Excerpt for The Way of Grace by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

the way of

GRACE



a Miller’s Creek Novel - Book 3

C A T H Y B R Y A N T


WordVessel Press


The Way of Grace

© 2012 Cathy Bryant


Published by WordVessel Press

Bentonville, Arkansas




All rights reserved.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

ISBN: 0-9844311-4-4

ISBN-13: 978-0-9844311-4-4

TABLE OF CONTENTS


Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Prologue

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

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Letter to Reader Friends

About Cathy

Cathy's Books

Book Club Discussion Questions

Special Thanks

Sneak Peek at PILGRIMAGE OF PROMISE


To my wonderful husband Travis. Thank you for believing in me when I lost all confidence, encouraging me when I was ready to quit, and helping me follow my heart’s desire to make Him known. Above all, thank you for being a man of grace.



* * *



"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand." ~Romans 5:1-2a






PROLOGUE


Childhood


Graciela flinched as Papa pounded a fist on the table, his dark eyes flashing at Mama.

“We do not have money for this!”

Mama acted as if his words didn’t bother her at all. “I’ve saved part of the egg money for weeks, Juan. It doesn’t cost much for a few flowers for your only daughter. This will help her learn how to grow a garden.” She kept her voice low and steady.

Papa glared at Graciela momentarily, but didn’t say anything. Instead he unclenched his fists and picked up his fork to resume eating.

Her two older brothers finished their meal quickly. “Can we go outside to play, Papa?”

Si. You two have worked hard today.” As they scraped their plates into the slop bucket for the pig, Papa shifted his gaze back to her. “But you will do the dishes to earn the flowers your Mama is determined to give you.”

“Okay, Papa.” She tried to enjoy the thick tamales Mama had made, but all she tasted was unshed tears. Why did he dislike her?

The next day, Graciela hummed happily as she skipped to the backyard, her thick braid bouncing between her shoulder blades. Laughter bubbled out of her chest and molded her lips into a happy smile. She and Mama had spent the past hour choosing not only vegetable plants, but also colorful marigolds, begonias, and geraniums from B & B Hardware.

All winter long she’d longed for this moment, had poured over catalogs and picked out pictures of those she liked best, while Mama made sure the flowers would survive the brutally hot Texas summers.

A frown furrowed her young forehead as she remembered Papa’s objection to the flowers. He was so hard to understand. Sometimes he was so rough and gruff, all she wanted to do was climb the wild plum tree beside their little house and stay up there forever. At other times—mostly at times when Mama coerced him into a good mood—he was fun and happy. Almost like two different people, and she never knew which one would show up.

She climbed the bottom rung of the fence, looked out across the pasture at the goats munching happily on the new spring grass, and breathed deeply. Did anything smell as lovely as spring? Next she focused her gaze on the puffy white clouds floating across the sky and the chirping sparrows that flitted from tree to tree. How wonderful it must be to soar through skies of azul.

“There you are, la hija.” Mama’s voice broke into her reverie. “Ready to plant your flowers?”

Si.” She began to prattle away in her native tongue, but one look from Mama was all it took to silence her. Graciela pressed her lips together in an effort to still her tongue. “Sorry, Mama. I forgot.”

Mama sighed and shot a reassuring smile. “It’s okay, but we must learn to speak the language of our new country. I must do better, too.” Her mother took hold of Graciela’s hand. “Come, let’s get these flowers planted before your Papa gets home.”

“Will Papa be upset that we’re planting flowers?”

Her mother’s face darkened as they made their way to the patch of ground they’d cleared of grass and weeds. “We will see, won’t we?”

Mama demonstrated how to dig a hole in the soil and loosen the roots of the seedling before placing it in the ground and giving it a big drink.

Graciela stooped to sniff the newly planted marigold and made a face. “That flower stinks.”

Mama laughed, a musical sound that never failed to capture Graciela’s wonder and attention. “Yes, but it will keep the bugs off our tomatoes.”

At the mention of the tasty summer tomatoes, her mouth watered, and she licked her lips. “Why is Papa so grumpy sometimes, Mama?”

“He has many worries. I know it must seem to you that he doesn’t love you, but he does.”

She tried to understand, but quickly gave up. Papa rarely gave her a second look, but always had plenty of time for her two older brothers. “I try to be nice so he will love me, but it doesn’t seem to do any good.”

Mama quickly folded her into her arms, undid her braid, and combed Graciela’s long hair with her fingers. “Oh, sweet one, you are a good girl, and he does love you. It’s just hard for him to show it.” Mama held her at arm’s length, her hands on both shoulders. “Don’t give up on him, la hija. The world has a way of changing people’s hearts. He’ll come around one day.”

Graciela picked up the hand spade and plunged it into the soft sandy soil with as much force as she could muster. Maybe Papa would come around someday, but that could be a long, long time away. And what would happen to soften his heart?


* * *


The next morning at church, Graciela nestled in the crook of Mama’s arm and hunkered down in the blue cushioned pew. She couldn’t help but notice how differently people treated them.

Some--like the woman who smelled of cinnamon and vanilla, the one everyone called Mama Beth--were very kind to her and Mama, always stopping to say hello and ask how they were doing. Others only looked their way with accompanying whispered words and accusing glances. She asked Mama why.

“Some people cannot see past a person’s skin to see that on the inside we are all the same.”

Graciela puzzled over the statement, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t understand. She peered down the row to a girl her age she’d seen at school. In a pretty dress with lots of ruffles and bows, and with golden ringlets encircling her head, the girl reminded Graciela of a beautiful doll. Maybe they could be friends. She sent a shy smile.

The girl didn’t smile back. Instead she stuck out her tongue and jerked her head away, nose upturned.

A heavy darkness descended on Graciela’s heart. Would she ever find a friend?

