Home To You Cheryl Wolverton Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR A FRIEND IN NEED… He'd pledged to be her friend forever, but that was back then. Now Meghan O'Halleran had no job, no place to live and was facing multiple sclerosis. Yet the memory of that friendship shone like a beacon, guiding her home once more to her childhood best friend Cody. Would welcoming arms await her?A FRIEND INDEED!Pastor Dakota "Cody" Ryder couldn't believe it. The childhood friend he'd lost twenty years before was standing in his kitchen. And though he recognized her, Meghan O'Halleran was now a woman — a disheveled and troubled, but beautiful, one. Pastor Cody wasn't sure why Meghan had entered his life again, but he'd do all he could to help her. CHERYL WOLVERTON RITA Award finalist Cheryl Wolverton has well over a dozen books to her name. Her very popular Hill Creek, Texas, series has been a finalist in many contests. Having grown up in Oklahoma, lived in Kentucky, Texas, Louisiana and now living once more in Oklahoma, Cheryl and her husband of more than twenty years and their two children, Jeremiah and Christina, always considered themselves Oklahomans transplanted to grow and flourish in the South. Readers are always welcome to contact her at P.O. Box 106, Faxon, OK 73540 or e-mail at Cheryl@cherylwolverton.com. You can also visit her Web site at www.cherylwolverton.com. Home to You Cheryl Wolverton Fear not for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen you, I will help you, yea I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness. —Isaiah 41:10 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS To my neighbor Melinda and her wonderful husband and kids. I’ll miss you. To my family, Anita, Doug, Deb, Mom, James and Gayle. Just for being family. To my MS support group in Baton Rouge. Thanks for all the experience. Without you, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book. And to my wonderful church family, Cornerstone Fellowship. Jackay and Dick, you are an inspiration, and I will never forget you or any of the other wonderful, wonderful friends, especially Kendal, Lane, Katie, Hope, Claire, Lyndee, Jamie, Caleb, Jamie, Brooklyn—keepers of my own heart. When I was going through the discovery of the MS and the multiple attacks, you guys at church were there to stand by me and help me through the day and laugh with me when I couldn’t remember a word or help me when I couldn’t walk across the floor. You are the reason I didn’t end up like Meghan in the book! Such love. God’s love. And of course, Steve, Christina and Jeremiah have to be added to the list. Being in a family means good times, bad times and scary times. And we made it through it. I’m sure more good times, bad times and scary times will come, but if not for you, I wouldn’t be writing. I love you guys. And finally, thank You Heavenly Father, because You are in control at all times! Dear Reader, I was diagnosed with MS in 2002. Unlike Meghan, I went to the Web to research the disease and find out more about it. I was excited by what I found because when I had been in the medical field, there was nothing they could do for the disease. However, now they can slow the progression. No, there’s no cure, but I believe there will be one day with the strides that have been made. This book deals with learning the lesson that God is in control. It was something Meghan and Dakota had to learn. And anyone who gets too busy with work or comes down with a devastating medical problem needs to learn the lesson, as well. Let go and praise God because He is in control! I hope you enjoy the story, and if you want more information on MS, try some of the Web sites I like to visit: www.mswatch.com, www.multiplesclerosis.com or www.msaa.org or the National Multiple Sclerosis Society page. God bless! You can also visit my Web site for more links at: www.cherylwolverton.com or e-mail if you have questions at: Cheryl@cherylwolverton.com. You can write to me at P.O. Box 106, Faxon, OK 73540. I look forward to chatting with you! Contents About the Author Acknowledgments Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Prologue Dakota “Cody” Ryder sat next to the ditch, watching as his best friend, Meghan O’Halleran, dug some more mud out of the slimy wet pit and slapped it into the pan she had in front of her. It didn’t matter that Cody wasn’t supposed to get muddy. Sitting with his best friend took precedence over that. Meghan’s mom had told her they were moving and so Cody was trying to cheer Meghan up by sitting with her. “Cody, will you promise me something?” Dakota was only in first grade, just like Meghan, but he knew what promises were and how important they could be. Last year the two friends had spit in each other’s hands and shook, agreeing to protect each other when they started school. Had they not made that promise, Meghan would have ended up with her hair cut by Michael the bully, and Dakota would have ended up having to work with silly Sally who laughed all the time. Meghan had bailed him out of that one. Big time. Just as he had protected her. So yes, he knew how important his word was now as Meghan solemnly asked him for another promise. Her blond hair was pulled up into pigtails, curling tightly, and the freckles across her nose danced as she wriggled it up. The two friends had helped each other out so many times…but, well, sometimes girls did funny things. So, even though he wanted to promise Meghan the moon, he hesitated as he watched Meghan carefully finish her mud pie. If he promised, he’d have to keep it—no matter what. And if she wanted him to eat that mud pie— “What do you want me to promise, Meghan?” Cody rested his hands on his crossed legs and waited, trepidation growing as he watched her smooth the top of the pie. “Promise me we’ll always be friends, no matter what.” Relief wilted him. He nodded. “Sure, Meghan!” “I’m serious. I really mean it, Cody. I want us to always be friends.” “Forever,” Cody reassured her. He was so relieved that she didn’t want him to eat the pie that he hurried to reassure her. “If you ever need me, I’ll be here—even if you want to move in and be my sister.” To Cody that was as good of a promise as he could imagine. He had an older sister and he knew how awful it could be. Meghan’s green eyes peered into his. “Really? Even that? That’s great, but I wouldn’t want to be your sister.” Cody had shared several stories about his sister with Meghan, and his friend had sometimes caught the wrath of Susan herself, so she knew exactly what Cody was promising. He nodded. “I promise.” Meghan’s lip trembled and her eyes filled with tears. Suddenly scared, Dakota wondered what he’d said to upset her, until she lunged forward and threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Cody! You’re the bestest friend ever.” He wrinkled his own nose in disgust. Why’d girls always have to hug? Then he felt something wet and looked down. The mud pie was in his lap. Meghan pulled back and cried in dismay. “I wanted to share it with you before we moved!” As Cody stared at the mess in his lap and thought of the coming punishment for getting dirty, he could only think he was still getting off a lot easier than he would have if he’d been forced to eat that mud pie. Chapter One Thirty-two-year-old Dakota Ryder quickly finished the report he was reading and scrawled his signature across the bottom. He leaned back in the dark brown leather chair, grimacing as he heard it squeak. He needed to get that oiled, he thought, but then immediately dismissed the idea as yet another thing to do later, when he had more time. He glanced at the clock over the sofa and sighed. Pushing back from his mahogany desk, he grabbed up the papers he’d just finished and stood. He was running late. He strode across the deep, thick, mauve carpet, pausing only to pull open the door before leaving his office. At Sherry Anne’s desk, his assistant, who was busily creating next Sunday’s bulletin on her computer, he hesitated. Smiling at the middle-aged blonde, he dropped the reports he’d signed into her in-box on the corner of her small desk. “Can you see that these get mailed to headquarters?” He twisted his wrist to look at his watch, confirming that the time was the same as the clock in his office. “I’m going to be late for my meeting with the contractors.” Sherry Anne picked up the papers and checked the address. “Sure thing. Jacob and Marlene called about their counseling appointment. They want to change it to next week.” “Fit them in.” Looking again at his watch, he muttered, “I’m going to be out the rest of the day. Lock up when you leave.” “Sure thing, Pastor.” Sherry Anne turned back to her computer screen. “Don’t forget your 9:00 a.m. meeting tomorrow with Mr. Bennett. He wants to talk to you about the finances.” Dakota groaned. “Thanks.” Zachary Bennett and his wife, Georgia, were huge contributors to the church—and somehow they felt that gave them the right to tell Dakota how to spend church money. He headed through the foyer. The dark red carpet muffled his footsteps as he passed between the two long middle rows of white pews. The padded seats matched the red of the carpet. How many times had he looked out over the congregation who filled these pews three times each week? He mentally calculated as he hastened toward the back door and to his appointment. Seven years, nearly three services every week…too many to count. He continued down the aisle, hearing the air-conditioning turn on. Pausing by the thermostat, he clicked the switch to off. The band had forgotten to turn it off after practice earlier. He made a mental note