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A Bridge Unbroken

a Miller's Creek Novel - Book 5



CATHY BRYANT



A Bridge Unbroken

A Miller's Creek Novel


Copyright 2014, Cathy Bryant

This book is also available in print.


This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents

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


Table of Contents


Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Letter to Readers

About Cathy

Cathy's Books

Book Club Discussion Questions

Special Thanks

Sneak Peek of CROSSROADS


To my lovely daughter-in-law, Megan.

You are the daughter of my prayers. Thank you for being

a wonderful wife to my son, a loving mother to my grandchildren,

and an amazing addition to our family. But more importantly,

thank you for living your life for the Lord.


* * *


Be kind to one another, tender-hearted,

forgiving each other,

just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

~Ephesians 4:32



Chapter One


Heart thumping wildly, Dakota peered out the peephole at the figure of a man obscured by the semi-darkness of early morning.

"Just peachy." She kept her voice to a hushed whisper in the small and dingy apartment she'd called home for the past few months. What now? No longer secure, her downtown San Antonio getaway had obviously been compromised. But calling the cops wouldn’t work--a lesson she'd learned the hard way with scars as evidence. No, Kane had friends in high places.

Lord, help me. She inhaled sharply and backed away from the flimsy front door, willing her heart to slow its frantic pace. Calm down, Dakota. You’ve prepared for this scenario. Emergency backpack? Check. In its usual place by the window that led to the fire escape. Now to gather her bedding, meager food rations, and laptop. At least she was already dressed. Another lesson she'd learned in a life on the run.

A sharp knock sounded.

"Sorry, buster. I'm not falling for that trick." Especially at this hour of the morning. Her neighbors partied until 3 a.m. and slept until noon. Whoever banged on her door at this ungodly hour wasn't a neighbor or friend.

She sped to her bed in one corner of the room and rolled up her bedding. Less than a minute later she returned to the escape window, her computer bag slung over one shoulder. With nimble fingers, Dakota snapped the sleeping bag onto the backpack latches and strapped the drawstring trash bag that housed her food to a dangling carabiner clip.

The polite knock on the door now erupted into a persistent pounding.

Her pounding pulse responded in kind. Dakota struggled to lift the old window, finally able to raise it high enough to crawl through the narrow opening. A shiver rattled her body at the cold blast of autumn wind whistling between the tall brick buildings. She yanked her over-stuffed backpack through the opening and hoisted it to her back. The weight almost pulled her backwards. Why hadn't she thought to practice her escape with the heavy backpack in tow? She pushed against the outside of the window with every ounce of her strength. It screeched its objection, but finally clattered into place. Hopefully the closed window would buy extra time.

A hefty body thudded against the front door. With that kind of force it wouldn't hold long.

She froze, her breathing shallow. Another thud against the door. Move it, Dakota! She flew down the rusty stairs, aware of the clanging sound of her boots against the metal, but powerless to soften her steps. At the first floor landing, she stopped abruptly and yanked on the ladder to access the alley. Frozen in place by rust and years of disuse, it didn't budge. She pushed again with a guttural grunt. Nothing.

“Great.” Her brain sped into overdrive. What good was a fire escape if you couldn’t escape? Lips clenched, she searched the area for any reason to hope. To the left of the landing a gutter pipe inched to the ground, but would it hold her weight?

A screech raised her eyes to the apartment window five floors above, and she flattened herself against the cold brick of the building. A hooded head peered out, barely visible in the pre-dawn light, then a stocky figure climbed from the opening.

"Busted." Her heart tapped out a ferocious dance against her ribs. This guy meant business.

Praying the gutter would do the trick, Dakota scrambled over the rail and grabbed hold of the ice-cold pipe. The metal strap holding the gutter in place pulled precariously away from the grimy brick wall, exposing rusty nails.

"Don't you dare let go," she commanded under her breath. Determined, she clamped her bottom lip between her teeth, her gaze on the strap as she shimmied to the ground. Once her boots hit the asphalt alleyway, she raced toward her pickup, the sound of heavy steps pounding the fire escape behind her.