The service began with singing. Her heart lightened. How she loved the music. The song lilted in her heart, and as she followed Mama’s finger in the hymnbook, she allowed her voice to soar like the birds she’d seen yesterday. Higher and higher she floated away from her problems and into blue skies. Oh, how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.

Soon the pastor stood to speak, his face aglow with joy. Graciela perched on the edge of the seat, enthralled as he spoke of a God who loved her more than she could imagine, a God who loved her as a Father. When it came time for the end of the service, she bolted down the aisle, convinced in her heart that God had personally invited her to be His child.

Later that evening, Mama peeked through the opened door to her small room. “May I come in?”

This time she remembered to use her English words. “Yes.”

Mama eased to the bed beside her. “Papa and the boys have gone fishing, and I thought you might enjoy a girl’s night out. Maybe supper at the Dairy Maid?”

Graciela folded her coloring book around the box of crayons and hopped from the bed. Eating at Dairy Maid without the boys and Papa meant a burger and fries all to herself with a chocolate milkshake on the side.

They arrived at the drive-up hamburger joint just as the sun set, trailing long pink fingers across the horizon. They moved from the car to the screened window where the enticing aroma of grilled burgers wafted onto the evening breeze. Mama placed their order then turned to face her, steering her toward a nearby picnic table. “I want to talk to you about this morning, la hija. That was a very big decision for one so young. Do you understand what it means to be saved?”

“Yes, Mama. Our teacher talked about it in Sunday school. God loves me so much He sent Jesus, His only son, to die for me. If I accept what He did and invite Him into my heart, He comes to live inside me.”

Mama nodded. “That’s right. But do you understand why Jesus died?”

Graciela wrinkled her eyebrows and skewed her lips to one side. Why did God’s son have to die for her? “Not really. I know it has to do with sin, but you told me I’m a good girl.”

A smile rounded Mama’s lips, and she reached across the table to tweak Graciela’s nose. “Yes, you are a good girl, but not all the time.”

A big lady brought their burgers wrapped in white paper, and set them on the table along with white Styrofoam cups and a red plastic basket of steaming fries.

Graciela reached for the cup and sucked hard to get the thick chocolate milkshake into her mouth, where it melted and ran down her throat.

Mama rustled the white paper wrapping. “Remember when you stole a cookie from the jar and accidentally broke the lid? I asked if you did it, and you said no.”

“I was afraid you’d be mad at me.” She spoke around the big bite of burger she’d just taken.

“Ahh, sweet daughter, you must not let the opinions of others keep you from doing the right thing, but that is a very difficult lesson to learn.” Mama leaned her head back, her eyes trained on the sky. “But you see that you are not perfect, right? That even though you are good most of the time, you are not good all the time?”

It was true. There were times she got angry with her brothers for teasing her. Times when she was so upset with Papa that she wished . . . No! She mustn’t wish such things!

“I can tell by the look on your face that you know it is true. As much as we want to be perfect, we are not.” Mama’s voice was a soft spring breeze.

Graciela’s shoulders sagged. Why couldn’t she be good all the time?

Mama’s fingers gently lifted her chin. “Don’t be sad, la hija. That is why God gave us Jesus. We are born with part of us broken on the inside.” Mama patted her chest with one hand. “By His grace, He will one day make us complete. Until then, we must do our best, but trust in His grace.”

A sudden understanding flew to her heart. “My name.” The awe and wonder she felt came out in her words.

Mama nodded, a tender look on her face. “Yes, Graciela. You are named for God’s grace. I was saved right before you were born.”

Warmth flooded her being, and gratitude to God for what He’d done swelled in her chest. When they pulled away from Dairy Maid a few minutes later, Graciela could not remember a time when she felt so completely happy.

They stopped at a red light, and Mama reached over to tickle her ribs.

She giggled. As she dodged Mama’s wiggling fingers, she glimpsed a car headed toward them so fast it looked like a gray blur.

The light turned green and her mother pulled into the intersection.

Graciela opened her mouth in warning, but the words clumped in her throat, finally bursting forth in a scream.


One


Fifteen years later


A car horn blasted through the summer evening air, followed by tires screeching against pavement and the rancid smell of burning rubber. Grace yanked her head in Mama’s direction. The noisy blast continued as a car bore down on them. Everything went pitch black as Mama’s piercing scream joined her own, followed by a deadly thud.

Heart racing, Grace jerked awake, forcing herself to a sitting position. The same old nightmare. She brought both hands to her face and gulped in air to slow her pounding pulse. Why now? She’d endured the last year of law school and the bar exam without memories of that awful night plaguing her. But now that she was back in Miller’s Creek to work for Tyler, Dent, and Snodgrass as a full-fledged attorney, the dream shattered her sleep for the fourth time in a week.

Grace pulled her hands away from her face—almost afraid to find them dripping with blood—then glanced at the alarm clock on her makeshift nightstand. 5:15 in the morning. She flopped back on the bed and stared at the dark nothingness above her head. There was no way she’d get back to sleep now. Might as well get an early start.

A sudden rush of excitement coursed through her veins. All her hard work had finally paid off. Now it was time to enjoy herself for a change and initiate her life plan, which included a stellar career, new house, Mr. Right, and of course, children.

She removed the band that confined her hair and gave her head a shake. Better to just focus on her career at this point, her best chance at proving her worth—to Papa, to the people of Miller’s Creek, and to Mr. Right, whoever he was.

The cold floor beneath her bare feet sent shivers rippling through her body as she raced down the hallway to the tiny kitchen to make a pot of coffee for Papa. Within a few minutes the coffee machine gurgled and the fresh-brewed aroma permeated every square inch of the house. She was just about to head for a shower when Papa entered.

“You’re up early.” His eyes held questions.

There was no way she’d tell him about the nightmare. No need to cause him worry or pain. “Just excited about this being my first day as an attorney.”

