What the—oh no! Stop!
The smallish woman felt her feet being bounced out of the stirrups and her short hair flapping up and down. With the sick feeling that often comes with a complete loss of control, Sarah Palmer flew off her mount and hit the hard ground with a thud, her lower back and left hand taking most of the impact. She sat a minute in disbelief that this horse she was just trying out for possible purchase had thrown her within three minutes and before she had gone even once around the arena.
“Are you all right?” A tall woman in jeans and a lime green t-shirt, her auburn hair pulled back in a pony tail, came running to her side. A young girl that Sarah guessed must be a daughter ran to catch the reins of the palomino that was now prancing around the arena tossing its head in a victory lap.
Sarah struggled off the ground and brushed the dirt off her jeans and black tank top. “Yeah, I guess so.” I’m too old for this.
The woman spread her hands. “I am so sorry! I don’t know what got into her!”
Sarah walked stiffly toward the fence with the woman by her side.
“Are you sure you’re okay? Maybe I better get my husband.”
Sarah waved this idea away and brushed the blue strand of her honey blonde hair out of her face almost with the same move. “I’m fine,”–she flexed the fingers of her left hand that were starting to ache—“I think. I don’t believe I’m interested in your horse, however.”
The woman reached toward Sarah’s shoulder, then pulled back nervously and put a hand to her head instead. “I can’t say as I blame you. I guess that horse is going back to the trainer for awhile.”
They continued walking toward the corral gate where a young boy was whooping it up and pointing. Sarah shouted to him, “Aidan, shut up! It’s not funny!”
The boy put his hand over his mouth, but his eyes were still laughing. Yeah, this is just what I need.
Sarah turned to the woman who was easily six inches taller than her. “I guess it’s not a good day for manners all around.” She turned back to the boy in army green cargo pants and a white Nintendo t-shirt, pointing at him and then the car. Her expression was stern, but he didn’t move. Sarah headed for the car, followed by the woman.
“Once again, I’m just so sorry,” she repeated as Sarah climbed in and started her twelve-year-old red Corolla.
Sarah pushed the button that lowered her window and shut the door. “Don’t worry about it.” Oh, my back. “Weird stuff happens, you know?” She leaned forward to see around the woman. Aidan was still sitting on the fence. “Aidan, get your butt in the car, or I’m leaving you here,” she shouted, making the woman take a step back.
As Aidan slowly slid off the rails, Sarah sensed the woman studying her.
“Are you Jim Palmer’s daughter?”
Sarah’s jaw tightened. She could feel her aches spreading up her arm and back, and she wished Aidan would hurry up and get in the car so they could leave, but he seemed to be walking at turtle speed.
“Yep,” she answered, feeling like she was under a microscope. “I’m Sarah.”
“Sarah Palmer,” the woman almost whispered.
Sarah gave her a crooked smile. So ask me, lady. Screw up your courage and ask me.
The woman seemed even more nervous and hooked a wisp of hair behind one ear. “So, are you just back for a visit, or no, I guess you wouldn’t be wanting to buy a horse for just a visit, would you?”
Sarah closed her eyes and swore she’d make Aidan regret making her have this conversation.
“I—we’re staying with my dad for awhile until—” Sarah broke off and ground her teeth. It’s none of her damn business. “Aidan!”
Aidan finally sidled over to the other side of the car and got in the front seat, still chuckling. Sarah faintly smiled at the woman, threw the car in drive before the door was even closed, and headed down the long driveway to the road, putting up the window as she drove.
Sarah didn’t speak, but Aidan couldn’t keep quiet. “That was great, Mom! I wish you could have seen the way you flew through the air! Man, I wish I had a video camera! Can I have a video camera for my birthday? If I had a video camera today, I would have shot you flying off that horse and put it on YouTube, and I know it would have gone viral!”
“Aidan, don’t you realize—don’t you even care that—” Sarah clenched her jaw tight shut again and shook her head. “Aidan, just shut up, will ya?”
As they drove down the gravel road leading to the highway, Sarah thought about the apartment she and Aidan had left behind two weeks ago as soon as school had let out for the summer, the farewell party at the co-op art gallery, and the crates of sculptures in her dad’s basement that she was sure she wouldn’t be able to sell in this tiny Nebraska town. If I couldn’t sell them in Chicago…
The recent economic downturn had been hard on artists. Sarah found herself behind on her rent, behind on her credit card bills, behind on everything. With the cupboards growing bare and her landlord threatening eviction, she felt she had no choice but to call her dad. He had, of course, been very welcoming, but she still felt like they were imposing, and she also felt her dad’s disapproval when Aidan misbehaved.