to mention it to them. Life was too short, he thought, making a list of things he needed to do. He never had enough hours in the day to get things done. The church currently had no associate pastor, so Dakota was trying to complete all of the pastoral jobs himself. Except for the youth. They did have a great youth pastor—who was still in his office working right now, as a matter of fact. Working. Just like Dakota was working, even though he was leaving the church. Just like he’d be working late into the night on a load of reports he’d stashed in his car earlier. Heading out to his little compact sedan, Dakota tried to think of a time since returning from seminary that he hadn’t been busy working on one project or another. There weren’t many times, lately. At least he was busy doing God’s work, he thought as he pulled out his keys to unlock the door. But that didn’t leave him time for anything else. Glancing at his watch again, he noted he was going to be late-late-late. He pulled out his cell phone as he unlocked the car, and struggled to balance the phone against his shoulder. “Call, Chandler Contracts,” he spoke into the phone. The sun was shining brightly today, even though it wasn’t hot. Summer was past and fall had finally arrived. The wind whipped at his hair as he finally managed to get the lock turned in the door. Ah, the wind. There was nary a day without it on the plains of Texas. The phone on the other end began to ring. He slid into the silver Honda and slipped on the gray seat belt. He loved his hometown and all that went with it; the weather was great, he knew everyone, it was small enough to get anywhere pretty fast, but it was still big enough to have most of the stores and businesses he might need—like the contractors he was about to hire. “Chandler Contractors. How may I direct your call?” The deep baritone voice came across the line clearly. Dakota started his car. “This is Dakota Ryder. I have an appointment with Harry Chandler regarding an extension to our church. I’m running about ten minutes behind. I need you to let him know.” He could hear typing in the background and then, “Very well. Thank you for letting us know, Pastor Ryder.” He shook his head with a slight smile, realizing the young man on the other end of the phone must know him. “No problem.” Clicking the phone off, he dropped it in the empty seat next to him and then pushed the gearshift into Reverse with one hand while twisting the wheel of the car with the other. Glancing over his shoulder as he backed out, he shook his head. Life couldn’t get any more hectic. Chase Sandoval paused as he set the porcelain figurine over the hearth of the fireplace. They’d been back barely a week in Shenandoah, Texas, and he had finally started unpacking things beyond the basics they’d needed to survive. This was why. The porcelain figure was of a woman wearing a long dress. Her long, wavy hair was pulled back with a blue bow. On her lap sat a tiny child, and the mother stared down lovingly at the child, her arms protecting it carefully. He’d gotten the figurine for Ruthie when she’d found out she was pregnant with their child. With Sarah. Sarah was eleven and his precious Ruthie was gone. Chase’s heart contracted and his hands shook. Cancer. Chase and Sarah had watched Ruthie fade away before dying. Why hadn’t she gone for checkups more often? Why had she ignored the signs? More important, why hadn’t she told them about her secret? Angry at first, Chase had finally sunk into acceptance. However, as acceptance had come he’d realized their house in Fort Worth was too empty without her. His job, which had kept him gone so much, now hindered his ability to raise his daughter. If he’d been around more, perhaps he would have noticed the changes in his wife before it was too late. But he hadn’t and his wife was dead and his daughter was on the road to becoming a juvenile delinquent. She didn’t want to be around him or talk to him. She’d started hanging out with some of the bad kids and running the streets. He’d had to find some way to head it off, and quick. But how? The house was too empty, his job hours were too long, and his daughter was acting more like eighteen than eleven… How he had wished he could capture his own childhood and share it with her. And that’s when the idea had struck him. It’d only taken a few weeks to get a reply back from the local sheriff’s office about jobs and then a few more weeks to sell their house. Then, he’d come back home, to Shenandoah. This was a place where he could raise his daughter, a place to help her find good influences for her life, a place to start over and try to do things right this time. It was a place where they could heal. Without Ruthie. Chase hugged the figurine to his chest, and then, with a sigh, reluctantly released his grip on the tiny porcelain figure as he tried to release past pain, setting it upon the hearth just as he tried to set aside the grief and leave it in the past. The oak hearth was beautifully crafted, the intricate designs made by loving hands. A mirror stretched above the length of the hearth, reflecting Chase’s own short, dark brown hair and deep brown eyes. He looked a bit haggard—he needed to step a bit closer to the razor that morning. He turned his gaze from the mirror, glancing around the room. The floors and ceiling beams were also made of wood and shone as if freshly oiled. The walls were white and the windows were tall and narrow, covered by curtains left by the last owners, who’d said they fit these windows and wouldn’t go with their new house. He appreciated their generous gift. Still, at moments like this, Chase wondered why he’d bothered with such an elaborate house. There was no one here to care for it, no wife to see that those curtains found matches in furniture or knickknacks. But he knew. It was because of Sarah that he’d bought the house. She needed a home in a good neighborhood with good schools. The people who had lived here before him had built a fort out back and had a permanent swing set made of wood cemented into the ground. There was a great climbing tree with a picnic table under it. All were constructed with good craftsmanship. He should know—in his spare time he used to build things. He’d gotten some experience here in Shenandoah, working for a carpenter. He loved building and thought Sarah would love the sturdy, beautifully crafted equipment out back, as well as the large spacious room and the quiet small-town feel of Shenandoah. It would be a place for Sarah. Staring at the beautiful, though painful, reminder of his beloved wife, Sarah’s mother, he decided he’d done enough unpacking for the day. He was going into town for lunch. He and Sarah could unpack together later. Maybe they’d order a pizza tonight and pop in a movie. But being in this house, alone, with all of the memories— Turning away, he headed to the door, scooping up his keys on the way, and leaving the pain for later. Carolyne Ryder sat in the old-fashioned, padded rocking chair, holding her four-month-old grandson, Joshua. He’d been fussy and unable to go to sleep, while his twin sister, Julie, was resting like a little angel in the crib across the room. Joshua was asleep now, but Carolyne continued to rock back and forth, back and forth, patting the child’s back. Her daughter, Susan, didn’t really need her here. She’d come to that conclusion about three weeks ago. She had a live-in housekeeper who doubled as a nanny and who was there to take care of the kids. Cokie did a great job. Still, Susan and her husband, Johnny, had insisted that Carolyne stay as long as she wanted. These were her first grandchildren, Susan had only returned to work six weeks ago, and the kids needed a grandmother there for a while longer… So Carolyne had stayed. But she was restless. Montana was getting cold, a cold Carolyne wasn’t used to, and this just wasn’t her home. Looking around the peach-and-green pastel-shaded room, she smiled at how it had been decorated. Two beautifully multicolored mobiles, one hanging over each crib, danced quietly to their own simple tune, courtesy of the air vent above them that blew out a warm breeze. The cribs had pink-and-blue sheets and baby-bumper pads that were decorated with flounces and tiny teddy bears. A changing table complete with diapers sat between the two cribs. Carolyne and her husband hadn’t had enough money to have anything this fancy when they had been young and Susan had come along. Even when Dakota arrived, they’d been happy just to make ends meet. Oh, how holding this child brought back such memories of when her own two children were small—and she was needed. She stared down at the chubby-cheeked, dark-haired baby in her arms. Now her children were grown. Susan lived half a continent away from Shenandoah and Carolyne’s life there, she and Johnny having started their own life with their own friends and their own traditions right here in Montana. Yes, Susan had her husband and babies, and Carolyne, though she knew would always be welcomed, was no longer needed here. Susan and Johnny needed time alone. Carolyne might have helped at first, but now she was in the way. She felt in the way with her son, Dakota, as well. He was the pastor of a growing church that took up most of his time, and he didn’t need her anymore, either. Her husband had died ten years ago, and Carolyne found herself at loose ends. Dakota was so busy with the church that she rarely saw him. He did, however, still live at home with her. She cooked meals, but many days he was so caught up in church work that he missed the meals completely. She loved him, but she still felt very