A Bridge Unbroken
Miller's Creek Novel - Book 5
A Bridge Unbroken
Miller's Creek Novel
2014, Cathy Bryant
book is also available in print.
novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents
either the product of the author’s imagination or are used
Table of Contents
Club Discussion Questions
my lovely daughter-in-law, Megan.
are the daughter of my prayers. Thank you for being
wonderful wife to my son, a loving mother to my grandchildren,
an amazing addition to our family. But more importantly,
you for living your life for the Lord.
kind to one another, tender-hearted,
as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
thumping wildly, Dakota peered out the peephole at the figure of a
man obscured by the semi-darkness of early morning.
peachy." She kept her voice to a hushed whisper in the small and
dingy apartment she'd called home for the past few months. What now?
No longer secure, her downtown San Antonio getaway had obviously been
compromised. But calling the cops wouldn’t work--a lesson she'd
learned the hard way with scars as evidence. No, Kane had friends in
help me. She
inhaled sharply and backed away from the flimsy front door, willing
her heart to slow its frantic pace. Calm
down, Dakota. You’ve prepared for this scenario.
Emergency backpack? Check. In its usual place by the window that led
to the fire escape. Now to gather her bedding, meager food rations,
and laptop. At least she was already dressed. Another lesson she'd
learned in a life on the run.
sharp knock sounded.
buster. I'm not falling for that trick." Especially at this hour
of the morning. Her neighbors partied until 3 a.m. and slept until
noon. Whoever banged on her door at this ungodly hour wasn't a
neighbor or friend.
sped to her bed in one corner of the room and rolled up her bedding.
Less than a minute later she returned to the escape window, her
computer bag slung over one shoulder. With nimble fingers, Dakota
snapped the sleeping bag onto the backpack latches and strapped the
drawstring trash bag that housed her food to a dangling carabiner
polite knock on the door now erupted into a persistent pounding.
pounding pulse responded in kind. Dakota struggled to lift the old
window, finally able to raise it high enough to crawl through the
narrow opening. A shiver rattled her body at the cold blast of autumn
wind whistling between the tall brick buildings. She yanked her
over-stuffed backpack through the opening and hoisted it to her back.
The weight almost pulled her backwards. Why hadn't she thought to
practice her escape with the heavy backpack in tow? She pushed
against the outside of the window with every ounce of her strength.
It screeched its objection, but finally clattered into place.
Hopefully the closed window would buy extra time.
hefty body thudded against the front door. With that kind of force it
wouldn't hold long.
froze, her breathing shallow. Another thud against the door. Move
it, Dakota! She
flew down the rusty stairs, aware of the clanging sound of her boots
against the metal, but powerless to soften her steps. At the first
floor landing, she stopped abruptly and yanked on the ladder to
access the alley. Frozen in place by rust and years of disuse, it
didn't budge. She pushed again with a guttural grunt. Nothing.
Her brain sped into overdrive. What good was a fire escape if you
couldn’t escape? Lips clenched, she searched the area for any
reason to hope. To the left of the landing a gutter pipe inched to
the ground, but would it hold her weight?
screech raised her eyes to the apartment window five floors above,
and she flattened herself against the cold brick of the building. A
hooded head peered out, barely visible in the pre-dawn light, then a
stocky figure climbed from the opening.
Her heart tapped out a ferocious dance against her ribs. This guy
the gutter would do the trick, Dakota scrambled over the rail and
grabbed hold of the ice-cold pipe. The metal strap holding the gutter
in place pulled precariously away from the grimy brick wall, exposing
you dare let go," she commanded under her breath. Determined,
she clamped her bottom lip between her teeth, her gaze on the strap
as she shimmied to the ground. Once her boots hit the asphalt
alleyway, she raced toward her pickup, the sound of heavy steps
pounding the fire escape behind her.
exploding, Dakota neared the truck, unbuckled clips, and yanked off
her pack. She glanced back just long enough to see the
quickly-approaching figure, then tossed the backpack to the far side
of the pickup's cab and jumped in. The man drew closer--close enough
to note the black hoodie he wore, but not enough to make out the
shadowy face beneath. Definitely not Kane--too short and too
stocky--but most likely one of his many hired goons.
panic erupted in her gut, blazing a fiery trail to her stomach. With
fumbling fingers, she inserted the key in the ignition. Please
The pickup roared to life on the first try. Just as the man reached
her bumper, she threw the truck into gear and shot out into the
street. In the rearview mirror, the guy slowed his steps and stared
after her a brief moment before he turned and ran in the opposite
direction. Probably going after his vehicle.
spirit deflated, whooshing air from her puffed-out cheeks. This chase
wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.
pressed the accelerator. "Well, Miller's Creek it is." The
decision made for her. With San Antonio no longer a safe option, her
deceased grandparent’s farmhouse made the most sense. J. C.'s late
call last night couldn't have come at a more opportune time, God's
guiding hand once more on her shoulder.
when she merged into the thickening morning commute traffic on
Interstate 35 a few minutes later did Dakota semi-relax. She twisted
her neck from side to side to release tension from her neck and
shoulders, still trying to wrap her brain around returning to
Miller's Creek. The only problem with Mawmaw and Pawpaw’s farm was
the possibility of facing Chance again. Could she withstand the
magnetic pull he'd always exerted over her heart? Even more
importantly, could she handle the guilt and blame he'd most certainly
place on her?
ache landed in her chest. If only things had turned out differently
between them. Dakota gave her red curls a shake to dislodge unwanted
thoughts and emotions from her system. "Didn't you suffer enough
the first time, Dakota?" She checked her rearview mirror as a
black car moved in behind her. "Nope. I'm through with all men,
including Chance Johnson." Her palms pounded the steering wheel
to punctuate the self-serving promise. J. C. hadn't mentioned his
grandson. Hopefully Chance had moved on somewhere else.
flipped on her blinker and changed lanes. The black car followed,
right on her bumper. A frown pulled her forehead tight. The guy could
at least stay far enough back for her to see his license plate.
skittered down her spine. Had the guy in the black hoodie caught up
to her? Even in all this traffic?
back on." She floored the gas pedal and swerved around the car
in front, the black car tailing her every move. Dakota drove as fast
as she dared down the interstate's thick traffic through San Marcos
and New Braunfels, the black car never far behind. Finally, out of
desperation, she decided to detour around downtown Austin, through a
suburban neighborhood, and then down a little farm-to-market road.
