a Miller’s Creek Novel -
C A T H Y B R Y A N T
Way of Grace
2012 Cathy Bryant
by WordVessel Press
novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents
are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used
TABLE OF CONTENTS
to Reader Friends
Club Discussion Questions
PILGRIMAGE OF PROMISE
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.
* * *
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."
flinched as Papa pounded a fist on the table, his dark eyes flashing
“We do not have money for
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?”
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
“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,
Mama’s voice broke into her reverie. “Ready to plant your
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
world has a way of changing people’s hearts. He’ll come around
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
* * *
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
“Some people cannot see
past a person’s skin to see that on the inside we are all the
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
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
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
“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
“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.
sagged. Why couldn’t she be good all the time?
Mama’s fingers gently
lifted her chin. “Don’t be sad, la
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“Still running away from
me?” Though he spoke the words softly, his tawny eyes held a
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
His posture went slack, and
he sent an apologetic grin. “Sorry. Let me start over. Had
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?”
“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
“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
Grace froze. How was she
supposed to answer that? “And what image is that?”
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
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
“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
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.
The lines on his forehead
grew deeper. “Same one?”
She averted her gaze and
“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
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
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
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
“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
“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.”
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.”
“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
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
“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
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
“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
que será, sera”-approach
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
She nodded and went back to
The front door creaked open,
and a spry, elderly man strode by. He nodded at Matt. “Morning,
“Good morning, Ben.”
The man tottered down the
hallway and entered one of the offices.
Matt gazed after him. “Who
Gracie raised one eyebrow.
“One of the new partners, Ben Snodgrass. He joined the firm about
the same time as 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
“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
“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
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
“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.”
“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
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
“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
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
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
The handsome attorney nodded
agreeably. “Love it.” His eyes perused Matt’s appearance. “I
take it you’re a college student?”
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
“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
“Man, you are
bothered. What gives?” Andy studied him.
“It’s Gracie. I think
she’s falling for him.”
“Our Gracie? You really
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.”
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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