alone. Both of her kids were adults. What was supposed to happen when her kids grew up? What did she have left to look forward to? A simple life, spent growing old in the same house she’d lived in for the last thirty-five years? Would her obituary read that she was fond of puttering in the garden, or that her flower beds took up all of her time? Would her friends say that, yes, she was the one waiting each day for her son to eventually come home and regale her with tales of what went on in his life? She sighed. In the other room she heard the phone ring. Moments later, Cokie entered the room where Carolyne sat, baby in her arms. Cokie was of Asian descent and one of the nicest women Carolyne had met in Montana. Cokie was quiet. She didn’t talk much except to the children. She stayed busy cleaning, cooking or being there for the babies when Carolyne wasn’t. “You have call, Ms. Carolyne.” Her softly accented voice drifted quietly to Carolyne. Surprised, Carolyne wondered who it could be. “Thank you.” She stood and carefully tiptoed over to the crib and laid her grandson down. She lovingly tucked the small receiving blanket around him and held her breath as he screwed up his mouth. But his eyes remained closed as he adjusted. As he let out a shuddering breath, his tiny fists relaxed next to his head. Certain he wasn’t going to wake up, she left the room and treaded down the light brown carpet into the large living room. Johnny was a lawyer and evidently did well at his job. The house was beautiful, much bigger than the one Susan had grown up in. With soft earth-toned furniture and brass tables, the living room had a very modern look. Pity her grandchildren learning to walk in this room, she thought, looking at the many hard surfaces they’d have to crash into as they discovered their balance. She picked up the phone. “Hello?” “Carolyne? Is that you?” “Margaret?” Why in the world would her next-door neighbor be calling her? Color drained from her face as she realized something had happened to Dakota. “Dakota? Is he okay?” Fear clutched her heart. “Oh, he’s fine, he’s fine—shush, sister, I’m getting to it,” the woman on the line told someone in the background. Margaret and Mary, twin sisters who had lived next door since Carolyne and her husband had moved in thirty-five years ago, well over eighty now, still bickered as they did when their parents were alive and living in the house with them. “Getting to what? Margaret?” Carolyne asked patiently of the one on the phone. Sometimes she had to prompt the sisters because the two would get so caught up in their own conversation they’d forget who they were actually talking to. “It’s not much, dear,” Margaret said now, and Carolyne didn’t believe her for a minute. She wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t much… “But,” Margaret continued, “we wanted you to know we’ve missed you and so has Dakota. Has he called you much?” Carolyne took a slow breath and held it for a moment. The two women were up to something. She could sense it. They weren’t going to tell her immediately, however. She’d just have to wait them out. Seating herself in the chair next to the Princess-style phone, she crossed her legs. “No, not today. It’s been about a week now since we’ve talked.” “I thought as much.” “He’s a busy man,” Carolyne defended her son. “Is he ever. No, sister, she said he was busy. Busy. Now just wait until I’m off the phone. Carolyne, are you still there?” Carolyne nodded. “Yes, Margaret. As I said, Dakota has his own life. He doesn’t need me there or calling him constantly.” “I’m not so sure about that.” Margaret dropped that last sentence and utter silence filled the phone line. Now they were getting somewhere. But what was this all about? “Why do you say that, Margaret?” “Well, I’m not one to tell tales, now. You know that, Carolyne dear, but then, when I feel something isn’t right, I’m not one to go hide, either. I’m not some fainthearted girl who simply swoons every time I see something like, well, you know…” No, she didn’t know. “So, I’m glad it was me that saw it. Yes, sister, and you, too. She always thinks I’m trying to best her, Carolyne. Anyway, we saw it. And I felt it my duty to call you.” Margaret took a deep breath, but before she could continue, Mary’s voice came across the line. “There’s a strange woman on his front doorstep.” “Mary. Get off that extension and let me handle this!” Carolyne held the phone away from her ear, frowning. Margaret was usually the more practical of the two. What was going on? “You aren’t telling her about the shenanigans, sister, so don’t you tell me to get off the phone.” “If you would give me a minute.” Carolyne sighed. Confused, but determined to wade through their chatter to find out just what was going on, she raised her voice firmly, “What woman?” “I don’t think she’s addled or slow, mind you,” Margaret butted in over Mary. “To be honest, I don’t recognize her at all and I’m sure that Dakota won’t either. Anyway, we’re about to go over and talk to her.” “We thought about reporting her to the police—” Mary added. “She’s drinking.” This from Margaret who attempted to cut Mary’s words off. “And she’s dressed, well…indecently,” Mary added, not to be outdone. “Black boots up to her thighs,” Margaret supplied. Alarmed, Carolyne sat up straight, both feet coming to rest on the floor. “Boots to her thighs?” “And what she’s wearing would make anyone blush,” Mary said outrageously. Alarmed, Carolyne tried to tell herself not to overreact. “I’m sure there’s some explanation…” “There sure is,” Margaret said bluntly. “Your son needs you. He’s not eating supper at home and not getting home until late at night. He’s gotten to where it’s as late as midnight or more before he makes it home and now this woman is on his doorstep. He’s ruining his reputation!” “Well now, sister,” Mary interrupted, “I wouldn’t say he’s ruining his reputation, but it is obvious that he needs Carolyne back home.” “It’s scandalous,” Margaret sounded knowing. “Maybe I should call him,” Carolyne’s mind whirled in a tizzy over the conversation these two women were attempting to have with her. “He’s not home yet. Believe me, if he was, I’m sure that woman wouldn’t be lolling out on the front porch like she is.” Mary added, “If you were here, everything would be fine. It seems like as soon as you left, Dakota went wild.” “He always was the wilder of the two,” Margaret butted in to say. “I have to agree with sister on that. But I think this is all some mistake. Dakota is a fine man. Still, he has no one here and I think he’s lonely.” “Lonely?” Margaret scoffed. “He’s so busy he doesn’t know what lonely is. Carolyne, we tried calling Pastor Cody at the church and he wasn’t there. He’s making an early day of it, which means he’ll be home soon. If you want my advice, I’d suggest you get home as soon as possible. I think your son needs you.” Carolyne’s mind raced. Dakota didn’t need her at all. He was a grown man. Just as her daughter, Susan, was a grown woman. But hadn’t she just been thinking about returning home? She missed Texas and it was getting too cold here. She missed her church and the familiar sounds and ease of her own house. Of course, Dakota didn’t really need her, but would it hurt to go ahead and return home early? “Carolyne, did you hear me?” “Yes, Margaret, I did. Let me call the airlines, talk to my daughter and see what I can get done, all right?” “Oh good,” Mary said breathlessly. “I’m so glad you’re coming back. We’ve missed sitting out on the porch with you in the evenings.” “Never you mind that, sister,” Margaret admonished. “Her son is under attack and she needs to be here to restore his reputation. Now, get off the phone so I can hang up. Carolyne needs to make plans.” Carolyne heard a click and then Margaret added, “We’ll be watching for you.” “I need to make plans first,” Carolyne argued. “No, Carolyne. You need to be here for your son,” Margaret’s uncharacteristically soft voice touched Carolyne. “Please, hurry home.” Carolyne heard a click and shook her head. She hung up the phone and then sat staring at it, unsure what was going on at her house. Dakota had been so busy that he rarely had time to call; and when he did, his reports were always filled with what he had to do the next day. She hadn’t pushed talking about how he was doing because he was just so busy. Maybe she should have. Could he know the woman who was lounging on their front steps? Surely not. If the sisters had described the woman right…unless she was one of Dakota’s charity cases, he wouldn’t have anything to do with that type of female. Would he? “Is everything all right, ma’am?” For the first time, Carolyne noticed Cokie standing there next to her. “I’m not sure, Cokie. But it looks like I need to go home and find out.” “Ma’am?” Cokie asked. “I need help packing. It sounds like my son needs me.” Carolyne stood. Cokie hurried off down the hall and Carolyne picked up the phone to call Susan at work, deciding to call Susan first. If she planned it right, she could be back home in Texas by dinner. Dakota Ryder sat in the seat next to his friend, Chase Sandoval. “I appreciate the ride home, Chase. Seems my car won’t be ready until tomorrow.” “No problem, bud,” Chase replied, his familiar brown eyes glancing toward Dakota as he turned down the tree-lined street. “I can’t believe you still live out in this area, man. I remember the years we spent picking leaves up every fall, swearing when we grew up we were going to move where there were no trees.” He shook his head. “So, are you gonna hire someone to rake up all the leaves in your yard this fall?” “You think it’s