A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 3 & 4

Chapter 3

 

It was impossible not to breathe, but every time Holly did, they came in little gasps of tears.  From the first moment this person had opened the door, she had fought the gasps, but to completely stop breathing only worked for so long.  If only she’d had time to carry out her plans before he arrived.  If only…

 

But the plans were the least of her worries now. Suddenly here was this guy, gazing down at her from his stance at the edge of the staircase.  Half horrified, half worried, he stared at her.  She tried to bury herself deeper into the wall that offered no real protection.  Poisonous fear gripped her.  In trying to flee from danger, she had run smack into it.  This guy, this dark-headed, scruffy-looking, rain-soaked guy looked every bit the part of the psychotic serial killer.  He probably had an ax and a grave already dug.

 

Or maybe, maybe he was trying to find shelter from the rain as well.  Maybe he made his home here.  Maybe he was a madman escaped from some asylum close by. Or a criminal. Or a killer. Her mind raced through the possibilities, each more frightening than the one before.

 

She didn’t move. She couldn’t as she stared up at him staring down at her.

 

“Hey,” he finally said softly. “What’re you doing here?” Confusion, concern, and fear mixed on his face.

 

Her heart slammed against her chest.  She should jump at him, make a break for it, run for her life.  However, she couldn’t get a single part of herself to so much as move. She sniffed back the fear and tears.  Her will crumpled over them.  She shivered and sucked in a breath, desperately fighting to keep sanity with her.

 

“Hey. It’s okay.”  He dropped so that he was sitting on his heels.  Dripping wet, he looked almost as wary as she felt.  “Who are you anyway? How’d you get in here?”

 

Diverging emotions slammed through her twining generously with the fear.  Shrinking. It was all she could think to do.  Shrink back, so far back, she would disappear.  Then, maybe he would leave her alone.  Then, maybe he wouldn’t hurt her like so many had before.

***

The fact that she didn’t look like a dangerous criminal eased Gabe’s racing heart somewhat.  However, the out-and-out panic etched across her face told him she wasn’t here sightseeing.  No, she was alone, and she was in trouble. But what to do, and how to do it?  What to say, and how to say it?  Mostly, the thing he was worried about was how not to make things worse than they obviously were.  There was something terribly unsettling about the look in her eyes.

 

He slid one foot toward her.  “It’s all right. You’re at the Teracini Winery.  I promise, I won’t hurt you.  Here.”  Carefully he reached out to touch her and managed only a brush of her shoulder.  She careened backward from his touch, banging hard into the wall.  It was just enough though.  “Good grief. You’re freezing.”

 

Ripping off his jacket, he slid a tiny bit closer to her.  Those eyes, panicked and wild, watched him like a wary animal.  Gently, slowly, he advanced on her.  “Really, it’s okay.  You’re safe here.  Nobody but me ever uses this place.”  He slid the jacket over her as his mind kicked into gear.  He needed to get her warmed up.  That was first.

 

“Hang on.”  Quickly he ducked out from under the stairs and hurried over to the little wood-burning stove on the far wall.  With shaking hands and glances back to where she still hid, he filled the stove and struck the match.  It flamed to life, but the wood was cold, and he didn’t have much lighter fluid left. It took several tries to get the fire to blaze, but when it did, he shut the little metal door.

 

Where the fear was coming from, he didn’t know, but he looked around just the same.  Panic held him in its grip.  He fought through it to think rationally. A thought hit him, and he ran up the stairs.  At the top, he didn’t bother to turn on the light.  Instead he grabbed the blanket from the couch and a pillow too.  Descending, he flipped the tail of the blanket over his shoulder so he wouldn’t trip.

 

Back at the stove, he lay the items down and turned again to where she was.  How he would ever coax her out, he had no idea, but letting her freeze to death didn’t exactly sound like a great idea either.  Putting his hands on the waist line of his black jeans, he paused only one more moment to gather his wits and then strode over to the stairs.

 

This time he stopped where the stairs where head-height.  He arched one arm up onto the risers, gazing down at her, assessing what should be his next move.  Serious worry drained through him as his eyes once again adjusted to the dim light under the stairs.  She was no longer sitting up.  Instead, she had tucked herself between the stairs, the wall, and the floor.  Worse, lying there, and she wasn’t moving at all.

 

What to do and how to do it rushed through him again.  He assessed the situation, examined it from every angle.  He glanced back at the stove now roaring with heat.  His gaze slid back to her. That heat did no good if she was wedged into the coldest part of the room.

 

He breathed in the decision.  There was simply no other way.  He let his arm drop from the stairs and bent down into the cramped space.  “Hey.  I got the stove going. It’s a lot warmer out here.”  Reaching down, he touched her shoulder, his coat really.  It was soaked.  Had she not shivered under his hand, he might have truly questioned if she was in fact alive.  “You want to come over here?  You can get warm.”

***

The demons swarmed over Holly, pushing her into the fear and collapsing it on top of her.  Fresh hurt and terror came with each breath.  If she could just stop breathing, stop her heart from beating that next beat.  Somehow she could escape the hurt and the fear, which seemed to laugh at her pathetic attempts to get away from them.

 

“Here. I’ll help you.”

 

It was strange, so strange to hear those words.  Who could help her now?  Who could help when she had already given up, surrendered to even the worst that could happen to her?  Numbness grabbed her and pushed her under.  She didn’t struggle, instead she surrendered to it.  She simply stopped fighting.

 

“Okay.  Don’t worry.  It’s going to be okay.”

 

She felt him more than she saw him.  His hands, gently probing across her.  Fight was gone from her spirit.  If he killed her, it would accomplish what she had come here to do just the same.  Then inexplicably she was floating, held up by some strong presence.  The cold floor disappeared from her understanding.

 

There was a small bounce.  “Just hold on.”

 

Understanding that she was in fact in his arms, and they were moving was hardly within her grasp.  Reality itself seemed a mere dream.

***

It was only when he had pulled her out of the hole and stepped with her in his arms into the light that Gabe first grasped how beautiful she truly was.  Blonde hair, dripping and matted, yes.  Mascara streaked.  But unbelievably beautiful just the same.  Feelings he’d never had before surged through him.  He tightened his grip as his gaze traveled up and down her lithe frame. Every inch of her was chilled with the water and the lingering cold from the stones. “Come on.  Let’s get you warm.”

 

He pulled her closer to him and stepped the twelve steps over to the stove where he laid her carefully on the blanket. She didn’t fight.  She seemed hardly even awake. Holding her head, he reached for the pillow and let her down softly.  Then like a precise but gentle tornado, he wrapped her in the blanket.  He jumped up and retrieved his coat from the floor where it had fallen.  It was still wet, but if he got it dry, it could be of some help.

 

Bringing it over, he hung it next to the stove.  She lay on the floor, sleeping on the ground at his feet.  At least he thought she was sleeping.  However, right now, he couldn’t tell much of anything about this strange situation.  Where had she come from anyway?  And why was she in the rain with no shoes?  She didn’t seem to even have a coat much less anything to keep herself from the elements.

 

Gabe shook his head at the puzzle that had no answer.  When he did so, a thought tumbled into his mind, and he looked at her anew.  Anger welled in him. “Okay, Satan.  That’s it.  You are hereby cast from this place.  You and your puny henchmen are commanded to leave here and go before the throne of the Most High God to be dealt with there as He so chooses.  I command you by the Holy Blood of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior to leave right now.  Amen.”

 

A breath to settle the prayer, and calm took over.  He gazed down at her.  Warm.   He had to get her warm.  That was first.  His mind struck on the other things upstairs, and he ran up to get them.  A rug.  Some water, coffee, and a cup.  Back down the stairs he came.  Concern and helplessness took swings at him, but he wouldn’t let them close.  “Satan, I said, ‘Get away.’  You too fear and helplessness.  You are banished to whence you came in the Name of Jesus.”  As he got to her, he breathed. “God, just show me what to do.”

***

Floating.  It was the only way to describe the sensation that held Holly.  She was safe.  How she knew that, she wasn’t at all sure.  But she was.  Her whole body let go of the struggle, and warmth lifted the fear from her.  The warmth came from the outside in and the inside out.  It felt so good, so unbelievably good that she gave into it, and relaxed as sleep gathered her into its embrace.

***

Getting her on the rug wasn’t easy, but it was better than having only the blanket between her and the cold floor.  That done, Gabe wished he could get her dry.  That would help, but he could think of no way to accomplish that, so finally he turned his attention to the coffee.

 

The hot plate upstairs would be more efficient, but there were two problems with that.  One there was no electricity for the hot plate on the ground floor.  Two, he didn’t want to leave her here long enough to heat it upstairs.  So, with one eye on her, he filled the cup with water and set it on the little metal heating ledge at the top of the stove.  That was going to have to work.

 

He wished he had something for her to eat.  Crackers.  Bread.  Anything.  But the work overload of the last few weeks had depleted his time to go to the store, and he hated to trouble his mother to get him things for here. She had enough to worry about.  Knowing the coffee would have to be enough, he checked his coat.  The outside was drier, but where he had put it around her was now cold and wet.  He turned it inside out and hung it to dry again.

 

Then, as he looked around, he realized that everything he could do had been done.  It took a minute, but his spirit pulled him down to the floor next to her where he sat cross legged, six inches from the rug she lay on.  She didn’t move, but he could see that she was breathing.  Seeing nothing else to be done, he closed his eyes and prayed every prayer he could think to pray.

 

God had the answers to even this.  Of that and only that he was sure.

***

Warmth.  It was the first understanding Holly had as sleep relinquished its hold on her. She opened her eyes and blinked to remember where she was and why.  Somehow she had expected to see her dorm room, but this was not her dorm.  The ceiling soared high above her, and the space felt huge.

 

Her breath snagged, and she sat up.  With that, the guy standing next to the stove whirled around, his gaze falling on her with concern.

 

He left whatever he was doing, stepped around her, and knelt next to her.  “Hey.”

 

Somehow she remembered that syllable, spoken like that, but from where?

 

Soft concern and hope met in his green eyes and slight smile. “Are you feeling better?  You had me worried there for a while.”

 

Memories, dim and hazy, came to the surface.  Rain and darkness.  Running.  The pieces slipped together, in and out of themselves, and horror at where she was and why jumped through her.  She sat up, pulling the soft peach blanket up with her, around her, closer and closer as if she could in fact disappear right into it.  “Why…? How…?”

 

“No.  Shhh…”  He put out his hand to stop her. “You’re okay. You’re in the carriage house at the Teracini Winery.”

 

Her gaze fell from his face as more pieces dropped into place.  The winery.  Luke. Her mother.  Panic ripped through her body, and she jerked the blanket off of her.  “I… I shouldn’t be here. I’ve got to…”  She fought with the blanket, but she was wrapped like a burrito in it, and not being able to extricate her trapped feet brought fresh waves of panic.

 

“Whoa. Hold on a minute. Calm down.” His voice was as soft as his eyes, and her thrashing stopped mostly because it had sapped what little energy she had. “It’s okay.  Really.  I’ve got you some coffee made.  It’s not much, but as cold as you were, maybe it will help.”

 

He stood and went back to where he had been when she woke up.  In seconds he was back, sitting on his heels.  “This should warm you up.”  He handed her the ceramic white cup.  “It always helps me.”

 

Holly watched him for any sign of danger, but his face was open and honest, offering only.  If he was going to take advantage of her, he would’ve done it by now.  She accepted  the cup and took a sip.  Sweet and warm, the liquid slid down her throat.  It was surprisingly good.  Her attention fell from him to the drink. “Umm.”

 

His half-smile was the first she had seen from him.  “An old family recipe.”  He never so much as glanced away as she drank, and halfway to the bottom, self-consciousness began to remind her of how she must look.  She brushed the hair from her temple back over her ear.  Damp but no longer cold, she knew it was a mess.

 

“I’m really sorry,” she said softly.  “I didn’t realize…”

 

The smile was brighter this time. “No, hey. No need to apologize. I’m just glad I came back.”  He slid to the floor and twined his legs together.  Once settled, he simply watched her with no more words.

 

Her drink was almost gone and rather than finish it, she let it fall onto her lap.  There was no bringing her gaze up to his, so she left it on her cup.  How warm and cozy this place was entered her understanding, and she glanced back at the stove, blazing full of life.  It was comforting and confusing at the same time. How had she gotten here anyway?

 

“So, are you from around here?” the guy finally asked.

 

She considered the absurdity of the question.  “No, not really.”  Then she realized that was kind of a lie.  “Well, kind of.”  She pushed the hair back.  “I’m here for the summer.”  Her nod was in acknowledgment, and also to get the words from her mouth.  “I’m staying with Luke… Hmm… Mr. Teracini.”  She glanced up, but embarrassment dropped her gaze back to her cup. “Only for the summer.”

 

“Mr. Teracini.”  It took a moment, but understanding seeped into his features.  “Oh, you’re… Oh.”  He cleared his throat, and in a single movement, he was on his feet.  He stepped over to the stove.

 

The movement and his reaction confused her.  She looked up at him, seeming to hover above her—suddenly detached and distracted.  His hand planted on his hip as he worked at the stove.

 

She wanted to see his eyes, but his back was to her. “Is there something wrong with that?”

 

“Wrong?” His gaze fell to her but just as quickly went back to his hands. “No. There’s nothing wrong with that.”  He shrugged, his hands working in perpetual motion. The metal thing on the stove clanged loud, and he jumped backward slightly.  He stood without moving a long, long moment.  Then with a heave of a breath, he turned and came back to where she sat.  He sat again, but this time he didn’t really look at her. “So, if you’re staying up there, what are you doing down here in the rain?”  Brushing off his hands, he caught her in his gaze.

 

Surprise snagged her before she could look away.  It was something about his eyes or maybe the concern on his face.  Something she couldn’t really name grabbed her heart and refused to let her look away. “Oh, well… I…”

 

Valiantly she wrenched her gaze from his.  “Things… Things were kind of…” How could she explain to a complete stranger that her life was going down the toilet and all she could do was stand there and watch it? Her gaze drifted to her cup.  “I just had to get away for a while.”

 

Doubt drifted across his face.  “And the only place to go was here?”

 

She couldn’t answer that.  It hurt too much.

 

He ducked his head trying to catch her gaze. “Does anyone even know you’re here?”

 

The question trailed through her.  Who would really care? Slowly she shook her head.

 

His breath came hard.  He scratched the side of his head, which had curls of black so dark they glistened. “They’ll be worried when they find out you’re gone.  They’ll be probably call out the national guard.”

 

Probably, but not for the reasons he thought.  “I don’t think they’ll be too worried. Really.”

 

Anxiety seemed to wrap around him. He scratched at the scruffy black stubble lining his chin. “Still.” He pushed up to his feet and went back to his work at the stove. Glancing over his shoulder, he asked, “Are you warm yet?”

 

She huddled deeper into the blanket, thankful for it only now.  “Yeah. I’m getting better.”  She bent her head and took the last sip of the tepid liquid, sorry to see it was gone.  Somehow its disappearance brought her closer to leaving this place, and that planted a kernel of dread in her.  Her gaze traveled around the space, and although she could hear the tapping of the raindrops on the roof, here was warm and light and safe. She could stay here forever.

 

The guy strode from the stove to the door and peered out.  “It’s letting up a little.”  He came back, and his strides were filled with purpose and determination.  “We’d better get you home.”

 

Fear and panic slapped into her.  “Home? Do we have to?  I… I mean… Can’t I just stay for a little while?”

***

Gabe knew he had to get her back.  They probably had every cop in a six state radius looking for her already; however, something in her voice stopped him.  Something he couldn’t name and couldn’t even really describe.  A fear, a pleading.  It made no sense, but it clung to him just the same.

 

He strode back to the stove and stood over her, his hands on his hips.  His gaze slid to the door. The sensible thing was to override her protest and take her home.  However, his gaze fell back to her and knowing came to him.  He would take her back.  He would find a way to talk her into it so it was her decision.  He would, but not right now.

 

With a sigh, he spun himself onto the floor.  “Okay.  We’ll stay, but only for a little bit.”

 

The trust she’d been building in him wavered as her gaze fell to the empty cup in her hand.  “It was good.  What is it?”

 

“Coffee with chai tea.  It’s to give you strength and energy.”

 

He liked the miniscule smile that slipped gently to her lips.

 

“Well, it worked.”  Gratefulness was in her eyes when she glanced up at him.  Once again he was struck by her beauty.  She could easily be on some movie screen somewhere.  The thought that she probably was snapped into him.  No one that beautiful and that rich stayed hidden forever.

 

“So, you said you’re here for the summer,” he said, wanting only to know more even though that made no sense. “What do you do when it’s not summer?”  The question was soft, an invitation more than anything.

 

However, her face registered a level of distress he hadn’t expected, but she beat it back almost reflexively. “Um, I go to school in Boston. Boston Central.  I’m a junior.”

 

“A junior? Wow.  What’s your major?”

 

She shrugged.  “General studies right now.  I don’t know.  Every time I settle on something for me, I get my mind changed.”

 

Confusion traced through him. “Changed?  Because…?”  It was strange how important it felt to him to know why.  After all, this meeting would be the first and last.  Still, there was a need to understand twining through him that he couldn’t really explain.

 

Her gaze stayed on the cup. “I don’t know.  I guess it’s hard for someone my age to make good decisions about a whole life.  I mean how would I know what’ll be the best in the end?”

 

His heart lurched for the desperation in her tone. “It’s not about knowing the end.  It’s about taking a step.  This step.  The one in front of you.”

 

Confusion scrunched her face.  “What step?”

 

That stopped him.  “The one in front of you.  The one you’re meant to take next.”

 

She shook her head. “But how do you know what that is?  You have to know where you’re heading.  Otherwise you’ll get somewhere you don’t want to be.”

 

It probably wasn’t what he was supposed to do under the circumstances, but Gabe laughed just the same.

 

“What’s so funny?”  There was a base note of hurt in her voice.

 

“Nothing.  It’s not you.  I just so remember being there, asking, wondering, never sure of anything.”  He shook his head at the memories.  “It’s not a fun place to be.”

***

Holly was captivated but also confused.  He didn’t seem that much older than she, so why did he act like her confusion about what to do with her life was a distant memory for him?  Was it everything she had feared—that everyone else had something figured out that she was somehow totally missing?  “No, it’s not.”  In self-defense she shrugged. “But there’s nothing you can do about it, so…”  She took a drink of nothing from her empty cup.

 

It was then that she caught the sense of him watching her intently.  The way he was watching, not moving unnerved her.  The thought that he was simply an angel come to rescue her in her moment of need only to disappear from sight forever traced through her.  She looked up, pulling herself and her pride up with her.  “What?”

 

“You,” he said simply, still looking at her like that.

 

“What about me?”

 

For a long moment he didn’t even flinch. Then slowly he shook his head. “You have so much going for you.”  He tilted his head toward the door.  “Being up there, having the world in your reach, and yet here you are acting like you’re stuck in some run-down life, scared of everything and every opportunity available to you.  I don’t get that.”

 

If he only knew… Calm acceptance of her rotten life wrapped around her.  “I’m not like you.  I don’t have it all figured out, and why should I when I just figure out what I want only to be told that’s not good enough?”

 

“Not good enough?”

 

Anger filled her chest.  “I wanted to work this summer, to earn money, my own money, you know?  But noooo.  That’s not good enough.  I shouldn’t be working.  I should be… what?  Going out with some jerk I don’t even know because he’s got great prospects?”  She snorted ruefully.  “Yeah, that’s just what I want to be doing.”

 

His gaze fell into concern.  “So if you want to work, why don’t you?”

 

“Because I’m a prisoner.  That’s why. They won’t let me get a car.  No car.  No job.  No job. No money. No money.”  She sighed. “I’m at their mercy.”  A single silent tear threatened, but she sniffed it back. “They’ll probably make me stay too.”

 

“Stay?”

 

“At the end of the summer.  Mom never wanted me to go to Boston in the first place.  This’ll be a good excuse to get me back where she wants me to be.”

 

Grasping his ankles, he scowled. “I’m not following.”

 

“The money.  I don’t have it.  They do.”  She shook her head. “I worked last semester, and I’ve gone the scholarship route, but my ‘parents’ always make too much money.”  She laughed at the irony. “Not that my mom and I have a dime to our name.”

 

The scowl deepened.  “How so?”

 

Holly glanced at him, realizing she was actually saying all these things—these things she had been thinking for half her life—out loud.  The hurt drained through her.  “My mom is real good at finding guys who think they love her, until they get to know her, and then…”  She leaned her head to the side without finishing the thought.  “They always have a lot of money, and she tells me we’re set this time.  But it’s always the same thing, and then we’re back on the streets until she finds somebody else.”

 

“The streets?” He actually sounded concerned.

 

Sheepishly she glanced up.  “Okay, not the streets, but it feels like it.  I hate living like that—never really knowing if tomorrow is going to be the moment that everything changes… again.”

 

“You really think they won’t let you go back to school?”

 

The sigh came from her toes. “I don’t know what to think anymore.  Five months ago I’d only heard of Napa Valley in Geography class.  Now I’m living here.”  The shake of her head held despairing acceptance of her situation.  “That’s why I wanted to get a job, so maybe I could control something about my life, so I could make a decision, and they would have to go along with it.”  The laugh was hollow and filled with resignation. “Guess that worked.”

 

He sat for a long moment, gazing at her with those green eyes that were both deep and compassionate.  “That’s why you were out here, hiding in the shadows.”

 

It was as good an excuse as any.  She shrugged.  “I was trying to figure out my options.”

 

The nod told her he knew more than she really wanted him to. “And what did you decide?”

 

What did she decide?  Good question. Two hours before she knew what she had decided.  Now she wasn’t at all sure.  “That I don’t want to live like this.”

 

He nodded again, fully comprehending the statement.  “So don’t.”

 

That slammed her to a full stop.  “Don’t? That’s easy for you to say. You don’t know what she’s like.”

***

The screaming match on the front yard that was more screaming and less a match drifted through Gabe’s mind.  He knew very well how unreasonable her mother could be, but he wasn’t going to tell her that. “Well, that may be true, but I do know one thing.  Nobody can make your choices for you unless you let them.”

 

She laughed softly. “Now you sound like Rebecca. My roommate. She’s always saying stuff like that.  ‘Holly, make your own decisions.  You are not your mother. You are you.  Be you.’”  She sighed.  “It always sounds so good.”

 

“Your roommate’s smart.  You should listen to her.”  Holly.  Holly.  The name traipsed across his heart with little tap shoes.  It fit her.  Yes, it definitely fit.  As he gazed at her, the only thing Gabe wanted to do was to say something that would make everything in her world right. “I may not have everything figured out, but I do know that living your life to please someone else is a one-way ticket to a lot of hell.  You have to make your own decisions.  If they understand and love you, great.  If not, then they only loved the mask you were wearing anyway—not the real you.  You’ve got to be brave enough to show them who you really are and dare them to make their decision based on that.”

 

The fire in the wood stove was dwindling down to nothing.  It was time to make a decision—more wood or go home.  He stood and went over to it.  He snapped open the little door and poked at the embers with the little steel post.  In half an hour the chill would retake the space.

 

“It’s time to go, huh?” Holly asked behind him.

 

Gabe turned only enough to glance at her.  “Only if you want.”  Although he wasn’t watching, he felt her stand.  When he glanced back, she was only a foot from him, still wrapped in the blanket.  The once-rain-soaked blonde strands on her head framed her face now completely dry.  Heart-stopping.  It was a good word for her.

 

To keep himself and his thoughts from running away with that word, he turned back to his work.

 

“Thank you,” she said softly.

 

He tried to shrug, but he couldn’t.  He couldn’t dismiss her gratefulness so easily.  Instead he turned to her, and his smile was for real.  “I’m glad I could help.”

 

Chapter 4

A misty-drizzle was all that remained as Holly slid out of the passenger side of his pickup.  She stood on the cold, soggy ground still reluctant to leave.  “Thanks again.”

 

He smiled and nodded.

 

It was strange how much she wanted to freeze this one moment, just to look at her angel because there was still a part of her that said this would be the last time she would ever see him again.  Knowing she was being ridiculous standing in the rain looking at him, she nodded.  Her gaze snapped to the front door of the enormous house.  “Can you stay until I get in?”

 

“Sure.”

 

Somehow she knew he would.  With an intake of breath, she slammed the door, crossed her arms in front of her, and trudged through the remnants of the storm.  Under the porch, she tried the front door.  A tiny snap and it opened.  She waited, listening.  Nothing.  Quietly she turned and waved to him.

 

He raised his hand, paused a moment, and then turned and backed down the driveway.

 

Feeling his departure, Holly stepped inside, shut the door, and pulled the little white lace curtain from the sidelight.  The car’s taillights slid into the night, stopped at the gate, and then disappeared altogether. Her mind slipped through the events of the evening.  Evening?  It began to dawn on her just how late it might be.  With that thought, she abandoned the window and rushed up the stairs.

 

The room, dark but for the small amount of light coming in from the still-open balcony doors, had an eerie feel to it.  The curtains blew in the now-soft, damp breeze.  Shivering, she ran to the doors and shut them, securing them tighter even than they would lock.  The shadows in the room loomed large and ominous.  Nothing at all like the haven she had found by a little wood-burning stove in the middle of nowhere.

 

Shaken by the reinvasion of the feelings of earlier, she flipped on the light next to her bed.  It was then that she saw the clock.  1:32.  Shock snapped into her.  They’d been talking for hours.  Guilt for keeping him out so late drifted through her.  Then a thought smashed into her.  His name.

 

She hadn’t even thought to ask his name.  How insane was that?  You meet the nicest guy in the world, he almost literally saves your life, and you don’t even get his name? “Real smart there, Hol.  Brilliant.”  In her defense she had hardly been in the right frame of mind to meet a guy.  It wasn’t like she’d had the beauty queen thing going at the time either.

 

When she stepped into the bathroom, just how hideous she was shocked the last of her sanity from her.  Mascara streaked down her face, and her hair…  Oh, her hair!  The humidity had worked its black magic.  It was pancake flat from root to tip.  “Ugh.”

 

Still she smiled at the thought that even like this, he hadn’t run screaming for the exits.  No, he had sat there on a cold, damp stone floor half the night as if he had nothing better to do than save her life.  The thought that she might never see him again brought an ache to her chest.  As she pulled at the brush, she offered up a prayer of thanksgiving and protection for him.

 

He was an angel.  Of that she was completely sure.  So it made sense that God would know of the good deed and suitably repay it without her even asking.  Nonetheless, she made the request anyway—in case God had somehow missed it.  “Please tell him thanks for me, God. Whoever he is.”

***

Gabriel pulled up to the little house.  Exhaustion yanked his eyelids down even as hunger gnawed at his stomach.  He crawled out of the pickup and trudged through the rain-dampened air.  Quietly he let himself in and went about the business of cleaning up, eating, and getting ready for bed.  Six o’clock would come awful early in the morning.

 

He climbed into bed, but once he had taken a breath, thoughts of her invaded his system.  Her.  Holly.  He ratcheted his head down on the pillow to get comfortable, but as soon as he grew still, the thoughts were there once more.  The pain, buried so deeply in her eyes, haunted him.  She had said she was at the carriage house because of the job thing, but was that all?  And what if he hadn’t gone back tonight?  What if he had talked himself into just going home?

 

A shiver went through him along with a knowing of how dangerously close to the edge she was walking.  That she needed help was clear, but that she had anyone to help was much less clear.  “God, Holly is really in a bad space right now.  Please send Your angels to protect her.”

 

Then another thought streamed through that one.  The sense he had acquired over the past couple years on these things was rarely wrong, and even when it was, it couldn’t hurt.  He closed his eyes and tried to picture her lying in bed.  His heart lurched at the understanding that she as again alone.  Alone was the worst place to be when the demons got a hold on your life.

 

Cold, hard determination sank into him.  “Okay, Satan, you cannot have her.  You and all your henchmen are hereby cast out and away from Holly.  You may not go near her.  You are cast out by the Holy Blood of Jesus Christ, crucified, died, and risen.  You are sent to His throne to be dealt with there as He sees fit.  Go now. You are banished away from Holly.”

 

The darkness of the night held reign for one more moment.  Then he breathed. “Jesus, rush Your holy angels into the void.  Bring her peace and joy but mostly hope.  Fill the void with hope, Lord…”  His thoughts began to drift.  He rolled over and put his arms around the pillow. “Be with her, God.  Tonight, tomorrow, and forever. Amen.”

***

Holly didn’t bother to turn out the little light beside the bed.  Life was comforting with the soft yellow glow emanating from it.  She lay down fresh from her shower and was asleep in moments.

***

When the alarm beeped to life, Gabe reached over and hit it with one hand, not moving a single other portion of his body.  He felt like he’d been in a title match with Muhammad Ali.  Slowly he dragged himself up and out of the bed.  His eyes were super-glued to his eyelids.  It took extra effort to get them to begin sliding normally.  Wiping his eyes and then his chin, he heaved a sigh, pulled himself to standing, and trudged into the bathroom down the hall. It would be a long day.

***

Holly ate a small muffin.  She wasn’t very hungry.  True, she should have slept past seven, especially after the night before, but for some reason she couldn’t sleep.  Instead she had gotten up, put on her jeans and her maroon Boston Central sweatshirt.  After eating her breakfast she told Rosa she would be out in the backyard.  She hadn’t explored much of the place at all because she had spent most of her time locked in her room.  Today would be different even if she had to wrench different from same herself.

 

She might not be able to make every decision for herself, but there were some that were still within her grasp.  This one, how to spend her days, was one of those.  She stepped out the sliding door that led out to the pool area.  The tepid humidity of the pool mixing with the night’s rain invaded her lungs.  So different from Boston.

 

Her hands came up to her arms to ward off the early morning chill.  At the far edge of the pool there was a little trellis covered in leaves and tiny white flowers.  She walked over to it aimlessly.  The vines arched high over head as she stepped through the threshold of the little entry another step. However, one step on the  other side of it, she stopped, spellbound.

 

Winding in pathways in either direction was a small stone walk lined with every color flower imaginable.  Never had she seen anything like it. Her heart carried her forward as much as her feet.  The garden was mesmerizing, gorgeous, breathtaking.  Each flower was not only placed for maximum color emphasis, but the heights all complimented the others as well.  It was like an artist had taken his brush and painted the scene.