He wandered past her to pull a coffee cup from the cabinet. “It’s all you’ve talked about for weeks.” He droned the words, his voice flat.

Grace rolled her lips between her teeth. It would be nice to have a word of congratulations--anything to recognize her hard work and achievement--but wishing for it wouldn’t make it happen. Instead she sent a sad smile. “I’d better get ready for work.”

She hurried down the hall to the only bathroom in the house and turned on the lights and the little space heater Papa had hung from a nail protruding from the paneled walls. The power cord snaked behind the sink faucet before finding the overloaded outlet—an electrical disaster waiting to happen, but Papa’s way of making do with what he had.

The pipes groaned in protest when she turned on the faucet and waited for the water to get warm. Living with Papa and his stony silence would definitely be the hardest part of her plan, but it would have to do for now. With her brothers and their families now in South Texas, it was her only option.

An hour later, she stepped once more into the kitchen, dressed and ready for work. Grace reached for the spiral notebook that served as her daily planner and checked off the tasks she’d already completed. Start laundry. Check. Make bed. Check. Bible study and prayer. Check.

Millie, the stray cat she’d taken in years ago, butted her head against Grace’s leg, begging for attention. She squatted to scratch the fluffy feline behind the ears. “How’s my kitty?” Grace scooped the cat into her arms and hugged her close. How would she have survived Mama’s death without the perky ears always willing to listen?

The back door swung open. Dressed in his heavy brown coveralls, Papa entered, and brought with him a gust of cold air and the smell of cows. He didn’t say a word, but ambled past her to the kitchen sink to wash his hands, his dirty work boots clomping against the old wooden floor, his face devoid of a smile.

She wrinkled her nose, dropped Millie to the floor, and brushed cat hair from her black skirt. Long gone were the hopes that her father would be proud of her for becoming an attorney. “Through with the chores?”

He continued to wash his hands without looking her way.

Grace forced her hurt feelings aside, her mouth suddenly dry. She should be used to his emotional distance by now. “Papa, I know you don’t approve of me being an attorney, but—”

He held up one hand for silence, his back still to her, water dripping down his sleeve. “Enough, Graciela. I don’t want to discuss this anymore. You made up your mind to disrespect my wishes long ago.”

His displeasure hanging like dead weight around her neck, Grace blinked back tears and picked up her old book bag. It was way too early, but she might as well go to work. She’d grab a pastry at Granny’s Kitchen on the way. No, on second thought, it wouldn’t hurt to skip breakfast. That way she’d save money and inch toward losing those last few pounds she’d gained while studying for the bar. Without another word to Papa, she slipped out of the house, climbed in the battered old farm truck, and headed to the office.

A late autumn fog engulfed downtown Miller’s Creek, and the two- and three-story hewn-stone buildings rose above the mist, silent sentinels observing the march of time. The buildings had seen over a century of use, and thanks to the grant bestowed on the town while she was in high school, had been lovingly restored to their former glory.

Though early November was a little early for Christmas decorations, Miller’s Creek had them up well ahead of time for the tourists who would pour into the historic town square for shopping. Already the old-timey street lamps were festooned with lighted wreaths, while greenery draped the Victorian gazebo and lights twinkled from Christmas trees placed throughout the square.

Gravel crunched beneath the pickup tires as she pulled into the parking lot of Tyler, Dent, and Snodgrass and turned off the headlights. She let herself in the back door and flipped the switch. As the fluorescent fixture flickered on and hummed, her earlier joy dissipated. This should be a celebration—the day for which she’d toiled to bring purpose from her pain—but somehow it felt common and ordinary. No balloons or flowers. No party. No pat on the back or word of congratulations.

She shook off the self-pity and moved to her cubicle to make sure everything was in its place, then instinctively pulled a Bible from her bag and ran her hand over the well-worn cover.

Lord, You know how my heart hurts this morning. I miss Mama and I don’t know what to say to Papa. Help me be all You want me to be. Lead me in Your Way. Give me an open heart and mind to receive Your truth.

As she thumbed through the whispering onion-skin pages, her Bible fell open to Romans. A verse she’d underlined some time before caught her attention. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.

Enough grace to stand in. Was it even humanly possible to be a person of grace? She slanted her lips as she pondered the question, but finally gave her head a shake. True grace was motivated by the purest love, and maybe it was just her, but she doubted she could ever love someone that much.

The thought troubled her. God commanded her to love others as she loved herself, but some people made that seem impossible. Maybe something inside her was broken and malfunctioning. Perhaps her childhood left her incapable of loving like she was supposed to.

Thump!

She jumped at the unexpected noise then sat motionless, her ears tuned to the tiniest noise. More thumps sounded from the basement.

Her pulse raced at the possibility of an intruder. In Miller’s Creek at this hour of the morning? Not likely. Maybe Andy had spent the night in the basement apartment because of working late. She stood and tiptoed to the narrow stairs leading to the basement. That wasn’t likely either, especially with a newborn at home.

The noise continued. “Andy?” Grace made her way down the darkened steps. If it wasn’t him, at least maybe her voice would scare away a potential burglar.

She glided noiselessly across the large carpeted room. “Andy? Is that you?” Grace jiggled the door knob of the small studio apartment. Locked. Now what?

Perhaps she should call the ranch to see what Andy wanted her to do. She started back across the open space toward the staircase to place the call. But before she’d made it even halfway, the overhead lights sputtered on.

“Well, well, if it isn’t Gracie Mae.”

She spun around, one hand to her pounding heart, a tinny taste in her mouth. Matt?

He leaned against a wall, one stout leg crossed casually over the other, his arms overlapped. An enigmatic expression rested in his sandy brown eyes, and though his hair was damp from a recent washing, his rumpled T-shirt and jeans looked as if he’d slept in them. In the time since she’d seen him last, he’d cut his hair so short there was no evidence of the curls she’d always admired, and he’d buffed up, more muscular and lean than before.

