The fact that Jeremy had spent the entire night two doors down was eclipsed only by the sight of him sitting at the table eating breakfast the next morning.
“Hey there, sleepy head,” he said brightly.
“You’re up awful early.” She grabbed the Cheerios and poured herself some.
“Yeah. I was going to start back, but your mom invited me for church and lunch, so I guess I’m sticking around a little while.” Then he stopped. “That is if you don’t mind.”
“Fine with me.” She shrugged as if it made no difference, but the truth was spending another day with Jeremy had been her only prayer the night before.
Emily had been in that little church many times in her life. In fact, it was the only thing that had kept her on the planet the last four weeks of her junior year, but never, ever, not even once had she felt like this while being there. Next to her Jeremy sat squirming smoothly. That was a hard combination to pull off, but he clearly had experience.
With her father on one side of the family and her mother on the other, Emily sat between Jeremy and Derrick, who obviously hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before. Mass started, and Emily stood. She wondered if Jeremy had ever been in a church before, but then she pushed that thought and all others away. If she thought about him, she would get nothing out of the Mass. Somehow that felt like cheating, so she anchored her attention on the service and vowed to keep it there.
The little church was nice. Far nicer than the auditorium thing his parents used to drag him to. This church had statues that looked a hundred years old or better. They were mostly white with gold etchings on them. The high-arched ceiling held delicate chandeliers which bathed the pews in soft light which was easily eclipsed by the light streaming in from the huge stained glass windows lining each side.
At first Jeremy tried to catalog all of it. Finally he simply closed his eyes and let it wrap around him. It was simpler that way. Somehow the place held a peace that settled into him. It was strange because he’d never associated church with peace. Mostly it was sitting up straight, having to be on your best behavior, putting on your best face for everyone, showing off. But this felt very, very different. His spirit relaxed inside him, and his hyperactive need to make a good impression stood down its guard.
As the service progressed, it became clear that it was a good thing he had people who had done this with him because there was a lot of up and down, sit, stand, sit again. He followed as if on autopilot. It was easier that way. He tried to listen, but in truth his spirit was too intent on soaking in the peace to do much else. After a couple of readings, they sat, and the preacher stepped to the lectern.
Jeremy shifted once to get comfortable, then fell still.
“The Gospel today tells the story of the blind beggar. Now here is a man who was born blind, and then one day Jesus happens by. Jesus notices the man and has compassion for him, but the disciples, ever the ones to miss the point entirely, use this man’s misfortune to kick him to the curb a bit further.
“‘Rabbi, who sinned? This man or his parents that he should be born blind?’ Now blindness in the Bible is a symbol for not seeing what is essential in this life. It means you are living blindly, blindly following what the world says rather than what God says. And here is this man, stuck in his blindness, stuck in the ways of the world that do not work.
“And here are the disciples wanting to know who’s to blame. But Jesus turns the question on its head. ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents, but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him.’ What Jesus is saying is that ‘Look, it doesn’t matter how he got here. What matters is what God can do through him now.’
“And so it is with us. Maybe you have made a mess of your life. Maybe you have been so caught up in the world’s tricks and traps that you can’t figure out how to even start asking for God’s peace, protection, and help. That’s okay. Jesus assures us, ‘It doesn’t matter how you got here. What matters is what you do with this moment. Are you going to give this moment to God and let His glory work in your life, or are you going to sit there blind and do nothing about it? It’s totally up to you.’ In fact, there’s even a term for it. It’s called free will.
“God gave us the gift of free will so that when we choose Him, it is a free choice. He does not force us to accept the gift of grace and healing. He holds it out to each of us in the way we will most hear it, but accepting or not accepting it is always our choice. Just like the blind beggar. When Jesus puts the paste on the man’s eyes and tells him to wash, the man had a choice. He could have said, ‘Well, that will never work. Who ever heard of such a thing?’ That’s what the Pharisees say, but that’s not what the man says. Instead, he takes the leap of faith to just do what God says to do, to take this step in faith, leaving the outcome and everything else in God’s hands.
“When you do that, when you put it all in God’s hand and take the next step He’s showing you, your blindness will be healed because the blindness is only a symptom of trying to do it on your own. The second you put it in God’s hands, that’s the moment you will see life as it truly is. But you have to realize that the blindness can retrench itself in us. Every moment of our lives we have the choice of moving a bit closer to heaven or a bit closer to hell. Hell is listening to the world’s assessment of the situation. Heaven is trusting God’s assessment, plans, and guidance.
“It is really that simple once you do it, and really that hard until you do.” He paused and then raised his hands. “Let us stand.”
Jeremy’s head was spinning with the words. How could the preacher have known he would be here today? How could he know to use that reading and to say those words? It was as if he was speaking directly to Jeremy and Jeremy alone.
The questions and confusion stayed with him through the rest of the service, through lunch, and all the way until it was late afternoon. He couldn’t get them to leave anymore than he could get himself to leave. So after playing three games with Nathan, he took his own little leap of faith and asked Emily if they could take a walk. He needed to talk to her, not to pour out hurt, but to figure out where to go from here.
Slowly they walked up the lonely dirt road leading from Emily’s house, up the mountain into the heart of the ranch. The dust made Jeremy remember her father’s boots. Dirty. It was his first impression of the man, but since then, he’d had the chance to watch him. On the outside he might be dirty, but on the inside there was a solid character forged like tempered steel. It was a quality Jeremy couldn’t remember ever having been around. It fascinated him in a way few things ever had.
“So, I guess you’re ready to get back to real life, huh?” Emily said. Her glance over at him was only that. “Big city, fun stuff, excitement.”
“No. Not really.” There was so much in his heart, he didn’t know how to open it up without it all gushing out. “I kind of like it up here actually.”
Surprise jumped to her face. “Really? I figured you were bored silly by now. Gosh, there’s nothing to do like what you’re used to. There’s not even an iPod in sight.”
“No, there’s not.” Thoughts streamed through him. The slower he went the more they came. He knew she would patiently answer everything. He just didn’t know where to start. “So, I have a question for you.”
That brought apprehension to her face. “O-kay.”
He took one more moment to assemble the question. “You know what the preacher was saying this morning about how it doesn’t matter what went before, it only matters what we do right now?”