Lungs exploding, Dakota neared the truck, unbuckled clips, and yanked off her pack. She glanced back just long enough to see the quickly-approaching figure, then tossed the backpack to the far side of the pickup's cab and jumped in. The man drew closer--close enough to note the black hoodie he wore, but not enough to make out the shadowy face beneath. Definitely not Kane--too short and too stocky--but most likely one of his many hired goons.

Overwhelming panic erupted in her gut, blazing a fiery trail to her stomach. With fumbling fingers, she inserted the key in the ignition. Please start. The pickup roared to life on the first try. Just as the man reached her bumper, she threw the truck into gear and shot out into the street. In the rearview mirror, the guy slowed his steps and stared after her a brief moment before he turned and ran in the opposite direction. Probably going after his vehicle.

Her spirit deflated, whooshing air from her puffed-out cheeks. This chase wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

Dakota pressed the accelerator. "Well, Miller's Creek it is." The decision made for her. With San Antonio no longer a safe option, her deceased grandparent’s farmhouse made the most sense. J. C.'s late call last night couldn't have come at a more opportune time, God's guiding hand once more on her shoulder.

Only when she merged into the thickening morning commute traffic on Interstate 35 a few minutes later did Dakota semi-relax. She twisted her neck from side to side to release tension from her neck and shoulders, still trying to wrap her brain around returning to Miller's Creek. The only problem with Mawmaw and Pawpaw’s farm was the possibility of facing Chance again. Could she withstand the magnetic pull he'd always exerted over her heart? Even more importantly, could she handle the guilt and blame he'd most certainly place on her?

An ache landed in her chest. If only things had turned out differently between them. Dakota gave her red curls a shake to dislodge unwanted thoughts and emotions from her system. "Didn't you suffer enough the first time, Dakota?" She checked her rearview mirror as a black car moved in behind her. "Nope. I'm through with all men, including Chance Johnson." Her palms pounded the steering wheel to punctuate the self-serving promise. J. C. hadn't mentioned his grandson. Hopefully Chance had moved on somewhere else.

Dakota flipped on her blinker and changed lanes. The black car followed, right on her bumper. A frown pulled her forehead tight. The guy could at least stay far enough back for her to see his license plate.

Uneasiness skittered down her spine. Had the guy in the black hoodie caught up to her? Even in all this traffic?

"Chase back on." She floored the gas pedal and swerved around the car in front, the black car tailing her every move. Dakota drove as fast as she dared down the interstate's thick traffic through San Marcos and New Braunfels, the black car never far behind. Finally, out of desperation, she decided to detour around downtown Austin, through a suburban neighborhood, and then down a little farm-to-market road. She checked the mirror. A tiny black speck topped the hill behind her and grew steadily closer.

Not again. "Kane must be paying you a hefty sum, Mister."

Once more Dakota punched the accelerator. "C'mon, old truck. You can do this." Her clunker's motor sputtered for a moment and then shot forward. She squinted her eyes against the brightening Texas day. It wouldn't do any good to get away from this guy if she got stopped for speeding, nor would it help if he tailed her all the way to Miller's Creek.

For the rest of the day she zigzagged across central Texas, doing her best to give no rhyme or reason to her travel pattern, only stopping when she needed gas.

A little after nine p.m., the car's bright headlights disappeared behind a lengthy train at a crossing in some small nameless town that looked like all the others. Finally she'd caught a break. Rather than continue her trek, Dakota whipped the pickup into a dark parking lot of a towing company. Her jalopy fit right in with the other wrecked and disabled cars. The chain-link fence and tall stacks of tires provided further camouflage.

She waited well over an hour and used part of the time to call J.C. to let him know she was on her way. Then convinced she'd finally lost her pursuer, Dakota resumed the trip to Miller’s Creek, suddenly eager to start her new life in the one place that had always felt like home.


* * *

The repetitive beep of the alarm clock roused Chance to a sitting position. His fingers danced around the top of the bedside table until they landed on the alarm clock and brought a halt to the beeps. After a few blinks, his eyes adjusted to the darkness, but not to the lack of sleep. Would his body ever get used to the work schedule at the hospital? Not that he was complaining. For the first time in forever, he was finally moving forward and leaving the painful past behind.