Grace squashed the motherly instincts that rose within her at the sight of his wrinkled clothes. That’s what landed her in trouble with him the first time, and she wouldn’t fall for it again. A man like Matt, one with wanderlust in his blood, wasn’t the one for her. “What are you doing here?”

He released a short laugh. “Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that question?”

“I passed the bar and—”

“Yeah, Andy told me. Congrats.” He made his way to where she stood and came to a stop a few uncomfortable feet away. “But that still doesn’t explain why you’re here so early.”

She shrugged and turned toward the stairs. “Couldn’t sleep. See you around.”

Before she reached the first step, Matt blocked her way, the soft scent of shampoo clinging to his damp hair.

“Still running away from me?” Though he spoke the words softly, his tawny eyes held a challenge.

Her hands balled into fists. A million retorts built up behind her clenched lips, but she held them at bay. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing that his words affected her in the least. With great effort, she uncurled her fingers. “Nope. Just going back to my desk to get started on some work.”

His posture went slack, and he sent an apologetic grin. “Sorry. Let me start over. Had breakfast yet?”

A rumble sounded from her stomach. “If that’s an invitation, I accept.” The reckless words were out before she had time to reconsider. What was she thinking? She’d shut this door over two years ago, a door that needed to stay shut. Nonetheless, she’d agreed to breakfast, and she’d follow through to prove she wasn’t running away.

They crossed the room together, and Grace threw out a question to fill the silence. “Have you been working out?”

“Yep. Even joined the wrestling team at school. It’s been good for me.”

Grace followed Matt into the apartment and glanced around. In characteristic messy-Matt style, a spread-out newspaper, microwave popcorn bag, and an almost-empty glass sat on the coffee table, while a pillow and blanket hung off the couch. A duffel bag on the floor spewed its contents, bringing an odd rush of disappointment. “Just in town for one night?” Typical.

“Don’t really know at this point.” He offered no further explanation, but moved to the kitchenette fridge and removed the makings for an omelet. “So what’s next for you?” With deft movements, he prepared the meal, the chopped onions burning her eyes. “Last I heard you were going to get your career going before looking for your soul mate. Still searching for Mr. Perfect?” His voice held a hint of bitterness.

She lowered her gaze. “Look, Matt, about our conversation two years ago. It wasn’t personal. I just needed to focus on one thing at a time. My law school had to come first.”

“Agreed. As I recall, I never tried to suggest otherwise.”

“No, but I sensed you wanted more from me than I was prepared to give at the time.”

He seemed to accept the answer. “But you have to admit, I don’t exactly fit the image in your head.”

Grace froze. How was she supposed to answer that? “And what image is that?”

“Smart, well-groomed, wealthy, professional, handsome.”

Her eyebrows rose. He’d pretty much nailed her must-have list on the head. In fact, he’d perfectly described one of Andy’s new partners, Jason Dent. The only problem was that guys like Jason didn’t give girls like her a second glance.

A knowing smile touched the corners of Matt’s mouth, but to his credit, he dropped the subject. “So you still haven’t told me why you’re here at such an early hour.”

“That’s because you didn’t ask nicely.”

His boyish chortle took her by surprise and set off unexplainable emotions. He glanced up from the cutting board. “True. How’s this? Nice to see you again, Gracie. What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this so early?”

To her chagrin, a traitorous laugh bubbled out. She cut it short and shrugged. “I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I decided to come to work.”

A frown wrinkled his brow. “How come you couldn’t sleep?”

She hesitated, considering how best to answer his question. Might as well tell him the truth. He’d always been good at dragging it out of her anyway. “Nightmare.”

The lines on his forehead grew deeper. “Same one?”

She averted her gaze and nodded.

“Have it often?”

“Not as often as I used to, but for some reason it’s woken me up several times this week.”

He whisked the eggs into a frothy mixture and poured it into the sizzling skillet, but didn’t speak for a moment, as if thinking through her comment. “Might be the stress of starting a new job.”

“But it’s not really a new job. I’ve worked for Andy off and on since I graduated from high school. You, of all people, should know that.”

A wry grin curled one corner of his mouth. “Yeah, but now you’re an attorney. That worrying you any?”

She deliberated on the question. Drat! He’d done it again. How could he always discern what was bothering her?

“That’s it, isn’t it?”

The self-satisfied smirk on his face gave Grace the urge to whop him upside the head. “So what? That’s what you’re learning how to do, isn’t it? Figure out what’s eating people?”

“Yep.” He added the omelet toppings, and folded it over effortlessly. “Now the next question. Why does it bother you so much that I figured it out?”

Grace seethed inwardly. Why indeed? Maybe because it made her feel like she needed him, and she didn’t want to need him.

He moved next to her, the hot skillet out in front, and stopped, his face inches from hers, his eyelids half-closed. “Don’t worry, Gracie Mae. It’s okay that someone has you figured out. Trust me, it’s a good thing.”

“I don’t think anyone has ever been able to make me as angry as you do, Matt Tyler. Ever!” Grace pelted the words through tight lips then moved toward the door.

Once more, he blocked her way, holding the simmering omelet, the tantalizing aroma teasing her nostrils. “There you go again, running away.”

Rage exploded within, but no way would she dare give him the privilege of being right. She sent a close-mouthed smile she didn’t feel and turned to take a seat at the small table.

Matt tossed a pot holder to the table and set the pan on it, then procured two plates and glasses from the cabinet. “Still like chocolate in your milk?”

Yes, but he didn’t have to know it. “No. I’ve outgrown that childish habit.”

He cocked one eyebrow and poured two glasses of milk, dousing his with a healthy dose of chocolate syrup.