Emily nodded in concentration.
“You believe that, don’t you?” He knew she did because he’d seen her live it, but somehow he needed that confirmation.
“Well, I try to. I don’t know how good I really do at it.” She let out a breath. “But I know the more I do it, the better life works out.”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head and let his gaze slide out to the haze that was beginning to envelope the mountains beyond. If he didn’t start back soon, he would again be facing driving in the darkness. “There’s a part of me that wants to do that—to put my life in His hands and believe He’ll handle it, but then there’s the other part of me—the one who’s seen how horrible Christians are to each other, and I just don’t know which is real.”
Her steps slowed. “Explain that.”
Fear took a swipe at him. “Oh, you know. All the ‘this one’s mad at that one because they don’t sing right,’ and the ‘that one’s mad at that one because of something they did ten years ago.’” He shook his head in revulsion. “We had the preacher and one of the women run off together. That one was sleeping with that one’s husband, and that one had embezzled $50,000. If you were around long, you knew the dirt on everyone. It was pretty disgusting.”
Instead of answering, Emily just nodded.
“Even the kids were hypocrites. I mean I knew kids who said they were Christians. They came to youth group and the whole thing, and then they wore T-shirts to school from concerts they went to. It’s not just that they weren’t Christian concerts, but they were like heavy metal and rap stuff that talks about drugs and living it up and how you can use women and trash them when you’re done. I don’t understand that. I mean it’s bad enough that kids who aren’t Christian go for that stuff, but when Christians do it…”
The words trailed off into silence. It took her a minute to say anything.
“You know, just because you’re forced to go to church doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a Christian. And just because you sit in a pew for an hour or go to youth group doesn’t mean you live it.” She took two steps and one breath. “In fact that’s how the whole Bible Study thing got started. Dena and I started talking about how we’d go to youth group and so much of it was about how bad the other religions were. It was like, ‘Love everybody, but you have the right and responsibility to point out all the ways their worship is different than yours, how they are missing the boat.’” She shook her head in disgust. “I knew Dena was a good person. I had seen her live life up close and personal. She was a good Christian even if her denomination wasn’t mine.
“That’s when we started talking about it, and we came up with this idea to just get together and talk about God without all the rules junk getting in the way.” She shrugged. “It showed me that we have way more in common than things that are different.”
“And you don’t try to talk each other into going to the other church?”
Emily laughed at that. “It’s so much deeper than that. Talking about that stuff would be boring.” For a moment she paused to get the words lined up. “No. We talk about what God is doing in our lives, how awesome He is, how incredible it is to live in His love and His grace.” She seemed to float for a moment, and then the words stopped. She looked at him shyly. “Sorry.”
“For what?” he asked in genuine confusion.
“For doing what I always do. For getting all woo-hoo weird about it.”
Concern traced through him. “You’re not weird.”
“Yeah, right. You thought I’d lost my marbles that night at the concert.”
He laughed his acknowledgement. “Okay, back then I did think you were a little weird, but I’d just never heard anybody be that excited about God before. Everybody I knew thought it was a chore you had to do to in order to earn points to get into Heaven.”
“That’s so shallow. It so keeps people on the surface.” She ran her hand through the air. “In fact, I think religion is one of Satan’s best ways of keeping us from finding God.”
That intrigued him. “How so?”
She shrugged. “Well, if I’m fighting to get you to see how your rules are wrong, and you’re fighting to get me to see how my rules are wrong, two things happen. One, neither of us are focused on God and what He’s doing, and two, we’re scaring people like Jeremy away from even wanting to believe there is God—much less from telling him how much God loves him.”
He was surprised to hear his own name.
She glanced at him. “If I had come every day to lunch and tried to evangelize you—to get you to come to my church, would you be here right now?”
That answer was obvious. “No.”
“So, why are you here now?”
He hadn’t considered the question, and it took him a moment of thinking it through to be able to answer it. “Because you see a life I never knew was there.”
This was getting harder to formulate answers because he was going deeper into himself than he ever had. “Trusting and peaceful. You have a hope—like tomorrow will be worth living even if you don’t know quite how today.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m not good at putting it into words.”
“But you see it?” she asked, sounding as if she herself wasn’t sure it was really there.
“Yeah.” The word was a breath. “You talk about the Holy Spirit like He’s right there with you, like He’s your best friend or something. I’ve never heard anybody do that before. It’s like all the other Christians I’ve met are so intent on impressing you with their rules and their holiness that they forget to bring God along. I just want to ask, ‘And where’s God in all of this?’”
“And I don’t do that?”
“No.” He laughed softly. “You just talk, just like ‘Oh, me and God were talking the other night and…’ You talk to Him like I talk to Eric.”
“And you thought I was weird.”
“Some but weird in a ‘man, I’d like to figure this out’ kind of way.”
They had gotten to the end of the trail, and Emily veered off and sat down by the white fence there. Carefully Jeremy lowered himself to the ground next to her. “Now…” He took a breath and let his gaze take in the breathtaking scene stretched in front of them. If Heaven could have been any more beautiful, he wouldn’t know how. “Now I don’t think I ever want to leave.”
He sat for a minute and then looked over at her. She didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then she looked right at him. “Do you have to?”
The thought that her parents might not understand or that they might understand too much never crossed Emily’s mind as Jeremy leaned toward her. All she could think was how perfectly in place he looked sitting there next to her, and how she never wanted that to end. His lips brushed hers gently, and her head spun with such a feeling of safety and peace she thought she might never come down.
One kiss. One brush with his hand, and he pulled back. When she opened her eyes, he was gazing at her. Logistics escaped both of them.
“Do you want me to stay?”
There was no questioning what her answer was. “Yes.”
His smile was soft. “Then I’ll stay.”
The logistics proved not to be overwhelming. Jeremy was about Nathan’s size, just a bit smaller, so clothing wasn’t an issue. Derrick’s shoes fit him, and since Michael had his own place, the bedding situation was easily solved as well. The only thing that was a bit of a hurdle was Emily’s dad. He didn’t seem particularly excited about Jeremy’s extended stay; however, her mom smoothed it over, and by Monday morning Jeremy was out at the stables helping Emily with chores.