Chance drug a hand across his stubbly chin and rolled out of bed with a groan. Who had called Grampa's house at such a late hour last night and disturbed his precious sleep? Whoever it was needed a few lessons on appropriate times to make a phone call.

He stumbled to the hall bathroom and washed his face, then headed to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Normally he didn’t drink the stuff, but since starting work at Miller’s Creek new hospital, his body craved it like his lungs craved air. Once the caffeine kicked in, he’d read his Bible, grab a quick workout, check on his grandfather, and eat a piece of fruit on the way to work, the familiar routine somehow comforting.

The coffee pot had barely started its cacophony of gurgles and hisses when the wooden floors creaked behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to see his grandfather, his IV pole in tow. “You're up awful early.”

Grampa's gentle smile lit the eyes so much like his own. “Only 'cause of all that racket you're making.” Then without warning, Grampa's smile faded, and he reached for the old chrome and yellow dining table.

In two steps Chance was at his grandfather’s side and helped him sit. “You okay?”

The old man nodded weakly. “Yep. Just one of those dizzy spells.”

Chance's chest tightened. If only the nursing skills he'd acquired over the past few years could reverse the aging progress and his grandfather’s quickly-failing health. He placed a hand on Grampa’s back and gazed down at him. “Sure you’re okay? Need anything?”

Grampa waved a hand in front of his face as though swatting a pesky fly. “Aaah, nothing a few hours of sleep won’t cure. Sleep I’ll get as soon as you quit making such a ruckus.”

Chance chuckled and moved to the cabinets. “Wanna cup?”

“Sure.”

He poured two cups of the dark, fragrant liquid and made his way to the table, a steaming cup in each hand. “Who called so late last night?”

An ornery look crossed Grampa's features, but he said nothing. Instead he pursed his lips and blew on the coffee, then brought the cup to his lips.

Chance took a seat across from him. “You got a lady friend you’re hiding from me?”

“Hmph.” His grandfather followed the grunt with a snort. “Never had any plan on replacing your sweet Grandma. The only woman I ever loved.”

Longing swirled around his heart and pulled tight. Would he ever experience that kind of love again?

“Besides,” his grandfather’s voice softened, “you’re the one who needs a lady friend.”

Chance lowered his head, took a quick sip, and sat his cup down with a little more force than intended. “Don’t have time.”

“Then make time.”

Really? Were they going to have this discussion again? “C’mon, Grampa, cut it out. With a face like this no girl my age is interested in anything other than friendship.”

“Hogwash.” His grandfather's typical smile disappeared. “You just need to quit feeling sorry for yourself and get out there and start living."

“And just when do you suggest I do that, huh? I work twelve-hour shifts, and then come home to help you.” As soon as the words flew from his lips, he wished them back in his mouth. Chance shook his head. “Sorry. Shouldn’t have said that.”

Grampa’s shoulders slumped. “It’s the truth. Sorry to be such a bother. If you want me to hire somebo—”

“No way.” When he moved here for nursing school, his plan had been to take care of Grampa, pay off student loans, and hopefully one day re-open the family drugstore. He was right on track, even though the hours were long and hard at the moment. Chance looked his grandfather straight in the eye. “I’m here because I want to be. One day I’ll have the opportunity to get out there and start living, as you put it. But right now, I’m doing exactly what I’m suposed to do, and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Grampa turned his head away quickly, but not quick enough to hide the tears welling in his eyes. A sniffle sounded. “I need you to do me a favor.”

“Not a problem.”

“And I need you to do it before you go to work.”

Chance eyed the old kitchen clock, which sported a knife, spoon, and fork for hands. Just now 5:30 a.m. He should still have time to follow his routine, shower, and have enough time to run a quick errand before his shift started at seven. “Also not a problem. What is it?”

“I want you to run out to Levi’s farm.”

“What on earth for?”

“Just wanna make sure the place is secure. With the weather turning cooler, we might have some unsavory characters trying to camp out there over the winter.” Grampa's jaw clamped in a stubborn pose.

“And why can’t I do it after work?”

“Dagnab it, boy. Will you just do what I ask?”