She thought about her camera and what it would be like to capture this beauty on film, but the camera was in storage back in Boston—waiting for her return that might never come.

 

Pushing those thoughts aside, she moved deeper into the dream, absorbing it, mesmerized and yet fully comprehending.  She didn’t think about how she was going to get back.  She didn’t care.  Only experiencing more of this place entered her mind.  The path meandered to and fro, never really straightening but not difficult either, which was a feat considering how closely many of the plants grew to it.  At intervals she stopped for no other reason than to have more breaths to take it all in.  The fragrances themselves were heady.  Gardenia mixed with jasmine filled the dew-soaked air.

 

All cares began to wash from her, and she closed her eyes to just experience it all in a new way.  The moment slid into another before she opened her eyes and continued down the path.  She could live here forever and never tire of it.

 

Deep, deep into the garden, she sensed that the flowers and now trees would soon give way to some type of structure.  What it was, she couldn’t really tell, but she was drawn there inexorably just the same.  The tree cover grew thicker. It was then that she heard the bubbling.  Faint, yes.  But there just the same.

 

Brushing past a tree around a bend in the path, she came upon a small pond.  Not six feet in diameter, the water nevertheless started at the top of a fall of rocks, sliding downward to the pool below.  She stepped toward it and noticed the few fish darting back and forth in the water at the bottom.  Strange how captivated she could be by a few fish in a small pond, yet she was.

 

She stood, watching them as if she never had to move from this space ever again.  It was then that she thought about him.  Her angel from the night before.  She let the tree next to the pond hold her up as her mind slid back to his face and his eyes.  Kind, compassionate, concerned.  He truly was a gift she hadn’t deserved.

 

And now he was gone.  A piece of the trance broke away from her, and she pushed to standing once more.  She turned her steps up the path, leaving the little pond behind.  One could so get lost in this place, get lost and never return.  At the last bend in the path, a second path converged from the opposite side of the garden.  She wondered what amazing moments were on the other side.

 

Walking slowly, she made it to the point of the convergence before she saw it—a gazebo.  Tan wood standing straight and tall as the morning sun broke full into the garden.  The steps leading into the gazebo were flanked by more flowers, and the trees that had concealed its presence gave way so that the sun shone all around it.  As if pulled there, Holly went to it and stepped up the first step, her hand on the railing.  It was rustic in a way that little around here was.  But it was perfect nonetheless.

 

Mesmerized, she stepped around the space, feeling the rightness of the wood and looking up into the thatch work trellis of the roof.  After one trip around, she sat down, her back to the garden so she could take in the vista that dropped before her.  Verdant green stretched from horizon to horizon and rolled right off the end of the earth beyond.  The vineyard.

 

Of course she had known there was one, but she’d never even thought to ask to see it. Prior to this moment she’d had no desire to see it.  Now it held her like the hand of God Himself.

***

Gabe saw her the moment she broke from the confines of the path next to the one he was working on.  He saw the movement, looked up, and like a dream come to life, there she was.  She never saw him, never so much as looked back to the other trail.  Instead, he watched as she climbed into the gazebo, looking like a goddess escaped from Mount Olympus.

 

Here, in the radiant sunshine, she seemed even more ethereal than she had the night before in the firelight.  Strange, she’d been here at least a couple days now, and he hadn’t seen here out here even once.  And now, suddenly, here she was. He considered not breaking into her contemplation time; however, he did want to know how she was doing and to be near her if only for one more moment.

 

Pushing himself to standing from the flowerbed which he was weeding, he stepped quietly over to the gazebo.  He was almost to the steps when his heart would let him stay silent not one second longer.  He leaned inward. “Morning.”

***

The greeting startled Holly for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which that she was lost in the trance the place had put her in.  She spun around and gasped in happy surprise.  A smile spread from her heart to her lips.  “Morning.”

 

He returned the smile, his even, white teeth showing clearly amidst the dark stubble on his jawline.  It was clear he had shaved, but it hadn’t done much good.  The persistent shadow gave him a rugged, outdoors look that tugged at her heartstrings.  However, the joy of seeing him here, of having the chance to say thank you, and the fact that he wasn’t an angel she would never see again pushed the physical attraction aside.

 

“I…”  She glanced around. “Um, what’re you doing here?”

 

Sheepishly he held up the gloves that were no longer on his hands. “Working.”

 

Thoughts twined through memories. “Oh.” Comprehension slammed into her, and she glanced from him back into the garden. “Oh. I… I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”

 

The moment slid into two.

 

“’s okay.  I just thought I’d come over and say hi.” The smile in his eyes fell into understanding.  “I’ll just get back to…” He motioned over his shoulder.

 

For one more second the stampeding thoughts held her, but when he turned and started off, she punched them back with one hit.  Five running steps and she was back on the ground. “Wait!”

 

A modicum of surprise crossed his face as he turned to her.  Just that and her heart hit the accelerator. There was something about him that threw whatever she was going to say out the window, smashing it into a bazillion pieces somewhere outside of her consciousness.  To stand there and look at him, knowing he was for real overtook even the knowing she should be saying something.

 

A sparkle of amusement jumped into his eyes as he looked at her.  “Yes?”

 

As much as she wanted to, she wasn’t following. “Yes what?”

 

He laughed outright at that. “Yes, you said, ‘wait,’ and then you didn’t tell me why.”

 

“Why.  Oh, yeah. Why. Umm…”  She yanked thoughts up that had no connection to anything.  Searching for something so she wouldn’t look like a complete idiot, she finally found one thing she really did mean to say if she ever saw him again. “Umm… I didn’t catch your name.  You know last night at the…”

 

“Carriage house.”

 

“Carriage house,” she said, nodding.  Then how odd that sounded smacked into her. “That’s your name?”

 

There was no hesitation in the laugh.  “No, that’s the name of that building, where we were.  My name’s Gabriel Cabrelos.”

 

Appreciation for the name and for him slipped into her as she held up her hand.  “It’s nice to meet you Gabriel.”

 

He shook her hand, and she had never felt so much warmth and security in any previous introduction.  He stood looking at her for one more moment, then the half smile returned. “Well, I’ve got to get back.”  He motioned over his shoulder.

 

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, of course.”  She nodded, but it was mostly because the rest of her wouldn’t move.

 

After one more small smile, he turned back up the path.  Seeming not to realize that she was rooted to the spot, not moving, he dropped to his knees under a knot of brilliant red flowers that grew in clumps with their greenery holding them like a lover.  She watched him, partly because she couldn’t move and partly because she was so fascinated.

 

How many minutes slid by into eternity, she didn’t know, but finally the trance drifted from her, and Holly stepped toward him again.  Nearly standing over him, she watched as he moved to a set of taller, white flowers atop long slender stems.  “What are you doing?”

 

With one eye closed to the sun at her back, Gabriel looked up.  “Weeding.  There never seems to be a good time to get it done once the day really starts, so I try to get here early and do a little each day.  It’s easier that way.”

 

Concern traced through her, and she glanced up the walk.  “Why?  Why get here early if you don’t have to?”

 

His almost smile did funny things to her heart, but then he dropped his gaze and moved to the next set of flowers.  “It gives me time.”

 

Where the intense fascination came from, she didn’t know, but he had her transfixed.  She stepped the two steps forward , mirroring his movement. “Time?”

 

His glance told her the questions were hitting a bit closer each time.  However, when he went back to the weeding, moving another four feet down the walk, he answered.  “Time to think… and to pray.”

 

Pray. The word slammed her backward.  Her face fell into a scowl of annoyance and disbelief.  “You get up early to come out here and work so you can pray?”

 

He had accumulated a little pile of weeds none of which were more than two inches high.  He picked them up and scooted them along with him.  “Yeah.  Nobody else is up yet, so I have the garden all to myself.  It’s nice.”

 

For some reason the whole idea threw Holly’s spirit into disarray.  The fact that anyone would get up early, to go to a job that involved getting dirty, so they could pray seemed to her quite ridiculous, and not really too sane at all.  At her feet Gabriel suddenly sat back on his heels, looked at his watch, dusted his gloves, and stood.

 

Holly’s mind was still struggling with their conversation and it stumbled forward, lurching from the conversation to him and back again.

 

“Well,” he said matter-of-factly.  “I’d better be getting.  The guys will wonder where I am.”  He pulled his glove off and extended his hand to her.  “It was nice to see you again, Holly.”

 

She fought to get her hand up through the thoughts crashing into themselves.  “Yeah. Yeah.  You… You too.”

 

With half a wink, he smiled. “Have a nice day.”

 

“O… okay.  Thanks.”

 

And with that he swooped down, picked up the weeds, turned up the walk, and disappeared around the first curve.  That she hadn’t really been breathing invaded her consciousness, and she let the air out in a whoosh.  He was so together, so different than the others she’d ever met.  Okay, the praying thing was a little weird, but she knew people at school who did that, and they weren’t so bad.  However, praying had never been in her repertoire.  She could count the number of times she’d been in church on one hand not using four fingers.  She pushed that memory down and away.

 

A smile lit her face as she turned up the now sun-drenched walk.  It was going to be a good day.

***

“Been playing in the dirt again I see,” Darius McIntire, the third member of the grounds trio, said as Gabe entered the work shed.

 

Gabe pitched the handful of weeds into the large, black trashcan and went to his desk.  That hour was supposed to center him, to get his thoughts away from her and the night before.  That worked.  He looked at the schedule that had been made up by his father a month before the attack.  That’s the way things had always been done around here.  His father had been here so long, he knew what needed to be done months in advance. Although Gabe had been here for ten years, he’d never bothered to learn the job months in advance until now.

 

“Darius, you and Tim will start out in the pool area today.  Clean the filters, run the pool cleaner, check the chemical levels.  I’m going down to the entrance.  It’s starting to look kind of shabby.”

 

“The pool?” Darius asked.  “But I thought…”

 

“Yeah, well you’ve been promoted.”  Prior to that moment the pool had always been Gabe’s responsibility.  In fact, it was his entry into working here.  They needed a pool boy, and his father happened to have a 15-year-old with large amounts of time on his hands.  That was until today.

 

He couldn’t afford to lose focus any more than he already had.  “Those wood ties on the entrance may need some real help, and last I checked you were frightening with a nail gun.”

 

Tires sounded on the gravel outside, and both of them looked up.

 

“There’s Tim,” Darius said.  “I’ll get the stuff in case we need extra.”

 

Gabe nodded, and Darius stepped into the other room.  He let out a breath and put his fingers to the top of his nose.  The lost sleep was definitely catching up with him.

 

“Hey, boss,” Tim said, striding in.  “What’s up?”

 

“You’re late.  Again.”  Gabe continued to look over the day’s work, imbedding it in his memory.  “Punch in.  You and Darius will go up to the house and clean the pool.”

 

Tim jerked to a stop.  “The pool?”

 

In frustration Gabe looked up.  “Is that a problem?”

 

A look of complete surprise jumped to Tim’s face. “Oh, uh, no.  Not a problem.”

 

“Good.”

***

“It’s going to be a glorious day,” Holly’s mother said, breezing into the sitting room.

 

Holly had taken refuge there because she was so tired of the walls of her room.  At least these walls weren’t bright yellow.

 

“I think we should go out and enjoy the pool.” Her mother sat on the wing-backed chair. Actually she more perched there.  It annoyed Holly.  “You haven’t even seen the pool yet.  It’s beautiful.”

 

The word pulled a smile from her.

 

“Come on, what do you say?”

 

Was there ever a question?

***

As he hammered on the enormous wooden planters that would have to be replaced at some point, Gabe struggled to keep his mind either on the task or on his worry about his father.  There had to be some way to talk his dad out of coming back to work full time.  The look of abject terror on his mother’s face wrenched across his heart.

 

Bits and pieces of the future in various kaleidoscope-like versions turned through his mind.  If something were to happen to his father, it would be up to him to support his mother.  But how could he do that and go to school too?  He was only three semesters from graduation.  The thought of having to quit now was paralyzing.  That would be the death of every dream he’d ever had.

 

It would mean being locked here forever just as his father had been.  The regret for a life his father could have lived snaked through his consciousness.  He’d heard the stories.  All the stories.  A talented place kicker, his father had been on the fast track to play in the NFL—until a late and dirty hit had sidelined his dream forever.  In one second his leg was shattered by the on-coming helmet.  He didn’t even finish the semester.

 

Two years later with a distinct limp he had married his high school sweetheart.  It was the start of a long, slow road that had meandered through life to this point.  There was really nothing remarkable about either of his parents’ lives since then.  His father worked his way up to head groundskeeper at what had then been Whitaker Vineyards.  His intense work ethic and deeply ingrained perfectionism made him a natural manager.  The love and understanding of nature came later.

 

By the time Gabriel was six, he was spending most of his days following his father around the gardens, learning about the relationship of the plants, the beauty and yes even the joy of bringing that beauty forth from the earth.  However, as he had gotten older, that fascination waned as other things became more important to him.  Girls and sports took over his life—much to the chagrin of his father.

 

The battles were legendary, at least around the Cabrelos household.  He played every sport he was allowed in high school except the one he most wanted to play.  They said he was a natural quarterback.  He had the skills, the vision, and the moves.  The only thing he didn’t have was his father’s blessing.  And so he had played everything else, never really excelling although his energy and practice skills were second to none.

 

Upon graduation he had set his sights on college.  The plan was always to go two years at the little university right there, and then to make a name for himself as a walk-on to the basketball team or the soccer team at a big name school.  However, between working to meet the tuition payments and studying every other waking hour, that plan went the way so many others had before.

 

And now here he was, three semesters away, and no real defining, immediately within grasp dream.  Sure, there was the “in the future” dream of coming back to own the place, but Gabe was beginning to sense that’s all it would ever be—a dream.

 

He bent into the work—pushing and nailing, trying to get the ancient structure to hold just a little longer.  The last thing he wanted was to have to request money to rebuild the thing.  Ten more nails and he stood back, satisfied that it wouldn’t fall apart at least for now.

 

Turning he caught the awesome view of the mansion gracing the top of the hill, dominating the entire surroundings.  With a swipe he picked up his tools and trudged off into the trees for the work shop.  It would be noon soon, and there was still a list of tasks to be accomplished before then.  There always was.  That list never ended.

 

He made a pact with himself to make it to the carriage house to do some reading tonight.  Thoughts of her invaded his mind, but he batted them away.  She was not his concern nor his fantasy.  She was Mr. Teracini’s soon-to-be stepdaughter.  Period.  Hanging onto that knowledge was the only way to keep himself from wishing otherwise.

***

“I do not believe it!” her mother hissed in revulsion.

 

They hadn’t been poolside for five minutes when the two guys showed up.  Holly hadn’t felt especially comfortable in the bikini bathing suit her mother had picked out and insisted upon during their shopping spree.  Now she felt downright naked.  She picked the magazine up higher, wishing it was the size of a large bath towel.  Sitting on the lounge chair, she wiggled to get all of herself behind it, knowing they were looking, and hating every second of being ogled.

 

“Just a second.  I’ll take care of this,” her mother said, swinging her legs off the side of her chair.  The show was obvious for anyone willing to look.

 

Holly didn’t want to look, so she picked the magazine up higher.  This was embarrassing for so many reasons she couldn’t name them all.

 

“We’re supposed to clean the pool,” the tall black guy said. “Mr. Cabrelos sent us.”

 

“Well, Mr. Cabrelos doesn’t own the place, does he?” her mother asked shrilly.  “We are enjoying the pool right now, so you’ll have to come back and do your little dirty work later.”

 

The condescension made Holly cringe.  They were just doing their jobs.

 

“You go back and tell Mr. Cabrelos he needs to check with me before he sends you again.  My daughter and I are not interested in being stared at by the help.  Do you understand me?”

 

To sit there and listen to it hurt.  Holly squirmed, knowing they were looking ever more intently because her mother had called attention to her.

 

“We’re sorry, Ma’am,” the little Hispanic guy said.  “Would it be possible for us to come back say in an hour?”

 

“Well, I don’t know.”  The flouncing was enough to make a person physically ill. “Why don’t you have your boss call after lunch, and we’ll see.”

 

They actually bowed, and Holly cringed at the sight.  The Hispanic guy tipped his straw hat.  “We’re sorry to have bothered you, Ma’am.”

 

“Well, you should be.  Now get out before I have you both fired.”

 

The black guy looked over to Holly. “Sorry, Ma’am.”

 

It felt like a punch.  “It’s okay.”

 

The glare her mother sent her way would have scalded a cat.  She turned the anger back on them, sending them scurrying for the side gate.  In seconds they were gone.  Her mother stepped back to her chair.  “Ugh. It’s so hard to find good help these days.”

***

The fact that the two of them were sitting in the work shop when Gabe walked back in tromped through his thoughts.  “I thought I told you to go clean the pool.”

 

Darius stood first.  “Yeah, well, we ran into the Dragon Lady, and she changed your plans.”

 

Fury cascaded on him as he put up the tools on the wall. “Oh, great. Now what did she say?”

 

“Something about having you call to schedule the pool cleaning with her from now on.”  The shifting of Darius’s feet told Gabe he knew how perilous this conversation could be for his future here.  “And that we’d both be fired if we didn’t leave.”

 

The frustration leaped from Gabe’s throat.  “Fine.  We’ll get on with everything else, and I’ll try to get back up there sometime today.”

 

Tim stood from where he was leaning on the desk.  “Well, at least it wasn’t a total bust.”

 

“Oh, yeah, how’s that?”  Gabe’s attention was already back on the schedule and how to get everything done before the other two left in five hours.

 

“We got to see the Ice Princess in her bikini, and man, is she hot!” The full intent of Tim’s words hit Gabe like a brick.

 

“Yeah, too bad she’s Dragon Lady’s daughter,” Darius said, joining the mental oogling. “She is fine.”

 

Gabe shook his head.  “Hello. Could we get back to getting something done?  Unless you all want to stay late with no pay.”

 

Instantly they snapped to attention. It was everything he could do to keep his wits about him as he divvied up the remaining work.  If he could just keep his mind on work, everything would be fine.

***

When her mother had called an end to the mandatory sunning session, Holly fled inside, slipped into her room, and locked the door.  Never had she been more humiliated.  However, as she let other memories in, she knew that wasn’t quite true.  Resignation touched the edges of her spirit, and she had no willpower left to beat it back.

 

She went into the bathroom and changed into her jeans and T-shirt.  At least that felt normal, like everyone else, not calling attention to herself.  She brushed her hair, purposely keeping her gaze from her own eyes.  She didn’t need the reminder of how far down the morality chain she had slipped.

 

If pole-dancing was required to get a leg up on the scale her mother was measuring them by, Holly was quite sure she’d be signed up by sunset.  Back in her room, she sat on the bed, then swung her legs up.  She felt like a crab trapped in its shell.  Seeing no better option, she curled up on the pillows and drifted out.  The late night and early morning meeting coupled to push sleep over her.

***

Gabriel called the main house at two and got permission from Rosa to clean the pool—if he hurried.  There was really no need to add that admonition.  Lightning was slower.  He knew the steps by heart, even knew every corner to cut, and he took them all lest she appear to derail his headlong dash through the day.

 

The sun was beating down, heating everything in its path, and several times Gabe had to wipe the sweat from under his hat.  Only the first week in June and already the sun was intent on committing murder.  He would have to get water when he got back.  However, those thoughts were only fleeting as his body flew through the motions of cleaning the pool.

 

In no more than thirty minutes it was done, and he didn’t even glance back at the house as he let himself out the back gate.  With a sigh of relief, he strode off, already planning and replanning the rest of his day.

***

Holly hated this part.  She really and truly did.  She dressed in the soft pink cashmere sweater and white pants.  Why supper had to be so formal she had no idea, but she had learned.  It was.  And if she wanted to eat, she had to follow protocol.

 

At the table, she said a polite, quiet hello to Luke, and took her seat.  She pulled the napkin from the table just as her mother swept in.

 

“I’m so sorry I’m late.  I was on the phone with the airlines.  It is nearly impossible to book last minute to Paris.  They have all these restrictions now.”  She sat regally at the opposite end of Luke.

 

“Oh, who’s going to Paris?” Holly asked innocently.

 

Her mother took a long sip of her deep burgundy wine before pulling her napkin out.  “We are, silly.”

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

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A Light In the Darkness, Ch. 1 & 2

Chapter 1

 

Holly Jacobs hit the off button on the little silver cell phone and sat back into the deep, black leather seat of the black stretch limo.  Melancholy settled all through her spirit. Although Boston and her friend Rebecca Avery were just across the country, it felt like the moon would be closer.  Rebecca and Emily Vasquez had gotten an apartment together for the summer.  By the time Holly got back, it was likely she’d have to find a new roommate—if she did go back.   That thought pulled her even lower. Her gaze fell to the expansive floorboards at her feet.

 

She hated leaving Boston for more reasons than she could name.  Of course Boston had its rough patches too, but it was more home than any home she had ever known.  Certainly more home than the one she was getting inexorably closer to right now.

 

Her gaze drifted out to the hills of green covering Napa Valley, California.  Tears of unwanted frustration threatened, but she beat them back. She hadn’t been here two hours, and already she hated it.  She didn’t belong here.  The thought that she didn’t belong anywhere cut through her spirit like a sharp dagger.

 

The little phone beeped to life, dragging her away from the thoughts. She glanced down at it.  With a sigh, she touched the on button and lifted it to her ear. “Hi, Mom.”

 

“Oh, Holly.  Good.  So you’ve landed then?”

 

There was no pause to let her answer, and she didn’t bother to try. She knew there wouldn’t be one.

 

“Listen, Luke will be at the mansion when you get here, so please try to make yourself presentable before you get here.  I hope you’re not wearing jeans.  Jeans are so tacky.”

 

Holly looked down at her butterfly jeans helplessly.  Like there was anything she could do about that now.

 

“And do not bring in that tattered thing you call a purse either.  Leave it in the car if you have to.  Give it to Rio, the driver. We’ll get it later.”

 

The sigh said more than she’d been able to so far. “Fine, Mom.  Anything else?”

 

“Yeah, be sure to put on some lip gloss.  Not lipstick.  Just gloss.  We don’t want Luke to think you are a tramp or anything.”

 

No, that would be your department.  Her mind had ways of betraying her at the most inopportune moments. But she said nothing.

 

“How long before you get here?”

 

Holly’s gaze slid to the vast expanses of emerald beyond. “I don’t know. I don’t really even know where we are.  Everything is just hills of green.”

 

“Good. Then you can’t be more than 20 minutes out. Freshen up your makeup, and get yourself together.  When you get here, I’ll be waiting upstairs.  Ring the doorbell, and I’ll let Rosa get the door.  That will give you a good entrance.”

 

“Whatever, Mom.”

 

“I’ll see you in a few.  Be sure to freshen up.”

 

“Okay.”  Ten more words, and Holly signed off.  She didn’t want to, but she pulled the little compact out and checked her makeup.  Her hair was a wreck, but then what did she expect after missing a flight and having three layovers in various venues from Boston to California?  All she wanted was to find a nice, soft bed and sleep for a month.

 

Nonetheless, dutifully, she dotted the dark circles under her eyes with concealer.  Fortunately she had left her small makeup bag in her purse.  Her gaze chanced to her purse, and hurt filled her heart.  It was a Christmas present from Rebecca the previous year.  True, it wasn’t New York stylish, but it meant that someone cared enough to think about her when they didn’t really have to. Yes, transferring to Boston Central was the best decision of her life.  Her mother still didn’t understand why she’d transferred—nor why she’d changed her major four times, but that was to be expected.

 

Her mother never understood.  Mostly because she was too busy messing up her own life to get terribly involved in the details of her daughter’s. And now, her mother had hooked up with some rich wine grower from California.

 

Lovely.  Just lovely. It was about as great as her life always turned out.  She unclipped her long blonde hair from the back of her head and brushed through it.  Thanks to sleeping on floors and in planes, the shoulder length locks hung ugly and flat. There wasn’t much doing to it. She ran her fingers through it once more. It wasn’t great, but it would have to do.

 

The car slid through the gates of the estate. The two-story Victorian stood stately at the top of the hill, couched in verdant green so lush it was possible it was painted on the ground rather than growing. Holly clutched her purse as her gaze traveled up, up, up the gray and dull rose façade.  The grandeur of the place was overwhelming. Her mother had certainly done it this time.

 

Holly sighed wearily as her gaze dropped to her lap.  She hadn’t wanted to come.  By some miracle, she had gotten out of it at Spring Break, hoping that by summer this would all be a distant memory.  But summer had shown up before the inevitable, and  now here she was expected once again to be something she truly hated. More shows to put on to impress everyone so they didn’t get thrown out.  More being someone she didn’t even want to know.  More hearing from her mother how every single thing she did in life was wrong.

 

Joy. Joy.  This summer should be the best one yet.

***

“Hey, look.” Timothy Delgado stopped his work to gaze up at the looming gray mansion which looked down on the little garden work shop from the hill above.  “The ice princess has arrived.”

 

Gabriel Cabrales glanced up from his work on the lawn mower that was doing anything but cooperating.  Mowing the lawn. It had sounded so easy three hours ago. He beat the edge of the mower with the hammer to dislodge the debris from underneath. “You ought to go up there and introduce yourself.  I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”

 

“Yeah, kinda like her mother, the Wicked Witch of the West.”  Timothy twisted a wrench around his finger—the motor he was supposed to be fixing forgotten.  It was another of the chores Gabriel should have finished last week, and he would have if his father hadn’t fallen out of line three weeks before.  Ever since the heart attack had sidelined his dad, Gabriel had taken over as foreman of the grounds crew.  There were only three of them now, which did nothing to make the job easier. Nonetheless, foreman was a job he didn’t take lightly.

 

The clanging of the hammer on metal shook right through him. Still he hit it all the harder. The job, normally manageable, had morphed in the last two months into the worst job on the planet.  It started when the Ice Queen showed up, and it had gone down hill from there. In fact, he was sure his father’s heart attack could be directly attributable to her arrival.

 

“Well, lookie what we have here.” Timothy leaned on the door of the work house which was shrouded by the vast trees towering above them.

 

Gabriel was positive Mr. Teracini had no idea the house could be seen so plainly from here.  If he did, he would surely have constructed a concrete barrier to keep them out in the past four years since he had become the owner.

 

Timothy straightened, his eyes growing wide. “Wow.  She may be an ice princess, but she sure is easy on the eyes.”

 

Wiping the grease and dirt from his hands, Gabriel joined his friend at the door.  Although they were more than a 150 yards away, the sight whipped his breath from him.  Clothed in a pure white flowing top, fitted and then flared jeans, the ice princess brushed the sun-kissed blonde hair from her angelic face.  Of course she was beautiful.  You had to be to fit in up there.

 

Disgust drained through him.  “Come on, Delgado.  Since this is as close as you’ll ever get to her, you might as well get some work done while you gawk.”

 

However, Timothy didn’t move even as Gabriel went back to the mower.

 

“They say she’s a debutant from Boston.  I bet she has a boyfriend.  You know one of those jerks who will kick dirt in your face just to show you he can.”

 

“Like it matters.” Gabriel hit the mower with a clang, and a chunk of dirt fell to the ground underneath. “Girls like that won’t give guys like us a second look—if they bother to give us a first look.”  Exasperation over all the work they had to do and that he was the only one actually working overtook him. “Tim!  That motor ain’t going to fix itself you know.”

 

“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”  Timothy shook his head, but his gaze never left the blonde up the hill. “She sure is pretty.”

 

“Well, you’re going to be pretty broke if you don’t get to work.  I’ll personally tell Mr. Teracini to dock you for looking at his new stepdaughter when you should be working.”

 

Timothy pushed away from the door.  “Oh, boo-hoo.  Why do you always have to be so work happy?”

 

“Because being work happy is the only way I’m ever going to graduate from being out here with the lawn mowers and you guys to being up there.”  Gabriel nodded toward the mansion.

 

Tim’s laugh was sardonic. “You are such a dreamer.  Gabriel and his dreams of owning the place one day.” Timothy bowed low. “It’s such an honor to be working with the future owner of Teracini Winery. Hey, Gabe, when you own the place, can I say I knew you when?”

 

The taunts crawled through Gabe’s gut.  They didn’t believe him, but someday, he would be up there, on the top of that hill, in that mansion.  He would show them all.

***

“Ms. Linda, Miss Holly has arrived,” Rose, the middle-aged Hispanic housekeeper, called up the steps.

 

Holly stood awkwardly in the entryway, fighting not to fidget.  The stairs curled three steps one way, banked another six steps at an angle to the first ones and then disappeared up the opposite direction to the unseen floor above.  The mahogany hardwood floor at her feet shown so brilliantly, the sun made it resemble a mirror.  In the center of the entry a little table stood on a rose and cream circle rug.  Topped with a white vase of flowers, the table shown with the same glow as the rest of the room.

 

“Holly, Darling.”  Her mother swept down the stairs, floating more than walking.  Dressed in a white silk pantsuit with white gauze trailing from her shoulder, she looked like a 40’s movie star making her grand entrance.  “I’m so happy you made it.”

 

That should’ve been obvious.  Holly shifted feet, not wanting to break her mother’s grand entrance but embarrassed by it just the same.  “Hi, Mom.”

 

Her mother slid up to her, kissed first one cheek then the other. However, before she let her go, she whispered, “Call me ‘mother.’ It sounds better.”

 

“Oh.”  The gasp was involuntary. Holly had to shake out of the shock to get more out.  “How are you Mother?”

 

“Splendid.  Come, let’s sit in the parlor.”  Her mother linked her arm through Holly’s and turned her. “Rose, would you please tell Luke we’re in the sitting room?”

 

Rose bowed slightly. “Yes, Ma’am.”

 

Linda breathed in the statement. “Ma’am.” She ducked her head secretively to Holly. “Isn’t it wonderful?  Oh, darling.  I’ve fixed us for real this time. I mean look at this place. Isn’t it gorgeous? Oh, and look at the ring he gave me.”  She held out her hand upon which sparkled an oval rock.  “Isn’t it fabulous?”

 

There were so many questions Holly wanted to ask.  She started with the most obvious one.  “What happened with you and Dan?”

 

Horror coursed through her mother’s features. “Dan?  What does he have to do with this?”

 

“Hello.  You were married to him.  Remember?”

