When Sparrows Fall by Meg Moseley (DEBUT AUTHOR!)

DEBUT AUTHOR!

When Sparrows Fall

ISBN:  978-1-60142-355-9

by Meg Moseley

Publisher:  Waterbrook-Multnomah

Inspirational

May 2011

Format:  Trade

Chapter Excerpt

c2011, Meg Moseley

If running late showed a streak of rebellion, Miranda Hanford was already in trouble. Pulling her van to the side of the narrow road, she tallied the other vehicles lined up on the shoulder. She wasn’t the last to arrive at Mason’s emergency meeting. She could steal a moment with Jezebel.

She picked up her camera and climbed out. Working quickly in the cold, she framed the last sliver of sun, as red as a forest fire above the pine-stubbled peaks. In the foreground, a maple sapling curled its bare limbs around the sunset, unwilling to let go—like sweet, stubborn Martha at bedtime, refusing to believe the day was over.

Miranda clicked the shutter. Before the sun abandoned the Blue Ridge to the night, she nailed five promising shots. She tucked the camera into its case and locked it in the van. An old lady who’d seen more of the world than her owner ever would, Jezebel deserved tender care.

Holding her cape closed, Miranda hurried up the long, steep driveway. Mason had called only the single women for this meeting. Six who hadn’t married yet and two widows.

She hated that word. Widows were supposed to be meek, gray things with grandchildren and arthritis.

Around the last bend of the driveway, the lights of the house shone their welcome. Snow flurries swirled like silver glitter as she ran up the steps to the porch.

She knocked lightly and joined the women in the living room. They’d congregated in a semicircle of folding chairs near the feeble warmth of the fireplace, their hands clasped in their laps and their voices subdued. Like the others, Miranda left her cape on, but a draft crept under her skirt and up her legs like icy fingers. She sat beside Lenore Schwartz, the other widow.

“Where’s Nicole?” someone asked.

No one knew. Abigail too was missing, her absence making the room colder still. If Mason’s wife had been home, she would have been dispensing hugs and peppermint tea.

The ladies hushed when their pastor strode into the room. Mason crossed to the hearth and picked up the poker. He shoved the logs into compliance, making sparks fly.

Amid the smell of smoke and ashes, he hung up the poker. He cut a handsome figure, his temples barely touched with gray and his face remarkably unlined for his fifty-some years.

“Ladies, thank you for coming on such short notice. I want to share what I announced at the men’s meeting last night.” He paused, surveying the semicircle like a watchful shepherd inspecting his lambs.

One of the flawed lambs, Miranda shifted in her chair. It squeaked in the silence.

“I have a word from the Lord.” Again, Mason took a moment to study the women. “I am to move from Slades Creek.”

Mason leaving town? Miranda’s heart made an unexpected leap, but Lenore bleated in distress and twisted her age-spotted hands together. “We’re moving to North Carolina,” he said, “to a beautiful little town called McCabe. Where people take care of themselves and each other. Where the government stays out of people’s business.”

Miranda fidgeted again, and her chair betrayed her restlessness with another creak. If the government didn’t stay out of people’s business in Georgia, it wasn’t likely to be much better in North Carolina.

“If it’s the Lord’s will, it’s the Lord’s will,” Lenore said, “but I don’t know how we’ll get along without you and Abigail. We’ll miss you terribly.”

“No, you won’t.” Mason smiled. “You’re coming with us. All of you. It’s a new beginning for the whole church. There are jobs in McCabe. Inexpensive housing too, and clean air and water. It’s practically paradise.”

A wave of excited whispers rustled through the room, but defiance woke within Miranda and prowled like an angry cat. She couldn’t leave Slades Creek. She wouldn’t.

“I’ve already put our house on the market,” Mason said, “and the other men will follow suit as soon as they can.” He nodded at Lenore, then Miranda, the only single women in the church who owned homes. “I’ll be glad to help you start the process.” Some of the men might have argued, but these women without men didn’t. They embraced their marching orders with joy.

All but Miranda. She saw an escape route.

Yet, as Mason answered questions with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes, she felt a pang of loss. The church had become her family. She would miss the women, especially Abigail. Friends, secret-sharers, burden-bearers, these
women were the sisters Miranda had never had. The mother she’d lost to an Ohio jail.

Once the discussion had played itself out, she spoke, veiling her agitation with a downcast gaze and a respectful tone. “I’ll miss everyone—very much—but Carl wouldn’t have wanted me to move.”

The room hushed to a shocked stillness, punctuated by the snapping and hissing of the fire.

“I only want to honor his wishes,” she added. “He always said we should hang on to the land, no matter what. For the children’s sake. He said it’s as good as money in the bank.”

Mason’s silver blue eyes flashed a warning. “We’ll discuss it later, Miranda.” She studied the blunt toes of her sturdy brown shoes. Now she’d reinforced her status as a troublemaker.

But so what? Her pastor was leaving town. And soon.

She frowned. Why the rush? Well, Mason and Abigail could hurry. They had no family. No children to uproot from their home or leave behind. Miranda looked up, startled, when a paper appeared before her, in Mason’s hands. She took it, and he gave one to Lenore too.

“A checklist to help expedite the process,” he said. “Weed out, fix up, sell. It’s almost spring. The perfect time to attract buyers.”

The photocopied list was written in Mason’s neat, square printing. With bullet points. With tips for increasing the value of a home. With phone numbers of handymen, painters, and real estate companies. He’d even included the donation drop-off hours for the local thrift store.

He dismissed the meeting. Each woman folded her chair and leaned it against the wall beside the piano. Abigail’s living room returned to normal except for her absence.

“Somebody needs to tell Nicole,” Lenore said. “I wonder why she never showed up. And where’s Abigail?”

Mason laughed and opened the front door, admitting a gust of cold. “Why should my wife attend a meeting of single ladies?”

Because she’d attended every other women’s meeting, Miranda thought, wondering if Abigail’s absence was related to Nicole’s.

“Well, tell her we missed her.” Lenore turned to Miranda. “You’ll find another nice piece of property, honey. You’ll find a new husband too. You’re so young.” Lenore seized her oversized handbag in one hand and her cane in the other and led the charge to the front door. “All you pretty young things, you’ll find husbands there.”

Miranda hung back as the chattering pack traipsed onto the porch, exchanging their good-nights. When Mason closed the door on the cold and faced her, she’d never felt so much like an ungrateful and obstinate child.

“Miranda, Miranda,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I hope you aren’t serious about staying behind.”

“I am.” She folded his checklist in half, then in half again. “I can’t imagine uprooting the children. And the land has been in Carl’s mother’s family for generations. I can’t sell.”

“Land is only land. Your children are young enough to adjust to a move. So are you. You’re young enough to start over.”

The paper rustled in her fingers as she folded it twice more, making it a tiny rectangle. “I don’t want to start over. I want to raise my family right here in Slades Creek.”

“It’ll be harder to raise your family if you don’t have help from the church when you can’t quite pay the bills.”

“Yes, but—”

“And what if there’s a good, godly man waiting for you in McCabe? What if God plans to play matchmaker? Don’t take this lightly, Miranda. If you deny God the chance to act, you may be depriving yourself of a husband. Depriving your children of a father. You need to hear from God about this. It’s a question that deserves fasting and prayer.”

She would start fasting, all right. She’d fast down to skin and bones so no man in his right mind would want her.

“You’d better start packing,” Mason said. “The move will take you beyond the chastisement of God to true repentance and blessings.”