“Here, you grab this bale. I’ll get this one.” With a yank, Emily jerked the yellow rectangle from the stack and started through the stables.
Jeremy grabbed the other one and yanked, but it was much heavier than he had anticipated. It took a second yank to get it up from the stack. “Gee, remind me not to pick a fight with you.”
“Why’s that?” Emily threw the bale to the ground, whipped out a silvery tool. With two clicks the bale fell apart. She picked up three pieces of it, opened one stall, and put it in the feeding bin.
“’Cause. You’re like She-woman with these things.”
“She-woman, huh?” Emily closed that stall and went to the next. She patted the chestnut colt’s head. “Good morning, Liberty. Wow. Have you gotten big!” She slipped into the stall and put out the feed.
Jeremy couldn’t help but notice the low pigtails sliding down her shoulders. She looked ultra-casual in a countrified way, but he realized you don’t really have to get dressed up to feed animals. Just the smell was enough to roil his stomach. It was a blessing that for the moment the pancakes and sausage were staying down. She snapped the wire on the next bale and continued feeding the horses. His gaze chanced over to a rack of guns stashed behind a wall of glass and curiosity overtook him.
“These your dad’s?” he asked, thankful they were all the way in the stables, but unsteady because they were on the property at all.
“No.” She put the feed in the next stall. “They’re Brock’s.”
Brock’s. It wasn’t just the name. It was the way she said it.
“Oh, really? So what’s the story on him anyway? You knew him when you were here before?”
Concern at the flat tone of her voice coupled with the intensity she was throwing the hay around slid through him.
She slammed the stall door and walked to the main door. Only at the turn to the door did she stop. “You coming or what?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m coming.” He glanced back at the guns, knowing there was more. Somewhere down deep his spirit resolved to ask. Holy Spirit, help me find the words to find out what’s really going on with her.
Jeremy was exhausted by the time they ate lunch, but he wasn’t going to let them know his energy was flagging badly. After lunch, he took his dishes to the sink in perfect imitation of everyone there and took his place beside her at the sink. A dish then two and he took a breath to steady the thought of helping her.
“You wash, I dry?” he asked, grabbing the dish towel.
She smiled more with her eyes than her lips. “Horses and dishes in one day? Whatever would your friends think?”
He scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. “Are you saying I don’t know how to work?”
“I’m saying that whole sitting behind a desk all day must be looking pretty good from here.”
He took the dish she held out to him. “Oh, I wouldn’t know about that. Depends how much else you have planned for me to do today.”
She handed him another dish. “Well, we’ve got to help Daddy with moving the calves to the North end, then we’ve got to go into town for tonight’s groceries, and make supper. I also need to get the stables cleaned out, but that may have to wait ‘til tomorrow.”
The work list heaped on top of him, pulling tired out. “Wow, and I thought we were close to finished for the day.”
She just laughed.
By five-thirty he knew why she had laughed. The moving the calves thing had sounded so simple. They were in one pen. They just had to be moved to another pen. But riding horses was easier than it looked, and the calves all seemed to have minds of their own—minds that told them to do whatever the herders wanted them not to do.
To say Jeremy was sore by the time they got back to the stables would’ve been like saying the Eiffel Tower is a historic landmark. His legs hurt. His back hurt. His feet even hurt, which was odd because he hadn’t walked in four hours. Carefully he slid off the horse, and the ache turned to a jellylike feeling all up and down his body.
“You okay, Roy Rogers?” Emily asked with a grin as she slid from her mount. Her bent-up straw cowboy hat pushed her pigtails even lower.
Jeremy took a step and immediately regretted it. “Whoa, boy. I’m never going to walk right again.”
She came around and took his horse to lead them to the tie-up post. She was already trailing two other horses behind her. In quick succession she tied the horses and went about taking their saddles and accessories off. Jeremy couldn’t believe how strong she was. The saddles weren’t light by any stretch, and by now his whole body felt like a wet noodle so that the energy it took to haul the saddle into the barn to the tack room nearly did him in. She however looked like this was a breeze.
“I think I’m going to sit down,” Jeremy said, lowering himself to a bale of hay by the wall when he reemerged from the tack room. He knew he should help her. His spirit was willing, but his body just wouldn’t cooperate. It was like a spent sponge. He watched her put everything else up and take the horses one-by-one back to their stalls.
When that was done, she brushed off her hands and her jeans. “I have to go get the other two from Daddy. You want to come?”
Jeremy heaved a sigh as he leaned back onto the scratchy wood of the stable wall. He tried to talk himself into moving, but it just wasn’t happening. The most he could do was blink.
“Okay,” she finally said with a smirk. “You stay there and rest. I’ll be back.”
He should’ve felt bad, but all he could feel was stiff and exhausted. She walked out, and he heard the thump of the barn door. He leaned further into the hard, scratchy wood of the wall and closed his eyes. Never had simply sitting felt so good.
After only a couple minutes the barn door squeaked and thumped again, and Jeremy laughed as his eyes came open. “You forget something?”
However, from around the corner, in walked not Emily but Brock. With one scowl on the preppy face, Jeremy knew he was unwelcome here. He sat up with effort.
“Hey,” Brock said by way of greeting as he strode past Jeremy to the glass wall with the guns.
“Hey,” Jeremy said. His heart pounded, and he gulped down the fear. “Nice collection you’ve got there.”
Brock looked at him with derision. Then he looked back at the guns. He opened the cabinet and pulled one out. Checking it over, he glanced at Jeremy.
Taking the small opening, Jeremy stood, praying his legs would hold him up. They did, barely. “Jeremy Stratton.” He extended his hand.
“Brock… Wycliff.” The emphasis on the last name was noticeable. He shook Jeremy’s hand but hardly acknowledged Jeremy.
Knowing how this game was best played, Jeremy stood behind Brock and admired the stash of guns. He hooked his hands under his armpits and widened his stance. “So you collect them, huh?”
Brock looked down the gun’s sight. “I use them.”
That sent a shiver down Jeremy’s back that wasn’t easy to shake. “Oh, so you’re a game hunter then?”
Derision slid down Brock’s face as he glanced behind him. “Yeah, what’s it to you?”