 

Her mother waved a French manicured hand at her dismissively. “He was a rung I outgrew.”

 

The sitting room featured a fireplace, more mahogany furniture, and full rose-colored carpeting.  They hadn’t made it to the wine-sheen couch when there was a noise behind them.  The transformation of her mother’s turning was truly difficult to comprehend. She almost literally became a different person.

 

“Oh, Luke, darling. I’m so glad you could tear yourself away for a few minutes.”  She spun Holly with her and presented her.  “This is my beautiful daughter Holly Marie.”

 

Never, not one single time had Holly ever felt so much like a trophy.

 

“Well, Holly, it’s very nice to meet you.” Luke, a tall, handsome, dark-haired man in his early fifties bowed gallantly, taking her hand with him.  He kissed it, completely grossing her out.  When he straightened and let her go, she had to force herself not to wipe his kiss off her hand.  “Please, please.  Have a seat.”

 

Holly followed them to the little enclave and sat in the wing-backed chair.  Luke and her mother sat right next to each other on the couch, and she tilted her gaze downward at the thought of Dan. How could her mother shift gears so quickly, seemingly never so much as looking back?

 

“So, tell me about school,” Luke said, laying his hand on her mother’s.  The gesture made Holly sick, and his thick Italian accent wasn’t helping.  He sounded as pompous and full of himself as he looked.

 

“Oh, I’m out for the summer.” She nodded for no real reason.  The smile hurt. “Summer break.”  The nodding was getting annoying even to her.  She looked around. “Nice house.”

 

“Why thank you.  It came with the estate when I moved from Italy.”

 

The comment gave her the opening to ask the question she’d been thinking since he’d first walked in.  “So you’re not American then?”

 

“Holly!” Her mother’s sharp rebuke stabbed into her.

 

“No, no. It’s okay, Linda,” Luke said.  “I have done business in the States for many years.  In fact I’d been looking for a winery to buy for almost ten years.  When this one came available, I jumped on it.  I’m now a dual-citizen—Italy and the United States.”

 

How nice for you. Holly fought to restrain the words so they wouldn’t find the air.  Her foot bounced as she searched for something else to say, but nothing was coming.

 

“Did you have a good trip?” Luke asked.

 

The look her mother turned on him yanked sarcasm from her.  The only reason Linda was in the room was to show off her daughter to her fiancé and her fiancé to her daughter.  The pretense was stifling.

 

“Oh, didn’t mom tell you?” Holly caught the look her mother shot her, but she continued just the same. “I missed the connection in Chicago, so I had to go through Dallas and then Albuquerque.  That’s why I’m such a mess.”

 

Luke’s smile was hardly condemning. “You are anything but a mess, my dear.  But you must be exhausted.  Did Rio bring your bags in?”

 

“They’re at the front door.”  Holly stood, and the two of them followed.

 

The nod Luke gave her held hardly any real movement. “I’ll call Yuri. He can take them up.”

 

Her mother raised her eyes to make sure Holly was suitably impressed.  However, Holly’s head was starting to send nausea signals to her stomach.  She wasn’t at all sure if it was because she was hungry, tired, or just sick of life.

 

Luke called for the maid who appeared almost immediately. “Rosa, will you call Yuri to take Holly’s bags up to the first guest room?” Luke turned to her as Rosa bowed and departed.  “You will have a full bath, and a full suite to yourself.  Enjoy.  And if you need anything, please feel free to ask.”

 

How about a bag to throw up in? However, she simply nodded.  He bowed as it seemed they all were wont to do and strode off down the hallway.  The moment he was out of sight, her mother linked arms with her and squealed in a whisper.

 

“Isn’t he dreamy?  Ugh.  I knew the first time I saw him this was going to work.”

 

Holly removed her arm from her mother’s.  “I’m shot, Mom.  Can we talk about this later?”

 

With her usual flair, her mother looked at once frustrated and hurt.

 

It was a pattern Holly had learned long before. “No, Mom.  We’ll talk. I promise.” She put her fingers into her hair which felt like a dry weed.  “I’m just a mess right now.”

 

The shoulders slumped. “Fine.”

***

“So, how is it?” Rebecca asked over the phone.

 

Holly collapsed on the yellow daisy bed and sighed.  Even the warm bath in the claw-foot bathtub hadn’t washed away the melancholy. “Wonderful.  Isn’t it supposed to be wonderful?  He’s rich.  Mom’s in love.  What’s not wonderful?”

 

Rebecca paused, clearly searching for something to say. “Did you talk to her about the job?”

 

“Huh.  She was too busy showing off.”  Holly rolled to her stomach and twined her feet behind her.  “Man, I wish I was back in Boston with you guys.”

 

“You and me both.  We’ll be praying for you, okay?  Don’t let her get you down.  This is your life. Remember?  You get to choose now.”

 

If only it was that easy.

 

“Miss Holly.”  The knock on her door brought her full up.  “Dinner is being served.”

 

Holly spun to sitting in one motion. “Oops.  Gotta go.  Tell everyone hi for me.”

 

“Will do.  And Holly, we’ll be praying.”

 

“Thanks.” She clicked the off button and let the phone drop to the bed.  She was going to need more than prayers.  Pushing up off the four poster bed, she traipsed to the door and down the stairs.  At the entryway she listened and followed the noises to the formal dining room.  Clearly the mahogany thing was a staple of this house. The mahogany furniture in the dining room was set off by celery green walls and gold decorations.

 

“Holly!  Oh, my.” Her mother jumped up from the table in horror. In seconds she shoved Holly into the hallway.  “What are you thinking?  This isn’t proper attire for dinner.”

 

The proprietary tornado hit her so fast, she was taken totally off guard.  She looked down at her clothes which were nothing out of the ordinary.  Her nicest jeans and a fitted, purple top.  It wasn’t like it was Las Vegas showroom material.  “Proper…?”

 

Her mother leaned in menacingly.  “First of all, you’re late and now you show up looking like trailer trash.  What are you trying to do—ruin everything?”

 

“Linda?” Luke called from the dining room.

 

“Just a moment, Darling.”  In hushed but urgent tones she targeted Holly. “Don’t you have anything but jeans and T-shirts?”

 

“I…”

 

“You know what I mean.  Now get up there and change, and do not let me see you in those again. You hear me?”

 

Beaten and defeated, Holly’s head fell. “Yeah.”

 

Her mother squared her shoulders and shook back her hair-sprayed stiff light brunette hair. “The answer is, ‘Yes, Ma’am.’”

 

What could she say as her shoulders slumped forward?  “Yes, Ma’am.”

***

It was after ten when Gabriel pulled out of the front gate.  The mowing was done by no small miracle.  He shifted in the seat of the old, beaten up brown and gold Chevrolet pickup.  His mind slid down the list of things to do until exhaustion took over even that. He let out a breath and ran his hand from his forehead to his chin.

 

His curly black hair was caked with dirt and grime.  No wonder Timothy thought he was crazy.  But Timothy didn’t know—not all of it anyway.  As headlights went the other direction down the winding road, Gabriel fought to settle his surging spirit.  It was crazy to tell them the things he knew deep inside, about the signs he’d received, about the things he had read.  They wouldn’t understand.  Worse, they would think he was insane.  Sometimes he wondered if he was.  How else could anyone explain the things he saw, the things he now understood almost as an instinct?

 

The pickup chugged into the driveway of the little house, and Gabe killed the engine.  He slid out and made it all the way to the sink just inside the back door when he heard the shuffling.

 

“Gabriel, I thought you would be home hours ago.”  His mother, a woman well into her sixties, hunched by the work load she had carried her entire life, appeared in the doorway.  “Your supper is cold.”

 

Gabe grabbed the towel to dry his hands. “It’s okay, Mom.  I can heat it up.”  In very few steps he was at the microwave.  That was one thing about a small house, there was only a modicum of stress getting from one room to the next.  “Is Dad in bed already?”

 

He popped open the microwave and shoved the plate into it. Beep went the button.

 

“He’s supposed to go back next week, you know.”

 

“Yeah, I know.”

 

His mother spun her arms over themselves.  “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

 

The whirring of the microwave gave way to another beep, and he took the food out.  Without bothering to move more than to get a fork, he started eating.  “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

 

She sighed.  “You’ve seen him.  He can barely get from the chair to the kitchen. How’s he supposed to run a whole operation?”

 

It was a good question, and in it he heard the unspoken plea.  “Well, if he needs more time, I could talk to Mr. Teracini.  We could probably handle it a while longer.”

 

This time she shook her head, and Gabriel was starting comprehend what she wasn’t saying.

 

“He’s just so weak, Gabriel.  Not like he used to be.”  She paused, soft dreaming touched her voice. “No, not like he used to be.”  The dream snapped, and she looked up. “He’ll be 71 next month, you know.  71.”

 

Gabe tried to push the thoughts of his parents’ age away as much as possible.  He was their surprise child, their one and only, conceived long after they had stopped trying because it was declared hopeless by every doctor they’d gone to.  That’s why they’d named him Gabriel because Gabriel was the angel who had brought the good news of a child not only to Mary but to Elizabeth as well.

 

It was a story he had memorized.  One that had always made him feel special, hand-picked, hand-sent.  Yet now the lonely years ahead stared him in the face.  At 24, he was hardly more than a teenager.  The thought of losing one or both of his parents frightened him in ways that few things did, and he spent a good deal of energy trying not to think about it.

 

But there were times, like this one, that denial was not an option.

 

“Well, what’s the money situation if he does quit?” Somehow that question catapulted him into full-fledged adulthood.

 

Her faded green eyes, so much like his until age and wear had taken their toll, fell closed.  “It’s not great.  We’ve got some social security we can count on, but it’s not much.  Of course the house is ours, but… well…”  She shrugged. “I guess we’re lucky to have made it this long, but how are we going to live now? What will we do if he cannot work?”  The gray covered head shook slowly. “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”

 

Careful not to make noise, Gabe set his plate on the stove, stepped to her, and put his arms around her.  “It’s okay, Mom.  We’ll figure something out.”

 

Chapter 2

 

“I told you this was a good idea.”

 

It was barely 10:30, and already Holly was annoyed and frustrated.  She’d spent most of the night either crying or trying not to, neither of which did much more than give her splitting headache.  So it was with even less enthusiasm that she had agreed to this outing—shopping with her mother.  Joy of joys.

 

“Oh, this is perfect for you.” Her mother held up a black dress that hung off the hanger from two thin straps.

 

Concern traced over Holly. “I don’t…”

 

“Take it.”

 

The dress landed in her hands.

 

“At least try it on.  It doesn’t hurt to try it on.”  She scooted hangers this way and that. “Oh, here’s another one.”

 

For something to do, Holly looked down at the price tag and stopped cold. “Mom! We can’t afford something like this!”  She glanced around the store lest someone see them and think they were considering shoplifting the items. They certainly couldn’t pay for them.

 

Her mother waved her off. “Don’t be silly.  We’re not paying for it.”

 

Utter fear dropped over her, and she looked around for the arrival of the police. “Mom!”

 

“Oh, Holly, don’t be such a drama queen.” Her mother picked up another dress, surveyed it, and put it back. “I have Luke’s credit card.  Here.  Here’s another one.”

 

“But…”

 

“Start with those.  I’ll bring you some more if I find something.”

 

“But, Mom…”

 

“But what?”  The ice in her mother’s determined eyes froze her protests. “For Pete’s sake. Stop acting like a child.  Get in there and try those on.  We have a lot of other stores to get to, and I want to be home at a decent hour.”

 

“May I help you, Ma’am?” A model thin woman walked up.  “Could I get you a dressing room for those?”

 

“Yes, please,” her mother replied, “and I’d like a Penigree, strawberry, on ice with a straw.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

There was truly no end to this nightmare.

***

“Mr. Teracini, Sir.”  Gabriel knocked on the boss’s door.  He’d already done as much of the not-terribly dirty tasks he could do, and before he jumped into the others, this one had to be taken care of.

 

Mr. Teracini waved him in even though he was on the phone.  “Yes, Thursday.  Okay.  Thank you.”  He hung up.  “Gabriel, it’s nice to see you.  How’s your father?”

 

His hands didn’t know what to do, and he fought to keep them settled in front of him. “Well, Sir, that’s what I came to speak with you about.”

 

“Please, have a seat.”

 

He didn’t want to for fear of getting dirt on something someone would have to clean; however, he also didn’t want to be rude.  So he sat.  He swallowed the lump lodged in his throat and plunged forward.  “My father… Well, my mother is concerned. It seems Dad isn’t quite back to his old self quite yet.”

 

“I see.”

 

“I’m… I’m not a doctor, but the heart attack really knocked the blocks out from under him.”  Gabe shuttered at the cliché as well as the thought.  “I just… We’re not sure that he’s, you know, ready to come back full time yet.  But…”  He couldn’t continue.  Asking seemed as perilous as not asking. “Well, to be honest they are pretty tight for money right now, and I was wondering if maybe Dad could come back.  You know, on a part time basis or something.”

 

“Are you still planning to go back to school in the fall?”

 

The question smacked him hard.  “Well, I was, but… Let’s just say I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

 

Mr. Teracini nodded, considering.  “What does your father have to say about this?”

 

Gabriel’s gaze fell to his hands. “I haven’t really told him yet.  I told my mom I would talk to you first.”  He lifted his gaze, and pride alone kept it up.  “I know it would be easier on you to hire someone else—maybe for both our jobs, but I also know that my father has served on this grounds crew for almost 50 years, and if there’s any way…”

 

A moment and Mr. Teracini nodded. “As long as your father needs a job, he has one on the Teracini Winery as do you.”

 

The news could hardly have been better.  “Thank you, Sir.” He offered his hand hoping it wasn’t too dirty.  “Really.  This will be very comforting to them, I’m sure.”

 

Mr. Teracini smiled. “You’re quite welcome.”

 

In three minutes Gabriel was out of the house and headed to the work house.  It was time to make sure Mr. Teracini didn’t regret his decision.

***

How they had collected so many bags in the span of five hours Holly had no idea.  It was incredible how her mother could spend money that wasn’t even theirs. Water through a sieve came to mind.

 

“I’ll have Yuri bring the bags up to your room,” her mother said as the limo pulled up to the front of the house.  “So you don’t have to trouble yourself with them.”

 

Trouble yourself?  It was like her mother had taken lessons at an English finishing school since their last meeting.  “Fine.”

 

“Oh, and tonight, wear that powder blue dress for dinner.  Luke is sure to be impressed with it.”

 

The weights dropped atop her.  “Fine.”

***

Eating was the last thing Holly wanted to do.  She had never put this much makeup on for a date much less for dinner, and yet she did want her mother to be proud of her—or at least not disappointed.  True, that was asking a lot, but living in la-la land, a girl could always dream.

 

When the knock came, she stood from the vanity.  The strap heels wobbled under her feet.  Her only thought was she hoped she didn’t face plant down the stairs.  That would really impress her mother.  Thankfully she made it to the dining room in one piece.  Her mother looked up, and for one moment she looked almost happy her daughter was on the planet.

 

Luke followed her gaze and smiled as he stood. “Holly, you look lovely this evening.”

 

It was a compliment, and she felt it squirm through her.  She hated being noticed.  “Thank you.”  She took her chair as Luke took his.  At that moment she caught her mother’s gaze.  Gesturing slightly, her mother motioned her up straight.  Holly complied although her mother looked less than pleased with the effort.  It was going to be a long meal.

***

“He said Dad can come back on part time, and that we’ll work around it,” Gabriel said to his mother as he stood in the kitchen, eating his supper.

 

“Work around what?” The booming voice at the door opposite the room jerked his attention to it.

 

He glanced at his mother for help but realized he was on his own. His father, once a towering giant of a man, was still an imposing spirit although his body wasn’t as intimidating as it had once been.  Whether it was he had shrunk or Gabriel had grown, Gabe couldn’t tell.  Slowly Gabriel set the plate down and cleared his throat.

 

“I went and talked with Mr. Teracini today.  He wants you to come back part time when you’re ready.”

 

“Part time?  Why part time?  I was planning to go back on Monday.”

 

The deep end was getting deeper. Gabe chanced going out a little farther. “Yeah, I know, Dad, but with the summer coming and your condition…”

 

“My condition? I’m not dead.”

 

“Yes. And we’d like to keep it that way, Carlos,” his mother said quietly.  Pleading entered her voice. “Please, listen to Gabe.  He’s a smart boy.  He only wants what’s best for you.”

 

The massive hands, leathered from years of working under the sun, wound under his arms. “Best for me?  Like what—being put out to pasture?”

 

Gabe let out a frustrated sigh. “No, Dad.  Come on.  I just think you need to slow down a little, spend some time with Mom.”

 

“Your mother is plenty capable of seeing after herself.”

 

Honestly, Gabe wasn’t so sure about that either, but he chose not to say it.  “Okay.  Then how about this?  You come back part time for a couple weeks, see how it goes.  If you want to go back to full time then, I’m sure we could arrange that.”

 

“Hrumph.”  Frustration poured from the sound.  “I’ll be there at 6:30 Monday morning, just like always, and don’t you go doing me no more favors.  You hear me?”

 

Gabe deflated under the helpless stare of his mother. “Yes, Sir.”  What more could he say?

***

Holly was up with the sun.  Today was the day to start making her own way in the world.  Exactly how she was planning to do that with no transportation was less than clear, however, so the first hurdle was to secure a car.  It didn’t have to be fancy.  If it ran, that would be enough for her.

 

She went downstairs and searched the house until she found her mother on the couch in the sitting room.  “Mom, can we talk?”

 

“Oh, Holly.  Wonderful. I was just thinking about you.”  She held out her hands for her daughter, a gesture Holly knew meant they were still in fantasy land.

 

Carefully she sat down, bringing her courage with her.  Searching for a starting point, she wound a piece of blonde hair over her ear.

 

“Now, we haven’t had a chance for a real mother-daughter talk yet, have we?” Her mother put her arm around Holly.  This was getting worse. “So, do you have any prospects on the horizon? Someone I don’t know about?  Someone you haven’t told your mother about?  I’m sure the boys in Boston are just lined up at your door.”

 

“Yeah.” Sarcasm dripped from the statement, but it was clear her mother never heard it.  “Lined up.”

 

“So, are there any really good ones?  Doctors?  Lawyers?  Engineers?”

 

Holly squirmed.  “Not really, Mom.”  A string of anything-but-doctors, lawyers, and engineers floated through her mind.  There was the jerk who’d tried to kill her.  The one who’d left bruises on her arms that she had to wear sweaters for a month to cover up lest Rebecca see.  And then there were the really scary ones that she tried never to think of again.  “Listen, Mom, I was thinking I need to get a job this summer, you know to pay the bills…”

 

“A job?” Her mother sat up in absolute horror as if that was the worst suggestion she had ever heard.  “What on earth do you need a job for?”  She smoothed the arm of the soft gray sweater Holly wore.  “You are sitting in the lap of luxury.  Who in their right mind would be thinking about a job?”

 

“But, Mom…”  The argument of making her own way, opening up options, choosing her own path—all those things she and Rebecca had stayed up for hours discussing were whisked away with a toss of her mother’s hand.

 

Suddenly her mother stopped as if struck numb by an idea.  “Wait a minute.  Wait a minute.”  She shook her finger at her daughter.  “I think I have just the thing.  Sit right there.”

 

Holly was in too much turmoil to question it.

 

“Luke,” her mother called into a room just down the hallway, “could you come in here a minute please?”  When she returned, a cat’s meow couldn’t have been smiling any wider.  “This is it.  Shh. Shh.”

 

There was no telling what her mother was up to, but already, she didn’t like it.

 

Luke strode into the room, his presence commanding attention from all those present.  “Is something the matter?”

 

“No, Luke.”  Her mother wrapped herself next to him.  “I just had the most wonderful idea.”  The wide eyes—they were the downfall of every man Linda Keller had ever laid them on.  “Didn’t you say your nephew was in San Francisco this summer on an internship?”

 

Immediately Holly’s oh-no alert system screamed to life.

 

“Yes, Jean Paul is working at the ambassador’s office, why?”

 

Jean Paul—with an Italian accent and all.  This could not get any worse.

 

“Well,” her mother said, looking at Holly leadingly.  “Jean Paul is about Holly’s age, right? And from what you’ve told me he’s unattached.”

 

“Ah.”  Luke lifted his chin in understanding and glanced at Holly.  “You are quite the matchmaker, my dear.”

 

“I just want Holly to be as happy as we are.”  She reached up and kissed him, a move that sent Holly looking for a safe, non-disgusting place to put her gaze.

 

“Well, then, I will call Jean Paul this evening, and see what we can set up.”

 

“Oh, thank you, Luke.”  Again with the kissy-face.  And then he strode out.  Her mother practically hopped in the air.  Clapping her hands without really making any noise, she bounced to the couch.  “Isn’t it wonderful, Darling?”

 

The hug was crushing.  “Yeah.  Marvelous.”

***

A soft mist had begun to fall several hours before.  Undeterred, Gabriel reached into the backyard pond for the filter and cleaned the leaves from it.  Backyard.  Right.  It was the third backyard of the estate.  The one that wasn’t the pool or the gazebo.  He checked the pump, cleaned the top filter, and replaced one of the blue bulbs in the water.  Timothy and Darius, the other two on the ground’s crew, had left two hours before, but that was the difference between them and him.

 

They left when the clock said to.  Gabriel left only when the sun would no longer cooperate.  Granted tonight that might be earlier than usual what with the low-hanging gray clouds, but he had three more things on his list before he would even think about clocking out.  Only then would he call it a night.

***

“Tell her, Luke.  Tell her what you told me about Jean Paul.”  Her mother indicated whatever it was with her fork.

 

“Oh.” Luke chewed the roast duck thoughtfully.  “Well, he’s in graduate school at UCLA, working on a masters in Political Science.  He’s working at Ambassador O’Quinn’s office this summer as an intern.  I believe he is up for a position at the London Embassy when he gets out, but that’s just one of his many options.” He took a drink of dark red wine.

 

The food tasted like cardboard.  London?  Why would she want to live in London?  And worse what would that do to her own schooling?

 

“He comes from a very good family in Italy.  His father is a fifth generation count, which of course, makes Jean Paul a count as well.”

 

Her mother was about to grin out of her face.  “Did you hear that, Holly?  A real live count.”

 

Doors to futures she would never see slammed closed inside her, and she jumped involuntarily with each one. They hurt to hear.

 

“I rang his apartment this afternoon and left a message.  He should call me back this evening.”

 

“I’m thinking Friday would be good. Don’t you think?” her mother asked.

 

Friday.  That meant in less than 48 hours she would be out trying to impress a count who hailed from half a world away, so she could spend her life smoozing to make him happy enough not to throw her out.  Yeah, it was an exciting thought. The lump in her gut grew.

 

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.  You would be perfect for Jean Paul.” Luke lifted his fork to her.  “He is partial to blondes, especially the lovely kind.”

 

It was supposed to be a compliment, but it felt like a rock to the gut both for the reason he meant it and for the way he was looking at her.  Holly nodded, trying to lift her head but failing.  She knew she should thank him—kind of like a slave thanking the master for a flogging.  However, she just couldn’t get the words out.

 

“Maybe he can take you to some fancy restaurant in San Francisco.  Like the Garrison.  Oh, Luke.  Remember our first date there?”  The swoon could have been an act or maybe not.  It was impossible to tell.  “That was a night I’ll definitely remember.”

 

The implication was too much for Holly.  She dropped her fork to her plate with a clatter and pushed the chair back.  The sudden noise and movement startled her mother.

 

“Is something wrong, Darling?”

 

“Hmm.  Um, no.” Holly stood, clutching her hands together. Struggling to hold it together, she forced one hand to push her hair over her ear. “What would be wrong?”  Beating back the tears, she got a tiny smile on her face.  “I’m just a little tired from today.  I think I’m going to…”  She pointed to the door, stepped that direction, and then fled through it.  Her breath stung her lungs which suddenly felt like clenched fists.  Blinded by the tears, she raced up the stairs and into her room.

 

When the door closed, quiet attacked her.  She fought to get air, but it was choking out the top of her in gasps. Who was she anymore?  And how had she gotten here?  Her life wasn’t hers any more nor were her choices.  No, if she stayed, they would suffocate her with their plans, their schemes, their map for her life.  It had been this way forever, and now it was clear it always would.  The only thing that made any sense at all was to leave, to get away.

 

Resolve slipped through the tears, and she crossed over to the small balcony doors.  Slipping them open, she stepped out.  There was a trellis.  Not a great option, but in this moment there were not great options.

 

Had she thought about the chill, she would have shivered, but she didn’t think about that or anything else.  Down.  It was her only thought.  She swung one leg over the hard concrete railing and onto the trellis.  A tiny squeal jumped from her as suspended, she swayed two stories above the ground. Don’t think. Just go. One foot.  Two.  Down.  Inexorably down. If she snagged her shoe, it would all be over.  The vine clung in snaking paths up the criss-crossed diamond trellis slowing her progress but only a little.

 

Five feet from the ground, she felt the insanity of this undertaking crowd over her, but by the time she reached the ground, fleeing once again took over.  Leaving the house and her impossible life behind, she ran, stumbling through the darkness.  That it was raining now seeped through her consciousness, but she ran on undeterred.  There was no destination.  Not one she could name anyway.

 

Jean Paul.  No choices.  Her future narrowed to only one that she hadn’t even known existed.  In some small recess of her mind, sense whispered that if she didn’t like him, she didn’t have to stay, but the rest of her knew better.  The second her mother heard the word “count,” all other options ceased to exist.  She would be given to him, and it didn’t really matter who he was or what he was like.

 

The soft ground gave under her feet pulling at her shoes and slowing her headlong rush into the nothingness.  Frustrated that even they prevented her escape, she kicked them off, wrapped her arms around herself, and stumbled forward.  Tears and raindrops slid down her face—hot and cold mixing in indistinct patterns, but she hardly felt them.  They were outside the thoughts twining through her.

 

She ran and ran, ran until her legs were screaming for her to stop.  Her heart thumped hard in her chest. Then stopping with a jerk, she fought to stay on her feet as her legs swayed dangerously.  When she looked back in the direction she had come, sheets of gray rain mixed with the darkness shielding even the outline of the house from her.

 

Pain ripped through her.  Pain at being utterly and completely alone in the world. Pain at being sold out by her own mother… again.  Thoughts of those long ago nights, trapped and terrified, ripped to the surface, and she gasped at their fury.  No!  She would not give into them.  She would not let them have the power again.  She would not.

 

Her gaze traced up to the sky as icy fingers of rain snaked down her hair and neck.  For a moment she let the pain have its way with her. Then, her gaze dropped and a few hundred feet in front of her, she caught the hazy outline of a very tall structure.  Her legs felt like runny Jell-o, but she forced them forward, slogging through the mud and chillingly cold rain.  The closer she got, the taller the building got until it towered above her.  The door was probably locked tight, but just the same she reached for it.

 

Heavy, but it opened.  A few inches, a few more, and she slipped inside—a shadow melding with the shadows.  The darkness inside enveloped her in its inky embrace, and unhinged from reality, she welcomed the ability to totally vanish from life.  For long moments she simply stood, leaning on the door, not really caring what came next.  But the demons that had dogged her every life step to that point knew, even here, the most painful images to bring up, the ones that would send knives of ache slashing through her battered soul.  Flashes of moments—long since gone, but never really forgotten bubbled up from unseen depths.

 

They caught her in a grip so cold, it was no match for the chill of the rain.  She shuddered at the thoughts and images, her will to continue fighting collapsing into them.  The chilly fingers so familiar and yet so horrifying snaked through her spirit.  Tired engulfed her with a vengeance, and her eyelids raised against it. She had to sit down before she fell.

 

Her bare feet scraped across the stone hard floor.  Cold, she was sure, but she couldn’t really feel it.  Feeling anything escaped from her consciousness.  She moved with no real destination, no real understanding even of where she was.  Blackness hovered in every space of everything around her. It was comforting in a strange way.  It felt almost as if she literally no longer existed to the outside world.

 

Hand outstretched, she walked forward until she found a wall of rough stone.  That and only that, and she let the pain and darkness pull her down.  The tears slid from her heart even as her body found the hard, cold floor.  Gasps of tear-laden hopelessness streamed from her.  There was nowhere to go from here.  No where. She couldn’t walk out.  She wouldn’t go back.  Here was the only place left. Crying in the dark.  Letting the pain spill from her onto the cobblestone floor.

 

Lying down, she let herself stop fighting.  Stop fighting the pain.  Stop fighting the grief, the trying and the failing, over and over again.  Loss upon loss. Never good enough to hold them.  But just good enough to attract their unwanted attention.  It was all she had come to expect from life.  All she had come to expect from herself.

 

“Why, God?” she whispered into the darkness, but even that was unfair.  She hadn’t spoken to Him in 22 years.  What made her think He wanted to hear from her now? Grief overtook her as her hold on even the thread of hope that God might still care slipped from her grasp.

 

And she cried.  Pressing her fist to her nose and shaking with each new wave of grief, she sobbed, for no other reason than she could do nothing else. The tears snatched  every shred of hope left, soaking each one.

 

Slowly, in small incremental moments, breathing and sanity returned.  At least it felt like sanity.  It was something. Something. A way out.  She let the idea take her for a moment, and for once, it held out the promise of peace.  Final peace.  Peace she had never really had. Her eyelids fell closed, and she pushed them open with great effort.  This finally was an answer.

 

She sat up, sniffling although the tears had all-but stopped.  In mere moments “if” was no longer the question.  The question now was “how.”  Options floated through her.  A gun would be the fastest and easiest except she had no idea where one was.  Pills would work too, but there was no way to get them even if she knew what might work.  What did that leave?  A car in a closed space? A fall from a really high place?

 

Lightning cracked above her, and through the tiny windows of the structure, she saw the outline of a staircase arcing above her.  There was no way to know if it was even safe.  Then she laughed at the thought.

 

A deep chill sliced through her, and she shivered at its intensity.  She had never been so cold in her entire life.

***

Going back was ridiculous.  Gabe had told himself that ten thousand times as he drove through the sheets coming down horizontally to the pickup.  A book was not worth this.  And yet, he hadn’t read in four days.  A new habit takes hold at seven days and is established by 21.  He knew that from every motivational book he’d ever read, and he’d read many of them.