“Wouldn’t the church be better off if a black sheep like me stayed behind? I know I’ve been a trial to you and Abigail.”

“No, no. Black sheep or not, you’re part of my flock. Of course you’ll move. And you’ll be careful not to sow seeds of rebellion in the others.” She hesitated, wary of his new sternness. “I need to do what’s best for my children.”

“Then you’ll submit to the authority God has placed over you.” Mason shook his head. “I’ve invested in your life for years, Miranda. I’m the one who made sure Carl had excellent life insurance, and I’m the one who writes the checks from the benevolence fund. You would have lost your property years ago if I hadn’t looked after you, and now you won’t listen to my guidance?” He still spoke softly, but this wasn’t the genial pastor who preached on Sundays and prayed for the sick and made a mean chili for potluck suppers. This was a different man. A hard, unreasonable man.

“What’s right for the church as a whole isn’t necessarily right for me,” she said, quaking inside.

“Remember, Miranda, ‘rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.’”

The prowling cat inside her tested its claws. “I’m no witch, and it’s not rebellion to make my own decisions.”

“Before you make this particular decision, remember you’re still paying for some of Carl’s unwise choices.”

Her knees went weak. “What does that have to do with it?”

“This is your opportunity to put some distance between yourself and the things you’d like to keep quiet. If the state ever gets wind of what happened, if DFCS steps in…”

She twisted her hands together behind her back. “I’ll take my chances.” “Don’t be foolish. As you said, you have to do what’s best for the children. You want to protect them, don’t you?”

Tears stung her eyes. “Of course. Always.”

“Then you’ll move to McCabe.” Mason came closer, exhaling minty toothpaste. “I won’t be held accountable for the consequences if you stay.”

The veiled threat took her breath away.

She imagined a car in her driveway. A car that bore the state seal on its doors. At the wheel, a social worker who had the right to tear a woman’s children from her arms and feed them to the foster-care system, backed up by the Bartram County Sheriff’s Department. It happened, all too often. It happened even to parents who’d done nothing wrong.

“Agreed?” he asked. “You’ll sell? You’ll move with the rest of us?”

She shivered. She’d seen his anger before, she’d even been the target of it, but she’d never seen him as an enemy.

Now, though, he had threatened her children.

Slowly, she nodded. Fingers crossed behind her back. A liar.

Mason squinted, seeming to assess her sincerity. His somber expression warmed with that Hollywood smile. “Excellent. Now, don’t make waves. Don’t try to sway anyone into staying behind. Good night, Miranda.” He dismissed her with a nod.

Speechless, she stepped outside, jamming the checklist into the pocket of her cape. Night had fallen, and the cold mountain air chilled her to the core. She stared numbly at a cardboard box in the corner of the porch, stuffed so full
of clothing that its flaps refused to stay folded down.

Abigail must have started weeding out their closets for the move. Her Christmas pullover lay on top, the same red as the construction-paper hearts the girls had cut out for Valentine’s Day. Abigail’s sister had mailed it from Topeka, but Mason said the color wasn’t appropriate for a pastor’s wife and the neckline was indecent.

Rubbish. It was perfectly modest.

Miranda tiptoed across the porch and snatched the sweater. She tucked it under her cape and ran down the steps. Now she was a thief too, but what was one more black mark against her?

She jogged down the steep driveway, slick with the barely-there snowfall. “I’m not moving. You can’t make me.” The jolting of her footsteps made her voice bounce as if she were jiggling a baby on her knee. That was what finally made her cry.

Her children. He had threatened to send the state after her children. They’d be like the family that had been in the news, their little ones scattered to different foster homes and the parents helpless against the authorities. In the morning, she would ask her attorney about naming a new guardian. Someone outside the church. Someone with no ties to Mason. She had no family though, with Auntie Lou long gone. No brothers, no sisters, no cousins. Jack? It might have to be him, but she couldn’t call him yet. Couldn’t risk giving him the idea of showing up on her doorstep again. Not until it was safe. With unsteady fingers, she unlocked the van. She fumbled the key into the ignition and shone the headlights on the dark, twisting road before her. She hadn’t felt so alone in years. Nine years.

It was even longer since she’d felt free.

Two weeks of fasting and early-morning prayer walks had left Miranda shaky but clearheaded. She eased the back door closed, allowing only a faint click that couldn’t possibly wake the children, and hung her camera around her neck.
Making no sound, she walked down the weathered steps. The wind snatched at her skirt and cape, flapping them around her like wings of blue and gray. She hoped God knew she’d started her fast not because Mason had told her to, but because she wanted to hear God too. She wanted to hear Him tell her to stay in Slades Creek.

Fighting the dizziness that always accompanied a fast, she kept her eyes on her shoes as they nosed through long grass and the first violets. By the time the girls finished their morning studies and went outside to pick a teacup bouquet for the kitchen table, Mason might have called again. He didn’t give up easily. “I don’t either,” she said under her breath.

Her choices were limited, but she wasn’t helpless. She could arrange for child care and hold down at least a part-time job. She could earn money with her photography, and she had the monthly income that she never would have seen if Mason hadn’t talked some sense into Carl, years ago.

Yes, Mason was smart about money. He was smart about a lot of things. He liked to document everything. He kept better records than God, she’d heard somebody say at one of the Sunday meetings. He’d probably hung on to his notes from that long-ago counseling session.

With the old fears nipping her heels, she slipped behind the barn and into the clearing. The camera rocked against her stomach and kept time with her footsteps and the swishing of her skirt. The faraway bleating of the goats faded
as she ducked beneath the big dogwood and entered the dripping woods. Thinking she heard footsteps, she looked behind her. No one was there, of course. It was only the wind making bare branches sway and creak.

She faced forward again. Her foot skidded across last year’s dead leaves, slippery with moisture. She nearly fell but regained her balance and walked on. Rounding the last bend, she slowed to take in the view that never got old.

The mountain peaks still hid in the mist, but the sun was fighting its way through in a glorious dazzle of white light. She held her breath and savored the sensation of standing in a cloud that had descended to her little piece of the
earth.

No matter what Mason held over her, she couldn’t sell her family’s land. Venturing closer to the heart-stopping drop-off, she peered over the edge of the cliff to the rock-choked creek far below, crisscrossed with fallen trees. It had been years since she’d dared to stand so close to the edge. The first time she and Carl had walked his late mother’s property together, he’d reminded her that the cliffs were no place for children or even for surefooted goats. When he was a boy, one of his grandfather’s young goats had fallen the twenty feet to the bottom. She’d landed on a boulder, breaking her neck.

Miranda had swallowed, sickened by the imagined sound of slender bones snapping.

The far side of the ravine wasn’t an abrupt fall like the near side, but it was treacherous too, especially when wildflowers came into bloom and disguised its dangers. Rock-cress, bloodroot, stonecrops, and bluebells would soon soften every cranny.

By the time the asters blossomed in the fall, Mason might have moved far away.

She reached into the pocket of her cape and pulled out his checklist, still folded in a neat, thick rectangle. She opened up the paper, just enough that she could crumple it, and pitched the lightweight ball into the air. The small white wad bounced off a mossy ledge and disappeared into a tangle of leafless brush. “Lord, help,” she said softly, as if anybody could hear her so far from the house. “Help me outsmart him.”