She checked the mirror. A tiny black speck topped the hill behind
her and grew steadily closer.
again. "Kane must be paying you a hefty sum, Mister."
more Dakota punched the accelerator. "C'mon, old truck. You can
do this." Her clunker's motor sputtered for a moment and then
shot forward. She squinted her eyes against the brightening Texas
day. It wouldn't do any good to get away from this guy if she got
stopped for speeding, nor would it help if he tailed her all the way
to Miller's Creek.
the rest of the day she zigzagged across central Texas, doing her
best to give no rhyme or reason to her travel pattern, only stopping
when she needed gas.
little after nine p.m., the car's bright headlights disappeared
behind a lengthy train at a crossing in some small nameless town that
looked like all the others. Finally she'd caught a break. Rather than
continue her trek, Dakota whipped the pickup into a dark parking lot
of a towing company. Her jalopy fit right in with the other wrecked
and disabled cars. The chain-link fence and tall stacks of tires
provided further camouflage.
waited well over an hour and used part of the time to call J.C. to
let him know she was on her way. Then convinced she'd finally lost
her pursuer, Dakota resumed the trip to Miller’s Creek, suddenly
eager to start her new life in the one place that had always felt
repetitive beep of the alarm clock roused Chance to a sitting
position. His fingers danced around the top of the bedside table
until they landed on the alarm clock and brought a halt to the beeps.
After a few blinks, his eyes adjusted to the darkness, but not to the
lack of sleep. Would his body ever get used to the work schedule at
the hospital? Not that he was complaining. For the first time in
forever, he was finally moving forward and leaving the painful past
drug a hand across his stubbly chin and rolled out of bed with a
groan. Who had called Grampa's house at such a late hour last night
and disturbed his precious sleep? Whoever it was needed a few lessons
on appropriate times to make a phone call.
stumbled to the hall bathroom and washed his face, then headed to the
kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Normally he didn’t drink the
stuff, but since starting work at Miller’s Creek new hospital, his
body craved it like his lungs craved air. Once the caffeine kicked
in, he’d read his Bible, grab a quick workout, check on his
grandfather, and eat a piece of fruit on the way to work, the
familiar routine somehow comforting.
coffee pot had barely started its cacophony of gurgles and hisses
when the wooden floors creaked behind him. He glanced over his
shoulder to see his grandfather, his IV pole in tow. “You're up
gentle smile lit the eyes so much like his own. “Only 'cause of all
that racket you're making.” Then without warning, Grampa's smile
faded, and he reached for the old chrome and yellow dining table.
two steps Chance was at his grandfather’s side and helped him sit.
old man nodded weakly. “Yep. Just one of those dizzy spells.”
chest tightened. If only the nursing skills he'd acquired over the
past few years could reverse the aging progress and his grandfather’s
quickly-failing health. He placed a hand on Grampa’s back and gazed
down at him. “Sure you’re okay? Need anything?”
waved a hand in front of his face as though swatting a pesky fly.
“Aaah, nothing a few hours of sleep won’t cure. Sleep I’ll get
as soon as you quit making such a ruckus.”
chuckled and moved to the cabinets. “Wanna cup?”
poured two cups of the dark, fragrant liquid and made his way to the
table, a steaming cup in each hand. “Who called so late last
ornery look crossed Grampa's features, but he said nothing. Instead
he pursed his lips and blew on the coffee, then brought the cup to
took a seat across from him. “You got a lady friend you’re hiding
His grandfather followed the grunt with a snort. “Never had any
plan on replacing your sweet Grandma. The only woman I ever loved.”
swirled around his heart and pulled tight. Would he ever experience
that kind of love again?
his grandfather’s voice softened, “you’re the one who needs a
lowered his head, took a quick sip, and sat his cup down with a
little more force than intended. “Don’t have time.”
Were they going to have this discussion again? “C’mon, Grampa,
cut it out. With a face like this no girl my age is interested in
anything other than friendship.”
His grandfather's typical smile disappeared. “You just need to quit
feeling sorry for yourself and get out there and start living."
just when do you suggest I do that, huh? I work twelve-hour shifts,
and then come home to help you.” As soon as the words flew from his
lips, he wished them back in his mouth. Chance shook his head.
