weight.

Questions rolled in her mind, but Mara followed and quickly locked up the house as she glanced over her shoulder toward the SUV.

With a soft tenderness Mara hadn’t expected from this over-sized, always-aware mixture of handsome jock and caveman, Carter gently set Ashton into the seat and secured her seat belt.

Unwanted feelings unleashed inside, wreaking havoc with her stretched-out nerves. In many ways, Carter was exactly the kind of man Mara would’ve wished as a daddy to her little girl. Not that it mattered. Life had proved that road a dead-end.

The trip back into Miller’s Creek was even more quiet than the trip out, this time with the added burden of Carter’s obvious disapproval sucking the oxygen from the vehicle. Anxiety-ridden thoughts pelted Mara’s brain, not just about Ashton, but about Carter Callahan. Had she somehow offended him?

 

 


Still I Will Follow

A freedom-seeking believer has done the one thing she swore never to do -- move back to Miller's Creek. Though Bella followed God's leading in her quest for freedom, she never imagined He'd take her back to the place so full of hurtful memories. And she's struggling to understand why. Especially since at every turn, people seem determined to remind her about her checkered past and condemn her for it in the present. At Miller's Ranch, the hard-as-nails ranch manager yearns for someone with whom to share his life. But Clay's not prepared for a softening of his heart toward the woman who betrayed him years ago. Perhaps the best way to handle it is to make sure she leaves Miller's Creek. This time forever. Can Bella and Clay release their chains to find a freedom that has always been theirs? Or will false accusations and the lies they believe condemn them both to a life of emptiness and enslavement to the past?

  • ISBN: 9781370621361
  • Author: Cathy Bryant
  • Published: 2017-09-14 21:35:22
  • Words: 94387
Still I Will Follow Still I Will Follow