Jeremy shrugged. “Nothing. I’ve just always thought it was cool. My dad and I used to go hunting in Montana. Trace Taylor’s ranch.”
The gun lowered slightly. “Trace Taylor? The movie star?”
“Yeah. We never really shot much of anything. It was more vacation for my dad, perk from the bank, that kind of thing.” The truth was he’d only heard about the hunting trips, but he knew enough about the owner of the hunting grounds to use it to impress Brock.
The bait worked. “Who’s your father again?”
“Lloyd Stratton.” Jeremy shrugged. “He’s the top finance lawyer of Skyway.”
“International?” Brock asked over his shoulder.
“Yeah, you heard of it?”
Brock was trying very hard to be unimpressed. “Yeah, I’ve heard of it.” He looked down the sight again. “So, you’re here with Emily then?” There was something of disbelief clouding that question.
“Yeah. We go to school together in Boston.”
“Oh.” Brock nodded, but the hard edge never left his voice. He replaced that gun and took out another. “So you’re into animals then?”
Jeremy laughed. “No. I’m an M.B.A. Em just invited me up for a few days. Mini-vacation.”
This sight took more inspection. “So, you two are a couple then?”
The question took Jeremy off guard. “Oh, you know. We hang out sometimes.”
“Huh,” Brock snorted. “Been there. Done that.”
The statement twined around Jeremy, and he didn’t like the feel of it at all. “Oh, so you and Em dated?”
Brock seemed intent to glare holes through Jeremy as he turned from the guns. “If you call it that.”
As if he cared at all, Jeremy looked at Brock with interest. “Oh? What would you call it?”
The contempt in Brock’s eyes and the snide laugh went through Jeremy like a hot knife. “Not worth the trouble’s what I’d call it.” He seemed to consider the statement. “Not that she’s not now. She was looking plenty hot at the dance the other night.”
Jeremy’s fist balled, but he held it as he watched Brock check the sight once more. The squeak of the barn door yanked his attention that direction, and he took a full step away from Brock as he turned to the sound.
Emily was halfway into the barn with a saddle in her hands when she saw them and stopped dead.
“Oh, look,” Brock said with disdain. “Your girlfriend is here.”
The gulp this time had nothing to do with fear of Brock and everything to do with how she was looking at him. There was only a miniscule shake of her head. Then her gaze lowered, and she dragged the saddle over into the tack room.
“Well, I’m outta here,” Brock said. He put the gun back and closed the case with a snap. “I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah. Around.” Jeremy barely realized he was talking, and in seconds Brock was gone. Carefully Jeremy walked to the tack room. Each step held as much pain for his heart as for his body. He got to the door just as Emily stormed out. She was walking without really paying attention to where. Had he not spun away as she came out, she would’ve walked right over the top of him. Panic surged into him as he followed her. “Hey, Em. Is everything all right? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” However, it was abundantly clear she was anything but fine.
The question was on Jeremy’s lips to ask, but when they turned the corner, they met Nathan and Derrick coming the other way.
“He’s such a jerk,” Derrick spat.
“What was your first clue?” Nathan asked.
Jeremy would ask, but not with them around.
Except for seeing Jeremy talking to Brock, which was a far bigger shock than she wanted to dwell on, Emily was really enjoying Jeremy’s visit. She liked watching him on the horse. It was good for a laugh. She liked doing chores with him. Although he didn’t know much about horses and he didn’t really know much about the operation in general, still he was at least willing to try.
As they cleared the supper dishes, Emily stole a glance at him. He was talking with her father about the financial aspects of the operation—production costs, outflow, return on investments, options held, diversification strategies. Things she would never understand. Still, she could sit and listen to him for hours even about bone-numbingly dry topics like finances.
Washing the dishes while listening to him made the task all-but do itself, and before she knew it, she was finished. Careful not to disturb them, she crossed through the tiny eating area and headed for her room. She needed a shower and a clean set of clothes. At least then she wouldn’t smell like the stables.
The thought brought up the image of Jeremy talking with Brock. Hot fury spread through her. She wanted to ask what that was about, but she didn’t dare. There were too many paths that conversation could go down that she’d rather not travel. She’d had lots of practice at sliding through the shower in mere minutes, and she was out in no time, headed back to her room—bathrobe on and hair up in an old ratty towel.
Somehow she hadn’t questioned it until two steps from her room, Jeremy stepped out of the boys’ room in the opposite direction.
“Hey, Em,” he half-whispered, and she spun as if caught in an armed robbery. “I’m going to take a quick shower, and then I’ll meet you on the porch. K?”
Wide-eyed with embarrassment at being caught in such a state, Emily touched the towel on her head and clinched the robe a little tighter. He never even flinched, and she noticed that the question sounded more like a summons than an invitation.
“Okay,” she squeaked out and turned for her room. For the next 15 minutes she wondered what he had in mind. The brush was like a plane on autopilot as it slid through her hair. Excitement about seeing him was eclipsed only by concern over the tone in his voice when he asked.
When she was presentable again, she angled her way out of her room and down the hallway. Her parents were in the living room talking, and her steps slowed the closer she got. Carefully she anchored her arms over her stomach, wondering what to do.
“I’d never thought about bringing up the profit margins like that,” her dad said. “I’m going to mention it to Mr. Wycliff in the morning. It’s an excellent idea.”
“So he’s not all just fluff then, huh?” her mother asked clearly baiting her husband although Emily wondered at the question.
“No. I’d say there’s some actual substance to that boy.”
“Substance? Wow. There’s a compliment.”
Emily stuck her hands in her back pockets, hating to eavesdrop, and walked into the room as if she had never broken stride. “Don’t mind me. I’m just going out to do some star gazing.” She made it all the way to the door.
“Alone?” her mother asked.
Slowly Emily turned and smiled. “For now.”
Her mother’s smile told her all she needed to know. Quickly she wrenched the knob and fled out into the cool darkness. It truly was magical. Because of how the house was situated in relation to the surrounding area, no lights other than those from the picture window were visible. It was almost like being the only living being on the planet.
She put her hands up on her arms to ward off the cold, glad she had opted for the blue and brown cable-knit sweater, as she sat down on the little glider. Tiredness from the day washed over her. She leaned her head to one side and then the other to get the kinks out. It felt good to just sit. The squeak of the door pulled her attention that direction as her heart filled her chest.
