Authors: Valerie Hansen
“You're sure we won't be a bother?”
Bending down to grab a carton of milk, Bree hadn't heard Mitch clearly. The low rumble of his voice, however, had sent a shiver zinging up her spine. She straightened abruptly to ask, “What?” and found him standing close behind her. Very close.
Her senses were bombarded by his clean, masculine scent, his overpowering presence and his exhilarating voice. Awed by her reaction to his innocent nearness, Bree wanted to climb into the refrigerator and pull the door shut behind her. Instead, she sidled away and put the center island workstation between her and the attractive man.
Mitch watched her, his arms folded across his broad chest. “I'm not dangerous, you know.”
The Wedding Arbor
The Troublesome Angel
The Perfect Couple
Love One Another
Blessings of the Heart
was thirty when she awoke to the presence of the Lord in her life and turned to Jesus. In the years that followed she worked with young children, both in church and secular environments. She also raised a family of her own and played foster mother to a wide assortment of furred and feathered critters.
Married to her high school sweetheart since age seventeen, she now lives in an old farmhouse she and her husband renovated with their own hands. She loves to hike the wooded hills behind the house and reflect on the marvelous turn her life has taken. Not only is she privileged to reside among the loving, accepting folks in the breathtakingly beautiful Ozark mountains of Arkansas, she also gets to share her personal faith by telling the stories of her heart for Steeple Hill's Love Inspired line.
Life doesn't get much better than that!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell
in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall
Thy hand lead me and Thy right hand shall hold me.
To Joe, for having the courage and strength
of character to walk away from a lucrative,
prestigious job and come chase rainbows with me.
As you've probably gathered by now, especially if you've read my earlier Love Inspired titles, I love rural life in the Ozark Mountains.
We moved out here in the country to escape, just as Brianne did in my story. Only, we did it for different reasons. We weren't running away from anything, we were running toward it. A city had grown up around us where we'd lived before and our life had gotten too fast-paced and complicated as a result. Yes, wages there were high and jobs were plentiful, but without peace of mind and good physical health, what difference does that make?
So we left. Some of our friends thought we were crazy to follow our dream all the way from Southern California to the backwoods of Arkansas. Others envied us. It took guts and faith to do what we did, but we've never been sorry.
There have been a few interesting surprises along the way, too. I knew I could continue to write no matter where I lived but I'd never imagined how much finding a good country church, a Bible-preaching pastor and dozens of new Christian friends would reshape and refocus my faith.
I had to come here as preparation for the books I'm writing now. I just didn't know it ahead of time!
I invite your letters at P.O. Box 13, Glencoe, AR 72539-0013, e-mails at [email protected] or visit my Web site for the latest news, http://www.centurytel.net/valeriewhisenand/.
“If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me and thy right hand shall hold me.”
tartled, Brianne Bailey froze. Listened. Straightened. Who in the world could be making such an awful racket?
She'd been in her kitchen, peacefully raiding the refrigerator for a quick afternoon snack, when she'd heard the first whack. Before she could determine the source, repeated pounding had built to a deafening crescendo and was echoing through the enormous house. It sounded as if a herd of rampaging
elephants was trampling down her substantial mahogany front door. That, or she was being accosted by a psychopathic door-to-door salesman who knew she was there alone and hoped to frighten her into buying his wares!
Both ideas were so ludicrous they made Bree chuckle as she hurried down the hall to answer the knock. “Boy, I've been living in a world of fiction for too long,” she muttered. “I'm beginning to think like the crazy characters in my stories.” Which wouldn't be too bad if I were writing at the time, she added, smiling.
The hammering intensified. “Okay, okay, I'm coming,” Brianne shouted. “Don't you break the stained glass in the top of that door, whoever you are. I'll never be able to replace it.”
She grabbed the knob and jerked open the door, ready to continue scolding her would-be intruder. Instead, she took one look at the cause of the disturbance and gasped, slack-jawed.
The man standing on the porch with his fist raised to continue his assault on her helpless door was dirty, sweaty, scratched and bleeding, as if he'd just plunged through a green-briar thicket. He was also remarkably handsome in spite of his disheveled appearance. Left speechless, she wasn't having a lot of luck sucking in enough air for adequate breathing, either.
Her visitor looked to be in his mid-thirties, with dark, wavy hair and darker eyes beneath scowling brows. Standing there, facing her, he seemed larger than life. As if the pounding hadn't been enough, his reddened face was added proof of his anger, although what had upset him was a mystery to Bree. Far as she knew, she didn't have an enemy in the world.
“Can I help you?” She managed to speak.
“It's your pond,” the man said, looking directly into her wide, blue eyes and pointing with a thrust of his arm. “It's cut off all my water!”
Brianne held up one hand in a calming gesture. “Whoa. There's no need to get upset. I'm sure we can work things out. Just tell me exactly what water you're talking about?”
“From the spring. Over there,” he explained. “You built your new pond between my place and the spring.”
“My pond? Oh, dear. Did I do something against the law?”