 

The temptation to let it go just one more day clung to his spirit, but he wouldn’t give in to it.  Not now.  Not ever.  The vision of what he was meant to do in this life was too intense, too clear as was the opposite trail that led off into a life he had almost gotten by default.  Letting his life slide in that direction again was too sickening to think about.

 

At the carriage house, he killed the engine and then berated himself for that.  Stupid.  He would be right back.  But he’d already done it, so he left it off, reached for the door handle, and made a break for the huge, heavy wooden door beyond.  Unfamiliarity smacked him when his hand found the handle.  The door was open—not a lot, but it was.  There was no reason for that door to be open.  No one came out here anymore.

 

Shrugging the rain off his shoulders and the fear from his spirit, he ducked inside.  Dark as usual.  He reached over and pulled the little light, illuminating the stairs.  The single bulb blinked on, and he stood for a moment, looking, waiting, watching.  But nothing moved. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he started up the stairs.  Which book should he get? The one he was reading but was only marginally interested in or the new one he’d gotten from Marvin over the weekend? It was funny how even now at odd times he would receive a package from his former mentor and how those packages always had a way of turning his life at just the right moment.  It was a pattern Gabriel had learned to trust.

 

Then, seven steps up, he heard it, and his steps stopped instantly.  He turned to look back down the stairs.  Something wasn’t right.  It wasn’t a definite sound or even movement.  More a feeling.  His movements slid into slow motion.  Concern slipped into his spirit. “Is somebody here?”

 

The sound of his voice ricocheted off the rounded, stone walls around him.  His gaze darted side to side, back and forth, searching for the unseen.  The little light overhead swung, sending the shadows ducking and weaving through each other.  Foreboding slid through him. Something wasn’t right. Then he heard it, for real this time.  A small, soft intake of air.

 

His steps turned, and he headed back down the stairs, one at a time, slowly. Listening.  Senses taking in everything.  At the bottom, he let his hand stay on the railing one more moment.  He stopped again to listen.  It took a moment, but there it was again.  Soft, but definitely there.  “Who’s here?”

 

On the hard stone floor, he moved along the staircase toward the sound.  When he got to the arch of the stairs over his head, he stooped down and gazed into the shadows slicing the cobblestone under the stairs.  He squinted to see better.  Indistinct and shadowed, he saw it nonetheless.  A figure, huddling there, hiding, not moving.

 

Gabe’s mind raced with the possibilities.  A vagabond seeking shelter from the storm?  A criminal hiding out from the authorities?  Before he could get all the possibilities reasoned out, his eyes adjusted to the dim light.  What told him first what he was looking at—his head or his heart—he would never have been able to say for sure.  But in one giant sweep, he knew this was no vagabond.  It was a woman. Wet, crumpled, and terrified, with wide, terrified eyes looking right at him.

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

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A Light In the Darkness, Opening

Holly Jacobs can run from her mother’s past no longer.  She is unceremoniously summoned to her mother’s new fiance’s home in Napa Valley.  The place is wonderful, but Holly can’t enjoy it because she knows that just like all the others, it can’t last.  When her mother begins pushing Holly to make permanent plans with a young man Holly has no interest in, Holly takes off, never expecting to find a light in all of her darkness.

The final chapter of the Faith Series begins…

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Best of… Be, Do, Have

By:  Staci Stallings

This revelation hit me the other day while I was listening to a cassette on having financial balance in your life.  On the tape, the author talked about a goal setting seminar he went to.  The lesson he was revealing is that too often when we set goals, we are setting the “have” part of the equation, then “doing” the work of getting to the goal without ever making the effort to “be” anything.

If you’re paying attention, there’s a math lesson that translates to this message.  Any math person will tell you that there is a definite order to life.  A + B = C, and if you get it out of that order, even the simplest of ideas can get overwhelmingly confusing.  So this equation must begin with “be” not “do” or “have.”

For example, people set a goal of meeting the right person.  That is the “have” that they want, so they begin “doing” the things the world says make sense to get to that goal.  They go to bars, they go to church, they go to work, they go to parties, they go to school—all with the spoken or unspoken intention of acquiring what they do not have, a partner.  Years ago they called the females with this mindset, “Mrs. Majors.”

They were not in college to get a degree; they were in college to get a husband.
In today’s world some of these types—men and women—have the “have” and “do” parts down to a science.  One manifestation of this is the book, “The Rules.”  This book purports to explain exactly what you have to “do” to get the goal of “having” a mate.  The problem is that this is completely senseless when you understand the equation of “be-do-have.”

When you truly get this life lesson, it will have a profound impact on every aspect of your life.  No longer will you focus solely on the goal—now you will focus on who you must first become, and the attainment of the goals will follow.

I know, it sounds Pollyanna.  It sounds so simple.  But it’s the simple-sounding things that are often the most difficult to actually do.  I see this turmoil in teenagers a lot.  They think that their identity is created by who they are with, what they wear, what their outward appearance is.  The reality, however, is that identity is based on who you are.

That’s why you hear of 10- and 20-year high school reunions in which the popular kids are now struggling and some of the most unpopular kids are now the successful adults.  When you understand this equation, it makes perfect sense.  Think about it.  In high school, the “popular” kids already “have.”  They have the status, the good looks, the admiration of others.  Why work for something you already have?

The unpopular kids on the other hand are forced to find their true identity not in the outer world, but in the inner world.  So they work on themselves rather than on what the outside world says is important.  Thus, 10 or 20 years down the road, they who have been forced to “be” are now “doing” and “having” in much greater proportion than those who “had” everything.

To be sure, this is a vast generalization.  There are popular kids who take time out to work on themselves and “become,” and there are unpopular kids who want to “have” so badly that they contort who they are trying to fit in. The exceptions are there, but so is the rule.

You have to be before you can do, and you have to do before you can have.  If you don’t, nothing you ever get will be enough.  And if you do, whatever you have will be plenty.  With this in mind, find some time today to fit a little “being” time into your “to-do” list.  It may just turn out to be the best time investment you could ever make.

Copyright, Staci Stallings 2002

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Best of… There’s Gotta Be An Easier Way

By:  Staci Stallings

Have you ever had a dream that was so close you could nearly reach out and touch it?  And yet every time you put your hand out, it turns out to be a mirage.  You work and work.  You put your all into making the dream come to fruition, but when you get to the place where you think you want to be, all you find is more work to do.

I see it with the two college students who work for me and are always hanging out at my house.  It seems like they work and work, and yet graduation feels no closer.  I see it in my carpenter husband.  He stresses out when a job is finishing up because “what are we going to do next?”  But he also stresses out when the job is going because “how are we going to get this all done?”

Now I see it in my own life.  I set up meetings to talk with people about my books.  The meetings always go well-some even go really well. But then, the sales don’t come through like I thought they would (read: hoped they would).  It’s not that God’s not on my side.  I know for a fact He is because I’ve seen His hand at work in too many areas of my life to doubt it.  Yet I’m still left wondering, why does it have to be this hard?

In thinking about this phenomenon, I suddenly realized that this very feeling is encapsulated in the scene at Gethsemane.  Christ is kneeling, praying, and He says, “Father, if it’s possible, let this cup pass Me by…”  What He’s really saying is, “God, listen, please, there’s got to be an easier way.”  He knows what is coming.  He knows to the bottom of His soul this is not going to be fun.  In fact, I think He’s not even totally sure He can pull it off.

Think about it.  He’s been asked, nae, sent, to save the whole world.  That’s not exactly a miniscule assignment.  On top of that, He knows that in order to accomplish this, He will have to suffer and die-on a cross, beaten bloody, and humiliated.  That’s not exactly the most comforting thought in the world.

And so, He had to ask God one more time if this plan was really necessary.  Apparently the answer was, “Yes, it’s necessary.”  In my mind I can see Jesus say, “Well, okay then.”  He stands up and walks forward into His future.

Here’s the thing though, while we’re in “hard,” it’s tempting to give up.  It’s tempting to say, “This isn’t worth it” and walk away from God’s ultimate dream for us.  But if we do… if we walk away because it’s too hard… we will miss the glorious resurrection day.  We will miss that day on which God takes our dream, molds it into His vision and releases it to the world in a burst of golden light.

Sure, it could be easier, but then the triumph of our Easter Sunday wouldn’t be met with such rejoicing.  And who knows, if we didn’t go through our Good Friday, Easter might never come at all.

Copyright Staci Stallings 2003

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Best of… Burning the Boats

By:  Staci Stallings

I have the feeling that this lesson could change my life in many, many ways. It’s something I just came across yesterday.  By today I had forgotten it until I turned on my copy of Andy Andrews’ excellent DVD “The Seven Decisions.”  If you have a chance, get this DVD.  It is worth every penny.

The lesson we are tuning ourselves to today is that of Cortez, the great conqueror. Now as Mr. Andrews tells it, Cortez took 11 boats, nearly 500 men, weapons, and a deep desire to conquer the greatest treasure on earth.  Although Cortez had hand-selected these men to come with him on his journey, part way across he realized many were your standard-fare naysayers.

They began saying to Cortez and each other, “We never should have come. This is crazy.  No one has been able to take the treasure for 600 years. What makes us think we’ll do any better?”

So by the time they arrived for the conquering part of the journey, Cortez pretty much knew he had a problem.  These men were not 100% committed to this task.  In fact, many of them would in all likelihood duck, cover, and run at the first sign of real trouble. Therefore, upon arrival at their landing spot, Cortez set up a series of talks about how great the treasure really was, how proud their families would be of them if they succeeded, how their names would be recorded in history.

When the last speaker had spoken and it was time to put their vision into action, Cortez took center stage.  He motioned for them all to come forward to hear what he had to say, and they did.  This was it.  It was time.  Cortez looked at them and said three simple words.  “Burn the boats.”

Burn the boats?  What?  He must be crazy!  He must be out of his mind!  What if things don’t go well?  What if we have to get out of here in a hurry?

But Cortez’s orders were carried out, and the boats were burned.

Now think about how this applies in your life.  Have you ever determined, “That’s it.  We’ve got to do something about this debt we’re in.”  So you work on it—for about two days—until it gets hard, or you get bored, or maybe something comes up that you really just have to have.  And you get back on the boat and head back where you came from.

Practically speaking, I’m trying to find ways to burn my boats.  Losing weight is a goal of mine.  It’s a goal, and although in the past I have in fact burned the boats in relation to my weight, and subsequently attained the weight I wanted to be, this time I can’t find the absolute commitment that it takes.  Not just when I can, but every time.  Every time I eat something or need to exercise.  EVERY TIME.

In short I need to find a way to burn the boats.  It has to be do it or die.  Do it.  Find a way. Make a way.  But do it.  I’m going to.  Those boats need burned because the truth is the treasure of health IS worth it.  The question is:  How committed am I?

And so you don’t think I’ve forgotten:  How committed are you to conquering to attain your treasure?  Burn your boats.  Do it or forget it.  As Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”  I think he must’ve been with Cortez, or maybe all the truly wise beings know this maxim.

I know it now, the question is:  Will I use it?

Burn the boats.

 

Copyright Staci Stallings 2006

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A Little Piece of Heaven, Ch. 27, 28, Epilogue

Chapter 27

Taylor had the floor at Wednesday Bible Study. He was telling them about Solomon’s son, Rehoboam and the shields of brass. Emily sat between Rebecca and Jeremy fighting to follow the story. Unfortunately with Jeremy’s knee so close it was practically touching hers that was proving to be nearly impossible.

 

“So the enemy came and swiped the shields of gold from the temple,” Taylor said.  “And Rehoboam knew the people would be furious if he told them the truth—that the gold shields were gone.  They would want to go get them back, plus he’d have to own up to losing them in the first place.  So like a coward, he commissioned new shields to be made. Only he didn’t have the means to make new ones of gold, so he had them make them out of brass.”

 

“Wait. How much did you say the ones of gold were worth?” Kira asked.

 

“It was 300 shields of pure gold. You do the math.” Taylor laid the story out so perfectly, it was as if he was directing it right in front of him. “But now all they had were these brass shields—worthless really, but they had to keep up the appearance of them being gold so no one would find out.  That meant they had to shine and polish them all the time because brass tarnishes, and every time they held them up, they knew them to be brass. But they pretended they were real gold so no one would guess.”

 

“But more than that,” Jeremy said right next to her in a voice she hardly recognized, “that Reaboum guy knew it.  He knew it was a fake.  He knew it wasn’t real the whole time.”

 

Taylor nodded. “But he kept doing it because…”

 

“If he didn’t, everyone would know he was a fraud too.  It was empty, and he knew it, but he didn’t want anyone else to know it.”

 

For the life of her, Emily wished they were alone so she could ask about the look of shocked understanding on his face.

 

“It’s like that hollow tree Emily talked about that one night,” Kira said. Emily tried to remember what she had said.  “You know, the world builds you up so it can take a whack at you?  It does it over and over.  Build up and whack. Build up and whack.  If you’re empty on the inside, even if you look really good on the outside, when the whack comes, it shatters you.”

 

“But if you’re filled with the Holy Spirit,” Becca said.

 

“Yeah, if He’s filling you,” Kira said, sounding ever more excited, “when the world takes a whack at you, it’s like a golfer hitting a tree with his club.  The club and the golfer absorb the whack, but the tree never moves because it’s solid.  When you have Him in you, filling you, filling your whole life, the world’s whacks don’t shatter you. The more you know that, the more confidence you have to step out in faith even when the world threatens to take you out because you know the world can’t really do anything to you at all.”

 

“But if someone’s empty, if the gold is gone, and you know it’s gone,” Jeremy asked slowly, “What happens then?  Is it gone forever?  Are you just stuck with faking it with the brass, or can you get the gold back?”

 

It was a moment before anyone spoke.

 

“Well, speaking as someone who settled for a lot of brass in his life before I even knew there was gold, I’d say you can definitely get the gold back,” Eric said. His voice was solid although the wonder shone through.

 

Jeremy looked at him with desperate intensity. “How? How do you get it back?”

 

The smile was in Eric’s eyes long before it was on his lips. “By surrounding yourself with people who have the gold, who’ve kept it, who know the difference between brass and gold, and who won’t settle for anything less than the gold.”

 

“Like here,” Rebecca said softly. “That’s what I found here—with you all.” Emotion swamped her voice. “I always knew something was missing, even when I couldn’t have told you what or why. That’s why I quit going to church when I got here to school.  It all felt so empty, like everyone was trying to convince everyone else they had it all figured out when it was clear they didn’t.  At least I didn’t, and I couldn’t put on the show they could.  It was empty. I was empty.” She shook her head as tears came to the surface.

 

The emotion in Rebecca’s voice slid into Emily’s spirit. Gently Emily reached over to her friend and ran her hand over Rebecca’s shoulder. Rebecca looked at her, eyes shimmering, and she smiled.

 

Rebecca took a long breath and shook her head as her gaze fell to the floor. “I was so empty, and I just thank God that He led me here so I could feel finally solid again.  I’m full now. Full of Him.  Full of love and peace… and hope.”

 

The sweet, soft face crumpled. Emily pulled her friend to her for a moment. Then Rebecca sat back up and looked at Emily. Emily nodded her complete understanding. As hard as every moment had been to get them all here, it was worth it to see the look of true peace on Rebecca’s face.

 

“Hope,” Jeremy said from the other side of her, and Emily’s attention snapped to him. He let out a breath and sniffed once. “Boy, that’d be a change.”

 

She wanted to reach out to him, but their relationship was so new and felt so fragile, she didn’t have the courage to put it on display for the others. Instead, she smiled at him, hoping he would know her heart even in her silence. His return smile told her that in fact he did.

 

“It’s getting out of the boat,” Taylor said.  “Just trusting enough to stop holding on to the boat that’s getting beaten up by the waves.  It takes recognizing when you’re in that boat of ‘I can do this,’ ‘This is up to me,’ and trusting God enough to get out of that and let Him do it.  I know for me, hope didn’t come all at once. It took time and practice to stop relying on myself, but when I did it… Wow. It was like… nothing I’d ever experienced before.”

 

“Doesn’t God just totally blow your mind sometimes?” Kira asked. “I mean here we all are.  Different people. Different majors. Different religions even. And yet He…” She stopped for the wonder in her spirit. “He had a plan for every one of us. This whole time. He had a plan for us to all be sitting here together, talking like this, seeing what we have so that we can take it and be different, live different.”

 

The awe in her voice was no match for the amazement in Emily. How? How had He done so much with so very little of her willingness?  These people now knew Him in a different way. Why? Because she’d stepped out in faith that first night when she’d told Dena how frustrated she was at being told how wrong the other denominations were.  How much more could He do with all of her willingness?  It was more than she could get her mind around, and something told her it always would be when she let herself see Him for the silent, earth-shaking power He could wield in a life yielded to Him.

 

“You know,” she said so softly the others all but stopped moving to hear her, “I always thought I had to do these huge things to make a difference. Like I had to change the world or something for Him to want me in His Kingdom.” She let out a hard breath as wonder and awe filled her. “But I see now, He didn’t need me to do anything more than show up.”

 

Her gaze took in Taylor and Kira and Sam. “I didn’t even know you guys when this first started. In fact, I though Dena was crazy when she said we should invite other people.  But still it felt so right, and even when I tried to talk myself out of it, I couldn’t. Then you came, and it was so great I couldn’t believe it.”

 

The center of her heart heaved as she looked at Rebecca. “And then you showed up, and I kept thinking, ‘What can I possibly give her? How can I make her see how much God loves her?’  But when every time you were here and I just let Him talk through me, somehow you got it.  Not because of me but because of Him.” Her gaze fell to her ankles. “Then you started to bring other friends.”

 

When she looked up at Eric, overwhelming gratefulness for all the good things in her life filled her to overflowing. God was so generous and good.

 

Eric smiled at her and nodded.  There was a connection in his eyes she couldn’t quite believe.

 

She didn’t think she could keep going, but she had to. “And I just kept thinking, ‘God, why? What do I have to even give them? What if I say the wrong thing, or do something wrong?’” The smile ran through her whole body. “But He didn’t need me to say the right thing or to do the right thing. All He needed was for me to say, ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes, I’m here, do it through me.’”

 

Floods of emotion overtook her then as she thought about Jeremy.  It was all she could do to continue, but she knew she had to voice what was in her heart. “Then God brought someone really special into my life.” She didn’t look at him, she couldn’t. But she could feel him holding her with his gaze just the same. “And I prayed and I prayed that he would come to find God’s love for himself because I knew how much he was hurting. For a while it looked like it would never happen.”

 

Emily took a breath, pursed her lips to beat the tears back, and sniffed. But her glance at him yanked more tears of gratitude to the surface. “I guess miracles do happen.”

 

His arms were around her before she knew they were coming, and heedless of what anyone else would think, she let herself be enveloped by them. For a long moment she clung to him and let the tears wash out of her.  They weren’t tears of regret or guilt.  They were tears of such immense joy, her heart couldn’t hold them all.

 

A moment and then another, and their embrace broke. However, he didn’t let her go.  Instead he backed up just enough to be able to take her face in his hands. Her gaze locked with his only inches away as tears continued to stream down her cheeks. Gently he brushed them away.

 

“Thanks…” he said, clearly beating his own emotion back. Then a smile broke through. “For showing up.”

 

She nodded, and once again she was in his arms.  It was the best moment of her entire life.

***

The others had disappeared ever-so-politely, but Jeremy hung back.  It was going to kill him to leave tonight more than it ever had before. This was it.  She was the one he had never really let himself hope was actually out there.  And the whole time he had convinced himself she didn’t care or didn’t want to be with him, the truth was she had been praying for him.

 

He had a feeling she’d had no idea back then how much faith it would take to make her prayers come true.

 

“I’ll walk Becca home, and I’ll be back,” Eric said to Emily at the door.

 

From across the room Jeremy watched her nod and pull the back of her jersey down. He understood that gesture now in ways he’d only guessed at before. It yanked his desire to protect her out once more.  Quietly she closed the door and turned on the toe of her shoe. Innocent was the word that washed over him. Innocent and unbelievably gorgeous.

 

She bent down to throw a piece of paper in the garbage.  “Well, that was fun.”

 

But Jeremy had no interest in chit-chat or garbage.  He stepped over to her, took her hand, and led her to the brown chair.  Carefully he sat down and pulled her down onto his lap.  She laid her head on his shoulder and snuggled into him, and he loved how that felt.

 

“You’re amazing, you know that?” he asked.

 

“I didn’t do anything.  It was…”

 

“God,” he finished for her. “I know, but it was you who opened your heart to let Him work in your life.”  A breath of thankfulness traced through him. “And because of that, I’m now getting a glimpse of how much He loves me.”  Jeremy shook his head, but he couldn’t condemn himself, he was too in awe of the extent of God’s love to do that. “He must love me.” Gently he slid his finger under her chin so he could tilt her gaze up to his. “He gave me you.”

 

Their souls met at same the moment their lips did.  It was all he ever asked from life again.

***

Emily had been flying for three weeks.  To her way of thinking, life couldn’t get any better. However, two weeks into April the world took a whack at them again.  She strolled into the Student Union with the sunshine lighting her inside and out.

 

“Hello.” She slung her arm around Jeremy who sat across the table from Eric.

 

“Hey,” he said.  He was hunched over his plate, and he hardly looked up at her.

 

Concern crashed into her, and she glanced at Eric for some insights. However, he barely looked at her before his gaze went back to his friend.  Worry etched across his face.

 

Without bothering to get lunch, she sat down. “What’s wrong?”

 

Rebecca stood behind Eric, waiting for the news.

 

Jeremy glanced up. “Dad called.”

 

Emily fought to hold it together for whatever he was going to tell her. “And?”

 

A moment and then Jeremy sighed. “And he’s coming into town on business Monday. He wants to take us out to eat.”

 

Irrational relief flooded through Emily. “Oh, is that all? Good grief, you had me worried.”

***

Worried. Yeah, there was a good word for it.  Jeremy hunched further over his sandwich as Emily stood, planted a kiss on his cheek, and went to get her own lunch.  “I’ll be back.”

 

He looked across the table at Eric. “I’m sunk.”

 

Chapter 28

 

Although Emily tried to push the apprehension about meeting Jeremy’s dad away, the truth was it had stomped through her stomach in waves of dread ever since he’d said the words. However, she’d managed to hide it even from herself for the better part of three days, and it worked until she stood next to Jeremy at Mass Sunday morning.

 

They had been going every Sunday since they’d been back from Colorado, and honestly, Emily loved the feeling of standing before God with Jeremy’s hand in hers. It always made her feel safe and protected from every angle.  Today, however, there was a sadness and a fear clinging to Jeremy that could only be attributed to the coming meeting the following night.

 

“Holy Spirit,” Emily prayed silently, “please show me how to help him.”

 

When the service ended, the rest of the congregation started out. But Emily hesitated for a second then she leaned to him. “You want to stay and pray about tomorrow night?”

 

There was helplessness deep into the recesses of his soft brown eyes. Wordlessly, he nodded.

 

She dropped to her knees and waited for him to follow her.  He wasn’t in as much practice as she, and it took more than a moment for him to get there.  When he was, she reached over and twined her hands in his, smiled at him once before bowing her head. She felt his head shadow hers down. “Dear Father, we come to You today asking for your guidance and protection.  You know the concerns on our hearts. You know how much we want to follow Your direction.  We ask You to make the way clear for us.  Please put a hedge of Your protection around Jeremy so that he may be strong in You and not bow to the pressures of the world.  We ask You to be with his father.  Let there be peace, and hope, and joy.  This we ask in Your Name. Amen.”

 

Jeremy more breathed his amen.  Softly he laughed. “Joy? That’s asking a lot.”

 

“Don’t worry.” She tilted her head teasingly. “God’s up to the challenge.”

***

Having a wreck was a real possibility.  It wasn’t that his driving was bad. It was that Jeremy was shaking so badly, he was in danger of having a heart attack.

 

“It’s going to be okay,” Emily said from the passenger’s seat, but he could tell she was coaching herself as much as him.  “Holy Spirit, be with us tonight.” She sat as if listening. “It’s going to be okay.  It is.”

 

He wished he could be so optimistic. They pulled up to the restaurant. All Jeremy wanted to do was turn the car around and run.  Drive.  For ever and ever, and never come back.  If they could just do that, maybe life with her could go on like it had been—peaceful, happy.  However, as he stepped out to let the valet take the car, fear clutched him in a ferocious grip. Jeremy reached for her hand and turned to climb the six gray steps to the door. It was the longest climb of his life.

 

Once inside, she wrapped her other arm around his, seeming to melt into him.  “Dear Lord, please,” he breathed, “I’m asking here…”

 

“Well, look who bothered to finally show up.”  From the side waiting area, his father stood and ambled toward them.  Medium height with an arrogance that belied the easy gate, his father smiled a smile that held a darkness just behind it. The near-black hair and perfectly oval glasses brought waves of awe and fear washing over Jeremy.  It was a learned awe. One he had meticulously honed for nearly 25 years. He hoped it wouldn’t let him down now.

 

“Dad.”  Jeremy stepped toward his father and extended his hand. “Your meeting got out early?”

 

“Oh, you know, they always drag me out here for nothing.” His father shook his hand, and for the first time ever, Jeremy saw the fight for superiority flash through the dark eyes.  Whatever business he was on was always beneath him although it was always more important than anything else he had to do—like being with his family. 300 shiny brass shield flashed through his mind.

 

Jeremy stepped back and felt Emily’s shadow.  As happiness spread through him, he put his arm around her waist and pulled her to his side.  “Dad, this is Emily.  The one I told you about.”

 

“Oh. Yes. Emily.”  The three words were each a sentence unto themselves, and as his father extended his hand, there was almost a visible examination of her. “Nice to meet you.”

 

Jeremy fought to shield her from the scrutiny and felt the stings of the arrows of condescension hit him full on.

 

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Stratton.” She shook his hand but retreated the moment he let go.

 

They shouldn’t have come. At that moment, Jeremy knew that but little else. He shouldn’t have asked her here. She deserved better.

 

His father’s gaze left Emily, never to return. “Well, they were going to seat us in the pauper section, but I pulled some strings and got a real table.” Arrogance oozed through the statement.

 

“Oh, good.” Jeremy was suddenly straddling the line between two worlds, and he wasn’t at all sure how to live in both at the same time.  He twined his fingers through hers and pulled her with him as he followed his father to the maître de’s podium.  Jeremy smiled an I’m-sorry smile at Emily.  Fear and helplessness wafted through her smile and eyes.  They shouldn’t have come. He clutched her hand tighter. “Oh, Holy Spirit, help.”

***

Emily knew there was no way out of this.  If she was with Jeremy, his dad was part of the package. However, it was abundantly clear what the elder Stratton thought of her. There was a dismissive quality to the few glances that chanced her way. It made her feel like gum on the bottom of a shoe—unwanted and awful. Thick cotton stuck in the top of her chest making breathing all but impossible.

 

She followed Jeremy through the restaurant to their table, which was situated on the rise, prominently displayed apparently for the benefit of all the other patrons.  Jeremy pulled out her chair, and she sat, wishing she could crawl under the table.

 

“Now, Jeremy,” Mr. Stratton said as they perused their menus, “Jack told me that you withdrew your application.  I assured him that was a mistake, and he’s willing to give you a second chance.”

 

Next to her Jeremy shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. “Oh, um. I didn’t tell you.  I’ve decided not to apply with Skyway after all.  I’m going to stay here in Boston through December.”

 

Anger.  She was sure she saw anger in the dark eyes, but just as quickly as it was there, it was gone.

 

“In Boston.” Mr. Stratton looked right at her before jerking his gaze to Jeremy. “Any particular reason for this sudden change of plans?”

 

“I… well…”  Jeremy closed his menu and glanced at her.

 

If she could’ve disappeared, she would have.  Her only defense was acting like she had no idea any of this pertained to her. She anchored her gaze to the menu, knowing she was leaving him to fend for himself but not at all sure she could help anyway.

 

“Emily doesn’t graduate until December, so I thought…”

 

“I thought.” Mr. Stratton snorted. “Yeah.  I’ll tell you what you thought.  You thought you could hang out here and mooch off of me for another six months or a year.  Well, let me tell you something…”

 

The waiter stepped up.  “Are you ready to order?” He took one look at Mr. Stratton and added, “Sir?”

 

Jeremy’s dad shifted gears so fast, Emily was left wallowing in the dust. “Yes, I’ll have the Duck a l’Orange with the petit, French cut beans on the side.  I’d also like a martini, dry. No olive. The Tea Smoked Salmon appetizers. I want a light vinaigrette on the salad.  No. No. Scratch that. Bring it on the side, not on the salad.  No onions, tomatoes, or croutons on the salad.  And please bring some brie with the bread and real butter not margarine.”

 

The order was longer than a biochemistry lecture.  Jeremy picked up the words and placed his order as well.  By the time it got to her, Emily had no appetite.

 

“I’ll just have a house salad please.” She handed the menu back, hoping no one would notice she was even there.

 

“A house salad, Ma’am?  Anything else?”

 

“No.  That’s fine.”

 

“Dressing?”

 

“Oh, uh. Ranch.” Why did she feel like she was failing?

 

“To drink?”

 

“Uh, I’ll just have water. Thank you.” She shrank back into her seat as the waiter nodded and walked away. She let her gaze follow him longingly. Doing dishes would’ve been far preferable to staying here.

 

Mr. Stratton leaned forward on the table as if the waiter had never been there. “Let me tell you something, young man.  I have pulled every string in that bank, called in every favor for you.  When you come to work for Skyway, you’re set for life.  You’ll be vice president before you’re thirty, and you’ll beat Marty Saxon, that two-faced, brainy little twit out of the running for junior executive of the year with one hand tied behind your back.”

 

Fear reached up into Emily’s gullet and clung there. It was as if the devil himself had sat down at their table and was spreading every enticement possible in front of Jeremy.  She glanced at him, knowing it was his decision, and knowing how impossible it would be for him to make the right one. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what he wanted, it was that his father had leverage she could only begin to imagine. Her gaze fell in anticipation of his answer that would surely wreck her heart.

 

“Well, well.  Lloyd Stratton as I live and breathe!” A tall man with snow white hair stepped up to the table and put out his hand.