“I thought I’d find you out here,” Jeremy said, directing the statement as much to the stars as to her.
“Yeah, I heard.” She pushed a strand of hair over her ear, put her hands to each side of the glider, and pushed her shoulders up by straightening her arms. Having him around always did funny things to her insides.
He came over but didn’t sit. “What do you say we go for a walk?” He put out his hand, and like it was a real decision she picked up her hand and placed it in his, her gaze never leaving his face.
She stood, and in the next breath, he pulled her to his side. Arm-in-arm they stepped down the three wooden steps to the gravel driveway. Neither spoke until they were headed off the gravel path and down the hill that led away from the house.
“So what’s up?” Emily finally asked, enjoying the time with him but feeling like he hadn’t asked her just for the enjoyment part.
He let out a long breath. “Well, I’ve been doing some thinking.”
The pause stretched a minute and then two.
He let another breath out. “And I’m not going back to Denver.” The glance in her direction was only that.
Concern seized her. “Ever?”
His laugh set her a bit at ease. “Well, I’m going back to catch the plane to Boston, but I’m not going back before then.”
“Oh.” She kept walking, but now this seemed more serious than she had expected. It was hard, however, to keep her mind on the conversation and away from the thoughts of how good he smelled all clean and right out of the shower. She willed her thoughts away from that as she tried to get concern over the anticipatory excitement flooding through her. “So you’re not going back to see your dad?”
He shook his head. “No. I see now that would only be looking to something out there to give me what I want in here.”
Calm peace dropped into her heart as he motioned to his. “And what’s that?”
He shrugged. “Peace, happiness, hope. Little things like that.”
Emily smiled as hope surged in her.
“And,” Jeremy continued sounding ever more serious, “I’m going to decline the job at Skyway.”
That slammed into her like a two-fisted slug. Her steps slowed as she absorbed it. “Decline it? Why would you do that?”
He walked three sliding steps before he answered. “Because the only reason I’m taking it is to make my dad happy, and I’ve lived the part about me being miserable to make him happy long enough.” Two steps and he looked up at the stars dotting the night sky before continuing. “I went to Boston Central because he wanted me to. I majored in business because he said it was smart. The only thing I did for me was marketing, and I haven’t heard the end of that decision yet.
“I didn’t see it until this weekend, but I haven’t made a single real decision for myself or for my life maybe in forever. I listened to him because he was Lloyd Stratton, big time investment lawyer. I thought he knew best, but now I think he may know best for someone else, but he doesn’t really know me at all.”
“So what are you going to do if you don’t work for Skyway?” It felt like her future was shifting, and she didn’t know where it might stop.
“Well, I think first I’m going to get a job in Boston so I can stay there until the first of the year, and then we’ll see.”
Curiosity made her ask, “Oh? What’s the first of the year?”
His gaze drifted to her face. “You’ll be out.”
Understanding plowed through her, and her eyes widened with it. “You’re setting this up around me?”
He seemed so calm as if this wasn’t the most important conversation of their lives. “No. I’m setting this up around us.”
Us. It sounded so real, so permanent. Panic seized her. Did she want an us? Did she want him scheduling his life around hers? Was that fair to him? Was it smart?
They were now down in the valley, the field stretched before them. Jeremy steered them down the small dirt path that lay along the edge of the field. Emily felt his glance but was having so much trouble with the questions going around and around in her mind, she couldn’t be concerned with what it meant.
“So what about you?” he asked. “What’re your plans?”
The questions banged into her. “For school?”
It took her a moment to assess the question. It was overwhelming in scope. She brushed the hair out of her face that snagged on the breeze. “Well, I’m going to summer school this year to pick up a few more classes. Then I graduate in December. Then…” Nervousness at what came next in her scenario slithered through her stomach. She let her gaze travel to the stars so she wouldn’t have to look at him when she said it. “Then I want to come back here and be the game warden or the ranch’s hunting coordinator.”
Jeremy nodded, taking that in as if it made perfect sense. “You want to work on the ranch then.”
True panic attacked her. Why was he asking this kind of question? “Yeah.” But it didn’t sound very certain.
They turned into the grass blanketing the field. She still didn’t know where they were going, and in truth she didn’t have enough spare brain cells at the moment to really care. Midway down the grass-covered field, Jeremy stopped. Without really asking, he pulled her down with him so they were facing the mountains and the stars that both seemed very far away and very close at the same time. The rest of reality receded behind them. The ground was cold, but he laid down first and pulled her onto his chest. She put her hand across him, and as weird as the set up was, it was very comfortable.
“Look at those stars,” he said in awe. “Have you ever seen anything like them?”
“Yeah,” she said softly. Moments long since relegated to the past slipped over her. “I used to sit out here by myself a lot.” There was more, but it stopped at the top of her chest. Her eyes fell closed on the memories, and with a grimace she pushed them away from her. She hadn’t thought of that time in forever, and she certainly didn’t want to think about it now, out here, with him.
He lay there perfectly still for a long moment, and then she felt his arm shift slightly. “Why didn’t you tell me you and Brock dated?”
Although he sounded interested and not accusatory, the question slammed into her, scattering the memories and the dam holding them back. Her gaze fell from the stars to the blackness below them. Desperately she fought to push the memories into their hole even as they sprang up like a geyser. She tried to breathe, to think of something logical to say that would answer everything, but all she found were the memories.
When she said nothing, sounding very distant, he asked, “So is Brock the reason you freaked out at my place the other night?”
It was clear he’d put a lot of pieces together—too many. Trying not to completely lose it, Emily sat up and scooted across the soft grass away from him. The distance felt good, but it wasn’t enough. She put a shaky hand to her forehead and tried to pull in a good breath. It didn’t work. Instead it dragged anguished tears out of her heart. She slammed her eyes closed. She didn’t want to cry. She couldn’t. If she ever started, they might never stop. Forcing the air in and out slowly, she fought the onrush of her past even as it swamped logic, reality, and everything else.
Jeremy sat up next to her as the pain reached the surface. In her heart she begged him to stop asking, to go away and leave her to the pain. It was better that way. Safer.