“Sorry. Shouldn’t have said that.”
shoulders slumped. “It’s the truth. Sorry to be such a bother. If
you want me to hire somebo—”
way.” When he moved here for nursing school, his plan had been to
take care of Grampa, pay off student loans, and hopefully one day
re-open the family drugstore. He was right on track, even though the
hours were long and hard at the moment. Chance looked his grandfather
straight in the eye. “I’m here because I want to be. One day I’ll
have the opportunity to get out there and start living, as you put
it. But right now, I’m doing exactly what I’m suposed to do, and
wouldn’t have it any other way.”
turned his head away quickly, but not quick enough to hide the tears
welling in his eyes. A sniffle sounded. “I need you to do me a
I need you to do it before you go to work.”
eyed the old kitchen clock, which sported a knife, spoon, and fork
for hands. Just now 5:30 a.m. He should still have time to follow his
routine, shower, and have enough time to run a quick errand before
his shift started at seven. “Also not a problem. What is it?”
want you to run out to Levi’s farm.”
on earth for?”
wanna make sure the place is secure. With the weather turning cooler,
we might have some unsavory characters trying to camp out there over
the winter.” Grampa's jaw clamped in a stubborn pose.
why can’t I do it after work?”
it, boy. Will you just do what I ask?”
eyebrows jumped up his scalp. Never had he seen his grandfather so
testy. Was he really so bothered by possible vagrants, or was
something else at play? “Okay.”
grandfather stood in one liquid motion, and almost knocked his chair
over in the process. He swiveled around and tottered from the room,
mumbling under his breath. What aliens had abducted his kind and
gentle grandfather? And what crotchety old grump had they left in his
a.m. on the dot, Chance hurriedly backed his Ford 150 out of the
driveway and headed toward the late Levi Kelly’s farm. Frustration
headed the list of a myriad of emotions colliding within. To fulfill
his grandfather's strange request, he’d showered without reading
his Bible or his workout, without taking the time to finish his one
lousy cup of coffee. In addition, there was no fruit in the house,
which meant Grampa had finished off the bananas and forgotten to
write them down on the grocery list.
rubbed the nape of his neck. But the one thing that bothered him
most, like a hidden undercurrent beneath it all, was a crippling
fear. Fear that being on the farm would resurrect memories he’d
worked long and hard to forget.
sky took on pale purple hues as he headed south on the farm-to-market
road which led to the dirt road where the old farmhouse stood. As
much as he tried to put Amy out of his mind on this foggy fall
morning, he could not. Instead, thoughts of her elbowed their way to
the forefront of his memory--her perfect smile, curly blond hair,
infectious laugh, and flirtatious emerald eyes. Why were the memories
as vivid as though they'd happened only yesterday?
gritted his teeth and gunned the motor as familiar questions
returned. Why had she left so suddenly? He played over the events of
their last night together. How the evening ended was her fault, not
his. But the resulting heartache was due to his own poor judgment.
That’s what he got for falling for a girl of questionable
reached the turn-off and slowed his speed to make the turn onto the
seldom-traveled bumpy dirt road. As expected, the washboard-like road
rattled his new truck and threw up a cloud of chalk-white dust behind
Add washing the truck to his grievance list.
few minutes later he pulled onto the private road that stretched over
rolling hills until it came to rest behind a grove of pecan trees.
Right beyond the pecan orchard sat the two-story farmhouse, secluded
enough that only those who knew it existed could find it. And a mile
past that the creek and old bridge where...
rounded the final corner, so over grown it no longer seemed familiar,
and his jaw dropped. The old house, once a beautiful yellow among a
forest of green, was sorely in need of a paint job, raw wood exposed,
bleached gray by the hot Texas sun. No lights shone from the windows,
but a rusty old jalopy of a truck sat out front. Grampa had been
right after all.
pulled his pickup as close as he dared and killed the engine, his
eyes trained on the house for even a flicker of movement.
crunched beneath his boots, the only sound in the mostly dark
morning. He made his way all the way around the house to look for any
sign of the intruder. Quietly, he climbed the steps to the front
porch, weathered wood sagging beneath his weight. Add new decking to
the much-needed paint job for the old house. Chance paused at the
front door, his ears strained for any sound within the old house.
from behind, the distinctive sound of a shotgun being pumped reached
his ears, made louder by the quiet of the countryside.
in throat, he instinctively raised his hands. But before he could
speak, a female voice sounded, a voice he never expected to hear
don’t know who you are, Mister, but you’re about two seconds shy
of getting your backside loaded with buckshot.”
pulse roared in her ears. Really? Her first twenty-four hours back at
the farm, and already she had a gun pulled on an intruder. But
whatever she had to do to get him off the property and keep him off.
She took a step back, the shotgun still trained in the general
direction. It had been pure luck when she'd located Pawpaw's shotgun
in his secret hiding place after all these years. Hopefully the
intruder wouldn't figure out she'd never shot a gun before, and that
she didn’t even have ammo.
writer’s imagination took over and imagined all sorts of terrible
outcomes while she did all she could to keep from shaking—partly
from the cold, partly from fear. Okay, it didn’t help that she was
barefoot in below-freezing weather.
man raised both hands up and slowly turned around. “It’s me,
mouth went dry. Now the trembling began in earnest, her worst fear
realized. She’d known when she decided to come to Miller’s Creek
that she might run into him, she just didn’t count on it being this
soon. Dakota focused her attention on keeping her tone even and
steady. “Hello, Chance.”
pointing that shotgun elsewhere?” His face masked by darkness, his
voice was flat and dry.
sorry.” Was he dressed in scrubs? She brought the gun to her side,
careful to aim it away from her bare feet. How did one un-cock a
shotgun? “I guess J.C. told you I was here?”
dyed your hair.”
she’d let it return to its natural color in keeping with her
decision to run away from Kane, but that information didn’t concern
Chance. “There’s no need to check up on me, especially at this
hour. I’m fine.”
six o’clock in the morning. As I recall, you used to be an early
but that was when she went to bed with the chickens during her summer
stays, not after she’d spent fourteen hours in an old truck trying
to evade Black Hoodie Man. Besides, without electricity it wasn’t
like she had anything else to do but sleep. Her teeth chattered in
her head, and her tummy rumbled. “Well, I was up a little later
than normal. Now if you’ll be so kind as to leave, I’ll go back
in the dark she could imagine the scolding look on his face. He
obviously still had the objectionable quality of judging others by
his own high standards. Too bad those high standards applied to
everyone else besides him.
are, aren’t you?” He stepped closer, peering down at the ground.