 

Mr. Stratton stood and smiled as if the sun had just come up. Emily let out the air that was lodged at the top of her lungs and closed her eyes, willing calm over the panic.

 

“Randolph Montgomery!  Fancy meeting you here.”  The two of them slid into an easy conversation.  It lasted about ten seconds.  “Oh, Randolph. I’d like you to meet my son.  This is Jeremy.”

 

Jeremy stood, and her gaze followed him up.  He shook the older man’s hand.  “Nice to meet you, Sir.”

 

“Jeremy’s going to be working in our Denver office come June,” Mr. Stratton said, and there was pride in the statement.

 

“Like father, like son,” Randolph said. “I’m sure you’re as tenacious as your father.”

 

“Yeah,” Jeremy’s face fell although he was desperately clinging to the smile. “I’m sure I am.”

 

“So, you’re a lawyer then?” Randolph asked.

 

“No, Sir. I’m in marketing, but…”

 

Mr. Stratton waved his son off. “With a four point and two co-ops under his belt, he’ll be running the place before too long.”

 

“Well, I look forward to seeing you in Denver then.”

 

The two older men turned and continued the conversation which obviously left Jeremy standing for no reason. After a moment he quietly slid down into his seat and took a drink of water. He set the glass down, but his gaze never left it.  As Emily watched him, sad understanding slid through her.  Her dream, their dream would never really come true. Not with Lloyd Stratton the bulldozer on the case.

 

She wanted to reach for Jeremy’s hand, to let him know she was there for him, but before she had the chance, Mr. Stratton sat back down. Unconsciously, she snapped to attention and away from his son.

 

“That Randolph, he can bury the best of them under the defense table. He handled the class action a couple years ago. The other side never even had a chance.” Mr. Stratton looked around, and annoyance took over the joviality. “What is taking them so long anyway?  For crying out loud, how hard is it to throw Vodka in a glass?”

 

It was torture to keep herself from turning to look at the others in the restaurant.  By the level of his volume, she was sure they were all looking. She wanted to leave. More than anything she’d ever wanted in her life, she wanted to just stand up and walk out.  Carefully she lifted her water and took a sip.  It was something to do.

 

“So, I was going to tell you,” Mr. Stratton continued because no one else said anything, “I put your name on the wait list for that condo I told you about.”

 

“Uh, condo? What condo?” There was a hollow quality to Jeremy’s voice. It raked across Emily’s heartstrings. She forced her gaze to her lap.

 

“You know. That one in the complex I bought with Gus Nelson last year. I told you about that.  The one I had to go on margin with the hedge fund to make the deal work. You remember.”

 

“Oh, yeah.”

 

She couldn’t tell if Jeremy remembered or not.  But in all honesty, it really didn’t matter. This life they were discussing had nothing to do with her.  It was one she wouldn’t want even if Mr. Stratton included her, which he clearly wasn’t.

 

“Well, I talked to Gus the other day, and it’s all set.  You can move in sometime in July.”

 

That jerked Jeremy’s gaze up from his glass. “Move in?”

 

But the words were drowned out.

 

“Where is my drink anyway?  It can’t take that long.” Mr. Stratton looked around in slowly boiling rage.  He spied the waiter and lifted his hand. “Waiter! Waiter!”

 

The waiter ambled over to the table. “Sir?”

 

“Son, do you see a martini on this table?”

 

“No, Sir.”

 

“Yeah, I don’t either.  I ordered a martini and appetizers five minutes ago. Now I’m paying good money to be waited on, and I expect the service to be prompt, or I will take my business elsewhere.  Do we understand each other?”

 

“Uh, yes, Sir.  I’ll be right back with that drink, Sir.”

 

“Good. And don’t forget those appetizers either.” Mr. Stratton turned back to the table. “That’s why Skyway is so lucky to be getting you. Kids don’t care these days. They think the world owes them something, that they don’t have to work for it.  I’m just glad I raised you better than that.”

***

The barbs hit their intended targets with unparalleled accuracy.  Strangely Jeremy had never heard or felt them quite like he did now.  Before they had been driving forces in how he lived.  Today they felt like layer after layer of concrete, pressing down on him so that living any other way didn’t even seem to be an option.  And after seeing the other options out there, to be reduced to this one and only this one was soul-sapping.

 

“Here you go, Sir.” The waiter set the sparkling glass on the table, and Jeremy braced for the coming storm.

 

“Look at that glass,” Mr. Stratton commanded. “What is wrong with that glass?”

 

“Wrong, sir?”

 

The waiter had no chance.

 

“Did I, or did I not say ‘no olive’?”

 

“Oh, uh….”

 

“‘Oh, uh’ is not an answer.”

 

Jeremy couldn’t even look at Emily.  This was worse than he could ever have imagined it could be.

 

“I’d like to see your manager.”

 

“The manager, Sir?”

 

“What?  Are you deaf and dumb?”

 

“Oh, uh… no, Sir.  One moment.” The waiter disappeared.

 

“The incompetence.  The sheer incompetence of people these days. They can’t even follow the simplest of instructions.  I would fire someone on the spot for this level of ineptitude.”

 

Dressed in a fine suit, the manager stepped up with the waiter just behind him.  “Is there a problem, Sir?”

 

“I’ll say there’s a problem. We have been here 15 minutes.  We have no appetizers, no meal, and I ordered this without an olive.” He held the glass up as if it had a scorpion in it. “That looks like an olive to me.  Does it not?”

 

“I’m terribly sorry, Sir.  Thomas usually….”

 

“I don’t really care what Thomas usually is.  Today he’s a bungling idiot. Now get me a new drink, and our food had better be out here in two minutes, or this little discussion is going to make Thomas look like a trophy employee.”

 

“Yes, Sir. It will be fixed. Right away, Sir.”  The two of them scurried off.

 

Jeremy felt the stares of the other patrons slicing right through him. Worse, he felt the shrinking of her spirit away from his.  No wonder. Who would want to be latched to a loud-mouthed, impatient, know-it-all who trampled over everyone else like they were his personal slaves?  No one deserved to be treated like that.  Anyway, the service wasn’t that bad. It was an olive.  An olive…

 

At that moment weight upon weight of understanding dropped on him, crushing every illusion about his life he’d ever had. He had learned from the best. He looked at his father, sitting there smugly on the other side of the table—as if he knew the whole restaurant was looking at him, and he was basking in their naked fear of how powerful he was. Yes, Jeremy had emulated the best, and it had almost cost him everything he now knew counted.

 

“You know what?” Courage stood him up, and self-respect threw his napkin to the table. “I’m sure the food is great here, but the company stinks. Enjoy the rest of your meal, Dad.  We’re leaving. Come on, Em.”

 

She scrambled to her feet, her gaze transfixed to his face.

 

“Leaving?” His father’s dark eyes narrowed dangerously. “Oh, no, you’re not. Sit down. What do you think you’re doing?”

 

“Something I should have done a long time ago.”  Jeremy laced his fingers through Emily’s.  Her wide-eyed fear only poured more courage into him. “Listen carefully, Dad, because I’m only going to say this once. I’m not taking the job with Skyway, so don’t ask about it again. I’m staying here, in Boston, and I’m starting my own life on my own terms. I don’t need your handouts, and I don’t need your condo.  This is my life, and I’m going to live it the way I see fit whether you like that or not.”

 

Mr. Stratton glanced around the restaurant. “Jeremy William Stratton, sit down before you make a scene.”

 

The statement hit Jeremy as quiet humorous. “A scene? Oh, you mean like the one you just made over an olive?  You mean a scene like that, Dad?”

 

“I… You…”

 

“No.” Serenity floated through Jeremy as he stood looking at the man he had revered and feared his whole life. It was a mistake he would never make again. “Don’t worry.  I’ll never trash someone over an olive again.  I learned how well that works from you.”

 

Emily was shadowing him so closely it was as if she was standing in his shoes.  He tightened his fingers in hers and smiled back at her.

 

“Let’s go, Em.  You deserve better than this sick charade.”

 

With that, they turned and started walking.

 

“Jeremy.  Jeremy Stratton.  You listen to me. Don’t you walk away from this table. Jeremy. I’m your father, do you hear me?  Jeremy…”

 

Her hand in his, Jeremy turned the corner at the potted plant and never looked back.

***

The car door shut behind her.  Emily sat there, wondering how her heart hadn’t actually stopped beating.  It should have for the fear and disbelief racing through her veins.  No one could have looked so incensed as Mr. Stratton had as she stood by Jeremy at that table.  No one. No, she should be a heap of white hot cinders by now, and yet somehow she wasn’t. She let Jeremy drive two blocks before she even allowed herself a glance at him.

 

“Ar-Are you sure that was smart?” She couldn’t keep the trepidation from her voice.

 

His look was compassionate and serene.  “Hey, it wasn’t my fault. You were the one who prayed for joy.”

 

The words slammed into her, and worry filled the hole.  “Joy? What does joy have to do with anything?”

 

He drove half a block before he glanced at her.  His glance held a sincerity she wasn’t used to in his eyes. He smiled softly and took a breath. “Thanks, Em.”

 

“Thanks?” She was having trouble following because he kept jumping onto other topic trains. “For what?”

 

“For not giving up on me when I was a jerk like that.”

 

A moment of meaning dropped over her, and she knew and understood more than she ever had.

 

“Oh.” She let her gaze slide out the side window as memories of him before he was really Jeremy flooded through her.  A soft laugh followed them. “It wasn’t me.”

 

“What do you mean it wasn’t you? If it wasn’t you, then who was it?”

 

Daring raced through her, and she looked right at him. “The Holy Spirit of course.  Heck, I tried to give up several times, but He wouldn’t let me.  So if you’re going to thank someone, thank Him.”

 

Jeremy’s smile was 100-watt as he glanced at her and nodded. “Then thanks, Holy Spirit. I owe You one.”

 

The car slid through the city as the lights winked on around them.

 

Emily sat back.  For one minute there was happiness, and then reality reappeared. “So what about your dad?” It was a topic they had to face even if she didn’t want to.

 

The breath Jeremy took was long and slow.  “Well, how’d you get me to figure it out?”

 

Emily laughed. “A whole lot of prayer!”

 

Seriousness dropped over Jeremy. “Then I guess we’d better start praying while we eat at Joe’s Burger Hut.”

 

Emily sat up as he pulled into the little establishment. “Joe’s Burger Hut, huh? No Duck a l’Orange?”

 

“I don’t think so. I’m a starving college kid, remember?  What do you think, I’ve got a bank roll of money behind me?”

 

She couldn’t tell what emotion formed the under current of that statement.  Anger?  Fear? Worry?

 

He parked and shut off the car.  A breath and he turned.  Gently he took her hand in his. He picked it up to his lips and kissed it. “I know this is going to sound completely crazy, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy or so excited about living.”

 

She stared at him, wide-eyed. “But you… You…”

 

“Yeah, I know.” He let his head fall back as a whoop came out of the depths of his soul.  “This is me!  I’m finally, finally me! Woohoo!”

 

Although she wasn’t wholly sure he hadn’t just cracked, Emily laughed her own happiness. He was dirt poor.  To own a fraction of the things he’d had before, he would have to work himself into the ground, and yet, he really looked genuinely happy.

 

“What about the iPod and the stereo and the leather couch?” she asked, half afraid of the answer.

 

His smile could have been no brighter. “I don’t know. That brown chair of yours is pretty comfortable.  I think maybe it’s a good place to start.”

 

Emily started through the ramifications of that comment, but before her brain got ten words into it, he leaned toward her.  The moment his lips touched hers, all thoughts other than him vanished.  They had a chair.  One little piece of heaven. Everything else was just gravy.

 

Epilogue

“Da-da-da-da,” Eric said, whipping open the door to their apartment with a flourish of his hand. “I give you… the graduate!”

 

Jeremy ducked his head in embarrassment for the eruption of cheers as he stepped into the living room.  They were all there.  His friends, his mom, and her.  Emily.  The one who had changed his whole life. Walking into that room felt like coming home—not some physical place but home in his heart.

 

She was front and center, cheering louder than all of them.  Her dark hair cascaded down from the gold clip at the top of her head.  Long tendrils slid down the shoulders of the silvery-blue blouse she wore.  She looked better than any human had a right to.

 

Of course she had been at the graduation too, but with 4,000 graduates, they’d decided to meet back at the apartment rather than fight the crowd. Shyly she stepped up to him, her eyes shining.

 

“Congratulations.”

 

The roomful of people never even registered as Jeremy took her in his arms.  He kissed near her ear, crushing her to him. Happiness had never felt like this.

 

“I’m proud of you,” she whispered in his ear, and unsurpassed joy surged through him.  He knew he should let her go, but all he wanted was to hold her there forever. A moment and then two.

 

Grateful overtook all else. “Thanks.”  He let go of her partially, and she slid under his arm.  Her hand stayed across his chest.  He had never felt anything so wonderful.

 

“Picture!” Rebecca yelled, suddenly standing in front of them with a camera.

 

The flash evaporated everything other than the light.

 

“Ugh!” They both backed away, but it was too late. “Becca!”

 

“Got it.”  She pranced off.

 

Jeremy was still blinking when Emily said, “Oh, wait right there. I’ve got something for you.” Like he could see to move.

 

In seconds she was back.  The gift was the size of a hand, and Jeremy took it from her carefully.

 

“You didn’t have to get me anything.”

 

However, Emily was bouncing back and forth on her feet, excitement verily poured out of her.  “Open it.”

 

The last of the paper dropped away, and Jeremy stopped in disbelief. “Spoons?”

 

“And a deck of cards,” she said, pointing. “Now we can play at your new place.”

 

The import of that statement wasn’t lost on Jeremy.  In three weeks he would be moving across town to a small efficiency apartment.  It was close enough to work so he could walk, thus saving on gas.  Plus, it was only a quarter what he was paying now.  As weird as it was to be leaving the jet set life behind, somehow it fit him perfectly.

 

He reached over and pulled Emily to him.  “Now we don’t have to use yours all the time.”

 

She backed up enough to be able to look into his eyes. “See, it’s all in the plan.”

***

It hadn’t taken his mom an hour to leave, and Emily was sad about that.  She liked Mrs. Stratton well enough, but it was clear the woman in the white silk suit had more important things to do than to hang out with a bunch of kids—even if one of them was her newly-graduated son.

 

The others, however, had settled into a comfortable party mood, and Emily was thoroughly enjoying herself with them.  It didn’t seem hard like it once had.  They just seemed like… friends.  Not his friends, but her friends too, and that was more than she could ever have hoped for.

 

Rebecca plopped down on the couch beside her.  “So, December this party will be for you.”

 

“I know. Isn’t that weird?”

 

“Weird.” Rebecca nodded.

 

Other pieces of life came back to her. “So how’s Holly?  Did she make it out to California?”

 

“Yeah, her plane landed yesterday.  Last I heard she was in a limo going out to one of the vineyards.  Her mom’s new fiancé owns it or something.”

 

“Wow.  I’m sure she’s freaked out by all of that.”

 

“Oh, you know Holly.  She is, but she hides it all pretty well.”

 

Compassion for the friend she hardly knew slid through Emily. “Well, if you talk to her, tell her I’m praying for her.”

 

Rebecca smiled. “I’ll be sure to.”

 

“Everybody!  Everybody!  If I could have your attention please.”  Jeremy stepped up next to her, realized there wasn’t much room, went around and pulled the coffee table back two feet, and was back around to her side in a flash.  “Hello!  Could I get some quiet please?”

 

Caught off guard by the sudden show he was making, Emily looked up at him. Strange that he looked nervous.  What did he have to be nervous about now?  Graduation was over.

 

“I know it’s been a long road to get to this day, and I really appreciate all of you being there for me.  That’s why I want to share this, the best moment of my life with you all.”

 

Emily was looking up at him to hear what he had to say when suddenly he heaved a breath and dropped to one knee next to the couch beside her.

 

Gasps engulfed the room, but somehow she couldn’t get all the signals in her brain to line up in a logical order to tell her what he was doing. In the next second there was a diamond ring in his fingers, and he was holding it up to her.  Where it had come from, she had no idea, and before she could think that thought all the way through, he snatched her gaze and her heart with his.

 

Struggling to understand, she shook her head. “What…?”

 

“Emily Vasquez, you are the most remarkable person I’ve ever met.  I’d be a fool to ever let you get away.  I love you with all of my heart. Will you marry me?”

 

Marry!  Will you marry me?  What? How was this happening? He couldn’t be serious.  And yet as she looked into his eyes, she knew he totally was.  He never moved as she looked from the ring to his eyes.  Thoughts, memories, tears, pain, and joy leaped through her consciousness in no apparent order.  Of course she wanted to, but should she?  Married?  Her married? This couldn’t be happening.

 

However, his eyes sliced through all the protests, and her thoughts settled like dew on a leaf.  This was Jeremy.  She loved him.  There was no question about that.  And he loved her.  There was even less question about that.  And yes, she did want to marry him.  She really did.  More than she’d ever wanted anything else. It was just until that moment, she had never let herself hope it could ever happen. But now, here he was asking.  For as illogical as all of that was, he was really asking.

 

She nodded before she got the word out. “Yes.”

 

He looked almost disbelieving as he gazed up at her.  “Yes?”

 

Her smiled overtook all else.  “Yes, Jeremy, I’ll marry you.”

 

Who whooped first she had no idea, but suddenly they were surrounded by cheers and excitement.  Somehow this felt very different than the cheering for him had earlier.  Somehow she had entered into his dream, and their dreams were now merging into one.

 

One dream.  One life.  One love.

 

As he slid the ring with the small diamond onto her finger and wrapped her in his arms, she had no question that for now and for forever she was truly living in her own little piece of heaven because for now and for forever Jeremy Stratton had her heart, her life and her love, and there was no denying that was right where she was always meant to be.

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006

Posted in A Little Piece of Heaven, Novels | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Little Piece of Heaven, Ch. 25 & 26

Chapter 25

While Emily was in the shower later, Jeremy cornered Derrick and got Michael’s phone number.  There were just too many things he didn’t know to pull this off on his own. With some reluctance Michael agreed to meet Jeremy the next morning in town. So Jeremy decided he would beg off morning chores and head out as soon as Emily left. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was so hard to see how this could ever work anyway, it was worth the risk.

 

He spent the evening with Emily sitting on the front porch glider, looking at the stars, and holding hands.  It was all Jeremy ever wished for in life from this point forward. His only prayer was that when all was said and done, he would get the chance to simply be sitting here with her again someday.

***

Emily had spent so much time with Jeremy in the past six days that when he said he had to run into town Thursday morning, her heart did a little slam-dance. Of course she told him to go, but as she put the feed out for the horses, her mind started telling her how truly important he had become in her world, and that was more than a little disconcerting.

 

She was finishing up in the tack room when she heard the barn door squeak. The voice accompanying it slammed her to a stop with one word.  Brock. Her head spun as she assessed whether he could see her and whether he was headed to the tack room. The lights were off, so she slid backward into the shadows as he went instead to the gun case.

 

“Freddie? Yeah, I’ve got a live one,” Brock said into his cell phone. “Yeah. Tonight. We’ll need the Jeep. I’ll need you to put the food out on four, three, and seven about dark.  Yeah, we might end up doing a little target practice first. Nah, don’t worry.  This one’s so clueless he offered me ten g’s for one head. What’s a few wasted shells…? Yeah. Okay. Later, dude.”

 

He clicked the cell phone off, checked over the guns, slid the glass door closed, locked it, and walked out. It took five minutes of silence for Emily to breathe again.

***

“Are you out of your mind?” Michael hissed over the little restaurant table. “That’s suicide.”

 

“He doesn’t know me,” Jeremy said, feeling the terror of being in way over his head slither across him, but he pushed it down under the determination.  “He thinks I’m a complete idiot, and I’m going to let him keep thinking that until I can bust him.”

 

Michael’s scowl deepened as he leaned across the table and glanced around the all-but empty cafe. His near whisper told Jeremy way too much about Michael’s concern. “What about Em? Does she know about this?”

 

“I haven’t told her. I wanted to see what you thought first.”

 

“Don’t tell her.”

 

“Don’t?”

 

“No.” Michael was spitting the words like nails. “He’s done enough damage to her already.”

 

Jeremy considered and then nodded. “Well, that much we agree on.”

 

Michael sized him up for a long minute. “So you know then?”

 

“Yeah, she told me.” Jeremy took a breath and plunged forward. “Look, I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t do something now. She is bound and determined to come back here when she graduates and take him down herself.”

 

“She said that?”

 

“It was implied.”

 

Michael nodded. “I was afraid of that.” He thought for a moment and then sighed. “Okay, so what do you need from me?”

 

“Info and maybe some back up depending how it goes.”

 

“What kind of info?”

 

“The kind that would get Brock nailed for good. What’s legal? What’s not? What things should I watch for or ask about?”

 

It took a long moment for Michael to get comfortable enough with Jeremy’s motives to start talking. Finally he shifted forward. “Well, hunting right now’s illegal anyway, so there’s one. If you hit anything other than a buck, that’s two.”

 

Jeremy pulled himself closer to the table. “We’re going out tonight. Does that tell you anything?”

 

“Night hunting?” Michael’s scowl furrowed. “That’s illegal as all get out.”

 

“And have you ever heard of… umm…” Jeremy tried to pull the word up in his mind. “Spotlighting?”

 

Michael’s eyes widened full-bore. “Spotlighting?” He set his jaw and then let out a disgusted exhale. “Yeah, I’ve heard of it.” After a moment he realized Jeremy was still clueless. “It’s when you take a high powered light and shine it at the deer so they freeze.  Deer in the headlights?  That kind of thing.” Michael shook and then scratched his head. “He’s gotta be nuts doing that.  That could mean serious jail time. Plus, you get your license yanked permanently for doing that stuff.”

 

“Oh, and I don’t have one.”

 

Michael looked at him in confusion. “One?”

 

“A license.”

 

Understanding drained over Michael’s face.  His exhale was slow. “He’s so busted.” Then seriousness overtook everything else. “Okay now, you listen to me, if Brock finds out what you’re up to…”

 

Determination steeled in him. “He won’t.”

 

“Well, he better not or we’ll be burying you on account of an accident in the woods, and that won’t do you or Em any good.”

 

Jeremy nodded feeling the seriousness of this undertaking drain into him. “But you’ll help me then?”

 

It took a moment of decision but only that. “Yeah. I’ll help.”

***

Emily’s heart leaped for joy when she heard Jeremy’s little SUV pull into the gravel drive. Lunch was ready. Whatever he’d gone to do sure took a long time. She strode to the front door to meet him, but when he stepped in, concern fell over her. He hadn’t looked so worried and unsettled since he’d gotten here.

 

At his side, she took his hand. “What’s wrong?”

 

He tried to smile, but that just pulled more concern into her. “Nothing.” He leaned over and kissed her lightly. “Just trying to get things ready to go back on Sunday.”

 

Sunday. She hated that thought.

 

“Lunch, kids!” her mother yelled from the kitchen.

 

“Come on,” she said, pushing all the thoughts of anything other than this minute away from her. “It’s chicken sandwiches. Even better than at the Student Union.”

 

His smile never really made it that far. “Sounds awesome.”

***

Midway through lunch as Jeremy fought to act normal while his insides snaked themselves into very unhealthy positions, Mrs. Vasquez turned to Emily.

 

“Sweetheart, I was supposed to clean church today, but I’m swamped. What’re your plans this afternoon?”

 

Emily sighed. “I was going to finish up my paper, but…” She looked over at Jeremy. “I think we could swing it.”

 

We?  Any other time that word would’ve sent his heart soaring; however, at this moment there was too much weighing it down for that.  He had planned on using the entire afternoon to worry and plan, but that was apparently out.

 

“You interested?” Emily asked him, suddenly looking anything other than sure.

 

With great effort he got a small smile to his face. “Sure. I’m in.”

***

How the little church could hold so much peace, Jeremy still wasn’t sure. It wrapped around him in ways he couldn’t fathom nor describe.  For the first two hours he followed Emily around, dusting, vacuuming, and polishing, but then she started arranging flowers. That was more out of his league than dusting, so he opted to sit in the third pew back and just take it all in.

 

They hadn’t turned on any lights, but the sun coming in from the stained glass windows afforded plenty of light.  As he sat, the coming hours drifted through his mind. He knew as well as Michael did that he couldn’t do this on his own, yet he’d decided not to tell Emily, and there wasn’t anyone else who could help. Fear filled his chest. He didn’t have the courage nor the knowledge to do this, and he knew it.  He closed his eyes as the hopelessness rained through him. “God, what have I gotten myself into?”

 

Defending against the worst case scenarios flooding through his brain was useless.  They were there, and hours out, he didn’t have enough immediate concerns to focus on to keep them at bay.  He opened his eyes, and his gaze snagged on her, up front, sitting on the floor in her white capris arranging and rearranging the basket of flowers.

 

“God, I just want her to be safe. That’s all. You get that, right?” He let out the breath in his lungs. “I want her to be free to live the life she wants without this hanging over her head.” The whispered prayer traced through him as his gaze settled on her once again. “She doesn’t deserve this, God. She doesn’t. She doesn’t deserve any of it. You have to know that.  Please help me to make the peace in her be real.”

 

He let out a frustrated breath. “Look, God, I know this is right. I know it is, but I can’t do it alone. I can’t. I know that as well as You do.” Thoughts and memories traced through him. All those years hating every second of church, hating every Christian he came in contact with. The evidence against him was surely damning. “I know I haven’t been the most faithful guy on the planet. I know there’s plenty in my past to make You mad at me, but God, I need really Your help with this one. Please help me. For her even if it’s not for me.”

 

At that moment Emily stood and reset the plant in its position. Wiping off the back of her pants, she turned to him, stepped down the three steps, which made her high ponytail swing at her ears. Without pretense, she walked right to him and plopped down by his side. Gently she reached over and took his hand in hers even though her gaze was only on the altar at the front. She seemed to soak in the aura of the place. “So what do you think?”

 

“Gorgeous.” He nodded although his gaze was as much on her as the church. A question that had been plaguing him drifted through his consciousness, and just as she started to stand, he got the courage to ask it. His gaze followed her halfway up. “Mind if I ask you something?”

 

She stopped, looked at him, and sat back down. “What’s that?” There was such happiness about her, he hated to bring it up, but still he wanted to know. He needed to know.

 

At first her gaze was only interested, but slowly the increasing intensity of her gaze on him brought his defenses crashing to the ground. He looked at her, formulating the question in his head. He tried to hold her gaze as he asked, but it was difficult. “I was just wondering how you got through everything after… well, after what happened.”

 

It was as if she couldn’t think about it and look at him at the same time. Her gaze fell to their hands resting on his knee. He hated the memories that wafted across her face.

 

“Well, at first I did a lot of crying, and for a long time I just let myself go numb on the inside. I walked through life, going through the motions, but it was like it wasn’t really real. Like life was happening somewhere out there. You know? Then, for awhile I tried to put it behind me and go on with life, but that didn’t really work either.” Her gaze slid from their hands back up to the high altar in front. “I finally realized that hating him wasn’t getting me anywhere.

 

“They’d talk about forgiveness in church, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t do it by myself.  It hurt too much, and it was just so big. Then we had a youth retreat during my senior year. By that time he was gone, and I wasn’t having to face him every day, which was a good thing.  I went to the retreat because Audry was going. I didn’t plan on telling anyone, but there were some really great counselors there, and they were asking a lot of questions that for me kept coming back to forgiveness.

 

“Like what’s holding you back from God?  What things have you hidden from even Him?  What things have you buried that need to come out? During one of the sessions I completely lost it. I broke down, and one of the counselors talked with me for like an hour. Half the time I was crying so hard I couldn’t even talk. But I finally told her what happened, and whatever I thought she was going to do, she didn’t.  She held me, and she let me cry. She told me it wasn’t my fault, and that God could heal me if I let Him.”

 

The words stopped for a long moment.

 

Emily smiled softly. “But even then, it wasn’t easy. It took a long time for me to really come back, but I finally got to the place where I knew God didn’t blame me for what happened.  I knew He grieved over it as much as I did.” She dragged in a ragged breath. “I knew He loved me even if I didn’t love myself very much.”  She closed her eyes. “I guess that’s when I learned that He’s not out to get us. The truth is He loves us more than we can ever imagine—more than we love ourselves even… if we’ll let Him.”

 

Her strength and courage amazed Jeremy. He was falling more in love with her with every word although ten minutes before he hadn’t thought that was possible.  “Okay. So explain the whole you want to come back here to run the hunting on the ranch thing.  Is that revenge or what?”

 

She laughed in that way she had of laughing without really making much of a sound.  “No. It’s not revenge.” For a moment she didn’t go on. Instead she took in a long breath as she considered the question. Her glance at him was just that. “When I’ve seen the helpless animals Brock has killed with no regard for them at all…” The words slipped to a stop. Her face crumpled over her thoughts. Finally Emily shook her head and regathered her composure. “Somebody’s got to stop him. Somebody’s got to stand up to him and expose him for all the misery he’s caused.”

 

“But why you?” Jeremy asked although he could hardly breathe through the question.

 

Emily shrugged. “Why not me?  Brock may be Goliath, but I really feel like God is with me in this fight. He’s going to protect me, and He’s going to see me through it.”

 

“But how do you know that? How can you be so sure?”

 

“Because He already has once.” A moment and Emily stood. “We’ve got to get. I’m making supper tonight. Burritos. Yippee!”

***

The burritos should have been good, and they probably were except Jeremy couldn’t taste them.  He had already formulated his excuse to leave, and he’d given himself a when-dinner-is-finished deadline. When that deadline came, his insides curled over the tension of the task before him.  Watching Emily joking with Nathan as they finished dinner, Jeremy had the distinct impression that he might not ever see her this way again—happy, whole, at peace. At that moment, his resolve solidified. He would protect her. She would have that life–even if he got taken down in the process.

 

“Well, that was wonderful,” he said, standing from the table. “Thank you, Mrs. Vasquez.”

 

Everyone at the table looked up at him in surprise.

 

“Why thank you, Jeremy,” Mrs. Vasquez said. She looked over at Emily and then back at him. “Are you going somewhere?”

 

He ducked his gaze to cover the lie. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve got a paper due on Monday, and well… I haven’t gotten as much of it done as I thought I would.  I thought about going down to the barn to work. It’s quiet down there.”