Grace turned her head and looked the other way, fighting her chocolate craving by reminding herself how much she hated her thunder thighs.

Matt took a long slurp from his glass, then released a satisfied sigh and licked his lips. “Man, there’s nothing better than ice-cold chocolate milk.” He sat his glass on the table and divided the omelet before delivering a portion to each plate. “Mind if I bless the food?”

“Not at all.” She bowed her head. At least one part of his life seemed headed in the right direction.

After he finished the prayer, Grace pulled a napkin from the holder and laid it in her lap, then forked into the omelet, cheese squeezing out from between the fluffy layers. A few minutes later she wiped her mouth and glanced up to see Matt staring at her with the same indecipherable look in his eyes.

“So if you woke up early, why didn’t you eat breakfast at your house?” Matt took another swig of milk, his eyes never leaving her face.

“No reason, really.” She shifted in her seat. At least none she wanted him to know.

“Your dad still pressuring you?”

“What do you mean?” Grace scooted her chair away from the table and stood with her plate to carry it to the sink.

Matt took hold of her arm as she whisked by. “Running away again?”

She jerked her elbow away. “No. Just cleaning up my dishes.”

“I’ll take care of it later. Have a seat.”

Grace unwillingly acquiesced. “Papa means well. We just have different opinions of what I should do with my life.”

He studied her face for a long, uncomfortable minute, like he wanted to say something, but wasn’t sure he should say it. Finally, he widened his eyes and changed the subject. “So back to the attorney thing. Any thoughts on why it’s bothering you?”

“Matt, you’re not a therapist yet, and I’m certainly not your client. Don’t feel like you have to analyze me and figure out all my issues. Nor should you feel obliged to fix me.”

His eyes widened again, registering hurt. “Just trying to help.”

She took in the sincerity inscribed on his face. Why did he have to be so darn likeable? Grace raised her gaze momentarily, focused on a cobweb dangling from the ceiling. And how was she supposed to talk about this with the brother of her boss? “It’s not easy to explain.”

“Try me.”

“Okay, but you’d better not breathe a word of this to Andy.”

A teasing light flickered in his eyes. “If you’re not a client, then you have no client privileges.”

Grace wadded her napkin and tossed it at him.

He caught it effortlessly in mid-air and laughed.

She pointed a finger at him. “I mean it, Matt. Promise.”

“Okay, okay.” He waved his hands, chest high, in surrender.

She inhaled a deep breath, the lingering smell of breakfast still in the air, and rubbed her arms. “You know I’ve wanted to be an attorney ever since Mama died.”

“Yeah. Go on.”

“I just didn’t see it working out this way. I thought I’d be a prosecutor.”

“So you feel like you’re working for the wrong side of the law?”

Grace nodded. “I love Andy like a brother, and owe him so much. I wouldn’t be an attorney if it weren’t for him.”

“But you feel obligated to work for him when your passion is to put the bad guys behind bars.”

“Exactly.” She gave her head a shake at the conundrum. “And I don’t know what to do about it.”

Matt placed his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his laced fingers. “Maybe you’re looking at it all wrong, Gracie. You’re focused on the situation rather than why you feel the way you do. Have you stopped to think about why you want to be a prosecutor?”

The reason flew into her brain instantly, and she straightened. “I guess for Mama, to keep someone else from going through this, and to achieve justice for others.”

“To avenge her death?” The question was half-whispered, but even then sounded cold, almost un-Christian. “Don’t overthink it, Gracie.” Matt’s tone held warning. “I see your brain spinning from here. Don’t try to assign meaning and morality to your motivation. Just accept it and move on from there.”

“But it does explain my nightmare.” The agitation in her voice surprised her. “Don’t you see? It’s as if Mama’s trying to remind me of that night so I’ll make the right decision. Maybe I need to look for a different position, one that’ll put me on the prosecution. Maybe I’m not cut out to defend guys I don’t completely trust.”

“Whoa, girl, you’re gonna strip some gears bouncing around that fast.” He stood and moved to the sink with his plate, nabbing hers as he passed. “When it comes to life, A plus B doesn’t always equal C. It’s just a jumping off place. Give it some time.”

There it was again. Matt and his “lo que será, sera”-approach to life. “You would say that. You want me to work for Andy. He’s your brother.”

The dishes Matt carried crashed into the sink, and he made a quick trip back to the table. “That’s not at all why I said what I did. Just think through things a little more carefully. I don’t believe your mother’s trying to communicate with you from the grave, and neither do if you think through it.” He softened his demeanor. “But the dilemma you’re facing is enough to make you dream about the accident.”

“Think through it? That’s the best advice you can give? A minute ago you were telling me not to overthink.”

An exasperated sigh fell from his lips. He squatted near her chair, enclosed her hands with his own, and gazed up into her eyes. “Gracie. It’s me, remember? I know you. Don’t stress and worry about making the right decision. Pray about it. You belong to God. He’ll put you where He wants you.” His smile grew tender. “And I have no doubt that you’ll be an awesome attorney, no matter which side of the courtroom you sit on.”

Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked furiously to keep them at bay. How good it felt to have someone offer encouragement—to remind her God was in control—even if it were Matt. She lowered her gaze to collect herself before glancing back up at him. “Thanks.”

He helped her to her feet and moved close to embrace her in a hug, the scent of his cologne toying with her frazzled emotions.

Grace sidestepped and reached for her glass. There was no way she’d let this move past a friendly level. He was more than likely here for a short time. Then he’d be off chasing his fantasies once more.

She deposited the glass in the stainless steel sink with a clunk. Besides, she had her life plan to think of—a plan that didn’t include a gypsy like Matt.


Two



Tyler, Dent, and Snodgrass. Hold, please.” Gracie sing-songed the words then punched another button.