Ever-so-softly his hand touched her back, and it ripped more pain lose. “Emily, did Brock hurt you?”
In one blinding flash all the pent up grief surfaced. She gasped it back, but it overtook her in a rush. Her heart arched and pitched, fighting to keep the emotions down, but they were too many and too strong. The middle of her heaved with their fury. Doubling over it, she fought to keep it down.
She felt his hand on her back, drifting there, tender and knowing. It killed her to know he had guessed, that he now knew. Nothing would ever be the same between them again, and she hated that.
“He did, didn’t he?” Jeremy whispered. Vehement anger tore from him, and he spat a curse. “I knew it.”
“It was a long time ago,” she whispered as if that settled the matter. She was losing the battle, but still she fought. If she could just get all the feelings back down, she might make it through this without breaking right in two.
“Emily.” Jeremy seemed to be struggling not to scream at her yet his voice was barely above a whisper. “I want to know… I want to know what happened.”
She shook her head at that as the emotions overwhelmed her. The closer he moved toward her, the farther away she wanted to get. “No, you don’t.” Tears flooded over the banks of her resolve, coursing down the same paths they had years before. She looked up to the heavens in desperation. If she could just turn back time so he could never have learned the truth… Please, God, make the hurt stop.
“It’s all right,” Jeremy said softly. “You can tell me. I’m not going anywhere.”
Emily could hardly breathe much less speak, and it took more than a moment to be able to get anything out. Then with great effort she pushed the fact that this was happening away from her and said the words she had long since forgotten to remember. “We moved here in February of my junior year.” This was better, she realized. If she just stepped back objectively, she could say the words and not feel them. Numbness clamped over everything else, and she took a ragged breath. “He was a senior. I was a junior. I had never really had a boyfriend before that. I’d never even been out on a date. Then one day out of the blue he started talking to me.”
She wrapped her arms around herself to shut out the cold, but she was shivering anyway. Rocking back and forth without realizing it, she forced the words out. “I thought he really liked me, you know? That maybe I’d found a real boyfriend. We went out a couple times, just with his friends, nothing big. It was nice. Not fireworks and thrills, but nice. And then he asked me to the prom.” This breath curled her shoulders over the rest of her. It hurt just to remember how utterly stupidly excited she had been. “I was so excited… Like this was my dream come true. My prince come to rescue me.”
Her laugh was hollow and numb. “My family had never had a lot of money, and the fact that he did… well, that added to his charm I guess. The night of the prom, I got all dressed up in this stupid pink satin dress, and we took pictures and everything. The meal was nice I guess. I don’t really remember that part too much. And then when the dance started…” She stopped, realizing she couldn’t go on. A moment, then two, and she blew out the air in her lungs, forcing the tears back into their dungeon. “He asked me if I wanted to go with him up to the drop off.”
She shook her head and glanced back at Jeremy. “And like the idiot I was, I went.” The memories enveloped her again, and she closed her eyes to them. There was no reason to lie anymore. What she hadn’t said he had clearly guessed. “I don’t know what I expected, but we were out on this deserted road, and it was raining. I couldn’t have gotten back if I’d have had a map, which I didn’t.” She pursed her lips at her own stupidity. “He started kissing me and telling me he wanted me and everything.”
Ache crashed over her again, and she squeezed her eyes closed against its assault. “I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t get away from him. There was nowhere to go.” The story faded out. She couldn’t bring herself to relive the gory details much less to say them. Some she remembered, most she had blocked out. It didn’t matter, he knew now. “When it was over, he took me home. By Monday morning I was annoying trash to him and everyone else, and it’s been that way ever since.”
“You didn’t press charges?”
She laughed. “He was Brock Wycliff. Who was going to arrest him? Besides, things got worse before I had the chance to get my head on straight.”
Guilt meshed with the shame. “Michael was a senior, and he started getting in all these fights at school. He was in trouble all the time. Mom and Dad flipped out. They thought he was mad we had moved again. They grounded him and had him working all the time. He almost got suspended, and then Dad found the first kill.”
Jeremy was now sitting crosswise to her. His face awash in concern and confusion. “Kill?”
Emily wiped at her eyes. “Yeah. That’s what they call them when they find something that’s been hunted and left. It was a little doe. She’d been shot in the head, twice. Two days later they found a buck with the head missing.”
Jeremy knew from how she said it that the two were connected, but they’d jumped topics so quickly he hadn’t followed. “I don’t understand.”
Emily sniffed back the tears. “Brock has a little side venture. He takes his buddies or whoever out hunting—in season, out of season. It doesn’t really matter to him. They shoot whatever moves until they get something they want to keep. Everybody knows about it, but nobody does anything because he’s Brock Wycliff.”
The complete lack of regard for life registered, but Jeremy was still trying to get pieces to fit. “And Michael went hunting with him?”
Emily sniffed again and put her head down. “No. Michael was trying to protect me—my reputation.” She laughed derisively. “Like that was possible. I started getting all these weird phone calls and guys started saying stuff at school.” The shrug truly looked as if it didn’t matter. “I guess word got out about me.”
“About you?” Anger came to his voice. “You didn’t do anything.”
“Huh. Sure feels like I did.” Her single glance at him tore through his heart. The smile she wore was sad and knowing. She was ripped, bleeding, wounded and marred and there was not one thing he could do about it. “I thought I was going to go crazy at first. I really did. Everything was just spinning and spinning and spinning. I couldn’t concentrate on classes. I couldn’t carry on a conversation to save my life. Mom and Dad were yelling at each other about Michael and the ranch and moving. I just couldn’t get a handle on anything. I thought I was losing my mind.”
The words wound to a stop, and Jeremy waited for them to start again. When they didn’t, he leveled his gaze on her. “Did you ever tell them?”
Slowly side-to-side her head moved. “I couldn’t. They’d always been so proud of me. How could I tell them I was the town tramp?”
“Em.” Her name was barely a breath. “You aren’t a tramp. He used his power and money, and he took advantage of you.”