 

Mrs. Vasquez’s smile told him the lie had worked. “Peace and quiet. That I understand.  Good luck with your paper.”

 

Jeremy let his hand fall to Emily’s shoulder. She gazed up at him, her dark eyes sparkling with the love he knew she now felt. With one millisecond of a smile, he let her gaze go and dropped his head next to her ear. “I’ll be back.”

 

Her smile sliced through him. “Can’t wait.”

***

Dark fingers of shadows stretched across the valley as Jeremy pulled through the gravel drive and up to the barn.  Brock’s Jeep was already sitting outside. With a breath and a prayer, Jeremy shoved out of the SUV and strode to the barn.  This night would require a dangerous mixture of arrogance and ignorance on his part, and he wasn’t sure which he was more concerned about.

 

“About time you got here,” Brock said when Jeremy stepped into the barn.

 

“Yeah. I had trouble getting away. Sorry about that.”

 

“Here.” Brock thrust a rifle in Jeremy’s hand.

 

The weight and responsibility of the gun dropped on Jeremy like ten ton truck.

 

“That’s yours. This is mine.” Brock yanked another gun from the case, and it was abundantly clear who got the better one.

 

“Let’s go, or we’re going to completely miss them.” Brock shut the case that still held four guns.

 

A feeling of how surreal this moment was encompassed Jeremy as they stepped from the barn into the ever-darkening evening.  He felt in his pocket for his recorder.  Thankful for all the times he had practiced over the years, he hit the record button, and as they got into the Jeep, he slid it next to him in the seat.  It was insurance that it wouldn’t be his word against Brock’s. However, he was under no illusions that it could just as easily become an indictment that sealed his fate should Brock discover it.

 

Brock stowed his gun in the back and took a small paper sack from under the seat. He unscrewed the top of the unseen bottle and tipped it up for a long drink. Jeremy watched him without watching. Terror slid into his system.

 

“Oh, my bad,” Brock said, wiping his mouth. He tilted the sack toward Jeremy. “You want some?”

 

“Oh, uh. No thanks.” It took one whiff from two feet away to know the sack contained a bottle of something that would seriously alter his thinking ability if he accepted.

 

“Suit yourself.” Brock screwed the cap back on and pushed the sack under the seat. He started the vehicle with a rev for emphasis.

 

For ten seconds they were on the main road, and then they weaved off it and onto a small trail.  As the Jeep pitched and bumped over the rocky terrain, Jeremy couldn’t help but feel how easy it would be to kill someone and dispose of their body out here. The trees themselves seemed to blind the rest of the world to the fact that anyone was even around. Lest his fear get the best of him, he plunged forward with the plan. “So where are we going anyway?”

 

“Rock Ridge. There’s a meadow up there.  We can do some practice rounds.”

 

He had to clear his throat to keep his voice from squeaking. “Practice rounds?”

 

Brock snorted and shook his head. “City boys.”

 

The taunt went through Jeremy, but he reined in his anger. “I thought we were just going to get a buck.”

 

“What’s the fun in that?  One shot and it’s over. You want some action, don’t you? Well, I’m giving you action.”

 

“Oh,” Jeremy said, wondering just how much action he wanted.

 

As the Jeep bounded through the brush and onto a flat spot, Brock braked to a short stop. In a breath he killed the engine and grabbed his gun.  He was out of the vehicle before Jeremy knew what was happening.  As Jeremy fumbled out, Brock reached under the seat, took another swig, and replaced the sack.

 

“Is… is that safe?” Jeremy asked, careful to hold the recorder both out of Brock’s sight and in range. “Drinking and hunting I mean?”

 

“What do you think, I’m in kindergarten?” Brock checked his gun, slammed the chamber open then closed. Then he turned up the trail. “You coming or what?”

 

“Oh, uh. Yeah.” This had to be the stupidest thing he’d ever done in his life.

 

“Hey, grab that spot from the back, will you?” Brock asked.

 

“Sure.” Jeremy went back to the Jeep, yanked the spotlight out remembering Michael’s words about this practice. One thing was for sure Brock had no respect for the law. Steeling his resolve, Jeremy turned and followed Brock up the hill.  He wasn’t sure if his heart was thudding from the effort or from utter fear. Chill was setting in over the mountain, and he felt it through the leather jacket.  He looked around, trying to get his bearings as they crossed through a thicket of trees, but the darkness coupled with the trees made that impossible. In fact, just staying on his feet was becoming a major challenge. He slipped and slid up the incline behind Brock, willing his feet not to pitch him gun-first onto the ground.

 

At the top of the hill, Brock motioned for quiet over his shoulder.  Jeremy obeyed. His gut twisted as he crested the hill.  There, grazing in an open meadow, stood at least fifteen deer.  They didn’t seem to hear the approach of the hunters.  They were too intent on eating.

 

“Good,” Brock said softly. “Perfect.”  He set up behind a set of boulders. His gaze never left the deer.

 

Jeremy followed his unspoken instructions.  On the ground he set the spotlight beside him, and he pulled the gun to him with both shaking hands.  Somehow he was pretty sure this would be different than hunting with the X-Box.

 

“Okay. I’ll spot them, and you’ll have your pick,” Brock said.

 

Nerves bombarded Jeremy. “H… how do I know which ones are the bucks?” It was a stupid question even for him, but the truth was his mind was no longer functioning properly.

 

“Jeez, don’t go getting all technical on me here.  Just get something.  Aim and fire.  Hit whatever you can. We’ll wait to bag something ‘til later.  For now, worry about getting something on the ground.”

 

That did nothing to settle his nerves at all. “Oh, okay.”

 

“Count of three, I’ll spot ‘em, you shoot ‘em.”

 

Jeremy nodded, unable to get so much as a breath out.  This was it. His only hope was that he could shoot badly enough to miss everything in the vicinity.

 

“K.” Brock readied the light. “One. Two. Three.”

***

It was strange how empty the house felt without Jeremy. For some reason Emily’s mind kept reminding her of that. Before this week, it had never occurred to her that he would ever even see this place, and now being here without him seemed completely weird.  The phone rang, and she answered it to give herself something else to think about. “Hello?”

 

“Em, oh, good. You’re there.”

 

She laughed. “Where else would I be, Michael?”

 

“Listen, is Jeremy around?”

 

“Jeremy?” That was weird. What was Michael doing asking for Jeremy?  They hardly knew each other. “Uh, no. He went down to the barn to get some studying done. You know how loud this place can be.”

 

Silence. Utter and complete silence. Concern twisted through her.  Speechlessness had never been one of Michael’s most prominent qualities.

 

“Is there something wrong?” she asked, not being able to keep the worry from her voice.

 

“Uh, no. Not really. Umm. Can I talk to Dad?”

 

“Dad?  Uh. Sure. Hang on.” Emily took the phone to her father in the living room. “It’s Michael.”

 

Her father’s glance drilled the concern deeper into her as he took the phone from her. “Hello?”

 

Emily shifted feet but stood watching the lines of worry creep across her father’s face.

 

“Tonight? Are you sure? Why didn’t you tell me this?”  He cleared his throat and looked up at her as the footkick on his chair came crashing back to its resting spot. Clearly he wanted her to leave, but she wasn’t moving. “Yeah.  Yeah. You’d better come over here.  We’ll decide what to do then.”

 

When the phone call ended, Emily fought to breathe. “What’s going on?”

 

She hated the look her father gave her, the one that said everything was horrible, but he would never tell her that.  It was the same look he’d had when he came home from the hospital when her grandmother’s final illness took a turn for the worst. It was the same look he’d had when the first kill had been found.

 

“Nothin’, Pumpkin,” he said slowly. “It’s nothing. Why don’t you go on and finish that paper you had? I’ll take care of this.”

 

Emily understood the balance of power in this conversation, so she turned and started for her room. However, she had no intention of letting it go.  Whatever it was, she would find out.

***

“I cannot believe you missed that shot!” Brock practically yelled, sending the last of the deer scurrying into the trees and up the hills.  “Nobody’s ever had a better shot in the history of hunting.” He lowered a scowl on Jeremy. “I thought you said you’d done this before.”

 

“I… I have.” Jeremy’s soul was still ringing from the blast of the rifle.  His ears would never be the same.  He shook his head without really moving it to get the explosion to stop sounding in his head. “It’s just been a long time, and I’ve never gone at night before.” He blinked to regain his bearings.

 

“Well, when they freeze right in front of you like that, that’s the best shot you’re ever going to get.” Rage marred Brock’s countenance. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to miss.”

 

Jeremy put on his best nonchalant, city boy swagger, but it didn’t come as naturally as it once had. “No, man.  Are you kidding?  I said I wanted one, and I do.”

 

Brock yanked their meager possessions from the ground and started back down the hill toward the Jeep.  It was full-on black night by now, and the sounds surrounding them did nothing to settle Jeremy’s spirit. As he stumbled down the trail after his guide, he wished fervently for some source of light—something because the moonless space surrounding him was becoming eerier by the second.

 

“So what now?” he asked, desperately trying to keep himself together long enough to make it off this mountain in one piece.

 

“Now we go up aways and try to get you another look.”  Brock came abreast of the Jeep and hoisted his gun and the spotlight into it. “Not that that will do you any good.”  He got in and started the vehicle as Jeremy fumbled to get himself and the gun in it without firing the thing.

 

The amount of arrogance Brock’s eyes held was hard to imagine as he looked over at Jeremy. “Did anyone ever tell you, you shoot like a girl?”

 

Jeremy absorbed the insult as the Jeep bounced backward. “No.  I can’t say they have.” His senses snapped into the understanding that by missing the shot and saving the deer, he had put not only the plan but himself in greater danger.  Trepidation trounced through him as Brock reached under the seat and swore when it took more than a second to locate the sack.

 

The understanding that the edge of nowhere was just beyond the roadway to his right screamed through his alarm system.

 

“Well, listen to me.  You get one on the next shot, or I’ll be the one taking the shot at that buck.  I ain’t gonna let some punk-nosed, brat-pack, city boy weasel me out of 10 g’s.  Not when I’ve wasted all this time taking you up here and everything.”

 

The understanding that Brock was a little baking time short of toast began to dawn on Jeremy.  He’d better get what he needed fast because Brock losing patience could not be a good thing.

 

“You know,” Jeremy said slowly. “I really do want that buck, and it really has been a long time since I’ve done this. Maybe it would be better if you just shot me one.  I get my prize. You get your cash. Everybody wins.”

 

Acrid annoyance bled through Brock’s glance as he took another swig. “You’re such a wuss.”

 

Well, that was better than being dead. His heart arched through the thought. “Honestly, I really don’t care who shoots it, so long as I get something.”

 

The Jeep tilted suddenly to the side, and Jeremy grabbed on to the dashboard as the ground sped by so close he could touch it.  Weeds whacked the running board right at his feet. Breathing was becoming harder by the second.

 

Brock shook his head. “Well, at least that way you wouldn’t go wasting anymore of my shells.”

 

“See,” Jeremy fought to keep his voice calm, “everybody wins.”

***

“That’s crazy. Is he out of his ever-loving mind?”

 

It wasn’t difficult to hear her father’s booming voice from down the hall by her room. Michael had arrived only moments before, and already they were hunkered down over the kitchen table discussing the reason for his visit. Emily quietly stepped out of her room and padded down the hall.

 

“He wants to protect her,” Michael said. “Not that I blame him. I should’ve done something about that jerk a long time ago.”

 

“What does she have to do with this?” her mother asked, and Emily heard the fear.

 

“Well, you know Em’s wanted to take Brock down for a long time now. It’s why she went to school for wildlife,” Michael said as if that was common knowledge.

 

Fear slapped her hard. What was Michael doing? He was going to mess everything up. Pressing herself flat against the wall, Emily moved down it until she could see Michael in the sliver between the two walls going into the little dining room. He stood there, hands planted on hips with as much anger in his eyes as she had ever seen. It twisted her heart to see him like that.

 

“But why now?” her mother said in a voice, pitched high with worry. “Why would he think this was a good idea now?”

 

“Because Brock’s here, and apparently Jeremy made a deal with the devil that was too good to pass up.”

 

Fear, anger, and humiliation drained through Emily.  What were they talking about, and what in the world was Jeremy’s name doing in the middle of this conversation?  Her mind snaked through all the possibilities—none of which she liked at all.

 

“Do you have any idea where they are?” her father asked.

 

“No, Jeremy didn’t know where Brock was taking him when I talked to him earlier.”

 

In that flash, Emily knew how to find out where they were, and she knew she knew. Fury that Jeremy had gone behind her back laced over her. Stepping into the room, she cut Michael’s words in half. “I don’t know where they are, but I know someone who does.”

 

All three gazes snapped up to her. She anchored her arms over her stomach in defense against them. She wanted to run, but this time she held her ground.

 

“Pumpkin, what do you know about this?” her dad asked with a quaver in his voice.

 

There was only one, small breath to steady herself. “I didn’t know who he was talking about, but I heard Brock on his cell phone today when I was in the barn feeding the horses. He told Freddie Martinez to put food out on three, four, and seven.”

 

“Food?” her mother asked uncomprehendingly.

 

“You mean bait,” Michael said with disdain dripping from the word.

 

Emily tilted her head in acknowledgement.

 

“What does three, four, and seven mean?” Her father stood from the table.

 

She shrugged. “I figured it meant the sites they have staked out to hunt when it’s off limits.  It wouldn’t be the first time.”  Her voice was so matter-of-fact that her parents looked at one another.

 

“How much do you know about all of this?” her father asked slowly.

 

“I know that Brock’s a jerk who’ll take what he wants and throw away whatever he doesn’t.  I just don’t understand why Jere…”  She looked at Michael, and suddenly she understood perfectly. He was trying to protect her from Brock. She closed her eyes praying that it wasn’t what she thought. “Oh, no. Michael, he didn’t…?”  However, when she looked again at her brother, there was no questioning the look on Michael’s face. “Are you kidding me? How could you let him…?” Guilt for putting him in this situation in the first place dropped on her. Jeremy was indeed taking on the devil, but he had no idea how dangerously stupid that could be. “Hello, what are we standing around for? We’ve got to go.”

***

How far away they were from civilization, Jeremy had no idea; however, when they stopped and Brock downed two long swigs, standing in the middle of New York City wouldn’t have helped his nerves.  He ducked his head to get his gun, saying prayer after prayer that they would get this thing and go home—alive and in one piece.

 

“So is all this your dad’s property?” Jeremy asked.

 

Brock shrugged as he put the sack back. “His.  Someone else’s. What’s the difference?”

 

The thought that he could add trespassing to the long list of offenses they were racking up occurred to him.  He slid out of the Jeep. “We going to try for a buck this time?”

 

A snort wafted to him through the darkness. “We?” Brock started up the trail. “Bring the spot.”

 

“Yeah. Sure.” With a yank he had the spotlight out.  Small rounded rocks lay all over this trail which angled up and through a knot of trees.  Jeremy’s feet kept sliding out from under him, and he wished he had thought to ask Derrick for hiking boots.  Thoughts of Derrick brought thoughts of Emily. If Brock was anything that night like he was this one, she hadn’t had a prayer. Softly Jeremy asked God to be with her—wherever she was.

 

“Awesome,” Brock said when they broke free at the top.

 

Jeremy couldn’t disagree, but for different reasons.  A herd of deer stood grazing peacefully in the meadow beyond. Across it led to another hill covered with trees.  He set the spotlight down and slid to the ground. Next to the tree, Brock readied the gun.  His eyes were dull and wild as he looked at Jeremy.

 

“This is going to be fun.”  He lifted his chin.  “You spot them. I’m going to see how many I can take out.”

 

Evil webbed itself over Jeremy.  He was about to be an accomplice in a cold blooded murder.  His spirit sent out a silent prayer. “Oh, God. Help.”

***

“I heard you talking to him, Freddie,” Emily said as she stood ringed by her father, her brother, and the sheriff. “They’re out there, and you know where they are.  You’d better tell us where, or I swear I’ll…”

 

“It’s real simple, Freddie,” the sheriff, a big man who had just been appointed acting sheriff due to an investigation into the former one, said. His voice brooked no argument. “You tell us what we want to know, or you spend the next six months in jail for aiding and abetting a felon.”

 

Freddie, a young ranch worker, looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “I… He just said… they were…” His eyes widened on the understanding that either way he was in serious trouble. “Umm, they’re probably on seven by now.”

 

“Seven? What’s that?” her father asked.

 

The young man with the thin arms and long, deep tan face considered the question. “It’s up on the ridge, Sir.  In the meadow across from the Jameson Ranch.”

 

Emily’s breath left. “At the drop off?”

 

Freddie looked at her for a long moment and then simultaneously nodded and offered her an apology with his eyes.

 

Her father wasn’t standing around waiting for more. “You got any backup we can call?”

 

The sheriff reached to his collar and spoke into his radio.  Emily’s mind spun with the instructions. Two to the Wycliff residence.  Four to the drop off and be aware that the criminal was armed and dangerous. Armed and dangerous. Those words clung to her like sandburs.

 

“Okay,” the sheriff said. “Let’s get up there.”

 

Pushing the fear back, she started to the door with them.

 

“Emily, honey.” Her father turned to her. “Why don’t you go on back to the house? We can get this.”

 

She shook the hair from her eyes and lifted her chin. “No, I’m going. This is my fight too.”

 

They stood like that for a moment. Eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe. Then, in breath he surrendered. It was the first time she had ever seen her father back down. He nodded in understanding and pushed the door open for her to exit.

***

“This is it.” The stench of alcohol drifted over Jeremy from Brock who lay a foot away.  There was no question Brock was under the influence. Jeremy had been there enough times to know the signs. “You spot them on three. One. Two. Three.”

 

With a breath to pray this was all just a horrible dream, Jeremy twisted the knob.  Then, for one single second he looked right into the soft, bright almond eyes of a young doe.  She looked up from her meal and froze. The blast from next to him shattered the calm of the night, and Jeremy gasped from the reverberations.  As if in slow motion, the deer convulsed and collapsed to the ground.

 

“That’s one.” Brock leaped to his feet even as he reshelled the gun. He took aim at the scurrying animals that were desperately trying to get to some shield. The second explosion rocked the night around Jeremy as a second deer dropped within ten feet of the first one.   “That’s two.”

 

And then they were gone. Tears stung the backs of Jeremy’s eyes, but he fought them off as he stumbled to his feet.  He wanted to get out of here, to go home to sanity. “Did you do it?  Did you get a buck?”

 

Brock shrugged. “I think the second one was, but it was a little thing. You want something bigger.  Let’s go.”

 

Jeremy couldn’t get his mind to work through the fact that they’d just killed two beautiful animals, and they were leaving them with no further thought.  “Aren’t we…?  I mean… Hmm.”  He cleared his throat. “Aren’t we going to take them with us?”

 

“They’re trash,” Brock said as they descended the rock-strewn path. “Kind of like your girlfriend.”

 

Hate.  It was the only word that came close. As they started down the trail, Jeremy realized that with Brock ahead of him, he could knock him down and have the advantage without much trouble.  Then he thought of the gun in his hands.  It was loaded.  An accident in the woods.  Yes, they were hunting illegally.  Yes, he would go to jail for a long, long time, but the idea of Brock hurting even one more innocent creature twisted the boiling rage in him to the point of who really cared?

 

I finally realized that hating him wasn’t getting me anywhere.  Emily’s sweet voice drifted through the hate and yanked Jeremy from his murderous thoughts.  Just as Emily had said, Brock was Goliath, arrogant and heartless.  But hate would not defeat such an enemy.  God would.  Emily had learned that, and as Jeremy approached the Jeep and watched Brock tip the bottle up, he vowed to take her lead.

 

It was nothing he had ever fully done before, and letting go of hatred wasn’t even something he thought he could do prior to this moment. But this, this required him to trust Someone much bigger than himself one hundred percent. His life depended on it and so did Emily’s. Softly he turned his thoughts to God and whispered that this was out of his hands and now fully under God’s command.

 

It occurred to him then as Brock got in the Jeep and swore when he fumbled with the keys how out of control Brock really was. In the next second Jeremy felt himself calm. If he held onto sanity, he would have the upper hand.

 

“God,” he prayed as he stored the gun and spotlight in the back, “I need You here. Show me what to do.”  Carefully he got into the Jeep, watching every move Brock made.  His movements had become jerky, unsteady, and clamorous, totally different than the arrogant smoothness of before.

 

“So we’re going to a different field?” Jeremy asked, amazed that his voice was so calm.

 

“Yeah. Last one.”

***

“God, please, please, please be with Jeremy,” Emily pleaded as she looked out the window into the darkness.  Jameson Ranch was on the extreme edge of the Wycliff Ranch. Only the drop off separated the two.  It was a ten mile drive to the base of the trail that would take them up another 15 minutes through trees and rocks. Every inch the pickup rumbled, Emily breathed through the prayers. Their father was in the police car ahead of them, guiding the trail of vehicles.  They were second, with Michael at the wheel of their dad’s worn-out work pickup.

 

Gently Michael reached across the seat and put his hand on her shoulder. She turned sad, scared eyes on him, fighting the tears and panic.

 

“Jeremy’s smart,” Michael said, barely getting the words to the air. “He’ll be all right.”

 

Emily nodded, but her gaze fell. She really hoped so.

***

“Okay, now this is it,” Brock warned as they climbed so high the oxygen began to thin.

 

Jeremy’s lungs and legs screamed for relief, but he forced himself to follow the hunched figure lurching through the trees ahead of him.  The strength in his arms had faded long before now, but he willed them on just a little longer. Just a little higher.  It was almost over. He had no way of knowing what they would find at the top of this climb, but he was pretty sure it would look much like the last meadow, minus, of course, the two dead deer now lying in it. He pushed that thought from him.

 

He wanted to ask how they would carry this one back down, but he didn’t have the lung-capacity for that.  Questions would have to wait as well.  Right now he had to concentrate on how to get what he needed to seal Brock’s fate so this night would be the last one he would be prowling these mountains.  It was clear from the amount of noise Brock was making that the alcohol was seriously affecting his judgment.  That could be a good thing. It could also be a deadly thing.

 

After what seemed like hours of climbing, Brock turned to him, his hair disheveled, his eyes wild. He put a finger to his lips. “Shh.”

 

Jeremy wanted to tell him that he wasn’t the one making all the noise, but he didn’t dare.  Instead he put his head down into the effort of climbing.  Steep would’ve been a blessing.  His feet slipped and slid somewhere in the darkness beneath him.  Just then Brock slowed, slowed further, and then stopped.

 

Everything in Jeremy told him to turn around and run for his life, but he forced all of those things down.  He had come here on a mission, and he would finish that mission. He owed her that much.

 

“Beautiful,” Brock breathed. “Perfect.”

 

Jeremy didn’t even want to look.  He slid to the side of the tree where he stood, and then angled his shoulder around it. The sight took his breath away.  Unlike the other venues, this one looked like it led clear off the edge of the earth.  There were no trees ringing it on the other side.  He was having a hard time getting a full breath.

 

“Well, this is it,” Brock said. “Pay dirt.  You line ‘em up, and I’ll take ‘em out. So simple it should be illegal.”

 

“You know, Brock.  I don’t know…”

 

Death dropped into Brock’s eyes. “What do you mean you don’t know? You’re not going to slide on me now.” The evil flowed from him and slithered over Jeremy. “Oh, I don’t think so.”

 

“No. No. That’s not… that’s not what I meant. I just…” Jeremy glanced again at the deer.  How could he get out of this without hurting any of them? At that moment there was a snap in his pocket. It jerked his attention down to it before he thought better of it.

 

Brock’s gaze followed his in confusion. “What was that?”

 

Jeremy didn’t answer. He couldn’t.

 

“I said, ‘What the hell was that?’” The malevolence in Brock’s eyes dropped a whole octave.  He stepped over to Jeremy who had frozen to the spot. Roughly, Brock stuck his hand into Jeremy’s pocket and pulled out the recorder. Confusion drained over his face.  He held it up two inches from Jeremy’s face. “What is this?”

 

Swallowing was impossible. “It’s… it’s nothing.  Really.  I was just working on my paper. I forgot it was in there.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Brock took a moment to finger the recorder.  Then he snapped the rewind button.

 

Jeremy, who had left his gun on the ground by the tree, held up his hands in surrender. “Brock, really. Shouldn’t we get to hunting? I mean the deer…”

 

“You line ‘em up, and I’ll take ‘em out,” Brock’s voice from the recorder traced through the night. With a jerk Brock hit the off button. The devil couldn’t have looked more livid. “Your paper, huh? You writing a paper on hunting or what?” He slung the recorder to the ground where it cracked against a tree. His hands came around the rifle at his hip which he lifted.

 

Jeremy was backing now not so much because he thought it was smart, but more because it was all his body wanted to do. He held up his hands. “Look, Brock, this isn’t what you think, man. I just… I wanted…”

 

“You set me up.  You little… I cannot believe you set me up.”

 

Backing as Brock bore down on him, Jeremy was now fully exposed in the clearing. “Seriously, man. Why would I set you up? What do I have to gain from doing that?”

 

“It’s your girlfriend,” Brock said. His voice hinged toward madness with the words. “She put you up to this, didn’t she? That little witch. I knew I should’ve taken her out when I had the chance.”

 

Utter terror cracked into Jeremy.  What was to keep Brock from shooting him and going down to find Emily?  She and her family wouldn’t have a prayer.

 

Jeremy tried to laugh it off. “Hey, man. Emily had nothing to do with this. Really. It was all my idea.” At that moment his heel snagged on something unseen in the darkness at his feet. In the next breath he was falling, and with hardly time to catch himself, he fell with a crack against the hard, cold ground. His shoulder caught him, sending pain shooting through his head and neck. He heard the noise of his scream echo across the world, and in the next second he heard the deer running for their lives. Pushing up from the sparse grass, Jeremy watched them scatter.

 

Brock’s gaze went out to them as well. Both watched as they disappeared down the mountainside. He cursed, then took an anger-laden breath, and retrained his gaze to Jeremy.  Venomous abhorrence dripped down into Brock’s countenance. “So what were you planning to do with the tape, huh?  Did you have a plan, city boy?”

 

The fact that the rifle was between them was not lost on Jeremy. The world in fact seemed to hone to that one single item dropping across Brock’s hands. “I… I wasn’t… I didn’t…” Words and air failed him. He was still backing although he couldn’t even find enough sanity to get back on his feet.

 

“You should’ve left well enough alone, pretty boy.” Brock brought the gun higher, aiming it next to his swaying frame. “Trying to play hero will get you killed up here.”  The gun was now aimed right at Jeremy.  He could see it as if the spotlight was on it. From point blank range, Brock could hit a raindrop on a blade of grass.

 

“I…” Jeremy swallowed, praying his final prayers even as he fought to think of something that would deter this madman.  “Come on, man. This isn’t going to work.  You kill me, you’ll be sent away for a long time.”

 

Brock just laughed, and the sound sent chills scattering through Jeremy’s body. “I was never here. You were up here by yourself, hunting illegally with some buddies of yours.  You told them you could get them some trophies. I heard you in the barn.”

 

Horrified disbelief sank into Jeremy’s chest. “And they shot me for it?”

 

The shrug was barely that. “It was an accident.” Brock was looking down the scope. “Accidents happen.”

 

A noise in the brush by the trees yanked Jeremy’s attention to it, and for the longest second of his life he forgot all about Brock.

 

“Brock, no!” Emily’s scream stabbed through the night, echoing through the canyon below.

 

In horror Jeremy watched as Brock spun around, the gun still aimed and ready. There was no thought, no time to second guess anything. In one motion Jeremy launched himself from the ground and nailed Brock right in the back hurling them both to the ground.

 

The report of the gun exploded between them, and he heard Emily scream. Utter chaos descended on him as his body snapped into reaction mode. It was fight or die as far as he was concerned, and dying wasn’t an option.  He landed his fist on Brock’s nose, cocked and hit his chin. From under him, the blows coming back at him knocked all sanity away. Although he’d never been in a fist fight before, instinct kicked in. He was simply an animal fighting for his life.

 

“Jeremy! Brock! No!” Emily screamed from somewhere far outside his consciousness, but he wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t. If he did, Brock might take another crack at her.  His fist rammed into Brock’s face, sending his head careening to the side like a punching bag. Brock fought back, kicking and shoving at Jeremy, grabbing his collar and ripping it forward, he tumbled them over one another.

 

In a heartbeat Jeremy was on his back as Brock’s fury rained down onto him. The blows shook sanity from him even as he struggled not to completely lose control. Jeremy knew better than to let Brock have the upper hand. He had no idea where the gun was, but it was a sure bet if he gave Brock half a chance, he’d be staring down that barrel again, and this time he wouldn’t be so lucky. As blow after blow smashed into him, Jeremy kicked with all his might, sending them spiraling over each other again.  They were rolling body over body through the clearing—yanking, clawing, punching, tearing.

 

And then, as if it had all been a dream, Brock was suddenly lying on the ground somewhere far below him. Jeremy fought against the forces that held him fast, pulling him away.

 

“Jeremy! Man! Jeremy! Stop it! It’s over! It’s over, man!”

 

How long it took for those words to fully sink into his understanding of the world, Jeremy didn’t know, but when he finally obeyed and let the fight go from his body, he looked up and found Michael’s eyes and fear-filled face mere inches away. “It’s okay, man. It’s over.”

 

Chapter 26

“Emily.” It was the first thought that went through Jeremy when sanity took hold. “Where is she? Is she okay?”

 

“Jeremy?” Her voice sounded behind him, and the fear screamed through it.

 

He turned to her, and he watched her face crumple over the relief. In a breath she was in his arms.

 

“Oh, my God. I was so scared.” Tears streamed from her eyes and words as she clung to him. “I thought you were dead. I thought he had…”

 

“Shh. Shh,” Jeremy soothed, stroking her hair. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m okay.” However, his gasps of breath said otherwise.  Adrenaline flooded his system, making him quake with its fury. For a long moment he closed his eyes and let himself simply hold her. Then he pulled back and put his hands on her face. His eyes searched hers for answers. “Are you okay? You scared me to death.”

 

Her tears slid over his fingers. “I saw him with that gun pointed… at you. I didn’t know what else to do.” She was shaking with the emotions.