that bad?” Dakota chuckled. “We spent too many years out there doing it to be forced into doing it anymore.” Dakota laughed outright remembering their childhood adventures together. “Maybe I’ll hire some kids from church. They’re getting ready for a winter trip they’re planning to take Christmas break, and Jeff has them offering to do jobs for everyone so they can earn money for their expenses.” “Sounds like that new youth pastor of yours is working out.” “He’s doing great. A year ago I couldn’t have imagined having this many young people attending church.” “Ah, but when you step out on faith and do what God tells you to do…” Dakota grinned and knew his own brown eyes reflected the humor of Chase quoting back what he’d told him so many times. “It’s my job to say that.” It sure was good to have his old friend back in town. “Yeah, we don’t know what God has planned for our future. The church has doubled in size, and we’re even looking into doing something special for families around town this Christmas.” Chase turned onto Chippewa where Dakota lived. Dakota tried to look at his neighborhood from his friend’s point of view. It was an older area of Shenandoah, a town that wasn’t much younger than Fort Worth itself. The streets were laid out in straight lines from north to south and from east to west. Sidewalks graced each side of the street and huge old maple and elm trees filled the front yards. Leaves covered everything, including the streets. The breeze caught a few and they swirled up, dancing across the road in a flurry of movement and color, looking like one of the small twisters that so often invaded their land in the springtime. The houses themselves were tall and square, mostly made of brick or whitewash, but smaller than the houses in the center of town, and not on such evenly divided lots. By the time a person reached the edge of town, it seemed like wilderness—nothing for miles except the many cattle ranches and a few farmers who grew wheat or cotton. Dakota had grown up in the house he lived in now. A two-story whitewash, it had a front porch and a swing. Two huge maples stood in the front and a weeping willow and a vegetable garden graced the backyard. The garden had always been his mom’s favorite; she loved digging in it, but right now, as autumn deepened its hold, the garden was barren. “Speaking of the church, it’s actually doing very well,” Dakota returned to the conversation. “With you back in town you might consider coming there if you don’t find another church.” Chase hesitated. “Let me get moved in first.” Because his car had broken down, Dakota had been forced to break his luncheon appointment. But as luck would have it, he’d seen Chase and they’d ended up having lunch together. His friend wasn’t the joking, laughing person he’d remembered. His letters hadn’t revealed just how much Chase had suffered since his wife’s death. Dakota wondered if he’d backed off from God spiritually as well. “Shenandoah sure has grown since I’ve been gone.” Dakota nodded. “I guess twenty years ago everyone thought moving to Fort Worth was the way to go. Now everyone’s escaping back out to the small towns within a few hours of the big cities.” “Too much corruption and pollution in the big cities.” “Just why did you move back, Chase?” Chase had been one of Dakota’s best friends growing up. In tenth grade he’d had to move away, but they’d kept in touch over the years through regular mail and e-mail. Last year Chase’s wife had died, and Chase had been left to raise their daughter alone. “You mean besides the job as deputy sheriff?” Dakota nodded as Chase pulled up at his house. “It looks just the same…except for the two old ladies standing in your yard.” Chase nodded toward the house. Dakota followed his gesture and groaned. Chase grinned. “What’s up with them?” “That’s the Mulgrew sisters. Mary and Margaret. They live next door. Don’t you remember them?” Chase’s eyes widened. “Wait a minute…you mean they’re still alive?” Dakota nodded. “Alive and well and out to take care of me now that my mom is visiting Susan and helping take care of the twins.” Chase unsnapped his seat belt and jumped from the sedan. Dakota followed suit. Reaching into the back of the car, he grabbed one of the two boxes he’d put in his car, intending to bring them home before his transmission had given out. “I’ll help you with those,” Chase offered. “You just want to see what the Mulgrew sisters have to say.” Chase chuckled, the first real laugh he’d heard from his friend since meeting up with him again. “They were a pair back then.” They started up the leaf-covered sidewalk toward the house. Mary and Margaret both wasted no time in hurrying toward them. The shorter of the two, Mary, her light blue hair distinguishing her from her older (by only a few minutes) sister, who had silver hair, started forward. “It’s awful. I told her she shouldn’t be up there, but she just laughed in my face, didn’t she, sister?” Margaret nodded. “And rather rudely. She’s had a nip.” Margaret motioned with her hand, as if tipping a bottle up, and then dropped it into her other hand, clasping them, worrying the white hankie that was in her other hand. “Bless your mother’s heart. If she saw that she’d turn white with shock.” “Not sister and me though,” Mary added. “I do say, it is shocking, but then, we grew up in poverty and saw worse back then, though you didn’t flaunt it.” “Well, you did if you were one of them,” Margaret lifted an eyebrow to match her superior tone. “Margaret,” Mary admonished. Dakota raised a hand. “Um, excuse me.” Both women turned from each other to look at him expectantly. Before he could say a word, however, Margaret launched back into her speech. “We thought about calling the police but then, you are a pastor and are supposed to have mercy and we decided you’d probably seek out a homeless shelter—” “Or something,” Mary added, not to be left out. “I’m not sure…that is…” Dakota began trying to decide what to address first in all they had just said. These women had a way of turning his dark brown hair a bit grayer with every meeting. He was certain those first few gray hairs he’d found the other day were attributable to conversations like this. “Have we met?” Margaret interrupted, staring oddly at Chase. “You look familiar.” Chase cleared his throat. “I’m Chase Sandoval, ma’am.” “Oh, yes!” Mary nodded suddenly. “You were that boy that liked to ride his bike through our yard.” Chase actually blushed to the roots of his hair. “Oh, yeah, I’d, um…forgotten.” He cast a look at Dakota, hoping for help. Dakota was still trying to figure out why he’d want to contact a homeless shelter. “We certainly didn’t forget,” Margaret told him. “I always worried you were going to grow up to be a hoodlum. Looks like you turned out good—unless you’re here for counseling from Pastor Cody.” “Pastor—” “Cody…” Dakota acknowledged. “They’re the only ones who still call me that name.” He smiled patiently. “But he’s not. Here for counseling, that is. Which brings us around full court. Can you tell me, ladies, why I might want to call a homeless shelter?” The sound of his swing creaking brought his head around to his porch—and his jaw dropped. A woman, no more than five and a half feet tall, stood up. It wasn’t just a woman though, it was…he glanced at her outfit and saw why Margaret and Mary had worried about who was on his porch. Moving past the two women, he headed toward the steps and slowly climbed to the porch. Father, guide me, he prayed silently, wondering how this woman had found his address. Her black skirt hung at an odd angle and stopped just above her knees—it might have once been a possible accessory to a business suit. However, one boot was missing a heel, and her sweater hung off one shoulder, nearly exposing areas that Dakota had no business seeing. Her hair was ratted, big enough a bird’s nest could hide in it, and the smeared and caked-on makeup on her face easily added a pound to her weight—her very light weight. Her high cheekbones were gaunt, and her bleary eyes stared out at him from under mascara-smeared lids. He didn’t miss the bottle of booze in her hand. Nor could he miss the smell. “Hello, I’m Dakota Ryder. Can I help you?” Compassion filled him at the empty look in her eyes. Compassion and concern as she teetered on her feet. Taking a step forward, she waved the bottle. “How ya doing, Cody? We said we’d be best friends forever.” She giggled and took another swig of the bottle before tossing it over the porch rail and into the flower bed. “I’m here to be your sister.” With that, she threw out her arms, promptly lost her balance and fell headlong into the stunned arms of Dakota Ryder. Chapter Two “Whoa, Dakota!” Chase came rushing up the stairs, dropping the box he’d been carrying, intending to help his friend. Dakota lay, stunned, beneath an unconscious body that smelled like the sewers of Fort Worth, boxes scattered about him. Shifting, he managed to get to his knees and then lifted the woman into his arms. With Chase’s help, he stood. Then, fumbling in his pocket, he managed to find and toss his keys to Chase. “Will you get the door?” “Sure thing.” “Can we help?” Margaret and Mary were both standing at the foot of the stairs. Not sure what to say, he hesitated before finally nodding. “She’s gonna need some hot coffee and soup, if you wouldn’t mind.” The two women were eccentric but loved to help, and he knew they’d appreciate having something to do. Especially when they’d be able to tell the entire town, for months to come, how they’d gotten to assist the pastor in taking care of her. Chase pulled the screen door open and then