The lily-white skin of her feet glowed in the dark. “It’s gotta
be in the twenties out here. You’ll get frostbite.” Before she
had time to react, he scooped her up in his arms. “Front door
isn’t a working lock on the front door anymore.” Which was why
she’d moved every stick of furniture she could find to put behind
it. “But it’s—uh, blocked.” Now if she could only put a block
over her out-of-control thoughts and emotions.
headed to the back door, soon gasping for air. “You’ve gained
was all she could do to bite her tongue. He’d learned a long time
ago how to get under her skin, but she couldn’t afford to let him
get her riled. That was the surest way to start a raging wildfire
with her Irish tongue, one where she blasted him for the way he’d
treated her and told him exactly what his judgmental attitude had
done to her. But the last thing she wanted or needed right now was
for him to learn the truth.
reached the back door of the old farmhouse, and he set her down on
the bottom step. “Mind if I come in for a minute? I’d like to
deep within her welcomed the idea, but she’d learned this lesson
over and over again when it came to men. Other than Pawpaw and J.C.,
men just weren’t trustworthy, and she wouldn’t open herself up
for any more heartbreak in her life, especially after she'd worked so
hard to turn over a new leaf. “There’s nothing to talk about.
Thank you for your kindness in carrying me to the back door, but I’m
a big girl now. What’s in the past will stay there. Do I make
Sarcasm oozed from his voice. “I see you still haven’t forgiven
me for whatever imagined wrong I committed against you.”
“Forgiveness is a two-way street, Chance, but obviously you still
haven’t figured that out. Please leave.”
I’ll have a better day knowing you’re safe out here all by
was still too dark to see his face, but the tone of his voice painted
a clear picture of his curled lip and accusing eyes. “I’m not
explains why you pulled a shotgun on me.”
“Really, Chance, go home.” She turned to make her way up the
rickety back steps. Without warning, one cracked and gave way and
sent her spiraling toward the ground. The shotgun hit the ground
right before she did and went off, the noisy blast echoing through
the cold fall morning. It was loaded?
are you all right?” Chance’s voice held panic.
arms wrapped around her and lifted her into the air before she could
protest. Carefully, Chance made the step from the ground to the back
door without putting a foot on the back steps. Once inside, he set
her down on the dusty kitchen floor. “Where are the lights?”
lights without electricity.” The leg that went through the wooden
steps began to sting as though she had ants in her pants. Was she
Now his voice held an angry edge. “You mean to tell me you’re
staying out here without electricity or heat?”
built a small fire in the wood stove.”
that’s brilliant. Did it ever occur to you that the chimney might
need to be cleaned before you built a fire? What if you died from
carbon monoxide poisoning?”
thought sobered her. She clearly hadn’t thought things through. But
staying in an old farmhouse was surely safer than spending the night
at the side of the road.
here. I’ll be right back.” Chance left, slamming the back door
gingerly felt of her sore leg, her fingers immediately sticky. This
returned with a flashlight and black bag and beamed the light on her
bare feet and bloody leg. “Why didn’t you tell me you were
didn’t know for sure until I just felt it while you were gone. I’m
sure it’s just a scratch.”
down and let me take a closer look at it.”
way would that happen. “Look, it’s not that big a deal. Besides,
you’re an architect, not a doctor.”
I’m a nurse.”
right. Since when?”
a matter of fact, since May.”
that explained the scrubs. “But I thought—”
change, Amy. I’ve changed, as I’m certain you have. I made the
call to become a nurse shortly after you left Miller’s Creek.”
Fatigue lined his words. “Now sit down and let me look at that leg,
or I’ll make you sit down.”
flared, but she managed to keep it in check. She sat on the kitchen
floor, amidst the dust and no telling what kind of insects and
critters, and stuck her leg in front of the light. A large gash
snaked down the inside of her lower calf, oozing blood. The sight
made her woozy, so she leaned back against both hands and struggled
to stop her spinning head. “Am I gonna need stitches?”
think so. I’ll put a Steri-strip on it after I clean it up. That
should do.” His whole demeanor carried professional authority. “You
had a tetanus shot in the last ten years?”
she? “Yes.” What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, and the
sooner she got him out of here the better.
exasperated sigh escaped from him. “You are
a crazy lady. Sometime you’re gonna have to explain to me why you
decided to stay out here without electricity or running water.”
and then again, maybe not. She opted not to respond.
be right back.” His footsteps echoed in the empty house. A few
seconds later he returned. “You’re sleeping on the cold, hard
statement, not a question. “The sleeping bag softens the blow.”
much.” Chance knelt and poured water on the wound, then reached
around for his bag. He opened it and withdrew a white bottle.
no, you don’t.” She yanked her leg away from him.
give me your leg.”
have to make sure the wound is disinfected.”
grief, it’s just a little scratch.”
little scratch in a very dirty house. Now stick your leg back over
ignored his command.
two can play this game.” He lowered himself to a sitting position,
crossed his ankles, and drew his knees up under crossed arms. “I’ll
just stay here until you decide to follow my instructions.”
all the obstinate, pig-headed people! “Oh, all right!” She
extended her injured leg back his direction, intentionally kicking
him in the process.
Cut it out, Amy!” He groused the words as he opened the bottle.
“Maybe you haven’t changed as much I thought. Still have that
Irish temper, I see.” Chance drizzled alcohol on her leg.