Chance’s eyebrows jumped up his scalp. Never had he seen his grandfather so testy. Was he really so bothered by possible vagrants, or was something else at play? “Okay.”

His grandfather stood in one liquid motion, and almost knocked his chair over in the process. He swiveled around and tottered from the room, mumbling under his breath. What aliens had abducted his kind and gentle grandfather? And what crotchety old grump had they left in his place?

At 6 a.m. on the dot, Chance hurriedly backed his Ford 150 out of the driveway and headed toward the late Levi Kelly’s farm. Frustration headed the list of a myriad of emotions colliding within. To fulfill his grandfather's strange request, he’d showered without reading his Bible or his workout, without taking the time to finish his one lousy cup of coffee. In addition, there was no fruit in the house, which meant Grampa had finished off the bananas and forgotten to write them down on the grocery list.

He rubbed the nape of his neck. But the one thing that bothered him most, like a hidden undercurrent beneath it all, was a crippling fear. Fear that being on the farm would resurrect memories he’d worked long and hard to forget.

The sky took on pale purple hues as he headed south on the farm-to-market road which led to the dirt road where the old farmhouse stood. As much as he tried to put Amy out of his mind on this foggy fall morning, he could not. Instead, thoughts of her elbowed their way to the forefront of his memory--her perfect smile, curly blond hair, infectious laugh, and flirtatious emerald eyes. Why were the memories as vivid as though they'd happened only yesterday?

He gritted his teeth and gunned the motor as familiar questions returned. Why had she left so suddenly? He played over the events of their last night together. How the evening ended was her fault, not his. But the resulting heartache was due to his own poor judgment. That’s what he got for falling for a girl of questionable character.

Chance reached the turn-off and slowed his speed to make the turn onto the seldom-traveled bumpy dirt road. As expected, the washboard-like road rattled his new truck and threw up a cloud of chalk-white dust behind him.

Great. Add washing the truck to his grievance list.

A few minutes later he pulled onto the private road that stretched over rolling hills until it came to rest behind a grove of pecan trees. Right beyond the pecan orchard sat the two-story farmhouse, secluded enough that only those who knew it existed could find it. And a mile past that the creek and old bridge where...

He rounded the final corner, so over grown it no longer seemed familiar, and his jaw dropped. The old house, once a beautiful yellow among a forest of green, was sorely in need of a paint job, raw wood exposed, bleached gray by the hot Texas sun. No lights shone from the windows, but a rusty old jalopy of a truck sat out front. Grampa had been right after all.

Chance pulled his pickup as close as he dared and killed the engine, his eyes trained on the house for even a flicker of movement.

Nothing.

Gravel crunched beneath his boots, the only sound in the mostly dark morning. He made his way all the way around the house to look for any sign of the intruder. Quietly, he climbed the steps to the front porch, weathered wood sagging beneath his weight. Add new decking to the much-needed paint job for the old house. Chance paused at the front door, his ears strained for any sound within the old house.

Suddenly from behind, the distinctive sound of a shotgun being pumped reached his ears, made louder by the quiet of the countryside.

Heart in throat, he instinctively raised his hands. But before he could speak, a female voice sounded, a voice he never expected to hear again.

“I don’t know who you are, Mister, but you’re about two seconds shy of getting your backside loaded with buckshot.”


Chapter Two


Dakota’s 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.

Her 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.

The man raised both hands up and slowly turned around. “It’s me, Amy.”

Her 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.”

“Mind pointing that shotgun elsewhere?” His face masked by darkness, his voice was flat and dry.

“Oh, 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?”

“You dyed your hair.”

Actually 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.”

“It’s six o’clock in the morning. As I recall, you used to be an early riser.”

True, 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 to bed.”

“Are you barefooted?”

Even 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.

“You 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 unlocked?”

“There 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.

Chance headed to the back door, soon gasping for air. “You’ve gained weight.”

It 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.

They 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 talk.”

Something 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 myself clear?”

“Perfectly.” Sarcasm oozed from his voice. “I see you still haven’t forgiven me for whatever imagined wrong I committed against you.”