“No.” The word was sad and hushed. The sniff was more a breath. “I wanted him to like me. I wanted to be popular like all the girls at my other school. I knew he’d been drinking that night. I knew it. I was there before prom when him and his buddies were taking shots and playing chandeliers. I even got in with him to go to the prom knowing he was wasted… I was so stupid.” She put her hand to her eyes and closed them together. “That’s what I remember most, you know? The smell of the alcohol. It was so thick. It was like I was going to drown in it. It was like I knew it had taken over everything—him, his sanity, me, my choices. I just wanted him to stop, but I couldn’t reason with him, and he was so much stronger than I was…”
As the tears came again, Jeremy turned her to him gently and pulled her into his embrace. He couldn’t erase the memories, but he could hold her now. And he was determined to do that—as inconsequential as it seemed. She collapsed into him, and he held her there as her anguish and helplessness transferred into his spirit. He, too, wanted to do something to stop her pain, but it had been so long ago. What could he do now?
Then his thoughts tumbled onto an understanding that dragged him up short. His own eyes fell closed against the pain it dredged up. Not only did she hate him because of the money, she hated him for the drinking as well. Pieces snapped into place, and each one was like a charge leveled against him. The night after Fire & Ice, she’d driven him home. Why? It had never occurred to him to even ask the question until now.
And he’d been mad at her. How arrogant was that? Here she was trying not to relive the pain, and he was doing everything possible to bring it back up. The thoughts of her sitting in that club, watching him drink, knowing how much he’d had and getting more fearful with each passing drink hit him with a hard thwack.
No wonder she had freaked at his apartment. No wonder. “Oh, Emily. I’m so sorry.” The words gushed from his heart. “I’m so sorry, baby. I didn’t know.”
Heaving against her own pain, she pulled back. “You couldn’t have.”
He looked at her as torment stabbed into him. “But I did. I knew you’d been hurt, but I never thought… I never understood… Jeez, I’ve been such an idiot. You must hate me.”
Confusion slid through the tears. “Why would I hate you?”
It was his turn to back up. He slammed his eyes closed against the accusations he had no arguments to dismiss. “Look at me. I’m everything you hate.” His eyes came open then, and they traced back and forth as understanding washed over understanding. He linked his arms over his knees. “I’m a rich, spoiled brat who thinks the world owes him whatever he wants.” When he looked at her, he couldn’t hold her gaze. His fell to his wrists as he shook his head at his stupidity. “I thought this was about you. I thought all the times we hit bumps was because of you, but it wasn’t. Was it?”
One look at her told him everything. He stumbled to his feet and took two steps away from her into the deepening night. Staring up at the stars, he put his hands on the back of his head. The night around them was indeed beautiful, and he’d never seen any of that beauty until her. Now… How could he ask her to stay with him? Ask? He’d all-but told her she was. His arrogance just got deeper and deeper until he was sure there was no bottom to it.
He felt her step up beside him, and his spirit fell into the hopelessness of even saying the words as his hands fell from his head to his sides. Still he had to say it, just so she could make a real choice. His gaze stayed on the stars because he couldn’t look at her and say the words. “Look, I have no right to ask this, and if you tell me no… Well, I’ll understand.” He licked his lips because they felt like cotton. If she said no, this would be the end of a dream he hadn’t even realized he’d been dreaming. If she said no, there would never be any future he wanted to live. It hurt to acknowledge that, but he knew it was true.
“When I’m with you, I see life so differently,” he said, the words floating from the center of his spirit. “When I’m with you, I see how life could be not just how it is. It’s where I want to live. I want to see the world like you do. I want to see the possibilities and to believe they’re real.” Frustration trounced on him. “Ugh. I’m not saying this right.”
He shook his head in disgust at himself and scratched the side of his head. Then desperate for the chance to make his appeal to her soul, he turned and took her arms in his hands. Her sorrow-filled, confused gaze searched his.
“Emily, I need you. I do. I need you to show me how to live where you do. I don’t know how to do that without you.” The possibility of losing her forever drifted through him, and tears came to his heart because this might be the last time he got to look into those beautiful eyes. “Please. Please, don’t give up on me. I need you too much.”
Never had Emily seen all the way to the bottom of someone’s soul, but she knew as she gazed into the sad vulnerability pleading with her from his deep brown eyes, she was seeing it now. He looked vulnerable and terrified as if she really might break his heart right then and there. It was more honesty than she’d ever seen.
Softly she shook her head and smiled at him. “Hey, do you know how many times I’ve wanted to tell you to get lost?” She laughed as tears stung her eyes. “I’ve told myself so many times that you’re everything I thought I didn’t want in my life.”
He looked on the verge of a breakdown as her words wound into him.
“But I couldn’t do it. I can’t because I can’t get you out of my head and my heart and my dreams. You’re a part of me now, and as hard as I’ve tried to make that not be true, the more I realize it is.” Her eyes took in the spark of hope deep inside him. “I can’t imagine living my life without you either.”
It was as if he was scared to believe her. “Really?”
She nodded. “Really.” And then she was in his arms, clutching him to her, feeling their souls meld together. Wherever life took them when they walked out of this field, they would walk there together. She knew that with every piece of herself at that moment.
After seconds which felt like eons, he pulled back only enough to look at her. “I just knew you were going to tell me to go jump in a lake.”
Her gaze tilted to the side teasingly. “Well, I thought about it, but where would I find someone else brave enough to play spoons with me.”
The grin that jumped to his face was the definition of happiness. “Do you know how much I love you?”
It was a good thing he was holding her, or she would’ve floated right off the earth. “I don’t know. Half as much as I love you?”
Then seriousness dropped between them, and she knew he was going to kiss her. His hold on her relaxed, and when he leaned toward her, it was gently, softly a question rather than a demand. Sensing what he was telling her, she closed her eyes and let him come. The moment his lips met hers, she could hear the angels singing in the night sky above them. It was as if all of Heaven was cheering the uniting of their paths.
It was the sweetest moment she’d ever lived.
Tuesday was a blur of happiness and furtive looks—just to make sure. Jeremy saw it in her eyes every time they made the connection. Her shy had turned from self-defensive to more teasing and bashful, and he loved it. He could see her thoughts about him being there with her, and it made his heart dance.