She immediately lowered her head down and huffed out short bursts of
air. Once the burning stopped, she peered up at him through narrowed
eyes. “You actually enjoyed that, didn’t you?”
than I expected.” He followed the sarcastic words with a laugh.
punched his arm with all the force she could muster. The flashlight
clattered to the floor and spun around a few times before the beam
landed on his face.
throat grew thick and lumpy, and a gasp fell from her opened mouth.
Red spidery scars crisscrossed the left side of his face. “What
happened?” Her entire being flooded with compassion, and she
reached tentative fingers toward his face.
flinched, his bluish-gray eyes surprisingly dark in spite of the
light shining on his face, but said not a word. A muscle pulsed in
his jaw. As her fingers made contact with his face, he grabbed her
wrist and forced her hand away, his eyes searching hers. An agonizing
groan growled from his throat and he jumped to his feet. Now his
voice came in short, angry bursts. “I told you people change, Amy."
He pointed to his face. "This is one way of many that I’ve
changed since you decided to skip out on me.” Without another word,
he grabbed his bag and stomped out the back door, accentuating his
angry words with a door slam.
* * *
sped down the dirt road, not caring that the truck bounced all over
the road because of the ruts, or that his once-shiny black pickup was
now covered with powdery white dust. All he cared about was getting
away from Amy as fast as he could. Obviously she’d been in contact
with his grandfather, because she'd questioned whether J.C. had told
him she was in town. His eyes narrowed, and his teeth clenched. The
ghastly scenario that had just taken place had
interfering-old-grandfather written all over it.
pounded the steering wheel with his fist then immediately let off the
gas pedal and tried to make sense of the gamut of emotions surging
throughout his body. Why was he so angry? Was it because she’d seen
his scars? Or was it the sympathy in her tone? Or could it be a sense
of betrayal from his grandfather, who of all people should understand
his desire to find someone to love him for who he was, not because
they felt sorry for him?
sky, now bathed in the myriad colors of dawn, captured his attention.
He braked to a sudden stop in the middle of the road, immediately
aware of the presence of God.
Lord, I thought I was over her. Help me know what to do. Help me get
past all these painful feelings.
as you’ve been forgiven.
But he’d already done that years ago. He’d picked up the pieces
and moved on with his life. Hadn’t he? Chance tried to answer the
question in his heart and head, but the more he mulled it over, the
more confused he felt. Obviously he needed some godly counsel, and
someone different than his grandfather. Grampa was just too close to
the situation. He loved Amy, too.
glance at the clock let him know he at least had time to stop by Mama
Beth’s house on his way to work.
minutes later he pulled into the gravel driveway beside the pristine
white picket fence. Once he moved to Miller’s Creek fulltime to
attend nursing school in Morganville, it hadn’t taken long to
discover the wisdom of the mother figure of the community. Though
Mama Beth had lost her husband to cancer back in the spring, she was
still a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and the dispenser of
godly medicine. She'd surely be able to confirm his belief that he’d
forgiven Amy a long time ago.
hurried across the cobblestone walkway, up the immaculate steps and
porch of the two-story Victorian house, and rapped on the screen
inside, he could make out her shuffling footsteps and heard her call
out: “Coming!” A second later the door opened, and her round face
lit up like downtown Miller’s Creek at Christmas. “Well, my
goodness, you’re the last person I expected to see this early in
the morning, but I’m glad you’re here. Come in, come in. How’s
been better. Dizzy spells are getting worse, so please keep him in
smiled. In addition to be the wise lady everyone in town turned to
for advice, she was known about town as a prayer warrior. “Hope I’m
not disturbing you, Mama Beth. Only have a few minutes before I have
to be at work, but I could use some of your wisdom this morning.”
The smell of bacon, eggs, and homemade biscuits drifted to his nose,
setting off rumbles in his stomach.
it’s not exactly my wisdom. Any smidgen I have comes from God, but
I’m always happy to help however I can.” She bustled toward the
kitchen, motioning for him to follow. “I just finished fixing
breakfast for me and Steve, but he called to say he’s taking Dani
and Elizabeth out for breakfast. I have extra. Want some?”
thought you’d never ask. Please.”
a couple of minutes, they both sat at the country farm table with
full plates. Mama Beth took his hand. “I’ll ask the blessing.”
She lowered her head. “Dear Lord, thank You for this food you’ve
provided and for the one You’ve given to share it with. Grant me
wisdom and guide my words that I might help him clearly see Your
answer to his questions. Amen.”
frown crossed his forehead. He already knew what God wanted, and he’d
done it. Chance grabbed his fork and stuffed in a mouthful of fluffy
how can I help you?” Mama Beth peered at him with her piercing
clear blue eyes.
there’s this girl.”
Beth’s lips tried to wiggle into a smile. She held them in check
momentarily before they blossomed into a full-blown grin. “There
usually is, but that’s my favorite kind of problem.” Her cackling
climbed up his back and landed in the tips of his ears. “It’s not
like that. At least, not anymore.”
swallowed her bite of food and chased it with a sip of coffee. “Ah,
a girl from the past. Intriguing. So what’s the problem with this
girl from the past?”
shifted uncomfortably, searching for words. “Well, at one time I
thought I loved her.”
you loved her? In my experience, love's something you either do or
you don't do.”
I loved her.”
Beth nodded her approval, as if to encourage him to state the facts
accurately. “Does she live in the area?”
I wouldn’t say that exactly. To be honest, I don’t really know.”
Why hadn’t he thought to ask Amy if she was just in town for a
while or moving here permanently? “She’s staying on her
grandfather’s farm. You might have known him. Levi Kelly?”
nodded. “I knew him well. A wonderful man, and one of your Grampa’s
best friends.” Mama Beth’s eyes took on a distant look. “I met
one of Levi’s granddaughters last spring, right before Bo passed.
She came over with Trish and had an unusual name as I recall.”