Which was a lot.
Sarah pulled into the driveway of her dad’s farm and stopped in front of the house. Aidan, who had just celebrated his eighth birthday a week earlier, saw his grandpa by the barn, bounded out of the car, and raced his direction. “Grandpa, Grandpa, you’ll never guess what happened to Mom!”
Sarah sat for a moment listening to her body talk. Pain was radiating up her spine from her lower back and up her arm. And she felt a headache coming on. She saw that Aidan must have apprised her dad of the whole “hilarious” ordeal, as he was heading her way at a jog, Aidan racing ahead. She opened the door and pulled her small frame out of the car. Five foot two and curvy, she was known to her two older brothers as “Shrimp.”
Her dad approached in jeans and a plaid short sleeved work shirt, and by the look of the dirt he was sporting, he’d been working in the field on the cabless tractor. His dark hair was mostly gray now, and he had the ruddy and weathered look of a man who had been a farmer all his life.
“Aidan said you were thrown. Are you okay?”
“Like a rocket!” Aidan put in, laughing, before Sarah could answer.
A quelling look and a raised eyebrow by his grandfather took the laughter right out of the brown-eyed boy, but he was still smirking.
Sarah slowly started toward the house, feeling like the muscles in her back were about to seize up completely. “Nothing broken, I guess, but I’m going to go lie down for awhile.”
Her dad followed. I heard of another horse for sale—Ted Morton. He lives about ten miles northwest of here.
Sarah pulled herself up the porch stairs by the railing. “Maybe it’s a stupid idea, Dad. I think I’m too old for this.”
Jim Palmer opened the door to the farmhouse he’d built with his own hands nearly forty years ago, and she shuffled into the house. “Oh, heavens, that just wasn’t the right horse. We’ll keep looking. Thirty isn’t old. When you’re sixty, we’ll talk about old.”
Sarah gave her dad a weak smile and headed for the hallway and her room. “Right now, Dad, I feel not just old, I feel ancient.”
“Did I tell you about the riding clubs in the area?” he called after her. “Great place to meet people.”
Sarah turned back. “You told me, Dad, but the problem with that plan is there’s nobody new to meet in this podunk town. I met everyone years ago, and frankly, they don’t seem to be so hot on getting reacquainted. If you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a pariah around here.”
“Nonsense,”–he dismissed this idea with a wave of his hand—“you’re imagining things.”
Sarah headed once again to her bedroom. “Keep an eye on Aidan for me, will you, so I can lie down a bit. I’m starting to feel like shit.”
“Sorry, Dad—crap, I feel like crap. Is that better?”
Sarah’s dad turned to look out the screen door to see Aidan with the water hydrant on full blast, his shoes and pants soaked below the knees. “That boy!” he muttered as he headed out the door.
Sarah slowly walked down the hall. “You said it, Dad.”
Two days later, Jim Palmer drove Sarah and Aidan up to Ted Morton’s to look at the quarter horse he had for sale. Ted assured her that the horse was well-trained, but it did nothing but toss its head, fidget, and prance while Ted held the reins and tried to sell them on his good behavior.
Aidan was sold, but Sarah walked away from the test drive.
Since they’d been gone all morning, they decided to stop in Loraine for lunch. Settling in at a table with their baskets of chicken strips and fries, Sarah was once again feeling old.
“I’m sorry I wasted your morning, Dad. Maybe he would have been okay. I’m kind of saddle shy right now, I guess.” She was unconsciously flexing the fingers on her left hand. The swelling had gone down, but the stiffness remained.
Jim started to speak, but Aidan interrupted, “You are such a chicken, Mom! I would have ridden him!”
Jim’s eyes crinkled at his grandson. “Aidan, you wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on that horse. That was one nervous creature. No wonder Ted is trying to sell him.”
“Well,” said Aidan, devouring a French fry in tiny, rapid bites, “if I lasted five minutes, that would be longer than Mom made it on that pamolino.”
“Palomino,” Sarah corrected.
“Whatever,” Aidan said, his mouth now full of chicken.
Jim took a sip of his coffee. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, Aidan.”
In reply, Aidan opened his mouth wide and said, “Look, SEEfood.”