shoved the large oak door inward. Dakota strode in, carefully carrying his bundle into his childhood home. His feet echoed hollowly on the old wooden floor as he crossed the foyer before stepping onto the rug near the sofa. Shoving two of the decorative pillows out of the way, he deposited his load on the brocade couch. She was definitely out. Leaning forward to examine her, he held his breath. The fumes alone were enough to make him drunk. Dear God, who is she and why is she here? he prayed silently. Checking her pulse, he found it strong and steady. At least that was a good thing. “I’ll get the boxes,” Chase murmured and left the house. Dakota made a call to a friend who was a doctor, asking him to come by, and then he went to his closet to get a blanket. Actually, the less Mary and Margaret saw of the woman, the better. The less any of them saw, the better, he thought. Bending down, he patted the woman’s cheek. The screen door squeaked as Chase came back inside. “Your box is a bit banged up but it looks okay. Hope you don’t have anything breakable in it or the other one.” Dakota blinked. His eyes watered at the smell the woman exuded. Going to a window, he shoved first one and then another open. “No. They were just papers and other things I had to go over. It’s getting close to the end of the year and we’re thinking of changing a lot of the church curriculum. We are also going over the mission budget and I wanted to review everything personally.” He shook his head at the smell as it filled his nostrils. Chase sidled over toward the window. “No one can say life as a pastor isn’t interesting. Tell me, do you know her?” Dakota started to shake his head then paused. “She said she was here to be my sister,” he murmured. “That’s not sister’s garb she’s wearing,” Chase mocked. Dakota shot him a look. “The words rang a bell. I just can’t place them.” Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself before moving back to her side. “It’s possible someone sent her to me for help. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, though I think she managed to shock my neighbors, which is a first.” “They remembered my bike,” Chase muttered. Dakota finally grinned. “They don’t forget much.” “You don’t say? That was over twenty years ago.” Dakota nodded. “You should try living next door to them. Anytime I think of getting a big head over something, they remind me of things that promptly knock it back down. They’re also on the lookout for a woman for me.” Chase shook his head, grinning. “Yeah, and they used to question each girl I brought home for Mom to meet. Only after Dad died, that is.” Dakota’s dad had died in a granary explosion ten years earlier, leaving his mom and her children dependent on each other. Dakota had done his best by working odd jobs to help take care of bills, hating to see his mom working in a nursing home cafeteria for a living. “The sisters were also a blessing during that time after Dad died,” he added, remembering. “Anyway, it’s been an adventure with them as neighbors.” Silence fell. Chase shifted on his feet, slipping both hands into his front pockets. His wavy dark hair hung forward over one eyebrow as he bounced on his heels. “So, have you figured out who she is yet?” Dakota looked back at her. Very light skin and blond hair, whether it was real or not he wasn’t sure. The woman had a nice figure, not overblown but just right except she was a bit underweight. He would bet she’d clean up pretty and would probably be a knockout. Right now though, with her makeup smeared, black eyeliner making her look as if she had twin black eyes, he doubted her own mother could identify her. “Nope. I don’t know who she is. But it’s obvious she knows me.” The smell was actually subsiding, or maybe he was just getting used to it, but he realized it wasn’t bothering him as much now as it had a moment ago. A knock on the door interrupted them. Mary and Margaret each carried a pot in their hands. “That was certainly fast,” Chase murmured. Dakota crossed to the door. “Come in, ladies.” “Oh, we can’t stay,” Mary’s blue hair was bobbing as she came inside. “But here’s the coffee.” “And here’s some soup left over from what we had yesterday. We had thought to bring it over to you today if you wanted it. So, it ended up here anyway.” Margaret gave him a warm smile. Dakota took the time to return her smile and take the coffeepot from Mary. He crossed the wooden floor past the sofa into the dining room. Grabbing a hot pad from the side table, he placed it on the large round wooden table and then set down his load. He turned and saw Margaret had followed him, so he did the same with the soup bowl. “No hurry in getting these dishes back. You just take care of that woman on your sofa.” Dakota glanced behind him at the door to the kitchen and thought about getting cups and bowls but decided that could wait. “Thank you, ma’am,” he murmured. “She looks so bad.” Dakota turned to see Mary standing near Chase, wringing her hands, staring at the woman on the sofa. “When she wakes up you should make sure she bathes. But not here. That wouldn’t be proper. You’ll have to find somewhere else for her to clean up.” “I’m sure we’ll think of something,” Dakota reassured Mary. “You don’t want your mama’s reputation ruined, or yours, Pastor. Think about that,” Margaret informed him. He nodded. “I will.” Margaret reached out and patted his arm. “We should go, Mary, so the pastor can get about his work of converting this woman.” Dakota saw Chase cover a smile with his hand. “Thank you both.” Dakota strode back through the living room to the screen door. “I’m sure the woman will appreciate the food—once she’s awake. You’ve saved me a heavy chore of having to cook.” Both ladies beamed at the compliment. Mary actually giggled like a schoolgirl. “If you need anything else,” Mary called as they toddled out onto the wooden porch. “I’ll be sure to call,” he affirmed. Once they were safely down the stairs, Dakota let the screen door close. Chase chuckled. “They’re concerned,” Dakota informed him. “I noticed.” Glancing around, he noted, “The place sure hasn’t changed much since we were kids.” “You don’t think so?” Dakota glanced around too, trying to see it through the eyes of his childhood. The old braided rug he’d grown up with continued to grace the middle of the room with the old-fashioned sofa and coffee table sitting on one edge. The brocaded chairs and love seat each had their own braided rugs. The fireplace still had family pictures on it. Both of the tall front windows had lace curtains just like when he was a child, but he had added miniblinds to them about five years ago. The pictures on the walls had once been of oceans but his mom had talked so much about the prairie that for a Christmas present about four years ago, he’d bought her three new pictures. One was of a wooden fence and a windmill at sunset with only the flat plain behind it. The second was of an old ranch house and a horse grazing in the front yard. The third was the picture of a Native American on a horse, both drooping wearily. The dining room had not changed, with the same side table and dining table as well as the cupboard. The dishes were the only thing different. In the kitchen, however, there were all new appliances. Suddenly he realized that despite the changes he’d made, the house was still basically the same. “I guess I don’t see much reason to alter things,” Dakota murmured. “Which is why you’re still here in town when many of us left and made the few hours’ bus ride to FortWorth.” Dakota admitted he was right. He liked things to stay the same. He’d slipped easily into the role of pastor in town after he’d gotten back from his training. The entire time he’d been gone had seemed to be a waste. Now he wondered if that emotion hadn’t simply been his desire to be back home. “So, what are you going to do about her?” Chase motioned toward the woman on the sofa. She shifted onto her side, moving to get comfortable but not waking up. “I guess we’ll wait until the doctor gets here and then decide.” Chase nodded. “I should go. My mother-in-law is with Sarah and I promised to get back. She’s headed back to Dallas tomorrow.” Dakota wasn’t sure what to say, not wanting to be left alone with a woman in his house. He was saved by the doctor pulling up outside. With a silent prayer of thanks, Dakota nodded. “It was great seeing you again, Chase. I’m only sorry our day turned out this way.” “Hey, bud.” Chase shrugged. “How could you know this was going to happen?” Dakota walked to the door and pulled it open. “Call me if you need anything else.” With a look at the woman on the sofa, Chase headed out and down the stairs just as Dr. Joshua Meadows climbed them. “So, what’s this about an inebriated woman, Dakota?” Dakota stepped back and motioned to the sofa. “She was on my doorstep when I got home, Josh. I really would appreciate it if you’d examine her and make sure she’s okay. Frankly, I’m not sure what to do with her.” Josh lifted an eyebrow and grinned. With dark brown hair and a sense of humor, Josh was a good doctor. Tall and athletic, he enjoyed basketball and lifting weights. Dakota sometimes worked out with him. “Well, let’s do one thing at a time. Can you call Mary and have her come over here to witness while I examine the woman?” Dakota felt relief now that Josh was here. They’d been friends since Dakota had first taken over pastoring Shenandoah Family Church. When he’d been unsure about pastoring the same people he’d grown up with, Josh, new in town, had been a friend he could confide in. Their paths often crossed in professional ways, which had helped