Beth shook her head. “No, must be a different granddaughter. This
girl had long red curly hair and the prettiest green eyes I’ve ever
her, all right.” Why had she dyed her hair red when she looked
gorgeous as a blond? And why had she used a different name? “Anyway,
we became close during the summer after our senior year in high
school. We both spent that summer with our grandparents, and we
worked with Levi in his construction business.”
Beth nodded encouragingly as she loaded one of the steamy biscuits
with some of her homemade plum jelly. “Go on.”
inhaled a deep breath and released it slowly. How much should he tell
her? He chewed the inside of his jaw as he considered the question,
and in the end decided to keep it simple. “Like I said, we were
really, really close.”
older woman’s eyes narrowed perceptively. “I think I know what
heat in his ears worked its way to his face. His scars were probably
flaming red. “S-something happened that shouldn’t have, and I
think we both had problems dealing with it. She eventually left town,
and I haven’t seen her since, until a few minutes ago.”
you still love her?”
shook his head. “That’s not the issue.”
was really angry when I left the farm. I stopped to watch the sunrise
and pray, and I sensed God telling me to forgive her.”
usually a good place to start.”
I’ve already forgiven her years ago. I had to forgive her so I
could move on with my life.”
Beth’s face took on compassion. “Forgiveness can be difficult
because we get all tangled up in our emotions. Truthfully,
forgiveness is an act of the will that comes out in our actions.
Sometimes we think we’ve forgiven people when we really haven’t.
What we do instead is stuff our angry feelings in our souls and lock
the door, assuming we’ve done our part. Trust me, I know what I’m
talking about here. I’ve lived it.”
inside him hardened, like clay in the fire. “Maybe that’s true
for you, but not me.”
eyebrows rose. She lowered her head a minute and stared into her
coffee. “Perhaps.” Mama Beth raised her steady gaze to his. “But
you’d be wise to do a heart check. Especially if you have any hopes
of restoring your relationship with this woman.”
that what he wanted? Why should he take her back in his life, after
the way she’d waltzed out on him as if the whole scenario were his
can see your wheels turning there, Chance. Don’t forget it takes
two to tango. She’s probably had to do her own share of forgiving.”
She paused momentarily. “The biggest hurdle is spiritual pride.
That only leads to judgmental attitudes and more pain for everyone
nodded, but didn’t answer. He couldn’t. Instead, he munched on a
crunchy piece of bacon and finished off his coffee. Obviously, Mama
Beth was wrong in this case. She hadn’t been there, hadn’t walked
in his shoes. He had
Amy—or whatever her name was now—and had moved on. And after
thinking it through, there was no way he intended on letting her back
in his life, when all she'd do was break his heart and run away just
like she'd done the last time.
carried the white paper sacks of food up the front porch of J.C.’s
craftsman bungalow, praying the entire time that Chance wasn't at
home. She’d come close to losing her resolve about keeping her
distance from him earlier that morning when the flashlight revealed
his scarred face. It hurt to know he’d been so badly injured, but
apparently her compassion had sent him into a rage.
she’d done all she could to convince herself to not let her soft
side loose, it would always be a part of who she was. She’d proved
it time and time again with the same old results. Meet a guy. Feel
sorry for him. Let him get too close. Get burned. Well, not this
time, and not ever again.
rang the doorbell, suddenly eager to see J.C. How she'd missed him.
Shuffling steps and something being rolled or scooted across the
creaky floors sounded from within. The door squeaked open slowly. His
shoulders bent a little lower, and his hair was thinner and whiter
than when she’d seen him at Pawpaw’s funeral. J.C. peered at her
from the same wise blue-gray eyes she remembered so vividly—eyes
that reminded her so much of Chance.
I help you, miss?” The same kind voice, the same humble smile.
lowered her head as a heavy breath escaped. Only a small measure of
the tension which stiffened her shoulders receded. He obviously
didn’t recognize her. Dakota lifted her head and smiled. “You
don’t remember me, J.C.?”
eyes widened, and his mouth fell open. “Amy? Is that you?”
her old name still affected her in strange ways. Did that person even
exist anymore? “Yes sir.” She held up the bags of food. “I
brought lunch like I promised. Mind if I come in?”
at all.” The door swung open. “Come on in this house and give me
she entered the room, he engulfed her in a tight embrace. Even
through his heavy duty flannel jacket she felt his bones. J.C. had
grown old and frail in her absence.
pulled away, eyes full of unshed tears, gripping an IV stand with one
quickly shifted her eyes away and sucked in a deep breath. Seeing him
so feeble was something she hadn’t prepared for. Unable to look at
his face for fear of crying along with him, or at the bag hanging
from the aluminum pole on wheels, Dakota opted instead to stare at
you didn’t stick around after Levi's funeral, I wasn’t sure I’d
ever see you again.” J.C. shuffle-stepped to a green recliner and
slowly eased down into it. “Please have a seat anywhere.” He
waved a bony hand toward the same orangey-brown plaid sofa she
remembered from the time she'd spent here years ago.
quickly moved to the couch and took a seat, finally able to look him
in the face. “I’m sorry you’re not doing well, J.C.” She
couldn’t stop the tears that pooled in her eyes.