There were no sounds but the soft splashing of water on rocks and a few birds singing. Far from the commotion of her household, she could almost believe that God would speak to her, but either He wasn’t answering or He’d struck her heart deaf to punish her sins.

Mason heard God though, or claimed to. If he heard correctly, heaven had asked a hard thing of her. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Miranda removed the lens cap from her camera. The fog was lifting. If she worked fast, she could capture the mountains veiled with fog but kissed by the sunrise.

There it was. The perfect moment. She tripped the shutter.

A new wave of dizziness blindsided her. She hung her head to send blood to it, the camera still held to her face, and smiled at the silliness of staying in picture-taking mode when she had only a clump of dry weeds in the viewfinder.

She fought to step away from the cliff’s edge, but her feet melted beneath her. Someone dropped a curtain from the sky, shutting out the light.
——-

Excerpted from When Sparrows Fall by Meg Moseley Copyright © 2011 by Meg Moseley. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

——–

Meg Moseley is a Californian at heart although she’s lived more than half her life in other states.  She formerly wrote human-interest columns for a suburban section of the Atlanta Journal- Constitution, and home schooled for over twenty years.  When Sparrows Fall is Meg’s debut novel!

Buy a copy of Meg’s WHEN SPARROWS FALL from your favorite bookseller.  These links provided for your convenience:

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A Family for Faith by Missy Tippens

A Family for Faith

ISBN: 978-0373876655

by Missy Tippens

Publisher:  Harlequin Enterprises

Inspirational

April 2011

Format:  Mass

 

 

 

Copyright © 2011 by Harlequin Enterprises. Cover art used by arrangementwith Harlequin Ent. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks of Harlequin and/or its affiliated companies, used under license.

 

 

@ 2011 by Missy Tippens

 

Chapter One

 

Gabe Reynolds paced the photo-lined hallway, back and forth past baby and childhood pictures of his daughter, past the door where that same daughter did whatever pre-teen girls did behind closed doors. Considering the amount of time he spent coaxing her out of there these days, he figured he’d wear a path in the finish of the hardwood floor by the time his only child was grown and gone—something he intended to delay as long as possible.

He finally stopped and banged on the bathroom door. “Hurry up, Chels. You’ll be late.”

His dear, sweet daughter growled at him. Growled.

With a badge on his chest and weapon at his hip, he should be prepared to deal with anything. But give him a drunk or a thief any day over this soon-to-be-teenaged-girl business.

He pounded the door again. “I’ve gotta get back to the station. What are you doing in there?”

“For the thousandth time, I’m coming.”

He knew without a doubt that she was in there rolling her eyes at him. “What’s taking so long?”

“A work of art takes time,” she said in her best theatrical voice. Then she giggled, more like her normal, little girl self.

This switching from girl to young woman then back to girl in the blink of an eye was making his head spin. “You better not be putting on makeup.”

“I’m a teenager. All my friends wear makeup.”

“You’re not thirteen yet. And if all your friends jumped off—”

She yanked the door open so fast it banged into the wall. She glared at him. “No. If all my friends jumped off a bridge, I would not jump, too. This is totally different, and you know it.”

Her cheeks glowed with a too-bright pink that matched her tinted lips. Her mascaraed eyelashes, clumped into several uneven spikes, seemed a mile longer than usual. She looked grown-up. Too grown-up—the kind that would attract the attention of guys. “All I know is I forbade you to wear makeup and…and…” He jabbed his finger at the pile of containers on the bathroom counter. “That looks an awful lot like makeup. Where’d you get it?”

She huffed and tossed her dark curls over her shoulder. “I bought it with my allowance. And I’m learning to put it on so it accentuates my best features.”

She was accentuated all right. And sounded like she was spouting something she’d seen on an infomercial. He squinted as he checked out her face, so much like her mother’s it made it hard to look sometimes. And even though he had the urge to drop the subject and run the other direction, it was his job to deal with this kind of situation now. “You’ve got on lipstick. Wipe it off.”

“I want to look nice for our youth group meeting at the church tonight.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “No reason.” She fingered a small picture frame on the counter, then quickly placed it face down before he could see whose photo it held. “Now, please let me finish. I’ll be out in five minutes.”

A boy. It had to be because of a boy. “Who is he?”

“Who’s who?”

“The boy. The one you’re putting makeup on for.”

She rubbed a finger with brown sparkly goop over her eyelid. “No one. I’m doing it for myself.”

“Hand it over.”

She sighed and slapped a little compact into his hand. “There, are you happy? No more eye shadow.”

“No. Hand over the photo. Of the boy.” He reached toward the picture frame.

“No!” She stopped him by grabbing hold of his hand. She looked terrified.

Which terrified him. If the guy was some high school punk, Gabe would be out the door and into the squad car in five seconds flat.

He shook Chelsea’s hand off and grabbed the gold frame. But he didn’t find some guy. All the frustration and fear whooshed out of him along with his breath when he found his wife. His sweet, beautiful wife.

Once he recovered his equilibrium, he said, “Chels, why do you have your mom’s picture in here?”

She gave a little shrug, this time not so rebellious. “I told you. I’m learning to put on makeup.”

Pain steamrolled him flat to the floor as he remembered Chelsea watching her mom put on lipstick on Sunday mornings before church and often asking if she could have some. Tina would smile, kiss a pink lip print on Chelsea’s cheek and promise to show her when she got older.

Now here their daughter was, studying Tina’s face, learning to apply lipstick by herself. Gabe ached for Chels. Ached period.

It had been five years since the accident, and just when he was making headway and felt like he might finally be able to breathe again, this had to happen.

“Please, Dad?” She took the frame from his hand and held the photo up beside her face. “See? I tried to do just what she did.”

He wanted to hug her. To protect her from any more pain in her young life. She needed her mom, especially for moments like this. But no, all she had was a cop dad who didn’t have a guess at how to handle his daughter growing up. He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. But you’re just not old enough. You’ll have to wash that stuff off your face.”

She heaved a sigh that seemed to start at her toenails. “Okay.” She stared at the photo for a second. “Do I look pretty?” She’d said it so softly he wasn’t sure he heard her right. But then she turned to him and waited, looking everywhere but directly at him.

Oh, boy. “Well, now, I guess you better let me get a good look at you.”

She smiled shyly as she looked up, but then the smile went crooked as she gnawed on her lip. He had a feeling she wasn’t quite as comfortable being in makeup as she thought she would be.

“You look beautiful. Always.”

“I do look a little like Mom, don’t I?”

He breathed in through his nose, then forced a smile. “Even prettier.”

“Thanks.” She threw her arms around his waist, and for a split second, all was as it should be. Or at least it was back to the norm of the last few years. It would never again be as it should be.

He gave her a quick pat on the back before stepping away.

A horn honked outside. Chelsea’s ride to church.

“Hurry. You know Gary and Audra have other kids to pick up.”

“Go tell ‘em I’ve got to wash my face and to wait up.”

“Okay. Hey, I’m making your favorite dinner this evening. Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.”

She splashed water on her face. “Daaad. You know we eat at church. And I guess I forgot to tell you a bunch of us are hanging out tonight after the meeting.”

All he could do was groan as he walked away. Why couldn’t everything just stay simple? Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Watch a little TV. Go to bed… But Chelsea had insisted on staying involved in the church.

The youth counselors had been kind to offer to drive her every week.  Of course, they volunteered for everything at the church while he, on the other hand, didn’t even make it to Sunday morning worship on the rare Sundays he was off.

The services didn’t feel right with that empty seat beside him.