develop their friendship. Law wasn’t something Dakota thought about much, but it was something Josh did consider. And Dakota was glad. He didn’t like to think about how it might be with him alone in the house. The brown eyes of the doctor, however, were sharp and full of implication. Going to the phone, he called Mary and asked her if she’d mind helping the doctor. Then he returned to Josh’s side. “What can you tell me about her?” Josh asked now, setting down his black bag and pulling out a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff. “I came home. She had a bottle of whiskey in her hands. She took a drink, tossed the bottle, stumbled and passed out.” Josh nodded. “And you don’t want to call the police…” “She hasn’t done anything. If she’s come to me for help—which I think she has—then jail isn’t the place for her. I can’t send her to a homeless shelter like this. The closest shelter is about two hours away! But I can’t toss her out.” As Dakota explained the situation, his own situation became clear. He couldn’t very well keep the woman here. He didn’t know anything about her. But he couldn’t put her out either. But he could not keep her here. Oh boy, he thought dismally, not sure what he was going to do. Mary arrived. He went to the door and let her in just as the phone rang. Crossing the living room to the table next to the love seat, he answered, leaving Josh and Mary to the patient. “Hello?” “Dakota honey?” How did she always know? Dakota wondered. “Hi, Mom. What’s up?” “I have good news. I’m booked on a flight back to Shenandoah at 5:00 p.m. tonight and wondered if you would be able to pick me up at the airport.” His mom’s voice was so matter-of-fact—as if it was normal for her to call unexpectedly when his life was suddenly upside down, only to announce she was coming home. “I thought you were planning on staying at least another month to help Susan with the twins.” Suspicious, he fished for something to tell him what his mother knew. Small towns, he thought, almost certain someone had called her about the woman on his steps. “I’ve been here three months already, honey.” That much was true. Glancing over to the sofa, he saw Mary, hands clasped, looking overly innocent and wide eyed as she stared at him. He had his answer. “I see.” “I’m sure you do,” his mother said wisely. “I’ll be glad to make sure someone is there to pick you up at the airport, Mom. However, I have company, so I won’t be able to make it myself.” He waited for a response. A question. Something. When it came, it was simple. “That’s fine. See you around five-thirty. Bye, son.” “Goodbye, Mom.” He hung up the phone. “Who was that?” Dakota turned to Mary and gave her one of his you’ve-been-meddling-again looks. Then he turned to Josh. “That was Mom. She’s on her way home.” “Word travels fast.” “Uh-huh.” He shot a look at Mary, who would have been whistling if she knew how. In all the years he’d known her, he knew that whistling had been a bone of contention between the two sisters. Margaret could whistle. Mary could not. “What about our patient?” he asked, changing the subject. It wouldn’t do any good to get onto Mary for calling his mom. She watched out for him whether he wanted it or not. And if she felt his mom would be a help here—which, he had to admit, she would since he couldn’t very well throw an unconscious woman out on the street—then Mary and Margaret would call his mom. Thirty-two years old and they still treated him as if he were twelve. “Blood pressure is okay. So are her heart and lungs, pupils. I’d say she’s going to be fine. She just needs to sleep it off. You won’t get any answers out of her today, I’m afraid.” Dakota nodded. “I guess that’s that then.” “Want me to put her in the spare room?” Dakota hesitated. Mary piped up, “It wouldn’t be right for you to be alone here. I’ll be glad to stay with you. Besides, you promised me over a month ago to help me with that puzzle I’m working. I’ll call Margaret and have her bring it over and we can finish it together.” Great. An afternoon with Margaret and Mary. But at least the woman would feel safe when she woke and found herself in his house—and he’d feel safe, too, when he faced his congregation. It seemed the best choice. “That sounds great, Mary.” Josh shifted the woman on the sofa and lifted her. “Lead the way.” Chapter Three Dark shadows surrounded her and she knew the dream was starting again. No amount of liquor could keep the demons at bay. And as the deep dark recesses parted and the fog swirled away from around her, she knew what was coming. As a spectator in a theater seat, she watched the past play out before her once again. It started out the same every time. She was falling down the set of stairs, falling, grasping for the handrail. She’d been fine, laughing with her friend, and then had simply missed a step. Or she’d thought that was it. Shouts sounded and people came running. One of her co-workers helped her up. But she couldn’t stand. She must have hurt her leg. Her boss gave her the rest of the day off. She went home and took a hot bath. She’d thought a hot bath would help her pain, ease the aches of the fall, but it hadn’t. Instead of getting better, she found she couldn’t get out of the tub. Panic ensued. But in the dream the water was drowning her, pulling her down below the rim, in the tub, alone, with no help. The water had eventually chilled and slowly her leg had started working; gradually the water released its death hold on her. Trembling, she’d pulled herself out of the tub and managed to get to her bed. Falling onto the soft white sheets, she thought to sleep off the scare. Of course, the dream didn’t end. Instead, she saw herself decide to get up and go to work. It was unexplainably day again. Birds were singing. A soft breeze blew in the curtained window. Mists swirled in around her, trying to block her vision of the deceptively beautiful day. As she was back at work, jokes floated off the tongues of her friends, silly jokes about her being a klutz. Her leg had gotten better and she was back, but this day, not even a month later according to the calendar on her desk, her hand was going numb. Her boss, Rob, was standing there, waiting on a report, saying it was about time she got some rest, when he noticed she’d stopped typing. Her arm burned, burned from shoulder to elbow, and her fingers didn’t want to work. Flames were leaping from her arm. Cold crept up her spine, extinguishing the flames, but not before her boss saw them. He insisted she take the day off and go to the doctor. That was it. He didn’t try to put the flames out or comment on them, just told her to go see a physician. He forced her toward the door, grabbing her arm, shoving at her. She stepped toward his office and right into the ER. The three days of testing played like a video on fast-forward. And they were very true to what had really happened. There was the doctor. Then radiology. A spinal tap. There were machines hooked up to her that made her muscles jump and dance. Her arms and legs looked like a caricature of Pinocchio when he danced. And then she was sitting in the doctor’s office, those strings still on her, moving her arms and legs…until he told her the diagnosis. The verdict. The strings fell off. Shock stunned her speechless. Her grandmother appeared, in her wheelchair next to her, her voice like the teacher’s on Charlie Brown, there but indistinguishable. The only sound she could make out was that of her grandmother’s anger as she swung a stick at her and then cackled with glee. It wasn’t thought to be hereditary, the doctor had told her—but then he didn’t know about her grandmother. He couldn’t see her grandmother laughing at her. Why couldn’t he? She looked from him to her grandmother and back. They didn’t know what caused it. She felt hysterical laughter bubbling up in her. He asked her if she was okay then told her they needed to talk about the next steps. But she knew there was no treatment. Just look at her horrible grandmother! Her hateful, wheelchair-bound grandmother who loved to hit her with a stick and who taunted and tormented her mother and father until Daddy had left and Mother had finally moved to the city to try to make enough money for them to survive. What was she going to do? The scene changed and pictures started moving faster and faster through her mind. She was at work, but only for a month. She was trying to type, but crying instead. She heard the whispers, saw the looks. It wasn’t good for business for her to be seen like that. Just a drink to help get her through the stares, to help her forget what the doctor had told her. She saw herself hitting the answering machine over and over, erasing messages from the doctor’s office. Why wouldn’t they leave her alone? She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t work. And then Rob had let her go. Oh, he’d been nice about it. He’d told her if she got her act together, to give him a call. She saw the smile on his face, that fake smile, painted on much like a clown’s face. And she realized she was already changing. She wasn’t like she was before. Nice, carefree, fun-loving. No, she was changing into the monster of her past—her grandmother. She couldn’t think about it. She wouldn’t think about it. Driving home she’d nearly hit a man crossing the street. That had been the final straw. With her last paycheck, she walked into a liquor store and bought enough liquor to help her forget. The mists swirled in and she relaxed, until she heard the pounding and realized the dream wasn’t over. Oh, no, she saw the car being towed and an eviction notice nailed to her door. The scenes