 

Thanking God for bringing them through, Jeremy drew her into his arms and held her there. He closed his eyes and breathed in being alive. It felt better than he had ever realized it did.

 

From across the meadow, he heard the commotion of voices and turmoil. It was only then that he realized there were others besides Emily and her family in the clearing.

 

“I didn’t do it!” Brock yelled. “It was him! He tricked me. Man, it wasn’t me.”

 

Rational began to reassert itself in Jeremy’s head. “The recorder.  We’ve got to find it. Please God, I hope he didn’t destroy it.”  He started to let her go, but when Emily squeaked her protest, he pulled her to him and started across the clearing with her tucked securely under his arm.  “He threw it over here into the trees.”

 

However, at the trees the understanding of just how dark it was came back to him.  He let go of her to commence his search and had only started when one of the deputies called, “Hey, would this help?”

 

At that the area was bathed in blessed, soul-soothing light. The spot. He’d forgotten about that. Jeremy dropped to his knees. “Yeah, man. Bring it over here.”

 

“Why aren’t you handcuffing him?” Brock asked with vehemence as he struggled against the two men who held him fast. “I’m telling you, I didn’t do anything.”

 

“Shut up, Brock,” a tall man with no uniform and no real connection to the situation that Jeremy could see said. “You’re in enough trouble the way it is.”

 

Digging under the brush, Jeremy slid his hands first to one side and then the other. He had to find that recorder or it really would be his word against a madman’s.

 

Emily gasped and darted from his side. “Is this it?” She lifted the small gold rectangle from the forest floor near a tree next to the one Jeremy was searching.

 

“Yeah.” In a heartbeat he was on his feet, examining the object in her hands.  It was smashed, but when he hit the eject button, the lid popped up. “The recorder’s history, but it looks like the tape is okay.”

 

“Okay,” the husky man in the dark uniform said to those gathered. “Then it looks like we’ll all be taking a little trip to the police station.”

***

Never in her life had Emily wanted to be this close to someone. Had she been able to melt right into him, she would have.  Strangely she didn’t really care who saw them together or what anyone else would think.  By the grace of God, Jeremy was safe, and all she wanted to do was hug him and remind herself of that fact forever.

 

In tandem with the group, they started down the mountain. However, ten steps down it became apparent that descending a mountain arm-in-arm was hopelessly dangerous. Reluctantly she let him go, but he held her hand tightly as he stepped in front of her, descending first, and helping her down.

 

“Watch out, there’s a rock here,” he said, pointing it out as if she could see it.

 

“Okay.” She pushed the hair over her ear and forced herself to be careful. The last thing they needed at this point was to go tumbling down the mountain.

 

Half the group was below them, half above them, but they were in their own little world. The trip down seemed ten times longer than the trip up had, and she breathed a sigh of thanksgiving that she hadn’t wasted one precious second of that time. Her mind stumbled on what might have happened had she gotten there only a minute later, and the tears sprang again to her eyes.  She pushed them back. He was safe. Everything was all right. In her hand, his was warm and firm. She had never been so grateful for a hand in her life.

***

At the smattering of vehicles parked at the bottom, Jeremy once again wrapped her to him. That flash of a moment when she was in Brock’s sights would haunt him for a very long time.

 

“Why don’t y’all come with me?” Michael asked.

 

Jeremy nodded, afraid to trust his voice. Across the way, Brock was screaming curses like Satan himself.

 

“Yeah. Let’s get out of here,” Emily said, and he heard the emotion.

 

He helped her into the pickup and crawled in beside her.  Even here, with her brother right there, she huddled into Jeremy, no hesitation whatsoever. It was all he now asked from life.

***

The longer Emily was with Jeremy, the more determination and peace flowed through her.  He was crazy to try to take down Brock like that, but if he was in this fight, then she was ready to come out swinging.

 

“Can we stop by the house?” she asked.

 

“The house?” Michael turned a scowl on her. “What do you need from the house?”

 

The decision settled in her heart. “Evidence.”

***

Armed with a box full of things that Jeremy didn’t even want to ask about, they walked into the police station.  It was a little six room building—hardly worth the name, but it would have to do.  The others were already assembled in the little waiting area.

 

“Sir, I think you should take a look at this,” Emily said, striding right through the middle of them to the sheriff.

 

“Whatcha got there?”

 

Jeremy wasn’t sure if it was fear or pride that was filling his chest. Either way he willed his strength into her. He watched as slowly, piece by piece Emily pulled what by the end was a mountain of plastic bags out of the box.

 

“What’re these?” the sheriff asked, lifting one to examine it.

 

Emily wound a piece of hair over her ear. “I’ve been collecting them for five years now.  Every time there was an unexplained kill, I went out to the site and gathered all the evidence I could find.  I got empty shotgun shells, rifle shells, deer food, along with pictures of the area where the animal was shot and killed.  There are pics of the animals too—the ones that were still there when I got there.”

 

Her father grunted and shifted on his feet, but she never slowed down.

 

“There are dates and times as to when the kills were found along with a notation of if Bro… I mean Mr. Wycliff was home at the time.”

 

“Jack, what’s this going to prove?” the un-uniformed man said, standing.

 

The sheriff stared at him hard. “Kelvin, I think your son’s in enough hot water as it is. Don’t make this any worse.”

 

Son? Kelvin. Wycliff. The KW Ranch. Pieces clicked into place.

 

Mr. Wycliff retook his seat with a snort as Emily continued.

 

“I also know the name of a young man I suspect was on his last expedition in December. His name is Zack Harris. He goes to Princeton. I think giving him a call would be a good first step.”

 

“He’s a nobody!” Brock yelled, struggling to free himself from the two armed men on either side of him. “We’re the Wycliffs! You can’t do this to us! You have nothing on me! Let me go!”

 

The sheriff turned a disgusted look on Brock. “Get him out of here.”

 

For several moments the deputies battled to get him out. Then the door closed, and there was silence.

 

The sheriff nodded. Then he turned his gaze on Jeremy. “Mr. Stratton, may I see you in my office, please?”

 

Dread traced over him as he straightened from the others. “Do I need a lawyer?” It was a serious question.

 

“If you would prefer to do this with a lawyer, we can wait until morning.”

 

Jeremy considered as he looked around at everyone looking at him.  He knew what his dad would say, but he also knew Emily had just put all her cards on the table to back him up. He looked right at her. “Let’s do it.”

***

It was all Emily could do to keep from collapsing into tears as she sat down on the little bench beside her father. Exhaustion, relief, hope, and dread somehow formed as one in her heart. She watched Jeremy follow the sheriff into the little room, and ache slid over her. His beautiful face, framed by the flattened strips of disheveled and dirty hair, was marred with cuts, bruises, and streaks of blood.  He’d taken the beating of a lifetime and almost lost his life because of her. Only now was it sinking in just how much he’d almost lost out there.

 

Gently, her father put his arm around her and bent his head to kiss her hair. “I’m proud of you, Pumpkin. That took guts.”

 

She breathed. “Yeah, well, let’s hope it’s enough.”

 

Her father nodded. “It will be.”

***

Jeremy’s mind was still reeling by the time Emily snuggled into his arms on her parents’ couch three hours later.  She pulled the Indian blanket around them and settled next to him. He closed his eyes and laid his head back on the cushion. The soft light from the end table lamp draped the room in golden light.  Warmth began to seep into his still-chilled bones, and quiet slid over him.

 

Sleep drifted through his tired mind, pulling him down into it.

 

“You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Emily said so softly he could well have dreamt she said it.

 

When Jeremy opened his eyes, he found her gazing up into his. Sad tenderness wafted over her as she reached up and ran a finger over the cut running from his temple to his cheek. He’d seen it. It wasn’t pretty.

 

Questions traced across her face, and it was clear she was fighting the tears. “Why? Why did you do that? You could have been killed.”

 

The answer to that question was so simple, he smiled. “Because I love you. That’s why.”

 

There was every sign that she wanted to protest, but Jeremy didn’t give her that chance. Instead, he traced his finger from her neck under her hair, lowered his head, closed his eyes, and brushed across her lips.  At that moment there was no question that every moment to get to this one had been more than worth it.

***

“’Bye,” Emily said as she hugged her parents on Sunday morning. Standing next to Jeremy’s SUV, she felt the understanding that she was no longer a young girl, but sometime in the last week, she had truly stepped into being an adult.  Something in her whispered that this scene, her standing with Jeremy saying good-bye to her parents, would be the touchstone of her life from this point forward.

 

“You take care of my little girl,” her father said to Jeremy as they shook hands.

 

Jeremy nodded his acceptance of the responsibility. “Yes, Sir. I will.”

 

“Good luck with graduation, Jeremy,” her mother said as she hugged him. “We’ll be praying for you.”

 

“I appreciate that,” he said.  Then it was time to go. He opened Emily’s door, made sure she was in and secure before he slammed it.  In seconds he was right next to her, and together they waved as they drove out to the highway.

 

Watching him without being too obvious, Emily saw him look in the rearview mirror and exhale. Gratefulness for him being on the planet at the same time as her drifted into her spirit. “What’re you thinking?”

 

He turned out onto the highway, lost in thought, and then he looked over at her. There was no smile, only dead seriousness. “I think I’ve finally found where I belong.”

 

Her heart tripped over itself as her breathing slammed to a stop. “Oh? Where’s that?”

 

His glance at her was filled with words she could hardly read for the emotion contained therein. “Here. With you. In the mountains.”

 

Concern slid through her as her gaze dropped. “But I thought…”

 

Gently he reached over and took her hand. “Yeah, I did too.” He glanced out the window as the sheen of spring rolled out before them. “But now I’m not so sure.”

 

“What would you do out here?  You’re not exactly horse material.”

 

“Well, there’s a little bank in town. I saw it when I went through.”

 

Now the concern was deepening. “What about your dad?”

 

Jeremy laughed softly. “It’s not about my dad. It’s about me.” His glance took her breath away. “And you.” He pulled her hand up from the gear shift between them. His lips brushed across it sending her heart flying. Laying it back but holding it just the same, he drove a moment as she tried to get her heart to stop hammering in her chest. “So what time’s Bible Study on Wednesday?”

 

Her eyes widened, and there was no silencing her heart. “Bible Study?  I didn’t think you did Bible Study.”

 

The smile was easy and genuine. “Yeah, well, that was before God told me to climb a mountain and He’d have my back.” He looked so much the same, but he seemed so very different.  “That kind of changes things, you know?”

 

Yeah. She knew. She knew very, very well.

***

“Emily!” the squeal from the open door made her spin full around. In the next second she was in the midst of an all-out hug.

 

“Becca, hey! I went by your room, but Holly said you weren’t back yet.”

 

Dressed in jeans and her normal yellow T-shirt, Becca’s eyes shone from behind her dark rimmed glasses. “Yeah, I was at Eric’s waiting for you.  We figured you guys would come in together.”

 

Together. There was something about that word that did funny things to Emily. She pushed a piece of hair over her ear. “Yeah, well, we did, but Jeremy had some things he needed to take care of when we got back.”

 

Rebecca stopped her excited rush and surveyed Emily slowly. “Wait. What happened anyway? You look different?”

 

So it wasn’t just Jeremy. “Do I?”  She breathed in the thought. “Well, I guess being rescued on a mountaintop will do that to a person.”

 

“Rescued? What?” Rebecca dragged her to the bed and forced her down. “Tell me everything, and don’t leave anything out.”

***

“No wonder,” Eric said when Jeremy had finished the recounting of his Spring Break. “Are you sure Emily’s all right?”

 

Jeremy shrugged. “Brock’s being held without bail. They figure he’s a flight risk, and I’m sure at some point we’ll have to go back and testify.”

 

“Go back?” Eric’s brows furrowed. “You? In the country? On a horse? I can’t see that.”

 

“Yeah, but you should see that place.”  Jeremy drifted away on the memories. A field of new green stretched before him, and his heart floated back to lying in the midst of it with her in his arms. “No cars, no horns, no 50 thousand people. Just trees and fields and peace.”

 

Eric snorted as skeptical drained over his face. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you liked it there.”

 

Jeremy smiled. “Yeah, I think I do.”

 

“Do? As in…?” For a long moment Eric surveyed his friend. “So what does Em think of all this?”

 

The smile widened, filling Jeremy’s heart. “She’s right there with me.” Gratefulness so deep, it yanked tears to his eyes crowded through him. How could he ever be thankful enough for her?

 

Understanding streamed across Eric’s face. “So when are you going to ask her?”

 

There was no need to lie. “Right after graduation.”

Copyright Staci Stallings 2006

Posted in A Little Piece of Heaven, Novels | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Little Piece of Heaven, Ch. 23 & 24

Chapter 23

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.”

 

“Which is?”

 

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.”

 

“And now?”

 

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?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

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.

 

 

Chapter 24

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.

 

“And…?”

 

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?”

 

“For everything.”

 

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.”

 

“Worse?”

 

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

Posted in A Little Piece of Heaven, Novels | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Little Piece of Heaven, Ch. 21 & 22

Chapter 21

Emily didn’t want to be with him. That much was clear.  Jeremy wasn’t at all sure after the apartment scene if she wanted to be with anyone, but it was obvious she didn’t want to be with him. How much of that was her dreams and how much of that had to do with her always looking wary of every single situation in life he wasn’t at all sure. As the plane winged its way over the fields of grain beneath him, Jeremy forced his attention to more pressing matters.

 

He shifted in the seat, pulling his gray suit coat up from the back. He looked at his watch, sighed, and put his head back.  Two hours and he would be sitting smack in the middle of the biggest meeting of his life. The junior accounts manager wasn’t at the top of his list for ultimate jobs, but it wasn’t bad either. In fact, many in his class would’ve traded their grandmother to get the shot he had this afternoon.

 

At the thought of why he even had this shot, he pulled on his jacket again. He hadn’t seen his father in nearly a year—not since just before he found out about the divorce. The thought of seeing him later today made Jeremy put his head back and close his eyes. It had been a year of pain and misery such that he never could have guessed. So much had changed, and yet so much inside him hadn’t. He still didn’t want this job, but he still didn’t know what he did want. Once again he was single, but this time he had no intention of getting back in the game.

 

Girls were good for only one thing—breaking his heart.  That much was now a given. A hard shell of determination clamped over the pain. He would get this job, and he would be out of Boston forever by June.  He thought about his friends, and he wasn’t even sure he would ever make the effort to see Eric or any of the others again after he walked across that stage.  They weren’t really his friends—more just people he hung out with, and wherever he went from here, they surely would get separated and lose track. That’s what happened. Even families had a tough time staying together in the future he was staring through.

 

His thoughts drifted again to Emily as they always did. He shook his head. Somehow he had to get past how different life would have been if they could’ve made it work.  Somehow, but at that moment, he wasn’t sure how he would ever accomplish that, and in truth, he wasn’t sure he really wanted to let go of that dream. It was the only thing keeping him in one piece.

***

“I just came to wish you a good trip,” Rebecca said as she followed Emily into her room.  “I’m heading out, but I’ll see you when I get back?”

 

Emily dropped her suitcase to the floor and pulled the handle up. “Yep. I’m sure I’ll be here. Can’t stay away.” She walked to her friend. “Travel safely. I’ll be praying for you.”

 

“Right back at you.” Rebecca sighed. “And while you’re at it, keep Holly in your prayers. Okay?”

 

“Holly? Why? What’s up?”

 

“Oh, her mom wanted her to go out to California to meet this new rich tycoon guy she’s dating, but Holly’s not going—I think.  I don’t know.  She’s been in knots for a week.  Holly doesn’t want to go, her mom is insisting.  It’s a huge mess.”

 

“Ah, man. I hate to hear that.” Emily hated to hear that. “I’ll be sure to send some prayers her way.”

 

“Good.” Rebecca caught Emily in her sights. “You know, I’m really glad you’re not mad at us.”

 

The soft smile came from Emily’s heart. “I wasn’t mad. Just a little confused.”

 

“Yeah, well. I’ll be praying for that too.”

 

This smile was brighter.  “Thanks. Prayers are always welcome.”

***

As stupid as it sounded, Jeremy wanted to call Emily so badly it was making his head ache.  Over and over again, he shoved that thought away, but it always found its way back to him. He ditched his luggage at his dad’s apartment and headed into downtown Denver. Never had he ever wanted to do anything less. The traffic, although similar to Boston, held a fear he hadn’t remembered ever feeling. It was as if the whole of Denver was intent on swallowing him whole.

 

“It’s your imagination running away with you, Jeremy,” he told himself as he looked out the window of the cab into the gray, overhung sky. As he put his chin in his hand, all he could think was that he wished he’d had the guts to ask her to pray for him. At least then he wouldn’t feel so impossibly alone.

 

At the Skyway International Building, the cabbie pulled to the curb, and Jeremy got out. His gaze traveled up the story-upon-story of shiny windows. It was huge. He paid for his ride, and clutched the deep mahogany briefcase a little tighter for courage.  “Oh, Holy Spirit help…” It was all he could think to say.

***

“Well, well, don’t you look all citified,” Michael said, giving Emily a hug when she got to the lobby area.

 

She hadn’t chosen her outfit with the understanding that she would be evaluated by a guy in dirty, faded, ripped jeans and a chewed up cowboy hat. “Hello to you too,” she said, returning the hug.

 

He stepped back to survey her and pulled down on his hat as he did so. “Whew!  If I’d have known, I would have brought Audry, and we could’ve gone clubbing tonight.”

 

“Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s not that great.”

 

However, the appraisal of his gaze said otherwise.  It was far from fashion plate perfect, but she probably did look better than normal in her black lace undershirt and suede no-sleeve jacket.  The black jeans and brown suede flip-flops with the silver medallion on them didn’t exactly speak of herding cattle.

 

“Well, let’s get your stuff and jet. Audry’s supposed to be off work by six.”

 

Emily reachored her purse with a smile. As she watched him, her brother didn’t seem at all like the lanky, awkward kid she’d left. Every time she saw him, he looked more and more like a man. Strange how many things were so different every time she came back.

***

“Yes, Sir,” Jeremy said. “Here’s my resume.” He handed the paper across the desk. “As you can see, I’m well-qualified for the position. I’m on track to graduate Cum Laude, and my involvement in the Bank of America program for aspiring bankers last summer gave me added practical working knowledge of actual procedures and protocol.”

 

Mr. Ingram, the company’s human resources director, angled his fingers together as he stared at Jeremy.  “And why is it that you want to work for Skyway International?”

 

To Jeremy, that was obvious. It was because his father had envisioned nothing less for his life since the time he was twelve; however, he could hardly use that as his reason. “Well, Sir. I have watched the employees and management of Skyway for a long time now. The company itself is solid, and the opportunities here are all-but unlimited.  Plus, I have seen how well Skyway treats its employees, and that’s the kind of company I want to work for.”

 

It was true, all except for the Skyway being that kind of company part. Long stretches of his father being gone to Hong Kong, London, Houston, Boston, and Seattle drifted just beneath his consciousness. In truth, he wanted no part of the corporate life, but he couldn’t bring himself to so much as think those thoughts much less say them.

 

“I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Stratton,” Mr. Ingram said. “The fact that your father has such a stellar track record with the company will likely weigh heavily in your favor.  I’m quite sure we can find some place for a young man of your character and work ethic to start in our company.”  He nodded. “I’ll put your qualifications through the hopper and see what position you would be most useful to us.”

 

Jeremy had to force the smile because his gut was screaming at him to leave. “That’s wonderful, sir.  Thank you very much.”

 

They stood, and Jeremy shook the older man’s hand. “I look forward to hearing from you.”

***

By the time he got back to the apartment, Jeremy felt like a dishrag. His nerves were fried, his sanity shot.  He wondered what his father had planned for dinner or if he’d even thought about it. Was he supposed to wait or just go ahead?  Would it be late, or would his father actually manage to show up before he was in bed? There really was no way to tell.

 

Fighting off the loneliness, he flopped onto the stately mahogany colored couch and tried to get comfortable. It wasn’t easy. He pressed the remote, and the doors of the entertainment center slid open to reveal the television.  It covered half of one wall, which was bigger than two of his apartment’s walls put together.  He tried to make this feel like it was supposed to—being on top, successful, having made it in the world.

 

But as hard as he tried to make it feel that way, the more he knew it just wasn’t.

 

At ten ‘til eight, the phone rang. He reached for it. By that point he would’ve been thrilled to talk with a telemarketer. “Hello?”

 

“Hey, bud.  So I’m hearing some good things about your interview,” his father said over the phone lines. “Ingram seemed downright impressed.”

 

“Oh. That’s good.” Jeremy punched the volume down button. “I was wondering what’s up for dinner.”

 

“Oh, yeah. Hey, listen. I just got word we’ve got a snag in Seattle. Some auditor stuff came up, and I’m headed out. I hope you don’t mind.”

 

Jeremy’s heart plummeted through him. “You’re not coming?”

 

“You know I wish I could, bud, but you know how these things are.  But maybe who knows? This might only take a couple days. I could be home by Tuesday, and we’ll go out and do something—just the three of us.”

 

The three of us? Jeremy’s heart sank further. “Yeah, Dad. Whatever.”

 

“Come on, Jeremy. Don’t be like that. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”

 

Jeremy didn’t bother to answer.

 

“Well, yeah.” His father sighed. “Just make like you’re home. Whatever you need should be in the frig. If it’s not, there’s a great little take out place on the corner. The number’s up on the side of the frig.”

 

“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

 

“Great. That’s what I like to hear. Well, listen. I’ve got to get. I’ve got a ton to do here before I get on that plane.”

 

“Yeah. Okay, Dad.”

 

After they signed off, Jeremy reached over for the remote and hit the off button.  In one plunge, all sound and light disappeared from the room. The darkness around him crawled across him as he lay down on the couch. There really was no reason to keep pretending. There wasn’t a single shred of this life that he liked. He hated it all, and he knew at that moment that he always would.

***

“Em! You made it back!” Audry, in her Audry-like way, slung both arms around her friend and danced side to side. Then she stepped back and appraised her. “Wow. You look amazing.”

 

Emily tucked a strand of hair over her ear. “Thanks.”

 

Audry shook her head. “You should’ve saved that outfit for tomorrow night.”

 

“Why? What’s going on then?”

 

“Didn’t Michael tell you? Janine and Richard are finally getting hitched.”

 

It took her a minute to find the names in her head. “Janine from when we were sophomores Janine?”

 

“Yeah. Course, they’re only doing a little wedding, but a bunch of us were going to hit the dance. Janine said to bring whoever we could. The more the merrier.”

 

Whoever we could. For some reason those words raked across Emily’s heart, drudging up hurt as they went. She put her hands in her back pockets. “I’ll have to see.”

 

“Oh, come on. I hear Zack may be coming with Dracula again.”

 

There was an even better reason to stay away. Emily nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

***

Jeremy didn’t bother to get up until almost noon. There was no reason to. He didn’t want to be living anyway—why do more of that than he had to?  At the refrigerator, he reached in and got the milk, but one whiff told him that was a bad idea. He put it back.

 

It was weird. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve thought his father didn’t even live here. That’s when a thought occurred to him. If his father didn’t live here, maybe he was already living with Amber. The thought brought bile to Jeremy’s throat. Probably his father was there.  In fact, maybe Seattle had just been his excuse. That way he didn’t have to face his son.  That way he didn’t have to deal with it.

 

Ache coursed through Jeremy such that he could hardly breathe. His spirit felt like the squished bug on the bottom of someone’s shoe. He was in the way, a bother to everyone who had the great misfortune of knowing him. His gaze chanced on his cell phone lying on the counter, and a thought traced through him.

 

“No,” he said to the emptiness. “I’m not calling her. She doesn’t want to talk to me.”

 

But the hours and hours she had gotten him through when he was in North Carolina called to his weary spirit. It didn’t have to be a long call.  Just kill a few minutes. Make sure she got to Remlin okay.  They were friends after all. She had said that. They were friends.  And friends called friends all the time. Right?

***

“Emily, it’s for you,” Derrick, Nathan’s twin, said as he tossed the phone onto her bed. She had begged off the ranch work in order to work on her paper. Once it was finished, then she would have no excuse, but for now she planned on using it as much as possible.

 

“Thanks,” she said. It was going to be Audry. Why it was so important that Emily go to this dance was beyond her. “Hello?”

 

“H-hi. Em?”

 

In one breath she sat up. “Jeremy?” In the next breath concern smashed into her. “What’s wrong?”

 

He laughed softly. “Why do you always assume something’s wrong?”

 

“Because you always sound like someone died. What’s going on?”

 

“Oh, you know. Same song. Ninety-seventh verse.”

 

More concern swept through her at the utter desolation in his voice. She wound a strand of hair over her ear. “Why? What happened?”

 

“Same thing that always does.” He sounded as if he was fighting back tears. “I get here, and everyone bails.”

 

“North Carolina?”

 

“Denver.”

 

The city’s name thwacked into her. “I didn’t know you were going to Denver.”

 

“Yeah. It’s my dad’s holiday to have me, but as usual, he ditched me for bigger and better things.”

 

Anger snapped into her. “You’re there by yourself?”

 

“Until Tuesday or Wednesday. If whatever he’s doing in Seattle is finished by then, and if he doesn’t come up with something better to do, which of course he will.”

 

“So you’re alone for all of Spring Break?”

 

“Looks like it. Me and the TV. It’s great fun.” He was trying to sound okay with it and failing miserably.

 

Then through the concern slid a thought, but Emily shook her head. It was crazy. What would he want to do that for? More than that, why should she want him to?

 

“Well,” he said, “I was just calling to kill a few minutes. I guess I’ll see you when I get back.”

 

“Yeah.” She took a breath and closed her eyes. “Hey, listen, Jeremy. Umm, this is kind of crazy and all, and I’m sure you have tons better to do, but… Well, I was just wondering… I mean, it’s only a couple hours up here, and if you’re not doing anything tonight…”

 

“Tonight?” He sounded truly surprised.

 

“Yeah, well.” Her shoulders hunched over her body, and she grabbed her ankles with her hand. “Some friends…” She reached up and scratched at her hairline as nerves attacked her. “Well actually, my brother and his girlfriend are going to a dance up here tonight. It’s no big deal.  Just a wedding for some kids we knew back in school.” She lost steam the further into the invitation she went. “But you’d probably think it was lame. I mean… it was just a thought.” She wasn’t even breathing anymore.

 

“You want me to come? To your parents’ house?” Sheer disbelief rang through his voice, and Emily regretted asking him.

 

“I know. It’s lame. I’m sure you’ve got lots of stuff to do there.”

 

“Yeah, me and the television.” He stopped for a long moment. “You know what? That sounds like fun.”

 

Surprise and fear pounced on her. “It does?”

 

“Yeah. In fact, that’s the best offer I’ve had in weeks.”

 

Emily’s heart was beating so loudly, she barely got through the directions. However, as bad as that was, it was no comparison for the moment he hung up saying he’d just grab some things and be there in a couple.  A couple?  What had she done? Horror slammed into her. Jeremy was coming. Here!

 

She leaped from the bed and scrambled into the living room, which was strewn with remnants of the family’s week.  There was no way she was going to make this place look anything like what he was used to, but the racing of her heart said she had to try.

***

For added safety Jeremy bought a Colorado map on the way out of town. The little black SUV he’d rented for the trip hummed underneath him as he fiddled with the stereo that only had a radio.  Surely there was something decent to listen to.  He found a song that wasn’t wholly horrible and settled for that.  Why had he not thought to bring his iPod?  It was back at his dad’s in the suitcase.  Oh, well.  Too late now.

 

Turning onto the Interstate, he headed due west. The pit of his stomach alternated between excitement and fear. The fact that she had even suggested this trip was more than he ever could have asked for, and yet, he wasn’t sure he could handle a whole evening with her in which he had to pretend he was cool with the whole just being friends thing.  Going to a wedding with a friend of the opposite sex was a set up for an inundation of innuendos and snide remarks. He didn’t want that for her, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to handle it himself.

 

Just as his nerves threatened to take a dive off the edge of the Interstate, he let out a quick breath. “Okay, Holy Spirit, You’re really going to have to help with this one because I have no idea what I’m doing here.”

 

The beauty of the mountains took over his consciousness then.  The green of the coming spring danced around him in perfect relief to the azure sky. Puffy white clouds spoke of purity and peace.  He didn’t remember seeing them in Denver. Maybe they were there. Maybe they weren’t.  But he was glad they were here now.  They settled him in a way nothing had in a very long time.

 

His spirit began to unwind, and as it did, slowly it took in more and more of the day. He reached down and turned up the music.  A breath and he smiled. It didn’t matter that she didn’t want this to be permanent.  For this one moment he would forget about the future and what it would hold and what it wouldn’t. For this one moment he would just enjoy the gift that he would get to be with her.

 

For this one moment, he would enjoy life—whatever it brought.

***

“Honey? Have you been cleaning?” Emily’s mother asked when she walked in the back door at two o’clock.

 

Emily raced out of the back and grabbed the last stack of her father’s Cattleman’s magazines.  “Yeah. I hope you don’t mind.”  She ran for the back, threw them on her father’s desk, shut the door, and raced back out. “I invited a friend of mine from school over. He’s going to be here any minute.”

 

She ran to the kitchen and stacked the dishes she had washed together.

 

“He’s?”

 

The racing stopped long enough for Emily to plead with her mother even as she held the dishes. “Please, Mom. Please. Don’t embarrass me. He’s just a friend, and he was sitting in his father’s apartment in Denver bored and miserable.”

 

“Where are his parents?”

 

“Non-existent.” The word stunned her with its venom. She shook her head and put the dishes in the cabinet. “It’s a really long story, but he’s coming to go to the dance with us tonight just to have something to do.”

 

The sound of tires crunching up the gravel driveway echoed through Emily’s heart. Her head jerked in the direction of the sound. “Oh, my gosh! He’s here already! Oh, no.” Her gaze dropped to her unkempt appearance. “I’m not ready! I look like Lurch.”

 

“Emily, sweetheart, calm down.” Her mother extended a soothing hand. “You go get ready, and I’ll show him in.”

 

“O—okay. But really, Mom. Don’t embarrass me. Please.”

 

“I won’t.” Her mother led her into the hallway and pushed her in the direction of her room. “Now go.”

 

At her door, Emily stopped. “Oh, his name is Jeremy, and he’s a business major.  Jeremy Stratton.”