When he stepped outside, the hot, humid air slapped him in the face. Another stifling July evening in Corinthia, Georgia, that made him long for winter. A blue Ford sat in his driveway with the engine running. It looked like the one that belonged to his next-door neighbor, Faith Hagin.

She rolled down her window and waved. “I’m filling in for Audra and Gary tonight.”

“She’ll just be a minute,” he hollered.

Faith had bought the local coffee shop and moved to town about a year ago. Though she tended to keep to herself, he’d gotten to know her a little as they worked in their yards and through his daily visits to her café for coffee and homemade pastries. They mainly talked about work, but he’d found out bits and pieces about her family.

He’d learned she was divorced and had a teenage son. For some reason—and Gabe hadn’t pried—the boy lived with his dad. Gabe hadn’t pushed Faith on the topic as they’d gradually formed a sort-of friendship. He figured it wasn’t his business. But if she was going to be helping with the church youth…

Chelsea barreled outside. As she spotted the car, she came to a stop. “Is that Faith?”

“Yes. Looks like she’s driving tonight.”

“Cool.” Chelsea went around to the passenger side of the car as Gabe ambled to Faith’s open window. Air conditioning blasted him in the face.

“I’ll bring her home by nine,” she said.

“Why so late?”

Chelsea rolled her eyes and shook her head, exasperated. “I told you. We’re hanging out.”

He wasn’t positive, but it looked as if Chelsea had reapplied the pink lipstick. He squinted, trying to see better, while worrying about her “hanging out” with a group that included high school aged youth. Ignoring the possible makeup infraction for the moment, he asked Faith, “Where are they hanging out?”

Faith gave him a sympathetic smile and he once again wondered about her relationship with her son. It seemed she understood his worry. “At the café tonight for some decaf and live music.”

He’d heard her coffee shop was turning into a regular teen hangout. But Chelsea, too? “As long as you’re there with them…”

“Of course.” She pointed at the seatbelt to remind Chelsea to buckle. “She’ll be fine.”

“Thanks.” He leaned inside the window and couldn’t help but notice how good it smelled inside. He filled his lungs and wondered if his daughter was wearing perfume. But he hadn’t smelled it in the house.

He glanced at Faith, and for the first time wondered if she wore makeup. He couldn’t really tell for sure. She was a natural beauty, with light brown hair she pulled into a ponytail and gorgeous greenish-blue eyes. He’d never noticed her wearing that particular flowery fragrance.

She shifted the car into reverse. “You know, if you’re worried about her, I hear they’re always looking for more volunteers to help with the youth.”

Why did someone bring that up every single week? It was all he could manage to drop off Chelsea on Sunday mornings.

Time for a subject change. “New perfume?”

She seemed surprised, but then she raised her eyebrows as if impressed. “Ah, so you’re a master of avoidance.”

His sweet daughter snorted a laugh. “Yep. Avoiding me growing up.”

He snapped his mouth closed on his automatic rebuttal and decided he wasn’t going to get drawn into that trap. Though, surely Faith would see his view on the subject. “See you at nine.” As he patted the car door to let them leave, Chels smiled at Faith, and a sheen of forbidden gloss on her pink lips flickered in the evening sun.

They honked and waved. As they drove away, toward the church, he realized just how empty his world was whenever Chelsea left. Eventually, he’d have to “get a life” as Chels always told him. But for now, he had to focus on her—and on figuring out how in the world she had managed to pull one over on him yet again.

 

***

 

Faith wasn’t sure how the youth counselors, Gary and Audra, had roped her into driving the group of kids. She planned to help this once, then get back to service more in line with her gifts—cooking, cleaning, volunteering in the church office…

After picking up the last child who needed a ride to the Sunday evening youth group meeting, Faith observed the four middle schoolers in her vehicle, the two girls giggling and the two boys jostling each other around. Her son Ben had moved to live with his dad five years ago, during seventh grade. Watching the seventh and eighth graders interact made her ache for what she’d missed. Of course, Ben hadn’t been in a good place in seventh grade. He’d hooked up with a bad crowd and hadn’t taken part in the joyful laughter and harmless teasing this bunch of kids enjoyed.

Like the oppressive humid air, guilt settled over her, pressing her into the contours of the car seat, making it difficult to breathe…reminding her what a failure she’d been.

She forced air into her lungs and tried not to think of the past. Ben was doing great now, and that’s what mattered.

“We’re here.” Faith dropped the noisy middle school youth at the back of the church where they found the others outside throwing a fluorescent green Frisbee. “I’ll see you for coffee later.”

“Thanks!” they called as they piled out of her SUV.

Her pastor, Phil, flagged her down as he pulled a cloth hanky out of his pocket and swiped it across his brow and into his graying temples. “As you may have heard, Audra and Gary are moving, so I could really use your help with the youth.”

Teens dealing with peer pressure, sex, drugs. Dealing with crises of faith. Asking my advice…

It pained her to tell anyone no when they needed her. Especially Phil, who had been kind and tried to make her feel welcome from the day she moved to town. But as much as she loved kids and would like to help, there was no way she was prepared for a youth leadership position.  If Phil knew her track record with Ben, he probably wouldn’t even ask.

Besides, her work schedule wouldn’t permit it. “Phil, you know I’d do anything—clean the church, produce the bulletin, cook the meals. But with my café to run I can’t make such a big weekly commitment.”

“Think about it. They’d really like you.”

“I’m sure I’d love them. But this summer is crazy enough with getting ready for Ben’s visit.”

“Maybe in the fall.” He waved as he headed toward the air-conditioned building. “Hey, I look forward to meeting Ben.”

Yes, Ben. Her number one priority continued to be her relationship with her son. Soon to be a senior, he would graduate and move off to college before she knew it. Since he lived forty-five minutes away with his dad—and lived and breathed baseball year-round—time with him was scarce. He’d be coming soon to stay for two week. She couldn’t wait, especially since he’d cancelled his visit the previous summer. After having to settle for quick trips to ballgames or at his dad’s house for the past year, she looked forward to uninterrupted time together and wanted it to be perfect.

First on her to-do list was to train Natalie to run the café while Faith was on vacation with her son so she could give him undivided attention.

It was her last chance to heal their relationship.

 

***

 

“I need a life,” Chelsea said later that night as Faith drove toward home, the last orange and pink rays of the sunset fading on the horizon.

Join the club, she almost said without thinking. Thirty-four years old, divorced half a lifetime ago from a man who chose the partying college life over his wife and new baby, with a nearly-grown son who acted like she didn’t exist. Yes, she also needed a life. “Give your dad a break. He’s used to the little girl who depended on him for everything.”

She sighed and looked at Faith with twinkling brown eyes—more like milk chocolate than the dark chocolate of her father’s. “I had so much fun tonight. Why can’t he let me hang out with my friends more often?”

“You’re twelve, not sixteen. Be patient.”

With arms crossed and head shaking, Chelsea tsked, sounding and looking like an adult. “Twelve is old enough to spend the night at my best friend’s house. He won’t even let me do that. And he caught me putting on makeup today and made me wash it off.”

“You’re beautiful without it.” Just like her mother had been. Faith had seen the photos in Gabe’s living room.

It had to be tough for a girl Chelsea’s age to go through so many life changes without a mom around. Though Faith’s dad deserted them when she was about the same age, at least she’d had her mom during that transitional time.