Again he waved a hand. “Just part of growing old.” A light sprung
to his eyes. “Won’t be long ‘til I go home to see Jesus, Sarah,
Levi, Bo, and a whole host of others I've been longing to see for a
gritted her back teeth to bring an end to the tears, a trick she’d
learned from her years with Kane. Whatever she could do to take her
mind off the resulting emotional pain.
cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind me asking, why'd you leave
so quick after the funeral? You didn’t even stay for the
did she start? Her aching heart over losing her beloved Pawpaw? The
fear of facing Chance? The terrible way her sister continued to
humiliate her? “Lots of reasons, actually. I guess I couldn’t
deal with facing certain people.”
me guess. All of them?”
don’t mean to hurt you more than you’ve already been hurt, Amy,
but someday you gotta lay down that load of bitterness, resentment,
and hurt feelings.”
returned and dripped down her cheek. This wasn’t like her to cry at
the drop of a hat. Must be the fatigue from yesterday. That and the
kind and caring way J.C. had of putting his finger directly on the
pulse of the problem. “I know. It just takes a while to get over
had a few years now. Maybe you’re trying to do it in your own
strength instead of letting the Lord help you.”
words lodged in her brain and trickled down to her heart. There was
truth in his comment. “Thank you, J.C. I’ll certainly give it
prayer and thought.”
leaned forward and patted her arm. “Didn’t mean to make you cry.
Just want to see you move past all the pain from your childhood.
Carrying it around just weighs you down and keeps you at a distance
lump in her throat made it impossible to speak, so she nodded
loved you, you know.”
softly-spoken words slid like fiery ice down to her stomach, her
muscles now frozen in place. The air grew thin. Dakota opened her
mouth to gulp in a breath. Finally her words found voice. “I loved
him, too.” She inhaled another deep breath and released it. “But
sometimes love just isn’t enough.”
expression revealed he didn’t believe a word of what she’d just
said, but thankfully, he changed the subject. “You staying at the
she nodded, still working at regaining her composure.
slow smile crept to his face. “Figured you were.”
lowered her head and looked at him sideways through narrowed eyes.
The sly old codger. He’d sent Chase out there to check on her. “So
you’re the one who told Chase to come check on me at the crack of
he laughed out loud. “Guess I did put a bug in his ear.” His face
sobered. “You need to borrow some money to get the electricity
turned on and put propane in the tank?”
clamped her lips together and shook her head vigorously. Only here a
few minutes and already he was offering handouts. “No. I’ll take
care of that on my own.”
mind you living there. You’re welcome to live there as long as you
like, free of charge.”
frowned and puzzled over the statement. “But I thoug—”
the farm belonged to you?”
at least belonged partially to me.”
will left it to you with a few stipulations.”
swallowed. “Such as?”
had to be present at the reading of the will.”
heart plummeted, her dreams of a reclusive life ripped to shreds with
a few words. And she had nothing to say in return. There was no
excuse. It was her own fault.
kind eyes held understanding. “I tried to find you, but when you
left town, you did a good job of covering your tracks. Your sister
gave me a few snippets of information, but nothing that helped me
locate you. She sent me your phone number just last week.”
insides froze and took her lips along for the ride. Well, it wasn’t
too hard to figure out what those ‘snippets’ Angie had given him
C. shifted in his seat, a grimace on his face, as though trying to
find a comfortable position. “He left the furniture and money to
Angie, but not the farm. Said it belonged to you when you got your
life in order. Until that time it’s under my jurisdiction.”
shoulders heaved upward, and the tightness in her shoulders
do you have it in order now?”
gaze met J.C.’s. Though his eyes still held kindness, there was
also a certain reproach to his words that knifed through her.
sir, I think I do.”
studied her for a long minute, and then leaned his head back against
the recliner, his eyes closed in obvious pain. “Based on our
earlier conversation, I’m not sure you do. But stick around, live
at the farm, and come see this old geezer from time to time. Once I’m
satisfied you have what it takes to stay in one place for any length
of time, the farm will be yours. In other words, no running away, no
matter how hard it gets.”
allowed the words to sink in. If Kane or one of his thugs showed up,
she'd have no choice, but that was the least of her worries at the
minute. The farm was far more important. She raised her eyes to his,
pleading. “J.C., I don’t think you know what that farm means to
me.” Her very life could depend on it.
but I think I do. You just need to realize how hard your grandparents
worked for that place. I won’t give it to you for you to up and
leave anytime you get hurt and angry.” His voice remained kind and
what happens to the property if you don't give it to me?”
have the option of doing with it whatever I choose.”
just that moment the front door swung open and Chance entered, his
eyes trained on her.
look at his face and she knew he’d heard every word.
to check on me?” J.C. directed the question to Chance.
nodded, but then returned his blue-gray gaze to hers.
that a look of triumph she saw in his eyes? No matter how kind and
wise J.C. was, if it came down to deciding between her and his
grandson, Chance would surely win. The thought left her cold.
stood. “Well, you needn’t have bothered. I’m fine.” He
tottered toward the hallway. “But I am feeling a bit tired. Think
I’ll take a nap. You two enjoy your lunch.”
one of them spoke for what seemed like an eternity to Dakota. She for
one couldn’t find words. And she couldn’t look at him either. The
scars on his face prevented it. She was too afraid of giving in to
her soft side and letting her guard down. And she certainly didn’t
want to set him off the way she had early that morning.
Chance broke the silence. “I’ll leave if you want.”
in his voice sliced into her heart. Loneliness? Coming from Chance
Johnson, who'd always been the life of the party and loaded with
friends? Maybe it was time to start making some of the changes J.C.
suggested. She shook her head and motioned for him to have a seat.
“It’s not necessary for you to leave. We’re adults now.”
eyebrows shot upward. “Well, I sure didn’t see that one coming.”
He took a seat while she opened the bag, but she could feel his eyes
anyone ever tell you it’s impolite to stare?”
trying to figure you out.”
I’m not that complicated.” Dakota tore apart a chicken leg and
nibbled around the bone. She'd always been simple. On the other hand,
he was Mr. Complicated and had been as long as she'd known him.