Imagined!? “Forgiveness is a two-way street, Chance, but obviously you still haven’t figured that out. Please leave.”

“But I’ll have a better day knowing you’re safe out here all by yourself.”

It 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 afraid.”

“Which explains why you pulled a shotgun on me.”

Touché. “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?

“Amy, are you all right?” Chance’s voice held panic.

“I—I think so.”

Strong 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?”

“No lights without electricity.” The leg that went through the wooden steps began to sting as though she had ants in her pants. Was she bleeding?

“What?” Now his voice held an angry edge. “You mean to tell me you’re staying out here without electricity or heat?”

“I built a small fire in the wood stove.”

“Oh, 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?”

The 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.

“Stay here. I’ll be right back.” Chance left, slamming the back door behind him.

Dakota gingerly felt of her sore leg, her fingers immediately sticky. This wasn’t good.

Chance 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 bleeding?”

“I didn’t know for sure until I just felt it while you were gone. I’m sure it’s just a scratch.”

“Sit down and let me take a closer look at it.”

No way would that happen. “Look, it’s not that big a deal. Besides, you’re an architect, not a doctor.”

“Actually I’m a nurse.”

“Yeah, right. Since when?”

“As a matter of fact, since May.”

Well, that explained the scrubs. “But I thought—”

“People 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.”

Anger 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?”

“Don’t 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?”

Had she? “Yes.” What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, and the sooner she got him out of here the better.

“Got any water?”

“Bottled.”

An 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.”

Maybe, and then again, maybe not. She opted not to respond.

“Where’s the water?”

“Living room.”

“I’ll be right back.” His footsteps echoed in the empty house. A few seconds later he returned. “You’re sleeping on the cold, hard floor.”

A statement, not a question. “The sleeping bag softens the blow.”

“Not much.” Chance knelt and poured water on the wound, then reached around for his bag. He opened it and withdrew a white bottle.

“Oh, no, you don’t.” She yanked her leg away from him.

“Amy, give me your leg.”

“No alcohol.”

“I have to make sure the wound is disinfected.”

“Good grief, it’s just a little scratch.”

“A little scratch in a very dirty house. Now stick your leg back over here.”

She ignored his command.

“Okay, 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.”

Of all the obstinate, pig-headed people! “Oh, all right!” She extended her injured leg back his direction, intentionally kicking him in the process.

“Ow! 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.

“Ay-yi-yi!” 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?”

“More than I expected.” He followed the sarcastic words with a laugh.

She 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.

Her 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.

He 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.



* * *


Chance 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.

Chance 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?

The 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.

Oh, Lord, I thought I was over her. Help me know what to do. Help me get past all these painful feelings.

Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.

Forgive? 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.

One glance at the clock let him know he at least had time to stop by Mama Beth’s house on his way to work.

Five 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.

He hurried across the cobblestone walkway, up the immaculate steps and porch of the two-story Victorian house, and rapped on the screen door.

From 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 J.C.?”

“He’s been better. Dizzy spells are getting worse, so please keep him in your prayers.”

“Always.”

Chance 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.

“Well, 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?”

“I thought you’d never ask. Please.”

Within 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.”

A 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 scrambled eggs.

“So how can I help you?” Mama Beth peered at him with her piercing clear blue eyes.

“Well, there’s this girl.”

Mama 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 laugh followed.

Heat climbed up his back and landed in the tips of his ears. “It’s not like that. At least, not anymore.”

She 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?”

He shifted uncomfortably, searching for words. “Well, at one time I thought I loved her.”

“You thought you loved her? In my experience, love's something you either do or you don't do.”

“Okay. I loved her.”

Mama Beth nodded her approval, as if to encourage him to state the facts accurately. “Does she live in the area?”

“Well, 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?”

She 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.”

“Amy.”

Mama 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 seen.”

“That’s 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.”

Mama Beth nodded encouragingly as she loaded one of the steamy biscuits with some of her homemade plum jelly. “Go on.”

Chance 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.”

The older woman’s eyes narrowed perceptively. “I think I know what you mean.”

The 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.”

“Do you still love her?”

He shook his head. “That’s not the issue.”

“Then what is?”