“Well, I like wearing makeup. And it’s going to be a constant battle. Unless…”

She cut a glance in Chelsea’s direction. “Unless what?”

“Unless you help me.”

Oh, boy. Even though she and Gabe had formed a bit of a friendship over coffee, he’d always been private where family matters were concerned. He would not want her butting in. “I’m sure he’s doing what’s best for you.”

“I don’t think he’d be so stubborn if my mom were here. So maybe if you could sweet-talk him about the makeup…and about letting me hang out at the café…” She turned and pretty much begged with her big brown eyes.

Faith shouldn’t get involved. She had her own family mess to deal with and might cause a bigger one with Gabe’s family.

But poor Chelsea. It did sound like Gabe was being overly protective. And she knew personally how that could backfire. He could certainly stand to give Chelsea a little bit of freedom. “If I get the chance, I’ll see what I can do.”

Chelsea squeezed Faith’s arm and squealed. “Thank you!”

Of course, Faith had heard the stories of how Chelsea nearly died in the auto accident that killed her mother. She’d spent months in the hospital and rehab. Faith would probably be protective, too, in that situation.

Just thinking about it brought back memories of worrying about her son when he moved two hours away from her former home in Augusta to live with his dad and stepmom in Atlanta. Will they love him as much as I do? Will they discipline him like he needs? Will they protect him?

What utter helplessness…and rejection. Pain she never wanted to feel again.

When she and Chelsea arrived at the house, Gabe stood on his front porch with his arms crossed in front of him. “You’re late.”

“I’m sorry.” Faith’s watch showed a mere ten minutes after nine. “Had to get the café ready for the morning.”

“Understandable. But Chels, you should have called.”

“I would’ve if I weren’t the only person on earth without a cell phone.” She smirked at him and, judging by his scowl, it was not a good thing to do at the moment.

“The café has a land line. Now go on in and get ready for bed.”

“Man, I was just teasing.” With all the earlier joy wiped off her face, she stomped inside and slung the door shut with a bang.

Let it go, Faith. Don’t butt in.

But she’d promised Chelsea. “Gabe, may I offer a suggestion?”

She couldn’t read his expression as he recrossed his arms. For a second, she thought he would refuse.

“I guess,” he said instead.

He didn’t exactly look receptive, but she plowed ahead anyway. “Lots of kids Chelsea’s age are allowed to do things with their friends. Could you maybe consider giving her a little wiggle room?”

“If you give an inch…”

“She’s a good girl.”

“And she’s also strong willed.”

Faith knew a whole lot about strong willed children. She’d tried to raise one and had struggled the whole time. “You can’t be too hard on Chelsea or she might rebel.”

Memories of Ben storming out of the house—and stumbling back in—brought a wave of nausea. Who was she, a total failure at motherhood, to give advice?

He stared into her eyes as if he was thinking it over. But then the staring went on just a moment too long, and she felt like she was being examined. Could he see through to the real Faith Hagin?

She tightened her ponytail as the chirping of the cicadas crescendoed in the otherwise silent night. She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jeans to keep from fidgeting. “What?”

“I’m just trying to figure out if you wear makeup?”

Makeup? “I, uh, don’t usually wear makeup. It’s too much trouble when I have to go to work so early. But I did put on a little for church this morning.”

He stepped closer, gently took hold of her chin and tilted her face up so he could see better in the porch light. But his touch didn’t linger and he acted surprised to have done it.

She backed up a step. “I could teach Chelsea how to apply basic cosmetics—enough to appease her.” Faith’s face blazed with heat, especially where he’d touched her.

His dark brown eyes bore into hers, as if he still held her under a microscope. A searing blush crept to her chest and seemed to squeeze her heart.

He finally blinked and stepped back toward the door. “You’re a natural beauty. I don’t see much difference between most days and Sunday.”

His matter-of-fact declaration made her heart skip a beat or two.

Before she could put two coherent words together, he shook his head. “Thanks for the offer, but no. I’m not going to give on the makeup issue.”

Scattered thoughts—he thinks I’m a natural beauty?—ricocheted around in her head. But she managed to refocus on Chelsea. “She’s almost a teenager, Gabe. You’ll have to start letting go eventually.”

He straightened up into his big, bad Chief of Police stance. “She’s my daughter. I know what’s best for her.”

And she’d thought she’d known what was best for her son. She’d been very protective of him, too. Trying to make sure he didn’t go down the drinking and partying path his dad had gone down many years before. But her controlling had pushed Ben in the opposite direction.

For some reason, she needed to make Gabe understand. “Yes, you do know what’s best. But sometimes, knowing best doesn’t matter. If we smother them and don’t give them room to become independent, we set them up to make bad decisions.”

He studied her through squinted eyes, this time with suspicion. “You sound like you speak from experience.”

“Yeah. I’d been left by my dad and my husband and thought if I worked hard enough I could hang on to my son. But it pushed him right into a group of friends who were an awful influence.”

She snapped her mouth shut before she revealed more. The townspeople knew Ben lived with his dad and that he was too busy with sports to come visit. But she’d never shared with anyone the details of her son’s problems in middle school, about his begging to live with his dad in Atlanta—about how he thrived once he moved there. When she moved to Corinthia a year ago to be closer to Ben, it was also to get away from the years of strange looks from former friends, to get away from the sideways glances. What’s wrong with Faith that her son did so poorly in her care, then had a complete turnaround when he got away from her?

“I’m sorry, Faith. I didn’t realize all you’ve been through, “ he said. “I’ll keep your advice in mind.”

She’d promised Chelsea she’d try to talk to him and she had. Duty fulfilled. “Okay, then. Good night.” She hurried down the porch stairs and along the front walk. By the time she reached the grass between their houses, she heard footsteps behind her.

“Hold up a second, Faith.” When Gabe reached her, he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Look, I’m sorry. I appreciate your offer to help. I do. But…” He looked at his feet. At the sky. At her house. “I know you’re right about Chelsea. In my head, I know it. But in here…” He thumped a fist on his chest. “…I can’t go there yet.”

Her heart ached at the look of pain on his face. “Children can do that to the best of us.”

“Yeah.” He rocked back on his heels. “I guess I actually could use your help. Some female guidance for Chelsea since she’s been pushing for independence. I’ve got to do something. I can’t let her…” His voice hitched.

Why, Lord? Why get me involved in this? She wished she could simply tell him good luck and turn away. But as if God Himself were forcing the words out of her mouth, she said, “What can I do?”

The breath huffed out of him and his tense expression eased. He laughed. “I have no idea.”

His smile ravaged her already-tender nerves. She’d always thought he was handsome. Especially when in uniform. But seeing him in angst over his young daughter sent his attractiveness to a whole new level.

“Well, I can tell you she was glowing with happiness after hanging out at the café tonight. Anything you can do to let her spend more time with friends will go a long way.”

He crossed his arms as he digested that bit of information. “Have the kids her age been coming to the café this summer?”

“Yes, some.”

“Can Chels hang out with you one day this week?”

Oh, I don’t think so was pushing at the edge of her lips. But the earnest look on his face snapped her lips tightly closed. Instead, she uttered, “Of course. How about tomorrow?”

The strong, rugged man smiled, his nearly-black eyes beaming in the moonlight. He took hold of both her hands and gave a quick squeeze. “I appreciate your help.”

What on earth was she doing? She should run the other direction. She didn’t have any business taking a middle school girl under her wing. Chelsea was right about the age Ben had been when he started rebelling. Her kid with all A’s had done an about-face and had started on the slippery slope toward becoming a juvenile delinquent. And by the time Faith realized what was happening, she’d been too late to stop it.