“I don't know. What difference does it make? By the time we finally get enough rain to finish filling that enormous hole of yours and spill over into the creek bed again, I'll be an old man.”
Oddly, his comment amused her. She smiled, smoothed the hem of her knit shirt over her shorts and said, “I imagine that will be quite a long time.”
“This isn't funny. I need water for my cabin.”
“Which is, I take it, downhill from here?”
Certain the man wouldn't appreciate her growing humor, Bree fought a threatened eruption of giggles. “Thanks. I'm trying.”
“Well?” he asked, scowling.
“Well, what? I had that valley explored before I made any changes in the landscaping up here. We did find one old cabin, but these hills are full of abandoned homesteads. Surely, you can't be talking about that decrepit old place.”
“I certainly am.”
“Oops. Sorry.” Her smile turned apologetic. “You live there?”
“I do now.”
“I see. What about your well?”
“Don't have a well. Or running water. Never have.” He held up the bucket he was carrying. “That's what I've been trying to tell you.”
“Why didn't you say so?”
“I thought I just did.”
“Not hardly,” Bree argued. “If you'd knocked on my door politely and explained your problem we could have handled this without everybody getting upset.”
“Who said I was upset?”
She arched an eyebrow as she eyed him critically. “Some things are self-explanatory, Mrâ¦.”
“Fowler. Mitch Fowler.”
“All right, Mr. Fowler. You can take all the water you need from my well. Will that satisfy you?”
“I guess that's my only choice.” Some of the tension left him. “My Uncle Eldon and Aunt Vi used to live in the same old cabin. Maybe you knew them.”
“I'm afraid not. I'm Brianne Bailey. Bree, for short.” She politely offered to shake hands, waiting while Mitch wiped his on his jeans. “I'm not from around here. Iâ¦”
The moment Mitch's hand touched hers she forgot whatever else she was going to say. Staring at him, she realized that he was returning her gaze with a look of equal amazement. Now that he was no longer irate, his glance seemed warmer, more appealing. It reminded her of a cup of dark, rich coffee on a cold winter's morning.
Brianne didn't know how long she stood there holding the stranger's hand, because time had ceased to register. She didn't come to her senses until she heard him clear his throat.
“I'm sorry I came on so strong just now,” Mitch said, finally letting go and stepping away. “When I discovered we had no water it threw me for a loop.”
“I'm sure it did.” Bree eyed the bucket. “Before I get back to work I suppose I should show you where to fill that.”
“That won't be necessary. It's too hot to come outside if you don't need to. Just point me in the right direction, and I'll get out of your hair.”
The mention of temperature and hair together made her unconsciously lift her long, honey-blond tresses off her neck to cool her skin. Even in shorts and a sleeveless blouse she was feeling the heat, too.
“Nonsense,” she said. “You look like you had to fight your way through a pack of wildcats to get up here. The least I can do is walk you out to the hose. Besides, I was taking a break, anyway.”
“A break? Do you work at home?”
“Yes. I'm a writer.” She waited for the usual questions about her publishing history. When they didn't come, she relaxed, smiled amiably and pointed. “This way. I need to water the new flower beds over there again, anyway. Sure wish we'd get some decent rain. It's been awfully dry lately.”
“I know. At first I was afraid the spring had dried up.”
Mitch stepped back to give her room to pass, then walked beside her as she led the way down the stone steps and along the path that took them around the east wing of the sprawling dwelling. In
the distance lay the offending pond. Closer to the house, a bright yellow hose stood out against the green of the perfectly groomed lawn.
“You have a nice place here,” Mitch said.
“Thanks. I like it.”
“I do a little building, myself.”
She noticed that he was assessing the newest addition to the house as they walked. “Would you like to wander around and look the place over? I don't mind.”
“I'd love to but I need to get home. I didn't expect to be gone this long when I left the boys.”
“Boys?” Brianne couldn't picture him as a scoutmaster leading a camp out or a Sunday school teacher taking his class on a field trip, which left only one other likely probabilityâfatherhood. The notion of having one man living close by didn't bother her nearly as much as the idea of his children running rampant all over the hills, whooping and hollering and disturbing the otherwise perfect solitude she'd created in which to work.
“I have two sons,” Mitch said.
“Congratulations.” There was an embarrassing pause before she went on. “I can't imagine coping with any children, let alone boys.”
“It isn't easy.” Mitch bent to fill the bucket, not looking at her as he spoke. “Especially alone.”
Curiosity got the better of her. “Oh? Are you divorced?”
“No.” Mitch straightened, his expression guarded. “My wife died recently.”
Open mouth, insert foot, chew thoroughly. “I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have asked. It's none of my business.”
The hint of a smile lifted one corner of his strong mouth. “It's no secret that I'm single, if that's what you want to know. And I'm not grieving. Liz and I had separated long before her accident. I hadn't seen her in ages.”
“Then what aboutâ?” Brianne broke off and cast a telling glance down the wooded slope in the direction of his cabin. No more questions. She'd already said enough dumb things for one day.