 

“Emily! Would you go? I can do this.”

 

“Please, be nice to him, Mom. Please…”

 

The knock sounded on the front door, and Emily squealed. Her mother waved her away into her room.  Emily stepped in but didn’t close the door totally. Instead, she left it open a crack so she could hear what was going on in the living room. The sound of his voice washed over her, and she squealed softly again. He was really here. Quietly she shut the door, and her gaze shot around the room. Jeremy Stratton was here! Now what?

 

 

Chapter 22

“Hello, you must be Jeremy,” the tall lady with the deep olive skin said as she extended her hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

 

“Nice to meet you,” he said. He was having trouble taking it all in at once. The long covered porch, the sweeping vista of the field waving in green out front stretching to the mountains ringing it, the old ranch house, the stables just off to the left. There was so much, and it was all amazing.

 

“Please, come on in.” The lady stepped back, and Jeremy climbed the last step and walked into the house.  It was literally nothing fancy. Old beige carpet that was worn in spots, an old grayish couch with the stuffing showing in the back cushion, a painting of trees and a sunset that looked 50 years old or better—there wasn’t a single thing that looked even close to modern. “Have a seat. Would you like some tea or lemonade?”

 

“Oh, uh. No thank you.” He sat down on the couch as if it might collapse from under him.

 

“So, I hear you’re from Denver.”

 

Jeremy’s attention swung from the large picture window framing the field beyond. “Oh, my dad is. I was just visiting.”

 

“Ah.” The lady raised her chin in understanding. She sat down in the recliner with the scratchy looking brown covering. “You’re a business major?”

 

He rubbed his hands together, wanting to be polite but really wondering where Emily was. “Yes, Ma’am. I graduate in May.”

 

“Oh, well… that’s wonderful.”

 

The bang of the backdoor brought Jeremy’s nerves right to the surface. Instantly the lady jumped to her feet.  Jeremy too stood as the lady rushed out. There was a hushed conversation in the kitchen—something about getting rid of the salesman.  Then the lady was back with a man twice as big as Jeremy and ten times dirtier than he had ever been in his life. He gulped his nerves down and extended his hand.

 

“Pedro, this is Jeremy, Emily’s friend from college,” the lady said.

 

“Jeremy.”

 

“Mr. Vasquez,” Jeremy said, praying that was the right name, and he wouldn’t offend this man who looked like he might kick Jeremy back to Denver with his filthy cowboy boots for a wrong look at his daughter.

 

Just before Jeremy completely lost his last nerve, he heard a door down the hallway the other direction open. In self-defense he turned toward it, hoping it wasn’t another member of her family coming to size him up. However, the second he caught sight of her gliding gracefully down the hall, all the sizing up in the world was worth it.

 

One hand was stuck in the back pocket of her faded denim jeans. It brought her shoulder up in the customary shy way that sent his heart soaring. “Hey, you made it,” she said, and that soft, sweet voice unleashed the rest of him.

 

He could hold the smile in no longer. He was sure the whole room could hear his heart pounding. “Hey, Em. How’re you?” With everything in him, he wanted to reach out and take her hand, but he knew he shouldn’t. Instead he reached over and gave her a quick hug which she returned just enough. Then their arms dropped between them.

 

“So, how was the drive?” she asked, clearly straining for something normal as her glance went across his shoulder to her parents.

 

“Good. You give great directions. I had no trouble at all.” He turned slightly to include her parents in the conversation. “It’s really beautiful up here. The mountains and the lake on the way up. They’re amazing.”

 

“Little different than all those buildings you’re used to, huh?” Mr. Vasquez asked.

 

“I’ll say. I was just thinking on the way up, I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen the sky.  Well, of course in the airplane on the way out, but I don’t know if that counts.”

 

Amazingly the others laughed, and Jeremy’s nerves unwound a notch.

 

“Well, I’d better get back out there before Curt notices I’m gone,” Mr. Vasquez said. He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Jeremy.”

 

“You too, sir.”

 

On her husband’s heels, Mrs. Vasquez politely excused herself as well, and then they were alone.

 

“I can’t believe you’re here,” Emily said, and Jeremy really liked the excitement in her voice. It gave him a hope he hadn’t felt in weeks. Together they sat on the couch. It was wonderful to see her so happy and carefree.

 

“Do you want something? Tea? Lemonade? Root beer?”

 

“Root beer?” he asked incredulously.

 

“I know, it’s lame.” She tugged on the bottom of her shirt. “But my brothers love the stuff, so we always have a little stash of it.”

 

As crazy as it sounded, he loved how she could pull off shy, nervous, and gorgeous at the same time. “No, I’m fine. Maybe later though.”  He pulled his knee to the couch so he could turn and look at her. “So you were serious about this dance thing?”

 

“Yeah. It’s at nine.” She let her gaze fall to her hands. “But if you don’t want to go, I’ll understand. I mean, it’s not Fire & Ice or anything.”

 

The reference knocked into him, and he smiled softly. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

***

The afternoon and early evening flew by. They ate dinner with her family and then got ready for the dance.  Jeremy disappeared into her brothers’ room, and Emily raced through her own preparations in her room. She didn’t want him to have to spend more time alone with her family than absolutely necessary.

 

However, apparently he didn’t have make-up and mismatched shoes to deal with because by the time she got ready, he was again sitting in the living room only now Nathan had talked him into playing some X-Box game. The twins had gotten one for their combined birthday/Christmas present in December. That’s about all they did when they were at home now.

 

“Well, ready or not,” Emily said as she stood behind Jeremy watching him work the joystick. He turned, and in one breath the game was forgotten. On the screen his ship plunged through outer space and exploded in a brilliant orb of golden light.

 

“Wow.” Jeremy scrambled to his feet and adjusted the waist of his gray suit pants. “Very nice.”

 

She had opted to wear her black pants that flared a little at the bottom along with her emerald satin and black lace blouse. The dense black lace plunged from her neckline down the center of the shiny emerald material, cinching at all the right places. Even better her hair had cooperated for once in her life. She had put it up with a faux emerald and diamond clip at the top and let it trail down her shoulders on both sides.

 

“Wow, Em,” Nathan said from the floor. “You got a hot date or something?”

 

Searing heat scorched across her face, and her gaze fell to the floor. Across the room her mother walked in drying her hands with a dishcloth. One look and approval danced through her mother’s eyes.

 

“You kids have a good time.  Tell Michael that he and Audry can come for lunch tomorrow. I set out a couple of chickens.”

 

“Fried chicken? You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t show up tonight,” Emily said with a laugh as she wrapped her arms around themselves. She’d never felt more intimidated just standing in her parents’ living room as she did at that moment.

***

It was as if Jeremy had lost the ability to think much less to move. He was fighting not to stare at her, yet that’s all he wanted to do. “Umm, do I need to bring my suit jacket?”

 

Her laugh lifted his heart. “Everybody else is going to be in jeans. I don’t think we have to get too formal.”

 

“Oh. Okay. Well, are you ready then?”

 

Emily nodded.  Jeremy managed to get himself to take a step toward her, and the second he did, he knew this was going to be an all-out battle to keep himself from doing something stupid. She smelled like a garden of flowers. Oh, Holy Spirit, help.

***

It was strange how easy it was to be with Jeremy when she wasn’t freaking out about him getting too close or he wasn’t trying to act like Mr. Moneybags. It was just comfortable. He didn’t take her hand, and he only glanced at her when she pointed out the turns. However, her spirit soaked in every single second with him like a thirsty sponge.

 

When they got to the dance, the music was already playing and wedding guests dotted the parking lot of the little community hall. Weddings in Remlin weren’t the invitation only type.  Mostly those with invitations went to the wedding itself, and everyone else showed up for the dance to wish the happy couple their best.  It was weird by city standards, but it worked very well here.

 

Several of her high school friends called and waved to her as they walked toward the door, and she waved back.

 

“Do you know them?” Jeremy asked in a voice swathed in skepticism.

 

“We went to school together.”

 

“Oh.” At the door he stepped to the side for her to enter first then followed her in.

 

The lights over the dance floor were already off, and Emily caught sight of Janine in her long, white satin gown. The smile came unbidden. Her gaze further swept the area. “There’s Michael and Audry,” Emily said, pointing. Without really more direction than that, she started across the hall to their table.

 

“Well, it’s about time,” Audry said standing to give Emily a hug. “I figured you bringing a friend was some elaborate excuse so you could bail.” Then her gaze traipsed behind Emily to Jeremy. “But I see you were serious. Hi. I’m Audry.”

 

“Jeremy,” Jeremy said, extending his hand.

 

Michael stood behind Audry and presented his hand. “I’m Michael, Emily’s brother.”

 

The words sounded pointed in a way that Emily knew they didn’t have to.

 

“Jeremy Stratton.” He shook Michael’s hand solidly. Then he stepped back to her side. His gaze slid across the half a thousand guests milling about. “Big wedding.”

 

“Yeah,” Audry said as they sat. “I think between the two of them, they’re related to like three-quarters of the town.”

 

“Wow. Really?” Jeremy’s eyebrows arched. He looked out to them dancing. “They look happy.”

 

“Yeah, they do,” Audry said, but Emily caught the fact that she wasn’t looking at the bride and groom. As Jeremy’s gaze slid through the hall, Audry caught Emily’s. “He’s cute,” she mouthed, looking as serious as Emily had ever seen her.

 

“We’re friends,” Emily mouthed back.

 

Audry nodded in a knowing way that screeched across Emily’s heart. Subtlety had never been Audry’s strong suit.  Worse, Michael looked like he could chew nails.  This had been a very bad idea. She wished she hadn’t asked. But just then Jeremy turned to her, arched his arm over her chair, and smiled at her.

 

“This is fun.”

 

It made all the bad stuff disappear.

***

Audry and Michael were dancing. Although she had talked to her brother and her friend, Emily had been pretty quiet the whole night.  It wasn’t so much a sad quiet more a contented quiet meant to keep things nice and friendly between them. However, Jeremy finally could stand it no longer. “You want to dance?”

 

The surprise in her eyes knifed through him. But she didn’t say no. She didn’t say anything. Instead she simply laid her hand in his and stood. On the way to the dance floor, she tugged her blouse down, and when she turned to step into his arms, she never even looked at him.

 

Through the DJ’s speakers poured a country beat, and Jeremy noticed everyone else doing a dance that had steps to it. “I don’t know how to do this.”

 

“It’s not hard,” she said, stepping back from him.  “It’s just two steps forward and one back.  Step. Step. Back.  Step. Step. Back.”

 

He missed the back part. Frustration with his lack of coordination poured over him as he stepped back and away from her. “Sorry.”

 

However, neither sounding nor looking at all frustrated, she smiled. “It’s okay. Try it again.”  She came to him and right into his arms. “Step. Step. Back. Step. Step. Back.”

 

It felt so unnatural, so different than the simple swaying motion he had gotten so used to in Boston.  His gaze was on their feet, and he liked getting to look at her toes peeking out of the black strap sandals.

 

“Step. Step. Back. Step. Step. Back. See it’s not so hard.”

 

He still felt like the tin man, but she was beginning to feel like smooth butter in his arms. Around them couples swirled with much more grace than they were exhibiting, but strangely he didn’t feel their stares of disapproval like he thought he would.  She was right about one thing. There were as many people in jeans and dress shirts as there were in suits.  Even most of the girls wore jeans.

 

His attention slid back to the dancing, and his head bent with hers to watch their feet. Something about that made his heart swell. It was as if she was letting him into her life rather than trying to fit into his.  He glanced up at her, and when she caught his gaze, he couldn’t stop the smile.

 

“Not too bad for a city boy,” she said teasingly.

 

“Why thank you, Ma’am.” He missed the first step forward and nearly tripped over his own two feet. It took a minute to fall into rhythm again. “I thought us city folks were supposed to be the ones with the complicated dances.”

 

“Just wait ‘til we get to waltz.” The amusement in her eyes dragged happiness right out of him.

 

“Uh-oh. Maybe we’d better quit while we’re ahead.” On their third pass around the floor, he was finding smooth at least enough to stop looking at their feet. “So did you dance a lot in high school?”

 

“Some,” she said, but the smile on her face fell when her gaze slid past him to the door just as that song ended. Immediately she let go of him and wrapped her arms around herself to head back to their table. “Thanks.”  In slight confusion, he glanced in the direction she had as he followed her off the dance floor. He could see nothing out of the ordinary for here anyway. Just a bunch of cowboys in pressed jeans and multi-colored shirts.

 

Trying to figure out what had happened, he traced her steps back to where Michael and Audry stood.

 

“Joy of joys. Look who ventured out of his coffin,” Audry said with sarcasm saturating the statement. “Why can’t he do the rest of us a favor and stay in his lair? He’s such a jerk.”

 

Jeremy was looking the direction they all were, but still he couldn’t piece together who they were talking about.

 

“I should tell Dad he’s back,” Michael spat. “That’s information he definitely needs to know.”

 

“I’m sure the animals would like some warning too,” Audry said.

 

“Come on, guys,” Emily said, but it was clear the words were strangling her to speak. “We came here to have a good time.”  However, she didn’t look like she was taking her own advice.

 

Jeremy’s mind fell into concentration. Whoever they were discussing was evidently not Mr. Popularity. “What’s up?” he asked in confusion, not understanding the pallor that had fallen over the festivities.

 

“Oh, it’s just Brock Wycliff,” Emily said. “His dad owns the ranch.” She brushed a strand of hair that had fallen from the clip. Without warning, she grabbed his hand. “Come on, let’s dance.”

 

When she was again in his arms, Jeremy concentrated on the steps for a half time around the floor so he wouldn’t mess up and send both of them crashing to the tile covered concrete. Finally he fell into the rhythm, and his attention went to other things. “So what’s up with this Wycliff guy anyway?”

 

In annoyance she glanced the direction they had been looking. With a small shake of her head, she dragged her gaze back to his chest. Her face looked like she’d eaten a rotten lemon. “He thinks he owns everything and everyone.” She spun them both as if she was the one leading.

 

His feet followed, but he had no idea how. “Because…?”

 

She sighed. “Well, his dad owns the ranch like I said, and Brock kind of thinks that means he can do whatever he wants. He brings friends up from Princeton, and they go hunting.”

 

There was more, but she didn’t continue.

 

“And that’s a bad thing?”

 

“Oh, hunting’s fine if you’re legal, but Brock really doesn’t care too much about little things like laws and fines. He just does whatever he wants, and nobody has the guts to say anything about it.”

 

Jeremy’s concern grew. “But Michael and Audry…”

 

Emily shook her head. “Everybody knows, but he’s got the money and the connections, so…”

 

Slowly pieces of his relationship with Emily began to fall into place in Jeremy’s head, and he didn’t like the picture they were forming.  The song ended, and he thanked her. As they started for their standing place, he glanced back across the floor. “So which one is he anyway?”

 

Emily brushed the hair away. “The guy in the yellow. The one with everyone fawning all over him.” The way she said it made Jeremy think she would prefer to throw up over pointing Brock out.

 

Once they were back with the group, Jeremy surreptitiously let his gaze slide to the edge where the bright lights were on. It took little to see the arrogance and superiority the second he caught sight of Brock Wycliff. His blond hair was cut so short it spiked on its own. His eyes, barely slits, were filled with his understanding of his place in the world. Jeremy hated him from 30 yards away. As his gaze went back to Emily, he wondered how closely she had hated him.

 

With that thought he seemed to really see her for the first time that night. She was trying. He’d seen trying before—like the night of the concert and the night they had gone to the movies.  Pieces of them being together slid into and over each other. The nervousness at nice restaurants stood in stark relief to the easy cheerfulness when they were just hanging out.

 

As he let his gaze trail back and forth between the two of them, he felt more than knew. The need to protect her drifted through him, and he stepped closer to her.

 

“So, Jeremy, what brings you all the way out here to the sticks?” Michael asked, and Jeremy heard the hard edge of the question.

 

He glanced at Emily, and then let his gaze fall. “Em was afraid I’d atrophy in front of my dad’s big screen.” The second it was out of his mouth, he hated himself. Heat slid down his neck. How many times had he pointed out how much money he had? How many times had she compared him to Brock and seen the parallels in perfect relief? His gaze slid across the room, and deep understanding plowed through him. No wonder.

***

Emily wished Brock Wycliff would drop off the planet. He had a way of messing up absolutely everything. Ever since he had shown up, being with Jeremy had gotten terribly difficult.  He was quiet, and she could think of nothing to say. They were dancing again, and as stupidly naïve as it sounded, it was the only space she ever wanted to occupy again.

 

Their feet moved together, his sliding easily next to hers. Closing her eyes, she let the gentle pressure of his hand pull her closer than he had all night. Why did this feel so impossibly perfect sometimes?  Her heart begged her to patch things up for real.  Why was that so hard?  He was a nice guy. Was giving him another chance such a bad idea?

 

His arms felt so secure.  Warm and safe. And the way he held her was like being guided by a cloud. She breathed in his aftershave, and her heart cried for her to stop being an idiot about wanting to keep her distance. Never had she wanted anything or anyone like she wanted him at that moment.

***

Next to his side, Emily’s hand was wrapped in his.  Tucked under his arm, she swayed in perfect time with him as every emotion he’d ever felt crashed through him. She felt so right here, so perfectly in place in his arms. Jeremy let his head rest on the side of hers as his eyes fell closed. Every breath brought her deeper into his soul.  Hard had never seemed so far away.

 

As they swayed together, Jeremy could see no other option. He had used up the paltry amount of his own charms on her, and they had fallen absolutely flat.  He knew she didn’t want him, and he knew she was better off without him and his arrogance—not to mention his empty future of slaving for a company he hated.  But as clear as all that was, his heart just couldn’t take the possibility of her walking away again.

 

God, listen. I know I have no right to ask this. I know she deserves better than me, but You have to know how much I need her. I know I messed up. I know I don’t deserve a second chance, but please, God, if there’s any way to get her to give me just one more chance. I promise I won’t waste this one. Please…

 

The song ended, and in slow motion she drifted backward from him. Her eyes were soft and dreamy when she looked up at him. He smiled, but it hardly got that far.

 

“Thanks.”  The word was hardly a whisper from his heart.

 

She nodded, and for the blink of a second he considered kissing her. More to it, his spirit considered kissing her because in truth his mind wasn’t really thinking all that clearly anymore. Her gaze fell, and she let her hand fall with it. Between them, her fingers wrapped through his. Disbelief crowded into his heart, and then joy burst through him.

 

He was smiling like an idiot by the time they got back to Michael and Audry. They were putting on coats getting ready to go.

 

“You guys leaving already?” Emily asked clearly reaching for normal.

 

“Yeah,” Audry said. “I’m helping my little sis move in the morning.”

 

“Oh, Mom invited you guys for lunch tomorrow. She’s making chicken.”

 

“Well, if Michael comes and helps, we could probably make it.” Audry looked at him.

 

“Why do I feel like I just got set up?” He laughed as he helped Audry with her coat.  “Tell Mom we’ll be there about noon.”

 

“Cool,” Emily said as she gave Audry a hug. “Well, don’t get lost going home.”

 

“I could tell you the same thing.” She arched her eyebrows at her friend and then caught Jeremy in her sights.  “It was nice to meet you, Jeremy.”

 

“Same here.”

 

With that, the two of them disengaged from the group and left.

 

“They’re nice,” Jeremy said by way of making conversation. He missed her hand which had detached from his with the good-byes.

 

“Yeah.” Emily corkscrewed her face in concentration. “It’s weird. I never could’ve pictured them together, but they make a good couple.”

 

He glanced at her. Just like someone else I know.  With only one arm across her middle, she let her other hand drop to his. He pulled her hand into his. How that could feel so incredible, he had no idea.  He let out a long breath wanting the night to last forever.

 

“So,” she said softly. “You want to dance?”

 

“Like I’d pass up that offer.”

 

On the dance floor he didn’t so much as bother with formalities before pulling her close, and she put her head on his chest. It was the most right the world had ever felt.

***

When they got back to her parents’ house, the mountains were merely more of the darkness around them.  Jeremy turned off the SUV in the driveway and sat in amazement as he gazed out at the panorama of stars dotting the night sky.

 

“I can’t believe how beautiful it is out here,” he whispered not wanting to break the trance. “It’s like nature for real.”

 

“You’ve never seen nature for real?”

 

“Not like this. I mean I’ve been skiing and things like that, but that doesn’t even compare.  It’s just so… wow. Look at the stars. They’re incredible.”

 

He felt her gaze trace across his face. “Yeah, I know.”

 

It took only that much for him to forget all about the stars. He turned to look at her. “I’m glad I came.”

 

“So am I.”

 

His gaze fell as remembering knifed through him. “Are you sure? I figured you’d never wanted to see me again after the other night. I wasn’t even sure I should call. I was afraid you’d hang up on me.” It was honest, and it hurt more than he wanted to admit.

 

In a breath her gaze followed his into the darkness between them. “I know. I’m sorry about that. It was just… I don’t know. I guess I’m not meant for big fancy parties. I know you regretted asking me.”

 

Concern plowed over him. “I didn’t regret asking you. I just felt bad that you were having such a lousy time.” He felt her arms go across her more than he saw them, and that made him hate himself all the more.

 

“I’m just not good in those kinds of situations. I feel like everyone’s looking at me like, ‘What’re you doing here? Hey, who brought in the trash?’”

 

“Trash?” The word crashed on him like an anvil. “You’re not trash.” Intensity turned him to her. “Emily…”

 

“No.  It’s okay. I’m not an idiot. I know what people think.”

 

This conversation was worrying him more and more the farther it went. “That’s not what I think. That’s not what Eric and Becca think either.”

 

She shook her head. “I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the others. You know. The suits.” Ache poured from her words in torrents. “I see how they look at me.” Her voice grew soft. “That’s why I keep telling myself that this thing with us will never work out because I just don’t fit into your world—no matter how hard I try. Even if I could afford to wear the stuff they wear or go the places they go, I still wouldn’t fit in.  We’re just so different, and I can’t change that as much as I want to sometimes.”

 

Fury and frustration met in him. “Why would you try to change anything about yourself? You’re perfect just like you are. They’re the jerks.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Her gaze found his. “Then why do you try so hard to impress them?”

 

Searing pain yanked his gaze down. He couldn’t deny it, so he didn’t try. Why did he try so hard to impress them?  It was a good question, one he had no real answer for.

 

“You’re so different when you’re around them,” she said softly. “Like the other night. It was like you were embarrassed I was there.”

 

His gaze jumped to hers. “Embarrassed? I wasn’t embarrassed.”

 

“Oh, yeah? Well, it would’ve been nice to be introduced to some of them.” She shrugged. “I know they wouldn’t have cared anyway, but it still would’ve been nice.”

 

At first he started to protest, but then he reviewed the evening a bit closer, and utter disgust with himself bled into him. He pressed the heel of his thumb to his forehead. “Cripes, Em. I was a real jerk, huh? I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel like that.”

 

Her laugh was more a breath. “It’s okay. I know I’m not show-off trophy material.”

 

Jeremy could take it no longer. He spun on her. “What? Are you kidding me? You have more class and character than all of them put together.  All they care about is cars and clothes and who they can use to get a leg up.” Suddenly his own values and behaviors were illuminated in a bright, glaring light in front of him, and he hated everything he saw.  He put his head back on the headrest and cracked it back once for good measure. “Crud. I’m just like them, huh?” He closed his eyes, trying to shut his own life out. “Oh, man. How did I get here? How did I become everything I always said I hated?”

 

The interview and his future jumped into his mind. “And it’s like this stupid train I can’t stop too. It’s like I got on board when I was little, and now there’s no ripping up my ticket and getting off.” He sighed heavily. “I interviewed for my dad’s company yesterday.”  He was now talking to the night sky beyond rather than to her. It was the only way he could get the words out. “Skyway International. The big time.  Man, I hate that company.”

 

Confusion traced through her demeanor. “Then why did you apply there?”

 

He let his gaze slide to hers, and he let a goofy smile come to his face. “It’s what’s expected. Besides, what else am I going to do?” He dragged his gaze back outside. “Look at me. I’m the son of a high-powered finance lawyer and a corporate accountant. Success is kind of built into the model.”

 

“Yeah, but is that success? Really?” It was as if she was burning holes in him, holes that hurt to acknowledge. “Is it worth a broken family? Never seeing your kids? Not being there for them growing up?”

 

“I had everything a kid could ever want.”

 

For a long moment she said nothing. Then softly, she asked, “Everything?”

 

He closed his eyes against the pain slashing through him. The truth hurt more than he thought it would. “No. Not everything.” He shook his head slowly. “Just once I’d like him to say he’s proud of me.  Just once I’d like to be first. Just once I’d like to feel like he doesn’t think I’m a complete disappointment.” Once the floodgates opened, closing them was impossible. “I really thought he’d be excited about me getting this job. You know? I really did. I thought that was going to be the thing he’d finally stop long enough to say, ‘Hey, congratulations, kid. You did good.’ I should’ve known better.”

 

“There’s always graduation.”

 

Jeremy let his head fall to the side to look at her as all the pain poured out. “He’ll be in Hong Kong. He already told me that six months ago.  Of course I’m supposed to understand. Just like I understood about Mom at Christmas and my birthday and the divorce. Yeah. I understand all right.” He resumed looking out the front window. It was too hard to watch her as the words came. “I used to lay in bed at night and wonder what was so wrong with me. Why couldn’t he just come watch me play like the other kids’ dads did, you know?  Why was he gone all the time?  Even when he was home, he left before I got up, and most of the time I was in bed before he got home.

 

“He was in all the pictures, but part of me didn’t even feel like he was real. Like my dad was Superman or something.  He was out saving the world, and whatever he was doing out there was way more important than me and my stupid life.”

 

“Jeremy…”

 

With a snap, he clamped nonchalance over all of it. “No, it’s okay. Really. It shouldn’t even bother me anymore.”

 

“But it does.”

 

He couldn’t tell if that was a question or a statement. Slowly he nodded as knifing pain went through his chest.  “Yeah, it does.”

 

She reached across the seat to him, and her arms came around him. The gearshift presented something of a problem, but she managed to cross it so by the end of her journey she was sitting half on it and half in his lap.  He grabbed onto her, the hurt from the million little gashes in his soul flowed from him like he’d never let happen before.  Everyone thought he was Superman, that nothing could touch him because he was rich and he had it made.

 

He had scholarships and a trust fund. He had good grades and jobs lined up in front of him. But all the success he’d managed to build felt like his kryptonite. It seared his soul, jerking every arrogant thing he’d ever done to the surface of his memory. And there were many. Too many. They were everywhere he looked. He buried his head into the softness of her shoulder and let himself feel everything he never had. After a few moments he sucked the hurt back inside him and shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

 

She was only inches away. Gently, she took his face in her hands and gazed into his eyes. “For what?”

 

“For everything.”

 

There was a soft smile, and then as if they belonged nowhere else, her lips were on his.  Their touch jolted something in Jeremy, something that said for once in his life he had let someone know the real him, and instead of running, incredibly she still cared. More than cared—she wanted to show him just how much. A moment and she pulled back.

 

All the editing he’d ever done to his thoughts before they found the air was history. “You must think I’m a class A jerk.”

 

The glint in her eye teased his spirit. “Class B maybe.” But she laughed. “No. You just don’t trust yourself to be you. You’re always trying to act like you’ve got it all figured out, like you have to impress everybody so they’ll like you, but that’s not the real you.  The real you is a really cool guy that would be real easy for a girl to fall in love with.”

 

Interest sparked in him as he gazed into her deep, dark eyes. “Really? You got anybody in mind?”

 

“Oh, I don’t know. She’d have to be kind of geeky, the stay-at-home type who doesn’t like all those fancy parties and trying to impress everybody.”

 

“Hmm, sounds like somebody I know.” He leaned toward her but just as he got to her, she backed up right into the car horn. It blared loud enough to be heard in Denver traffic, but out here in the midst of the mountain vista, it was like a fog horn.

 

“Holy cow!” Emily jumped a foot, scrambling back to her seat, smoothing and fixing as she went. When she got to her seat, she stopped dead still.  “Did you do that?”

 

“No. I think you did,” he whispered waiting for the guns to start blaring from the ranch house.  He glanced over his shoulder. “You think they heard?”

 

Her eyes were wide. “How could they not?”

 

“Good point.” He glanced again. “Maybe I should go in with you. Tell them I’m sorry.”

 

“For making moves on their daughter?” she asked as the teasing glint in her eye returned.

 

“Me?  I didn’t make any moves. You were the one who came over here.”

 

“Yeah, but what was I supposed to do with you sitting over there looking all cute and everything?”

 

The porch light snapped on behind them illuminating the area. Jeremy ducked as if he really was about to be shot.

 

“Oh, great. Now you’ve done it,” she said. “Daddy’s probably got his shotgun.”

 

Jeremy’s eyes went wide. “He’s got a shotgun?”

 

She laughed out right. “I was kidding. Come on, so they know we’re home.”

 

He scrambled out sincerely hoping there was no shotgun.

 

At the back of the SUV, she grabbed his hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”

 

“That’s comforting.”

 

At the porch she didn’t even stop until they were in the house. “Hi, Mom. Sorry about that.  Did we wake you?”

 

Her mother smiled as she took in the two of them standing there. “Oh, no. I’ve been up reading. Derrick had that baseball game out of town tonight. He’s still not home, and I haven’t heard from him. I just thought maybe someone was having trouble out there. I was just checking.”

 

There was a pause, and although he loved how her hand stayed in his, Jeremy knew it was time to go. “Well,” he said with a decided sigh. “I guess I’d better get back.”

 

Concern drifted through Emily’s gaze when she looked at him.

 

“You know,” her mother said, “it’s a two hour trip back to Denver, and it’s late.  Why don’t you stay the night?  You can have Michael’s bed in the boys’ room.”

 

Nerves that he hadn’t experienced in several hours pounced on him. “Oh, no, I couldn’t.”

 

“No. Now I insist. That drive is tricky when you know it and it’s bright daylight.  I don’t want you out there all night. If you leave now, I’ll never get any sleep for all the praying I’ll have to do between you and Derrick.”

 

Jeremy looked at Emily, and her eyes said what her vote was. Finally he nodded. “Okay. I guess it wouldn’t hurt.”

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006

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