What if Faith failed with Chelsea, too? What if her advice to Gabe backfired?

“I’ll bring her by during my lunch break tomorrow,” he said. “If that’s okay with you.”

“Sure. Any time.”

“Good night, Faith.”

His warm, deep voice brushed along her nerves, almost like a brush of his hand, soothing her.

He was a kind man. A good father. A strong leader in the community.

But he was hurting. Probably still grieving. Struggling with a strong willed daughter.

Okay, so it looked as if God may have put Faith in a position to help father and daughter. She would do what she could. But she better not fail this time.

 

 

Copyright 2011 Melissa L. Tippens

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin S.A.

——————————————————————

Missy Tippens is an award winning writer whose books have been finalists in the Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence, The Bookseller’s Best Award, and ACFW Book of the Year Contest. Visit her and sign up for her free newsletter at www.missytippens.com.

Buy Missy’s A Family for Faith at:  eharlequin.com Amazon.com

 

HOMETOWN DAD by MERRILLEE WHREN

 

 

 

 

 

HOMETOWN DAD
Publisher: Harlequin
Genre: Inspirational romance
Pub date: Feb. 1, 2011
ISBN:  978-0-373-87651-8
Format:  Mass Market Paperback

 

© 2011, Merrillee Whren

Chapter One

 

“Anxiety knotted Melanie Drake’s stomach as she pushed open the heavy glass door leading into the Kellerville National Bank. Her seven- and eight-year-old sons, Andrew and Ryan, raced ahead, chasing each other around the deposit counter in the middle of the floor. As she tried to corral them, their laughter and the slap of their tennis shoes on the marble floor seemed to echo off the walls of the cavernous lobby with its cherry paneling and granite columns. Their misbehavior did nothing to soothe her frazzled mind.

Melanie grabbed each of the boys by an arm and pulled them to a stop. Letting go to adjust the satchel she’d slung over her shoulder, she leaned over and looked them in the eye. She forced herself not to raise her voice. “You two, settle down. Now.”

When a teller gave them a disapproving look, Melanie feared her harsh whisper hadn’t been as quiet as she’d intended. Staring at her wide-eyed, the boys nodded and said nothing.

“Okay, then.” She tried to put on a happy face, even though nothing was going as planned today. She guided the boys to a couple of navy leather chairs situated against a wall near the bank offices. “Sit here.”

Andrew and Ryan settled on the oversized chairs, and she handed them each a book. Ryan surveyed the book then, looked up, wrinkling his nose. “Do I have to read this? It looks boring.”

“I’ll read it.” Andrew snatched it from Ryan’s hand.

“Hey, I want that.” Ryan grabbed it back.

While Melanie tried to take charge of her warring sons, a stern-faced woman approached. “May we help you?”

Melanie took a calming breath and met the woman’s critical gaze. “Yes, I’m Melanie Drake and I have an appointment with Nathan Keller at three-thirty.”

“Mr. Keller should be with you shortly.” The woman glanced at her watch, then toward the office where Nathan Keller was clearly visible through the large window. She looked down her nose at the boys before turning her attention back to Melanie. “You’re welcome to wait right here.”

“Thanks.” Melanie sat on one of the chairs opposite Ryan and Andrew and breathed a sigh of relief as the unsmiling woman resumed her position behind a desk at the far side of the lobby.

“Mom, he touched me.” Ryan pushed Andrew’s arm.

Standing, Melanie glared at her sons and pointed to the chair next to hers. “Ryan, over here.”

“Okay.” Ryan jumped up and obeyed her orders.

After he was seated, she hunkered down between them. “I know you guys don’t want to be here, but if you can’t behave while I have this meeting, I won’t hesitate to make my excuses and leave. You’ll both be grounded, and I won’t unground you until I see improvement in your behavior. Do you understand?”

They nodded, their little faces solemn, but Melanie wasn’t sure they believed her. She sat down and plucked a paperback novel from her satchel. Although she tried to read, her thoughts wandered to her children. Some of their bad behavior was the result of her lax discipline since their father had died. She was working on being a better disciplinarian, but sometimes she found the task difficult. She knew how much her little boys missed their father and hated to make them feel worse by scolding them.

A single mom, she had all of the parental responsibilities, making for extra stress in her life. People from church stepped in from time to time to help her out, but it wasn’t the same as having Tim there to share the parenting duties. She tried to remember that God was with her and would see her through, but she sometimes forgot that one important truth.

Every day was another step toward learning to deal with her grief. She wasn’t going to let that sadness keep her from being the best parent for her boys. Loving them and caring for them was her top priority.

She’d been putting on a brave face for her sons, but some days were really hard. She’d made a lot of progress in the past two years, maybe not as much as she would have liked. She wanted Ryan and Andrew to have a bright future, and part of that meant having this meeting with someone who knew investment strategies and could help her make the first move in getting her financial life in order. That’s why she was here.

Melanie glanced toward the office where Nathan Keller talked with an older couple. Could he help her? His sandy brown hair, cut in a neat short style, gave him a business-like appearance. Did his serious demeanor mean she could trust him to give her the advice she needed?

Although she was a friend of Nathan’s cousin, Juliane, and they attended the same church, Melanie didn’t know him very well. His father was the bank president, and his mother taught at the local college. They were prominent people in the little town of Kellerville. According to Juliane, Nathan was being groomed to take over the bank when his father retired. Melanie had to believe Nathan could answer her financial questions.

Her stomach churning, she looked back at Ryan and Andrew and hoped she could get through the afternoon without another outburst from them. If the boys misbehaved during the meeting, she would be mortified. Would Nathan look down his nose at her the same as the woman behind the desk had?

Melanie felt as though she’d spent most of her life dealing with people who looked down on her because of her upbringing. Her late husband’s parents were people like that. Ever since she’d met them, she’d been trying to show them she deserved their respect, not their disdain. She didn’t want to think about them and forced herself to concentrate on her book.

“Mrs. Drake.” A deep male voice startled her. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. It’s nice to see you.”

“That’s okay, and it’s good to see you, too.” Standing, Melanie looked up into Nathan’s brown eyes—brown, the color of her morning tea. They exuded warmth. Despite the kindness in them, her thoughts skittered. She hadn’t realized she was so nervous, but the notion of making the wrong decision about the money she’d inherited had kept her from making any decision at all. “Thanks for meeting with me.”

“The bank is here to serve you.”

As he shook her hand, she tried to ignore the little prickles that raced up her arm. Melanie looked over at her sons. “These are my boys, Andrew and Ryan. I didn’t intend to bring them, but my sitter cancelled at the last minute. I didn’t have time to find another one.”

Nathan looked over at the youngsters. Melanie watched to see his reaction. He smiled. Kindness radiated from his smile just as it had from his eyes. “Hello. Which one is Ryan?”

“Me.” Ryan sprang from the chair.

Not to be outdone, Andrew pushed his way in front of Ryan. “And I’m Andrew.”

Melanie wanted to scold Andrew, but she’d done enough scolding already. Besides, she was too embarrassed to correct her sons in front of this man, who was a VIP in Kellerville.

Nathan shook hands with each of the boys. “I’m glad to meet you, Andrew and Ryan.”

The tension in Melanie’s shoulders eased as the boys politely returned Nathan’s handshake. At least they remembered some of the manners she’d taught them.