He wasn’t there because she felt sorry for him. He was there because she wanted him to be, and the trust that took was not lost on him. He had gotten his second chance to be the man she needed him to be, and he wasn’t going to let such a blessing slip by unnoticed. No, this time he was going to do things differently. More differently than he ever had. This time his comfort and his wishes would be second to hers. Her happiness and peace were his new goals, and he was determined to go to the ends of the earth to give her what she’d given him. He would take what had gone so horribly wrong and somehow, he would find a way to make it right.
By Wednesday afternoon, although he hated to leave her with the chores, studying once again resurfaced on the reality of his life. He no longer had the cushion of a job with his daddy’s company to rely on. Now he was on his own, and as liberating as that felt, it was also a bit scary. Could he really do it on his own?
Studying, really learning the information, had never felt so important. Nathan was tearing it up on the X-box, and Derrick was working on a paper in his room. Jeremy realized quickly that taking notes from the little tape recorder he’d brought in case he had time and got bored was futile with that much activity around. Emily was out with her dad herding more cattle into the pass—whatever that meant. It had to do with horses, and that was enough information to scare him and his sore body away.
However, he did want to be there when she got back, so he took his books and walked down to the stables. It would be quiet down there. He would be able to get plenty of work done.
In the stables he set up his work station on a bale of hay and smiled at how drastically his life had changed. Who would’ve guessed he’d feel so at home on a bale of hay? Pushing those thoughts away, he got down to business transferring the spoken lecture to notes he could actually study. He had just flipped the tape over to the other side of the little mini-recorder when he heard the squeak of the barn door.
His hand was still on the recorder as he looked up and realized it was not Emily but Brock. All movement slammed to a stop. Even Brock seemed to slow his strides when he saw Jeremy sitting there.
“Oh, hey,” Brock said, and Jeremy had never felt such seething hate for anyone. Smooth and suave. What girl wouldn’t have fallen for every line he used? Even his walk was conceited. It made Jeremy sick just to think about this jerk’s hands on Emily. Well, he might have taken advantage of a young, defenseless girl, but he’d met his match here. The best part was, he didn’t even know it.
“Oh, hey,” Jeremy said as if it was Eric who had just walked in.
Brock walked past him, but perused the laptop Jeremy was busy putting notes on. “Whatcha working on?”
“Oh, you know. Finals in international finance. Fun. Fun.”
It was crystal clear to Jeremy that Brock was trying not to be impressed, and equally clear that he was. Jeremy went back to his typing although carefully he pushed the record button on the recorder rather than the play button. Whatever notes he missed would be well worth it.
“So,” Brock said at the gun cabinet as he unlocked it. “You said you’re a hunter?”
Jeremy laughed. “Not much of one. I’ve never actually got much more than a rabbit or two.” A plan started to form in his thoughts. “But I think it would be off the chain to have something really big, you know? Something real impressive to put up on the wall.” He shrugged. “Not that I’m good enough to ever get something like that.”
Brock took out a polish rag and ran it along an ebony black gun with the longest barrel Jeremy had ever seen. “Those kinds of things don’t come cheap you know.”
“Oh, yeah, tell me about it. I’ve heard of guys paying ten grand or more for a good one.” He was literally shooting in the dark, but the interest on Brock’s face told him he was in the ballpark. He wasn’t really looking at Brock. In fact, his attention seemed to be on the notes on his laptop, but actually it was squarely on his target across the room. “Heck, I’d be willing to fork over some serious cash for one even if I wasn’t the one who actually got it.”
The polishing slowed as Brock sized Jeremy up. It was all Jeremy could do not to fall into the trap of breaking his disinterested posture; however, he kept his gaze on the laptop as if he wasn’t even really paying attention to the conversation. He hit the arrow key twice just to have something to do.
“You know,” Brock said, putting that gun away and pulling another out, “that could be arranged.”
“What?” Jeremy asked, as if he had no clue what Brock was talking about.
“Getting you something for your wall. It could be arranged.” There was a cockiness to every move Brock made that said he knew nothing could touch him.
Jeremy laughed. “I wish. I don’t even have a Colorado license. Besides, isn’t it kind of early for deer season?”
Brock snorted. “Like early makes a difference to me. If the money’s right, who cares what season it is?”
He’d never been known for his acting skills, but Jeremy was playing this one to the hilt. “You mean you know somebody… somebody who could make that happen?”
Overconfidence had taken over. “You’re looking at him.”
Jeremy put incomprehension on his face. “You mean you’d take me out? Like while I’m here or something?”
Brock manhandled the gun to the side. “You staying ‘til Thursday night?”
“Well… yeah. I mean, I wasn’t planning to, but I can. Why? What do you have in mind?”
“Meet me at the back of the stables Thursday night about dusk. We’ll get you a decoration you can show all your buddies in Boston.”
“Wow. Just like that?” Then a thought occurred to Jeremy. “But aren’t you supposed to hunt in the daytime? What’s the point of going at night? You can’t see anything anyway.” It was a serious question, and it was meant only as that.
Brock scoffed. “You really are a city boy, aren’t you?”
The barb took Jeremy by surprise, and he only barely caught himself from blowing his cover. “Guilty as charged I guess.”
Putting that gun back, Brock shook his head. He took two steps to where Jeremy sat and put his foot up on the hay bale. Anchoring his elbow on his knee, he narrowed his eyes and hiked one eyebrow. “Ever heard of spotlighting?”
“No.” Jeremy was caught in Brock’s hideously evil stare. It was far more frightening than he had expected.
Brock shrugged. “Between that and the game warden having zero control at night, you’ll get your trophy. Guaranteed.”
Jeremy sucked in what Brock was telling him. “Okay. Then Thursday it is.”
Information and lots of it was what Jeremy needed most. The second Brock left, he turned his attention to the Internet on the laptop. Thank God for wireless. However, only a few clicks into his search he heard the barn door squeak again, and his attention jumped to it.
“Well, hey you,” Emily said in surprise. “What’re you doing out here?”
“Waiting for you of course.” Jeremy closed the laptop. He wasn’t sure about letting Emily in on this plan, and until he made a firm decision, he was going to err on the side of caution. “Are you finished with the herding thing?”
She tossed her black cascade of hair over her shoulder and angled a sweet smile at him. “I’m back, aren’t I?”
Despite all the thoughts trailing through him, Jeremy smiled. For no logical reason that he could see, she had that effect on him, and something told him she always would.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006