* * *
begged to differ, though he kept his opinion to himself as he nabbed
a chicken wing and took a bite. He’d never met someone so
complicated, so buried beneath layers and behind walls she’d built
one lonely brick at a time. Based on what he’d overheard in her
conversation with Grampa it was time to get some answers, but he’d
have to possess surgical precision to extract them without sending
her back into her hole. For now she at least seemed open to sharing
lunch with him. Was it because of the farm? Or because she felt sorry
for him? “Mind me asking why you changed your hair?”
green-eyed gaze pierced through him. “Why is my hair color so
important to you?”
question. Why did it matter? “I asked first.”
what? I asked second.”
released an exasperated sigh through his nose. Amy obviously wasn’t
going to make this easy on him. “Just thought it was pretty when it
face hardened. “So you think it’s ugly just because it’s red?”
putting words in my mouth.” Chance tried to nonchalantly eat his
chicken wing to put her at ease. Right now she looked like a balking
mule, ready to kick him in the shins. He eyed the clock. The new
hospital administrator, who already had a reputation for being hard
on nurses, had been kind enough to let him take his lunch break at
home. It certainly wouldn’t be wise to abuse the privilege, but he
also needed answers. “Wanted to make sure you weren’t trying to
go incognito because of some hidden danger.”
meant the words as a joke, but Amy’s hands immediately grew
restless, like she wasn’t sure what to do with them, and she
avoided all eye contact. She didn’t respond to his comment, but
picked up her soft drink, yanked off the plastic lid and straw, and
took a big gulp. Obviously, he’d hit the nail on its proverbial
head, but exactly what danger was she in?
she finally looked at him again, her eyes, loaded with compassion,
went straight to the scars. More proof that his scars only elicited
sympathy from available women. “What happened to your face?”
it was his turn to squirm uncomfortably. How like her to move the
focus to him when she felt vulnerable. As far as the scars, well, he
didn’t want to go into all the details at this point. That was
information best kept to himself for the purpose of guarding his
heart. But at the same time, if he opened up a little bit, perhaps it
would encourage her to do the same. “Car accident soon after you
left. Honestly don’t know how I escaped alive.”
green eyes darkened to the color of emeralds, full of angst and
compassion. “I’m so sorry, Chance, but I’m glad the Lord
tender words touched him in a way he hadn’t expected, and he
struggled to keep his composure. The fact that she’d mentioned the
Lord in such a personal way gave him hope. Maybe she belonged to God
after all, something he'd questioned on more than one occasion over
the past few years. Something he'd prayed for her specifically when
she came to mind. Finally he found his voice. “And He’s used it
for good in my life since then.”
nodded. “I think we naturally shy away from difficulties, but God
uses them to grow us closer to Him and help us depend on Him.”
eyebrows floated to the middle of his forehead. One thing he’d
never expected to hear from a woman with a bad reputation was godly
wisdom. Curse words perhaps, but not this. Maybe he’d stumbled
across a new common ground between them. But what suffering had she
endured to grow so wise? The thought gnawed at his insides. “Went
to see Mama Beth this morning after I left the farm. She said
local wise woman. Been through a lot. Lost her husband last year.”
yeah, I met her. Trish’s step-mom.”
way she grimaced let him know she was sorry she’d made the comment.
But why? “She mentioned she’d met you. Said she remembered you
having an uncommon name.”
grew dead-dog still, her gaze lowered, her lips pinched, lost in
thought. At last she heaved a sigh and looked at him directly. “I
do go by a different name now, Chance, but I won't explain why.”
implication of her words socked him in the gut. First of all, it was
obvious she was on the run from someone. Why else did someone change
their name? But the second part delivered the blow. She didn’t
trust him. No wonder she kept herself hidden away behind all those
walls and layers. That's why she’d asked him to leave when he
showed up at her doorstep this morning. “I understand.”
studied him a minute longer, as though searching for meaning behind
his words. “In fact, I meant to say something to J.C. as well. I'd
appreciate it if you would both call me Dakota from now on. Dakota
contemplated her request. Changed hair. Changed name. Changed person.
What—or who—was she running from? He couldn’t help her unless
he knew the answer, and she’d never tell him as long as she didn’t
trust him. And she’d never trust him until she could forgive him
for whatever sent her running away in the first place. He placed his
chicken bones with the stack he’d acquired during their
conversation, rested his elbows on his knees, and looked her directly
in the eye. “I'd like to help you, Dakota.” The name sounded so
foreign on his tongue, but it somehow perfectly fit this
familiar-but-unfamiliar woman who sat in front of him. “But I can’t
unless I know what’s going on.”
know you don’t trust me, probably for the same reason you won’t
sorrow filled her eyes, so deep it threatened to suck him in. Surely
she realized that what had happened between them was just as much, if
not more, her fault, as it was his. If she hadn’t been so quick to
run away, they eventually could’ve fixed things. “I want to do
whatever I can to re-establish that trus—”
Just stop!” Now her Irish eyes flashed with anger. “What I said
this morning still stands. What happened in the past stays in the
past, and there won’t be a do-over. If you’re hoping we can pick
up where we left off, you are sadly mistaken!” She scrambled to her
feet and headed for the door.
just that moment, Grampa hurriedly shuffled into the room, his face
awash with concern. “What’s going on?” Dakota whirled around,
her face livid. Grampa directed his gaze to Chance. “What'd you say
to upset her like this?”
I didn’t say anyth—” He didn’t get a chance to finish his
face turned gray. Then he crumpled to the floor.
froze in horror, unsure of what to do, her fingers plastered to her
jumped from the sofa and knelt beside J.C.’s still form. He glared
at her, his face contorted, his blue-gray eyes swimming with tears.
“Don’t just stand there. Come help me!”
hurried over to them. “What can I do?”