Nathan escorted them into his office and indicated that Melanie should sit in the wood frame armchair at the side of his desk. Grabbing two armless chairs, he set them in the corner in front of a small desk containing a computer. “You guys can sit here, and if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you play one of my games.”

“We won’t tell.” Ryan glanced at Andrew. “Will we?”

Shaking his head, Andrew looked at Melanie, then back at Nathan. “I won’t, but what about our mom?”

Winking, Nathan grinned at her. “What about it, Mom? Will you keep our secret?”

“Sure. Your secret’s safe with me.” Melanie noticed for the first time how Nathan’s grin made a nice looking man twice as handsome. But this wasn’t the time to let a heart-stopping grin make her realize the way his broad shoulders filled out his gray pinstriped suit. She’d barely been aware of him when they’d met in passing at church during the last two years. Why was she noticing so much about him today?

While Nathan gave the boys instructions about the game and outfitted them each with a set of headphones, Melanie tried to collect her thoughts. Despite Nathan’s affability, her mind whirled. She shouldn’t be this nervous. He was trying to put her at ease, but for some reason, his smile had her thoughts scrambled. She gripped the satchel and took a shaky breath. Finally, she squared her shoulders and looked at him as he settled on the chair behind his desk.

“What can I do to help you?” He smiled again.

Her heart hammered. She didn’t want him to think she was a complete dunderhead, but she felt out of her league talking about investments. Trying to remember the little speech she’d practiced, she pulled a folder from the satchel and laid it on the desk. “You know I’m a hygienist in your uncle’s dental practice. Dr. Joe told me that I should see you about some financial advice.”

“Yes, good ole Dr. Joe. He’s always looking out for his employees.” Nathan patted the folder. “What do you have here?”

“My financial papers.”

“What kind of financial advice are you looking for?”

“I’m not sure.”

Nathan picked up the file. “May I look through this?”

Studying Nathan’s demeanor as he thumbed through her papers, she hoped she hadn’t made a mistake in following Dr. Joe’s advice. Her boss was like the father she’d never had, and she trusted him to steer her in the right direction. But as she watched Nathan’s eyebrows knit in a little frown, she worried that she’d made the wrong decision.

Finally, Nathan looked up. Warmth still radiated from his eyes, but she detected a little curiosity, as well. “There’s a lot here. Do you want me to draw up a financial plan for you?”

“What exactly does that mean?”

“I can give you ideas about where to invest your money.” He glanced at Andrew and Ryan, who were thankfully quiet and busy with the video game. Looking back at her, Nathan nodded his head in the boys’ direction. “I imagine you want to put some of this in a college fund for them.”

“Yes.” Melanie nodded. “I’m sure you’re wondering why it’s taken me two years to do something about this.”

Nathan shook his head. “No, I imagine you’ve had to collect yourself after a shocking, life-changing experience. Sometimes, it’s better to do nothing than to make emotional decisions that you might regret later.”

Melanie placed a hand over her heart. “Oh, you do understand. I just couldn’t bring myself to tackle the job. Every time I thought about it I would…”

Closing her eyes, Melanie pressed her lips together. She wouldn’t fall apart now. Tim was gone. She couldn’t bring him back. He would always have a place in her heart, but she had to pick up all of the pieces of her life and move on. That included the money from Tim’s life insurance that she’d let sit in the bank and his other investments that she hadn’t paid enough attention to.

She summoned her courage. The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. The words from a Psalm she’d recently memorized as part of her grief recovery group flitted through her mind, giving her peace for the moment. When her husband Tim had died from an aneurysm at the young age of thirty-four, she’d started the group as a church ministry. Somehow she felt as though she should have it all together by now, rather than letting memories of Tim make her feel weepy two year later.

“Are you okay?”

At the sound of Nathan’s soothing voice, Melanie opened her eyes and tried to smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let this affect me. I’m doing better, but as you see, looking at this stuff brings back all the sorrow.”

“So you’ve been putting it off?”

“Exactly. Thank you. Thank you for recognizing the difficulty I’ve been having.” Melanie smiled. This time it was genuine, not forced. “I’m trying to move on with my life.”

Nathan nodded. “You are. Just the fact that you came to see me shows that.”

“Dr. Joe has been such a help to me. I’m so glad he suggested that I get your financial advice. You’ve made me feel better already.”

“Good. I’m here to help you.” Nathan closed the folder. “Do you mind if I keep this and look it over more fully? That’ll give me time to formulate some recommendations for you. Then we can meet again and get a better understanding of your needs.”

“Okay. When would you like to get together?”

“At your convenience.”

What would another meeting with Nathan bring? Melanie couldn’t forget how this initial encounter made her heart race, but that was from nervousness, wasn’t it? She barely knew the man. How could there be any other reason?

“Mom, he’s cheating.” Andrew’s voice made Melanie jump, short-circuiting her response about another meeting. Embarrassed, she hurried to the corner to negotiate the peace. She’d been doing a lot of that lately.

“I’m not cheating. He’s just a sore loser.” Jerking off the headphones, Ryan stared at her.

Andrew also removed his headphones. “I wouldn’t lose, if he didn’t cheat.”

“The game is over for both of you.” Melanie didn’t want to turn and face Nathan. What must he think after he’d been so nice to allow them to play? She couldn’t slink away, although she wished she could. Gathering her courage, she turned to Nathan. “I’m sorry about this. I’d better take them home.”

“That’s okay. I’ll give you a call after I’ve had time to study this?” He held up the folder.

“That would be fine. Thanks.” Melanie could hardly wait to make her exit as she moved toward the door.

Nathan accompanied her and opened it for her. “I’ll call you in a few days.”

“I’ll be waiting to hear from you.” As Melanie ushered her sons out of Nathan’s office, she couldn’t imagine what he must be thinking. It all had to be awful—everything from her sons’ misbehavior to her inability to keep her emotions in check had shown her in a bad light. He must surely think she was a basket case with a couple of miscreants on her hands. How was she going to face him again? Maybe they could work out the details of her investments by phone and e-mail, and she wouldn’t have to see him again. But whatever happened, she wasn’t going to let the investments fall by the wayside again, no matter what she had to do.

She’d overcome a terrible childhood, and she would make sure her kids never had to suffer the way she had.

Standing in his office door, Nathan watched Melanie and her sons leave the bank. Her dark brown hair shone in the warm sunshine of a late May afternoon. He wasn’t sure what to make of his reaction to her. He could still see the sadness in her coffee-colored eyes. Her vulnerability made him feel as though he needed to protect her, even though he barely knew her.

Since she’d moved to town more than two years ago with her husband and children, Nathan had seen her on occasion at church, but their paths had rarely crossed. He’d never paid much attention to her before, but the attractive young widow certainly had his attention now.

Nathan strode across the lobby and gazed outside. Melanie was already out of sight, but she wasn’t out of his thoughts. She had her hands full with those live-wire boys. With a smile, he remembered his own childhood. He’d been exactly like them—full of mischief and always fighting with his older brother Marcus. Or maybe a more accurate description was trying to compete with him. Wasn’t he still trying to compete with Marcus? Their father was always bragging about some big deal that Marcus had closed. Nathan wanted that kind of attention. But he didn’t want to think about that. He’d rather think about the lovely widow.