Mitch, however, supplied the answer to her unspoken query. “Liz took the boys away with her when she left me. It took almost three years to track them down.”
The poignancy of his situation touched her heart.
“What an awful thing to go through.”
“Yeah, no kidding. I've got my work cut out for me now, that's for sure, which is why I'd better get a move on. Even kids who are used to living by strict rules can get into trouble, and mine haven't had much discipline lately. Ryanâhe's eightâsays he's used to looking after his younger brother, but
that doesn't mean they won't both be swinging from the chandeliers by the time I get home.”
She was incredulous. “Wait a minute. You have no waterâbut you have chandeliers in your cabin?”
“No, ma'am.” Mitch chuckled. “That was just a figure of speech.” Glancing toward the mansion, he added, “I think you've been surrounded by luxury too long. You're out of touch with how the rest of the world lives.”
She sighed. “I suppose you could be right. I find this whole area very confusing. There aren't any neighborhoods like I'm used to back home. People just seem to build whatever kind of house they want, wherever they want it, no matter what the places next door look like.” Realizing how that comment had sounded, she pulled a face. “Sorry. No offense meant.”
“Don't worry about it. You can't help it if you have more money than good sense.” He followed his comment with a smile so she'd realize he'd been joking.
“Hey, I'm not that wealthy.”
Mitch's smile grew. “Good. Maybe there's hope for you yet. Are you famous? Maybe I've read something you wrote.”
Delayed reaction but predictable questions? “I doubt that. I write women's fiction. And I didn't
get rich doing it. My father passed away several years ago, and I inherited a bundle. After that, I left Pennsylvania and moved down here to Arkansas to get away from the sad memories.”
Mitch hefted the heavy bucket with ease and started toward the edge of the lawn where the forest began. “Can't run from those,” he said wisely. “I ought to know. No matter where you go, your past goes with you, mistakes and all.”
A jolt of uneasiness hit her as she fell into step beside him. “I hope you're wrong.”
“Not about that. Experience is a great teacher,” he said soberly. “Well, nice to have met you, Ms. Bailey, and thanks for the water. If you ever feel like slumming, just follow this streambed about half a mile. You'll find us at the bottom of the draw.” He smiled. “Bye. Gotta go.”
She raised her hand tentatively in reply. She'd have done more, but a flock of butterflies had just launched themselves en masse at the sight of his dynamic parting grin, and she was busy wondering if his last glimpse of her was going to feature her keeling over in a dead faint. The notion wasn't very appealing.
“Phooey. I don't swoon,” Bree whispered, wresting control of her body from her topsy-turvy emotions. “I'm just a little woozy from the heat and humidity, that's all. I've never fainted and I never will.”
Besides, that poor man is saddled with two little
kids, she added, silently reinforcing her growing conviction that Mitch was anything but appealing. Children. Eesh! And the oldest was only eight! What a nightmare!
Bree shivered. As far as she was concerned, the man might as well have confessed to being in league with the devil himself!
By the time Mitch got to his cabin, he'd managed to spill half the contents of the bucket. Considering the rough, overgrown terrain he'd had to cover on his trek down the hill he was surprised to have salvaged that much.
As he approached the cabin, he could hear shouts and squeals of laughter. That might not be a good sign but at least it proved the boys hadn't mutinied and wandered off in his absence.
The minute he pushed open the door, his children froze in mid-motion, looking as if they were sure they were guilty of some awful crime and expected him to mete out immediate punishment.
Instead, Mitch set the bucket down and paused to assess the mayhem. Ryan had pulled the narrow end of a flat sheet over his shoulders and tied the corners so the fabric draped behind him like a long cape. Bud had apparently been trying to sit on the part that dragged the floor while his big brother pulled him around the room. Bud's raggedy old teddy bear was perched on the sidelines like an audience at a sporting event.
Judging by the swirls of dust on the wooden flooring and the boys' grubby faces and hands, they'd been playing their little game for some time. Their expressions were priceless!
Mitch wanted desperately to laugh. They were just typical kids having a good time. He wasn't about to play the ogre and spoil their fun.
He pointed. “You missed a couple of places.”
“Huh?” Ryan frowned.
“That's an ingenious way to sweep the floor but it doesn't do the corners very well. I suggest we use a mop for those.”
Mitch could tell the boy's mind was working, struggling to comprehend Mitch's surprising parental reaction. Finally, Ryan's thin shoulders relaxed, and he untied his makeshift cape.
“Little kids get bored real easy,” the eight-year-old said. “You have to keep 'em busy or they get into trouble.”
“I can see that.”
For an instant Mitch glimpsed the child behind his eldest son's tough-guy facade. It couldn't have been easy for Ryan to act as a pseudo parent while his flaky mother, Liz, ran around doing as she pleased. There was no telling how often she'd gone off on a tangent and left the boys alone much longer than she'd originally intended. Still, that lack of responsibility on her part may have been a blessing in disguise because it had led to them not being
with her when she'd had the horrible accident that had taken her life.