Matt’s mouth lifted at one corner. If it bothered her that she had to play receptionist when she’d earned the right to be an attorney, she didn’t let it show. Her professional façade was stoically plastered in place.

He sipped the fragrant coffee and allowed his eyes to trail her every move. Blast it all! He hadn’t been as prepared for seeing her again as he’d thought. But why? Hadn’t he endured enough torture the first time? Besides, he wasn’t here to find a woman. He was here to help Andy and Trish in the short term while he figured out what God wanted him to do, to hopefully find a way to pursue both his passions—music and counseling.

Matt released a short sigh, his frustration mounting. So much for putting his feelings for her behind him. She’d made it more than clear two years ago that friendship was all she was interested in. He’d accepted it and eventually moved on. Then why was he feeling so . . . so disappointed? He swigged another sip of coffee, and tried to swallow his disappointment at the same time. Perhaps some part of him had hoped that once she was out of law school she might feel differently. Obviously nothing but wishful thinking on his part.

Behind the receptionist’s desk, Gracie easily handled multiple phone calls, multi-tasking through several projects like a well-oiled, organized machine. With her thick dark hair swept up into a twisted knot at the back of her head and the dark business attire, she looked almost formidable. All five-foot, four-inches of her.

“Are you planning on hanging out here all day?” Her voice held an irritable edge.

“Maybe.”

She huffed a puff of air from between pursed lips and returned to her work.

Two summers ago he’d glimpsed her softer side—and her better side, in his opinion—the sweet country girl with the voice of an angel and a heart for God. He pressed his lips together. Was there any hope of getting that Gracie back? More importantly, would he ever be able to prove he wasn’t the slacker and daydreamer she imagined him to be?

The phone rang again and she answered, jotting down a note while rearranging her desk to keep everything in perfect order, as though she’d marked the distance between each item with a ruler. Even notepads were placed exactly on top of each other, their sides precise and even.

He crossed his arms. Everything about her was too perfect, from her professional voice to her sensible shoes. But it was more than just role-playing. More like her thinking she could be perfect if she tried hard enough. Matt frowned. This wasn’t good at all. If Gracie kept heading toward the illusory trap of perfectionism, she was destined for a fall—and not a minor one.

The back door swung open and closed with a bang. Gracie turned her head at the sound, then smoothed her hair and skirt and checked her teeth in a small mirror near her desk.

Matt swallowed a gulp of tepid coffee, his forehead tight. Who was she trying to impress?

Andy rounded the corner, and his face broke into a grin. “Bro, when did you get here?”

“Late last night.” Matt hugged his brother and patted his back, careful not to spill the contents of his cup on Andy’s dark suit or crisp white shirt. “Didn’t wanna wake you and Trish, so I stayed at the apartment.”

“You’re here early, Gracie.” Andy strode around her to the coffee pot.

She looked up momentarily before rifling through a stack of papers. “It’s a good thing, too. The phone’s been ringing off the hook. Where’s Sandra?”

“Called earlier to say her youngest has the chicken pox.” He hesitated, his face strained. “Can you cover for her?”

“Not a problem.” She spoke the words sincerely, though the enthusiasm in her voice lowered a couple of notches.

Matt pressed his lips together, the coffee aftertaste in his mouth growing increasingly bitter. Her disease to please had grown worse. Why didn’t she stand up for herself?

“Good old Gracie, as dependable as always.” Andy patted her on the head like an obedient puppy. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were after something. A raise, maybe?” He winked at Matt.

Gracie flashed Matt a “don’t-you-dare-tell” look, but didn’t answer.

He flinched inwardly. Him and his stupid promises. How could he help Andy see that he needed to treat Gracie more like an attorney and less like a crack-filler, yet not breathe a word about Gracie’s desire to become a prosecutor? More than that, what could he do to help Gracie feel more appreciated? The seed of an idea rooted in his brain.

Andy stopped beside him. “Wanna do lunch later?”

“Sure. I’ll hang around ‘til then.” That would give him time to work on the surprise for Gracie.

His brother checked his wristwatch. “I have a few client appointments this morning, but should be done by noon.” He turned to Gracie. “Can you bring me the files for this morning’s clients?” Without waiting for an answer, he stepped to his office and closed the door behind him.

Her lips tightened and her shoulders drooped. “Sure.”

Matt’s heart tumbled. Poor thing. Today should have been a day of celebration for her. Instead it had turned into the same boring routine. He caught her attention. “You okay?”

She nodded and went back to work.

The front door creaked open, and a spry, elderly man strode by. He nodded at Matt. “Morning, Gracie.”

“Good morning, Ben.”

The man tottered down the hallway and entered one of the offices.

Matt gazed after him. “Who was that?”

Gracie raised one eyebrow. “One of the new partners, Ben Snodgrass. He joined the firm about the same time as Jason.”

“Jason?”

She stared at him like he’d lost his mind. “Jason Dent, the other new partner. You haven’t been here in a while, have you?”

“Then why don’t you fill me in?” He nodded toward the office the old man had entered. “What’s he like?”

Wavy lines wriggled their way onto her forehead. “Honestly, he kind of gives me the creeps. He’s always sneaking up on me, like he’s part feline or something.”

“And the other new guy?”

This time her face took on a certain fascination, but before she could speak, the door opened again, and a guy who looked like he’d stepped off the cover of GQ strode in. He wore an expensive black suit and tie which set off his dark complexion, steely blue eyes, and broad shoulders. “Good morning, Grace.” His British accent was the proverbial icing on the cake.

“Good morning, Jason.” Her eyes widened, and she spoke the words downright cheerfully, accompanied with a brilliant smile.

Matt’s stomach lurched unexpectedly, depositing the taste of acid on his tongue. The smitten look on Gracie’s face told him all he didn’t wanna know.

“Any messages for me?” Andy’s partner directed the words at Gracie then turned his way with a nod and closed-lip smile, obviously confident in his ability to turn women’s heads wherever he went.