Nathan felt an obligation to help her in whatever way he could, because single parents had double duty. Despite her attempt to put on a brave face, he could see that she was still struggling with her grief. What must a person go through when someone close to them died, especially a spouse? He had no idea. No one close to him had ever died. His parents, both sets of grandparents, brother and sister were still living. Yet, Melanie believed that he understood.

Wishing he knew more about her, Nathan stared out the glass doors toward the Kellerville town square where the courthouse stood. A gazebo graced the expansive lawn in front. As he stood there, the clock in the tower chimed four times. He supposed he should get back to work, but he couldn’t get Melanie off his mind. Maybe he should talk to his cousin Juliane. She and her husband Lukas babysat Melanie’s boys occasionally. Could Juliane shed any light on the young widow?

With a heavy sigh, Nathan turned toward his office. Then he spied Trudy Becker, who had given Melanie and her boys a rather disdainful look when they left the bank. She’d given the same look to him and his brother Marcus when they’d been kids. He hadn’t liked it then, and he didn’t like it now. Her expression prompted him not to wait, but to find out about Melanie today.

Nathan marched over to the loan officer’s desk. “Trudy, I have some personal business I have to take care of away from the bank. If anyone needs me, you can reach me on my cell.”

Not waiting for any comment from Trudy, Nathan left the bank. He hardly ever left the bank early, especially for a personal reason, and he enjoyed seeing the speculation in Trudy’s expression. He hated having bad thoughts about people, but the woman was sometimes unpleasant to be around. He often wondered why his father had hired her, but she’d been there since he was a kid. He hoped by the time he took over as president of the bank that she would be retired.

As Nathan crossed the square, he shook unpleasant thoughts from his head. He wanted to enjoy the beautiful spring day in this little southwestern Ohio town, where he’d grown up.

Quickening his step, he passed the gazebo surrounded by a rainbow of tulips. He headed straight across the square to Keller’s Variety, where Juliane worked for her father as manager. When he entered the store, the smell of potpourri and leather goods greeted him. Looking around, he spied Juliane as she helped a customer.

While he waited, he perused the merchandise that ranged from knickknacks to specialty clothing. “Variety” was definitely a good name for the store that his uncle Ray owned.

After the customer left the store, Juliane came his way. “Hi, Nathan. I’m surprised to see you here. What are you shopping for today?”

“Information. Do you have time to talk?”

Curiosity painting her face, Juliane glanced around the store. “No customers at the moment, so I guess so. What kind of information do you need?”

“Information about Melanie Drake?”

Juliane raised her eyebrows. “So you finally has a romantic interest—”

“Absolutely not. This is strictly business.”

Juliane chuckled. “I should’ve known. My nose-to-the-grindstone cousin doesn’t have time for romance. He’s in love with the bank.”

“You’re right. I love that bank. It’s what gets me up in the morning and makes my day.” Nathan knew his response would get a rise out of Juliane, but his life did revolve around work.

In the past few years, his dad had taken more and more time off as his parents did a little globetrotting. He left Nathan in charge. He knew this was his father’s way of testing him—to see whether he could run the bank. And Nathan intended to show his father that the bank would be in good hands when he retired.

“You’re no fun to tease.” Juliane swatted at him with one hand. “So why do you want to know about Melanie?”

Nathan wondered how he could get a handle on Melanie’s life without divulging her reason for coming into the bank. He’d have to keep his statements as vague as possible. “She was in the bank today with her two boys.”

“So what do you want to know?”

“How’s she doing? She seemed a little…ah…I guess you’d say lost.”

“Lost? Still grieving maybe, but not lost.” Grimacing, Juliane shook her head. “I thought she was doing better. Do you think she isn’t?”

“I don’t know. I sensed that she might feel a little overwhelmed with having to raise those boys by herself.”

“I’m sure it has to be hard without Tim. I should’ve been better about checking on her, but we haven’t visited as much since she went back to work.” Juliane sighed. “Maybe you should ask her out.”

“Don’t get any crazy ideas.”

“Come on. It would do you both good. You need some social life, and she’d probably like some adult conversation outside of work at least one evening a week.”

Nathan shook his head. “Don’t try to play matchmaker, Juliane. I’m the last person she needs to date. After what she went through with her husband, she probably isn’t looking for another man with a health problem.”

“Come on. It’s been at least two years since you’ve had a flare-up with your Crohn’s disease.”

Nathan dropped his gaze. He didn’t want her to guess that he’d had a couple of flare-ups that she didn’t know about. Keeping his health problems to himself was the way he liked to operate. He quietly sought treatment and definitely didn’t broadcast his difficulties. He knew the stress from work caused some of his problem, but work was what he lived for. “Are you forgetting that I’ve already been through one broken relationship because of it? I don’t need to have another one.”

“I haven’t forgotten, but Andrea didn’t deserve a good man like you. She was selfish and spoiled. I’m glad she broke up with you.”

“Wow! I had no idea you liked her so much.”

“Quit being sarcastic.” Juliane gave him an annoyed look. “You know she did you a favor by dumping you. You’d have been miserable being married to that…that—”

“Drop it. It’s history. Besides, I like my single life.”

Juliane laid a hand on Nathan’s arm. “I’m sorry I was grousing about your old girlfriend, but she treated you shabbily.”

“Let’s not talk about her.”

“Okay.” Juliane brightened. “Let’s talk about Melanie instead.”

Nathan narrowed his gaze. “Juliane.”

“I thought that’s why you came to see me.”

“I did, but I didn’t expect that you’d start with this matchmaking.” Nathan sighed. “So what do you think about getting her boys involved in the youth baseball league? They are so full of energy, so I thought playing baseball would be a good outlet for their liveliness. Has she ever mentioned signing them up?”

“Not that I recall?” Juliane gave him a puzzled look. “You mean you had to ask me whether you can recruit her kids for the bank’s youth baseball team?”

“No.” Nathan frowned. He had no idea he would invite Juliane’s matchmaking with his inquiry about Melanie and her kids. “I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t think I was interfering if I suggested the baseball for them. Also, I was just wondering how you think she’s doing these days.”

Juliane chuckled. “I don’t know about the baseball, but now that I’ve had a chance to think more about the two of you together, I like the idea.”

“Well, I don’t. So stop.”

Juliane gave him a Cheshire-cat grin. “Okay. If you say so.”

“Would she be receptive to a little help with her kids?”

“You’ll have to find that out for yourself. I can’t help you with that, but I can help you if you’d like to ask her out.”

“I won’t be asking for that kind of help.”

The bell over the door jangled as a woman entered the store. Saved by the bell. The old cliché couldn’t have been more appropriate.

“We’ll see.” Juliane hurried off to wait on the customer. “Remember what I said.”

“I’m sure you’ll remind me. I’ll talk to you later.” Annoyed, Nathan left the store and moseyed across the square toward the bank. His visit with Juliane had not gone as he’d planned. She not only didn’t give him any clue about Melanie’s state of mind, but Juliane had started that whole dating scenario. That was the last thing he wanted.

How was he going to get the answers he needed when even Juliane, who was as close to Melanie as anyone, didn’t seem to know what was going on with her? He wanted to help her, especially with her boys. From what he’d seen, they needed a male influence. He still wasn’t sure whether Melanie would think he was interfering unnecessarily if he interjected himself into her sons’ lives. Did he dare take a chance and ask?*

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Merrillee Whren is an award winning author. She writes contemporary inspirational romance for Harlequin’s Love Inspired line.

Visit Merrillee’s Web site: http://www.merrilleewhren.com/index.html

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