swirled madly. She was on the street. She tried a homeless shelter, but was almost raped that night and fled. She’d demanded more liquor, anything to help her not remember, not know where she was. She didn’t want to remember what had been said. Life wasn’t fair. She’d lost her mom and now this. She wanted hope again. But there was no hope here, no life, nothing for her. In the deepest despair she’d ever been in, she remembered another time of deep despair, of a time she had been forced to lose her best friend. Yet, in that despair, a line floated into her remembrance. If you ever need me, I’ll be here. If only that were true, she thought. She tipped the bottle and drank. And walked. She watched herself head off down the street, the empty, black, lonely street, the mist parting as she walked. She didn’t go to pay the creditors or to the homeless shelter. She headed toward the one ray of hope in a life suddenly filled with desperation and emptiness. And then the dream ended and she opened her eyes in a strange house. And she realized, suddenly, that somehow she’d made her wish come true. At least she was certain she’d somehow found her way back to the past, back to Dakota Ryder’s house, and she was lying there now being tucked in to bed by a man with a stethoscope. His eyes met hers and she stiffened, waiting for the worst. The man smiled gently and whispered, “Go back to sleep.” And that’s exactly what Meghan O’Halleran did. She closed her eyes and tried to get back into the dream of the little girl in a soft bed—because she knew what she’d just seen couldn’t be reality. Not for her. Not for an O’Halleran. Safety and love could only come true in her dreams. Chapter Four He had thought about her all night. After his mom had arrived home. And the explanations for her presence had been few. She must have missed the bus and someone had sent her his way. “Good morning, Dakota.” Cody stopped at the sideboard in the dining room to pour himself a cup of coffee. Though his diminutive mother was now gray-haired and her hands had begun to show signs of age, those blue eyes of hers missed nothing. And though she didn’t demand questions, that wasn’t her style, he knew she was there, waiting to listen. When had she stopped being just a mom and become a friend? Nodding to his mom, he started around the table, pausing to kiss her cheek. So who was the woman who had said she was his “sister”? Cody thought once again as he had a dozen times last night. “Is our guest up?” he asked as he took his seat across from his mom and picked up the morning paper. He liked to go through the hospital and death section to keep up on the residents and what someone might be going through in town. Perhaps there was a hint of the woman upstairs, if someone was missing or such. “Not yet,” his mother murmured. “Are you ready to talk?” “About what?” he asked, though he knew exactly what his mother wanted to say. He was too busy to encourage her. He had to get to work, see about meeting Chandler’s concerning the new wing on the church. The reports he’d brought home still needed to be gone over, among a dozen other things. Of course, he’d known his mom would want to discuss the woman since she hadn’t said a word about it yesterday. The problem was, he didn’t know anything. “Your guest.” “My…” He paused and glanced up over the paper then shook his head. “She’s not my guest, Mother. She is someone who needed a place to stay and since we don’t have a shelter in town, I put her up.” Her face, slightly rounded though elegant and graceful, wore a soft smile as she waited—and that was more convincing than anything else. “Besides,” he added, returning to scanning the paper before taking a sip of the hot black coffee he’d poured himself, “she was unconscious. What was I supposed to do?” Okay, he felt a bit odd having a drunk in his house—his mother’s house. A drunk woman, actually. This was a first. He’d had many men come to his door drunk, he usually just let them sleep in the small apartment over the garage out back, and then in the morning, he showed up with coffee and an ear to listen. Never had a woman shown up on his doorstep and embraced him as she had—and then promptly passed out. Yes, this was definitely a first. The reason why she was upstairs and not out back like a guy. He shook his head again. “I suppose you should have done whatever you felt you should have done with the guest.” His mother went back to sipping her coffee. He didn’t know what to do with the woman, and frankly, he was still a bit uncomfortable over yesterday. Wearily he set aside the paper. “I really need to get to work.” His mother didn’t comment. Uncomfortable, he asked, “Do you think you can stay here until she wakes up?” He glanced at his watch. “I’m supposed to meet about the construction on the church in an hour.” When his mom didn’t answer immediately, he sighed. “I can call an officer to come over. Jerry would be glad to be here with you when she wakes up.” Dakota could tell his mom was disappointed. Frustrated, he wanted to tell her he was busy, so busy that he was meeting himself coming and going. He didn’t need one more unexpected thing added to his list—like this woman. Immediately his spirit stabbed at his conscience. That was his job. Of course, it should be added to his list. “I’m sorry, Mom. I suppose I can call and reschedule.” Instead of rebuking him, his mom set aside her coffee cup and folded her hands. With understanding, she studied him. “I’ll be fine, Dakota. If you have to go, then you have to go. I’ll be glad to be here when the woman wakes up.” She paused and then added, “Can you tell me her name before you go?” Her name. If only he knew her name. Of course, if he stayed around, he would get a chance to talk to her and find out. And really, this wasn’t his mom’s job, but his job. Guiltily, he shook his head. “Like I said last night. She passed out right after I arrived.” His mother’s lips twitched slightly. “Mary and Margaret have a different take on it, I’m afraid.” Dakota grimaced. He’d heard the phone ring earlier this morning and had just been certain it was his neighbors. They’d actually left him and his mom in peace last night. He’d expected Mary or Margaret to launch into a lengthy explanation as soon as his mom had arrived home. Instead, they’d patted her hand and told her that all would be well now that she was there and tottered off home—after they had stayed to finish the puzzle, and regale him with tales of every puzzle they had ever put together. Boy, had last night been a night. “I can only imagine what they said,” Dakota muttered, figuring they would get to it eventually. He’d seen that look the sisters had shared when his mom had sat down to help with the puzzle. “Dakota!” his mother admonished, even though she was forcing her smile away as she spoke. “Okay, out with it.” Dakota glanced at his watch and decided he had enough time to hear this before he left. If he left. He felt himself wavering as God spoke to his heart. His mother shook her head. “That she dressed scandalously and embraced you were a couple of their comments.” Dakota groaned. This was going to take more than a few minutes. It always did when it involved those two ladies. “Just as I thought.” His mother chuckled. “Why don’t you tell me the entire story?” “She wasn’t dressed scandalously, Mom.” He sat back and prepared to tell his side of the story. Lifting his cup to his lips, he took a sip of his coffee while his mom waited. Setting it aside, he leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, and began, hesitantly, being careful to be honest but not gossipy. “She looked as if she hadn’t bathed in a month and her makeup was smeared.” He remembered how shocked he’d been at her appearance, how he’d ached wondering what this poor woman had been through. “Her top was askew and one heel on a boot was broken.” He forced his inward gaze back to his mom. “I’ve seen people in similar situations, Mom. Mary and Margaret were simply exaggerating. It was the attack as I came up the porch that threw me, however, and probably what fueled the sisters’ imaginations. The woman told me she wanted to be my sister and then she lunged out at me.” He shifted uncomfortably. He loved his mom and cared what she thought, but it was embarrassing to tell her about that bit. His mom didn’t laugh, however. Instead, she frowned. “Your sister?” He nodded. “We’re not Catholic and she’s not a nun. I would swear her showing up here was simply an accident, but if it is…” He lifted a hand and ran it through his hair in frustration. “What could she have meant?” His mother rested one hand on top of the other, her brow furrowing as she contemplated what Cody had said. “Maybe your reasoning is where the problem is.” “What?” He resisted the urge to glance at his watch. “How do you mean?” “Well, she hugs you, calls herself a sister…so perhaps you do know her.” Dakota shook his head. “I haven’t met her before, Mom. I would remember her.” His mom lifted an eyebrow in a way only a mother can and he squirmed in response. “I meant that she’s a grown woman and in my line of work—” “Maybe she wasn’t an adult when you met her. Tell me exactly what she said yesterday.” Dakota felt time slipping away and knew he was going to be late. But, to solve this dilemma he needed to recount the story, find an answer and then see to helping this woman. Chandler’s would just have to wait. Quickly and concisely, he related all she had said. Slowly, his mom nodded. “Think back to your teenage years. You were always so generous. Is it possible you told someone they could move in with us and she could be your sister?” Dakota