“Yes.” Gracie reached for a stack of pink memos. “You seem to be in high demand as usual.”

Jason reached for the pile of notes, his fingers casually touching Gracie’s. “Thanks.” He stepped toward another office as he perused them, his perfectly polished shoes tapping against the laminate floors and the scent of his tastefully expensive cologne clogging the air.

Gracie’s eyes trailed after him wistfully, but then she turned to pull the files his brother requested.

“You didn’t answer my question.” Well, maybe she had.

She glanced up, her brow creased in a frown. “Hmm?”

“What’s Jason like?”

A non-committal shrug lifted her small shoulders. “He’s a great attorney.”

“Married?”

“No.” Her voice held hostility. “Why do you ask?”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say that you’re interested in him—other than professionally.”

Her dark eyes shot sparks. “First of all, I don’t remember asking you. Secondly, Jason happens to be one of the best defense attorneys in this area of the state.”

“I thought you were more interested in the prosecution end of things.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate his legal skills.” Now her voice escalated in volume.

Matt gave a short laugh. “Quit deceiving yourself, Gracie Mae.”

Jason exited his office, a frown connecting his dark eyebrows. “Is there a problem, Mr.—?” A protective edge colored his words.

Matt extended a hand and looked up at him. It didn’t help matters that Jason outsized him by a good six inches. “I’m Matt.”

Gracie cleared her throat, her cheeks still red from the argument. “Matt is Andy’s younger brother.”

Jason grasped his hand quickly. “Oh, I’m Jason. Sorry if I came across as rude. I thought you were harassing Grace.”

“Every chance I get.” He ignored the glare Gracie shot at him. “How do you like Miller’s Creek?”

The handsome attorney nodded agreeably. “Love it.” His eyes perused Matt’s appearance. “I take it you’re a college student?”

“Perpetually.” Grace drawled out the word and turned back to her computer.

Matt’s blood boiled. How like her to pass judgment without bothering to check the facts. He turned back to Jason. “Actually I finished my grad work this past May and started my doctoral studies online.”

Gracie’s mouth flew open, but she quickly snapped it shut. The phone shrilled, and she answered. A minute later, she hung up and faced Jason, her lips curved upward.

Matt’s heart felt like it was ground into the floor beneath the heel of one of Dent’s shiny black shoes. Gracie was clearly enamored with him, and judging by the glint in the attorney’s beady eyes, he was exulting in every minute of her schoolgirl adulation.

“So what are your plans now, Matt?” Jason’s cultured voice held a friendliness which had been curiously lacking until he’d learned his relation to Andy.

“Well, I’m spending some time with Andy and Trish while I check out a few career options.”

Gracie turned back to the computer and typed furiously, pretending not to listen. But the smirk on her face let him know she heard every word.

“What kind of work are you looking for?” Jason continued his probe.

“Leaving my options open at this point, but I—”

Before he could mention his desire to open a counseling practice, Gracie let out a snort, then pressed her lips together and pretended to focus on the stack of papers to her left.

If the expression on her face didn’t irritate him so much, it would almost be comical. Her “Dear-John-speech” two years ago had made it clear he didn’t meet her high expectations. Now it was more than obvious that he still didn’t qualify and probably never would, especially since her image of manly perfection had moved in right down the hall.

Jason didn’t respond further. Instead he turned to Grace. “I have to leave for a meeting in Morganville in a few minutes, and don’t know when I’ll return. Just stack messages on my desk when you leave.”

“Sure.” The light in Gracie’s eyes faded as Jason strolled to his office and closed the door. In a few short words, he’d effectively dismissed them both.

Unable to endure the hurt inscribed on her face, Matt stepped down to the stairwell, the smell of their shared breakfast only emphasizing his thoughts of Gracie. She just couldn’t fall for someone like Jason Dent. His polished image—the Armani suit, Berluti shoes, not-a-hair-out-of-place haircut—might ooze money and sophistication, but it also screamed control freak.

Matt stopped short and ran a hand through his hair. He had to go back. How could he be so hard on Gracie for running away when he was doing the same thing?

She looked up from her work as he approached, a grumpy expression on her face. “Did you need something else?”

“I—uh, was wondering if you’d like to eat lunch with us today?”

Gracie lowered her gaze and licked her lips. “Actually I have some errands to run, but thanks for the offer.”

A brush-off or the truth?

Jason exited his office with a manila folder in his hands, his dark eyebrows furrowed in a way that made him look ominous. He made eye contact with Matt. “Still here?”

Matt overpowered the malicious desire to ask him the same question. “Yeah, Andy and I are eating lunch together.”

The tall dark handsome rested against the counter—obviously waiting to speak to Gracie alone—and eyed his perfectly groomed fingernails.

Matt glanced down at his raggedy jeans and wrinkled t-shirt, feeling more out of place than ever. How could he possibly compete with the likes of Jason Dent? His rapidly deflating ego pulled his head and shoulders toward the floor.

God, help me. You know how much I care for Gracie, but more than my selfish desire to win her heart, help me to want what’s best for her. Even if that means Jason gets her and I don’t.

Matt made his way to the stairs. The man could obviously provide her with a better life than he could ever dream about. And Gracie deserved it. She’d spent her entire existence caring for others, and it was time she had someone taking care of her for a change. Maybe it was best if he just kept his distance.

He reached the stairwell and cast one last look at Jason and Gracie, now engaged in private conversation, her face lit up like a Christmas tree. He halted, his eyes narrowed and nebulous thoughts suddenly solidified.

Why would a guy like Jason be interested in someone like Gracie?

He took in the man’s too-smooth manner. Hmm, on second thought, maybe he should stick around and make sure Gracie’s penchant for perfection didn’t land her in a heap of trouble.