“I 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.”

“That’s usually a good place to start.”

“But I’ve already forgiven her years ago. I had to forgive her so I could move on with my life.”

Mama 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.”

Something inside him hardened, like clay in the fire. “Maybe that’s true for you, but not me.”

Her 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.”

Was 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 fault?

“I 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 involved.”

Chance 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 forgiven 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.


Chapter Three


Dakota 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.

Though 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.

She 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.

“Can I help you, miss?” The same kind voice, the same humble smile.

She 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.?”

His eyes widened, and his mouth fell open. “Amy? Is that you?”

Hearing 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?”

“Not at all.” The door swung open. “Come on in this house and give me a hug.”

As 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.

He pulled away, eyes full of unshed tears, gripping an IV stand with one hand.

She 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 her feet.

“When 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.

Dakota 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.

“Aaah.” 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 while now.”

She 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.

He 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 graveside.”

Where 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.”

“Let me guess. All of them?”

She nodded.

“I 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.”

Tears 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 some things.”

“You’ve had a few years now. Maybe you’re trying to do it in your own strength instead of letting the Lord help you.”

The 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.”

He 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 from others.”

The lump in her throat made it impossible to speak, so she nodded instead.

“Chance loved you, you know.”

His 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.”

J.C.’s expression revealed he didn’t believe a word of what she’d just said, but thankfully, he changed the subject. “You staying at the farmhouse?”

Again she nodded, still working at regaining her composure.

A slow smile crept to his face. “Figured you were.”

Dakota 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 dawn.”

Now 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?”

She 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.”

“Don’t mind you living there. You’re welcome to live there as long as you like, free of charge.”

Dakota frowned and puzzled over the statement. “But I thoug—”

“—that the farm belonged to you?”

“Or at least belonged partially to me.”

“Levi’s will left it to you with a few stipulations.”

She swallowed. “Such as?”

“You had to be present at the reading of the will.”

Her 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.

J.C.’s 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.”

Her 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 might be.

J. 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.”

Dakota’s shoulders heaved upward, and the tightness in her shoulders multiplied.

“So do you have it in order now?”

Her gaze met J.C.’s. Though his eyes still held kindness, there was also a certain reproach to his words that knifed through her.

“Yes sir, I think I do.”

He 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.”

Dakota 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.

“Oh, 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 steady.

“But what happens to the property if you don't give it to me?”

“I have the option of doing with it whatever I choose.”

At just that moment the front door swung open and Chance entered, his eyes trained on her.

One look at his face and she knew he’d heard every word.

“Home to check on me?” J.C. directed the question to Chance.

He nodded, but then returned his blue-gray gaze to hers.

Was 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.

J.C. 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.”

Neither 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.

Finally Chance broke the silence. “I’ll leave if you want.”

Something 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.”

His 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 studying her.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s impolite to stare?”

“Just trying to figure you out.”

“Surely 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.


* * *


Chance 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?”

Her green-eyed gaze pierced through him. “Why is my hair color so important to you?”

Good question. Why did it matter? “I asked first.”

“So what? I asked second.”

He 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 was blond.”

Her face hardened. “So you think it’s ugly just because it’s red?”

“Quit 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.”

He 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?

When 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?”

Now 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.”

Amy’s green eyes darkened to the color of emeralds, full of angst and compassion. “I’m so sorry, Chance, but I’m glad the Lord protected you.”

Her 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.”

She 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.”

His 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 something similar.”

“Mama Beth?”

“Our local wise woman. Been through a lot. Lost her husband last year.”

“Oh, yeah, I met her. Trish’s step-mom.”

The 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.”

She 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.”

The 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.”

Amy 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 Kelly.”

Chance 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.”

She said nothing.

“I know you don’t trust me, probably for the same reason you won’t forgive me.”

Deep 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—”

“Stop! 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.

At 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?”

“Me? I didn’t say anyth—” He didn’t get a chance to finish his defense.

Grampa’s face turned gray. Then he crumpled to the floor.


Chapter Four

Dakota froze in horror, unsure of what to do, her fingers plastered to her face.

Chance 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!”

She hurried over to them. “What can I do?”


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