shook his head, then paused. “I wouldn’t have told any girl she could be my sister, but…” His mom cocked her head in sudden thought. “There was a little girl, a long time ago. You might not even remember her.” Carolyne paused and studied her son. “She was very special to you. She used to take your side whenever you and your sister would fight.” Dakota’s eyes widened. The past came flooding back. Something in grade school he remembered. A playground and a little blond-haired girl. They had spit in each other’s hand. It was fuzzy, but he remembered some incident about her leaving and he didn’t want to lose her…“Molly, Marsha…” “Meghan.” “Meghan!” Dakota repeated after his mother and leaned forward, shaking his head in disbelief. He hadn’t thought of her in ages. “That’s impossible. It’s been so many years. I wouldn’t know her. She wouldn’t know me.” “But you did used to call her your best friend.” “She had blond hair, was skinny.” Dakota shook his head, unable to believe what his mom had suggested. “I don’t remember much except that she liked to make mud pies and we liked to swing on the swing set.” It couldn’t be, he thought. What would she be doing back here? “Last I heard they moved to Fort Worth.” He paused and then mused aloud. “I always did wonder what happened to her.” “The young woman is blond,” Dakota heard his mom say. “She called herself your best friend. True, she was inebriated at the time, but be that as it may, whether it is or is not Meghan, there is one thing you do know.” “What’s that?” Dakota asked as more and more snatches of memories presented themselves about a young girl he’d once known. “She came to you for help.” Dakota snapped to attention as compassion flooded him. Contrite, he realized his mom had made her point without chiding him once. He nodded. “Yes, she did.” Guilty that he had been in such a hurry, he admitted how wise his mother was. Wisdom came with years and his mom was one of those who had helped guide him and direct him with sage words of advice. She didn’t correct him often, but when she did, she was usually right. “Excuse me?” Both mother and son turned at the timid sound. Dakota had tarried too long, for their guest stood at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in her outfit of the day before and looking much the worse for wear. He would have known she was there had she not said anything when the smell hit him. Yet, his compassion only grew as he saw the fear, embarrassment and reserved look in the way she stood, arms crossed across her stomach as if holding herself against any onslaught they might make. Her gaze shifted to his mom and then back to him. “I am really sorry but…” The woman’s voice came out hoarse and she winced, then lifted a hand to her head. Hangover headache, he thought. “Mrs. Ryder?” she asked, though her gaze was on Dakota. Finally, it turned back to his mother. His mom rose smoothly and crossed to her. “I am—Carolyne Ryder.” The woman stumbled slightly and righted herself. Her cheeks grew a soft rosy pink though the embarrassment in her eyes reflected self-recrimination. “I’m so sorry. I should go.” She tried to back away, the embarrassment growing. “I don’t know how I ended up here—” “Nonsense.” His mother slipped an arm around her to keep her from exiting. She did not once blink over the powerful stench the woman exuded. His mother was full of grace and love—and she always had been. As they started toward the table, Dakota noticed the woman dragged one leg just a bit and wobbled as she walked. He wondered if she’d hurt herself yesterday when she fell and made a note to call the doctor about it. “Really,” the young woman continued even as his mother firmly led her to the table so she could sit down. “I didn’t mean to come here, that is—” “Would you like some coffee? We’ve been trying to guess your identity.” The woman’s cheeks turned even redder, the color leeching down into her neck. Dakota couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “Meghan?” he asked, needing to know. The woman stopped dead and then promptly burst into tears. Aghast, Dakota looked at his mom, who met his gaze over the woman’s head. What had he said? “There, there,” his mother murmured and pulled the girl into her arms. Dakota didn’t know what to do. He prayed a quiet prayer for guidance and allowed himself to slip into his pastoral mode, as he thought of it, caring but detached from the situation. He observed as his mom held the woman and smoothed her ratty hair, praying quietly for God to comfort the woman and for guidance when she was finally able to talk. Slowly the woman’s tears subsided. His mom pushed a tissue into her hand and she wiped her eyes, smearing the leftovers of makeup even worse. Cody didn’t mind. All that was left in his heart now was concern and compassion. It didn’t matter how she smelled, how she looked, who she was. The woman was full of pain and needed someone to talk with. He saw her dart a glance at him before wiping at her nose and took that as a signal to intervene. “You are welcome here, Meghan,” he said gently and waited. Meghan shuddered and took a fresh tissue. She wiped at her eyes again and then, after taking a deep breath, she whispered, “I didn’t mean to show up here. I—oh dear.” She glanced up at his mom and saw only compassion as Carolyne nodded to her. She straightened her shoulders and pushed away, becoming an isolated tower as she tried to pull dignity about her. “I don’t usually drink,” she confessed. “Until lately. I was so…inebriated that I guess I didn’t realize what I was doing. I thought it was a dream, really. I mean, I came back…” She trailed off. Cody steepled his fingers and leaned back, crossing his legs once again. “Why did you come back, Meghan?” he prompted gently when she didn’t continue. She stiffened. “It’s okay, Meghan…” Cody’s mother patted her leg, leaving her hand resting there in silent support. Meghan’s eyes, the beautiful green that he could see today, focused on his mom and tension drained. Finally, she confessed, “I didn’t know where else to go.” His mom’s eyes turned to and rested in his gaze. Cody knew that look. And he knew the signs from the woman in front of him. She was exhausted. “I am so sorry—” Meghan began. “Mom, is the electricity on in the garage apartment?” Cody cut in, ignoring the woman’s protest. His mom smiled, approval in her eyes. “I just have to flip the circuit breaker.” “What?” Meghan looked from one to the other. “You don’t have to say anything more, Meghan,” Cody told her. “We have a place you can stay.” “Here?” She was genuinely surprised, though he saw sudden hope in her eyes. Dakota nodded. “We don’t have a shelter in town.” His mom smiled. “And besides, we have that apartment back there not being used.” “Oh, I couldn’t possibly—” Meghan began. “Of course you can.” His mom patted Meghan’s arm. “I’m sure you want to bathe and need time to regroup.” “But I haven’t even explained why I’m here,” Meghan protested. Cody could see in her eyes that she wanted to stay, that she didn’t want to explain, and that she needed time to regroup. Her story would come out in time. “No need to explain.” When Meghan looked at him questioningly, he shrugged. “God sent you to us. I imagine He knows why you’re here, and if you want to talk later, my mom or I will be willing to listen.” “You don’t really know me, though,” Meghan whispered. “We don’t have to know you, Meghan. God only tells us to love you.” Fresh tears filled her eyes. His mom nodded and then turned to Meghan. “Let’s go upstairs. I’ll see if I can find you some fresh clothes.” She had maneuvered Meghan to a standing position and together they turned and started toward the stairs. His mother continued, “We’ll run a bath and afterward we’ll have some breakfast. I’m sure you’ll feel much better by then.” As their voices faded, Cody smiled. That was his mom. Indispensable. She knew the right thing to say and do and wasn’t above bullying if the need arose—but in her own gentle way. He glanced at his watch. He wouldn’t be too late if he left now. He could meet with Chandler’s, get done what he needed to get done and be back after his new guest had time to bathe and gather herself. Thank you, Father. His prayer was short and simple, then he stood. Take care of her, he added and headed for the door, wondering just what tale his guest was going to have to share and wondering just why God had brought her back to Shenandoah and into his life. Chapter Five “I can’t believe this town hasn’t changed in twenty years.” Chase walked down the sidewalk next to Jerry Duffy, sheriff of Shenandoah. Jerry was on the older side, approaching sixty, and he smiled at Chase’s comment. “Well, now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” He adjusted his cowboy hat, bobbing it slightly as a young woman hurried past, entering the dime store. “Murphey still own this store?” Chase asked the balding sheriff. “His son runs it now.” Chase nodded. Murphey’s son, Jackson, was a year older than he was. He’d known him in school. “New stores in the places of old ones. Not as many people, but not much crime either.” “That’s why I’m here.” Jerry nodded. “I have to say, son, I’m glad to see you back. Always thought your family was good and hated to see your parents move away.” Chase had enjoyed moving away, getting to see the world, or so he’d thought. It was funny how his world had come full circle. He’d only wanted to escape to the big city, and now, because of his daughter, he was trying to escape back to the small town. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926426&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.