* * *


Matt toyed with the tamale. The food at Soldano’s was delicious as always, as were the tempting aromas floating around his head in the bustling restaurant. Gracie’s dad was good at many things, but especially excelled at mouth-watering Mexican food.

No, the problem was definitely not the food. He needed to sort through his emotions and shake this troubled feeling, and in addition, figure out what he was supposed to do with his life. Maybe Gracie’s response to him—or lack thereof—was God’s way of telling him to move on.

He huffed out a sigh. Why worry about it? God had it under control. And since when had he become a worrier? Easy answer. Any time he was around Gracie Soldano. Yet another reason to avoid her like the plague.

“Sure you’re okay, bro?” Andy talked around a mouthful of fajitas and guacamole.

“Eh, guess I’m not hungry.”

His brother’s eyebrows rose, creasing his forehead in thick wavy lines. He laid down the tortilla-wrapped fajita and wiped his mouth. “Okay, spill it. The only time you’re not hungry is when something’s bothering you.”

Matt shook his head. “Probably nothing.”

“C’mon, Matt, you know I only have a few minutes. Let it out.”

He sighed. “What can you tell me about Jason Dent?”

Andy shifted in his seat, his green eyes darkening momentarily, and clenched his jaw. Holding in something he really wanted to say? “One of the best defense attorneys I’ve ever seen in action. His confidence level makes him almost unbeatable. Came highly recommended and at this point has done an excellent job for the firm, not to mention the town.”

Won. Der. Ful. So not only was Jason an immaculate dresser, he was also Mr. Perfect in every other way. How could Gracie not fall for him?

“Why do you ask?”

Andy’s question raised Matt’s gaze. What was it about Dent that made his skin crawl? “I dunno, something about him just troubles me.”

His brother let out a short laugh and forked refried beans into his mouth. “Don’t worry. All us males are bothered by it. We just don’t measure up when we compare ourselves to guys like him.”

Matt chewed a bite of the pork tamale. Andy had hit the nail on the head. What he was feeling was nothing but the green-eyed monster. But his brother couldn’t be as bothered by Mr. Perfect as he was. He had a lovely wife, two sons, and a beautiful new baby girl waiting for him at home. Meanwhile, Gracie was somewhere running errands and contemplating a perfect life with the perfect man. He tossed his fork to the plate, where it landed with a clatter, then raised fingers to scratch the stubble on his neck.

“Man, you are bothered. What gives?” Andy studied him.

“It’s Gracie. I think she’s falling for him.”

“Our Gracie? You really think so?”

Matt bobbed his head.

For a long moment, Andy chewed silently, his eyes fixed on nothing in particular. Finally, he shook his head. “Ah, c’mon, Matt, you know her as well as I do. Her career aspirations are too high to be side-tracked by Jason or anyone else.” Andy continued to eat, but Matt could tell his brother was considering the possibility. “Don’t you think I’d have noticed if something was going on between them?”

“No. You’re too wrapped up in your job and family.”

Andy nodded. “True. But let’s pretend your supposition is correct. Why should we care if Gracie’s falling for him? He’s a nice guy and could provide a great life for her . . .” His words dwindled away, and he cocked his curly head slowly to one side, revelation dawning on his face. “You’re in love with her.”

A comment, not a question. “I wouldn’t go that far, but I care about her, and I don’t wanna see her get hurt.”

His brother eyed him in a way that suggested he didn’t completely believe him. “Whatever. The question is, what are you gonna do about it?”

“Keep my eyes on him, and make sure he doesn’t do anything to hurt her.”

“That’s it?”

Matt shifted in the booth and sat up straighter. “What do you mean, that’s it?”

His brother shrugged. “Seems to me if you really cared about her you’d make a play for her yourself.”

“Me? What do I have to offer? Besides, you’re the one who always said I need to find out what I want to do with my life before I go looking for a relationship.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore how you feel. Maybe God brought you here, not only to figure things out, but direct your path toward Gracie. That’s how it worked for me.”

God, please let it be true. “Think about it, bro. The guy looks like a movie star or a model.” He sighed and shook his head. “I can’t compete with him.”

Andy gently laid down his fork, his face and tone sincere. “You don’t have to, Matt. In my opinion, Jason can’t compete with you.” He paused a long minute, as if struggling to find the right words. “I know it’s not easy, especially with our background. Every chance at a relationship carries with it the risk of going through what we went through with Mom.”

An immediate pain sprung to his throat, and Matt swallowed against it. His psych books would label it as “abandonment issues,” a technical term that somehow lessened what he often felt. “I think I’ll always struggle with truly opening myself up to a woman, even though I know in my head that fear doesn’t come from God.”

“That’s how you’ll know you’ve found the right one. You’ll love her so much the fear goes away.” He picked up his fork and resumed eating, the seriousness of the moment dissipating. “And don’t sell yourself short. I don’t know anyone as talented or as good-hearted as you. I still feel bad about taking that money.”

Matt raised a hand. “Stop. I owed you for all the times you helped me out during school.”

“I never expected it back. It was an invest—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know . . . an investment, not a loan.” He sent his brother a grin. “And I appreciate the sentiment. But your baby brother is a grown-up now. You don’t have to keep blazing a trail for me. I can do it on my own.”

“Now you sound like my wife.” Andy took another bite. “So you’re doing okay? Financially, I mean.”

“Yep. Have the royalty money for those two songs I sold saved up and spoke with a guy from Nashville this morning who’s interested in a few others.”

“Way to go.” Andy held up a hand for a high five.

Matt slapped his brother’s hand then focused on his food, adding a bit to his mouth. “I appreciate you letting me hang out here while I figure out where God wants me next.”

“No problem. Glad to have you around. In fact, Trish and I were wondering if you might be interested in taking over the equine ministry while she takes care of the baby.”


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-36 show above.)