Jim looked at his daughter. “You’ve really got to do something about this boy’s table manners.”
“I know,” Sarah snapped, “and not just table manners, but most days”–she lowered her voice to barely above a whisper—“I’m at my wit’s end.”
“Where’s Wits End?” Aidan asked loudly.
The door to the diner dinged, and in walked a couple with two young kids. The woman was heavy set, but the man was slim enough to be called skinny. The kids looked, however, like mom fed them.
Sarah glanced their way as they entered and had the feeling she should know the woman—there was something familiar about the face surrounded by a mop of blond curls. The woman looked over at Sarah and smiled a big smile.
“Hey, you!” she called out as she approached Sarah’s table.
Sarah tried to place her but came up blank. “Hi,” she eked out noncommittally, “how are you?”
The woman paused for a moment, the smile still on her face, then put a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “You don’t remember me, do you? I’m Jenny Hays. I used to be Jenny Freise.”
Sarah suddenly remembered. “Oh. Jenny. Yes, I remember.” She was polite, but wary. “I’m getting old I guess. I—”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ve put on a couple of pounds, so I don’t look exactly like I did in high school. I’m not doing much cheerleading these days…but look at you! You look just the same.” Her eyes went to the streak in Sarah’s hair. “Except for the blue. That’s very…youthful…but it looks good on you.”
Sarah hardly knew what to say—she knew a “couple pounds” had been a gross understatement—but she managed to pull something socially acceptable out of her backbrain. “So do you still live here?”
“Robert and I live in Lincoln. We’re just here for the weekend to see the folks. Gotta keep the grandparents happy.” She looked at Aidan. “Is this your son?”
Sarah nodded and felt the muscles in her neck start to tense.
“Do you just have the one?”
Sarah’s eyes flashed. “Yes, Jenny, just the one, and he is the one.”
Jim laid a hand on his daughter’s arm, and Sarah looked down at the remaining chicken strips she was no longer hungry for.
Jenny’s smile slid. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything…I was just making conversation.”
Sarah refused to make eye contact.
Jenny looked to Sarah’s dad. “Mr. Palmer, I hope you are having a pleasant time with your family.” With that she turned and strode across the room and slid into the booth with her wiry husband.
Jim Palmer sighed. “Sarah, she was being nice. There wasn’t any reason to act that way.”
Sarah turned to her dad and spoke in a low, conspiratorial tone. “Don’t let her fool you, Dad. She was fishing for information. She always was a gossip. I was going to be the topic of conversation at her folks’ house all weekend.”
Jim finished his coffee and threw his wadded up napkin in his now-empty chicken basket. “I think you just guaranteed it.”
A rabbit frisked across Sarah’s path as she slowly jogged down the dusty dirt road. Her back still hurt a bit, and her hand hurt a lot, but she ignored the pain and kept moving. Being back in Loraine had conjured up old ghosts, and she was hoping the thudding of her feet would drown out the voices in her head.
Sarah, I hate to ask you to work late again, but could you file these before you go. You’re a dear. By the way, I really like that perfume you’re wearing today.
She kicked her speed up a notch.
Sarah, thanks for listening. I’m afraid Emmaline is just too busy for that these days.
She was running now.
Sarah Palmer, you little slut. I know what you’ve been up to. Tom told me everything.
A pickup passed her, kicking up a choking cloud of dust, but she never slowed. She turned into her dad’s cornfield and ran another quarter mile until she reached the irrigation well.
Sarah, I was completely shocked when I heard the rumors, and I defended you. I said you’d never do something like that. But I guess I was wrong.
Her lungs were nearly bursting when she let herself slow, and the booming, deep vibration from the well’s engine that she could feel resonating in her chest only added to the discomfort.
God couldn’t let you get away with your sin, Sarah. The baby will be a reminder.
Feeling like the vibration could tear her apart, she went right up to it, retrieved a tin cup hanging on a spigot and ran a cup of water chilled in the depths of the earth. She drank it down, then pacing back and forth in the deafening engine noise, she cried.
Not a soul heard.
Sarah lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. It was past midnight, but she was still wide awake. After seven plus years out on her own, here she was back in her lavender bedroom with frilly curtains and the velvet cat poster she’d won at the county fair when she was fourteen. A box of her dolls and even some of her clothes from high school were still in the closet. It’s all mine. Why do I feel like such a stranger?
She had been a fairly successful artist in Chicago—she had only needed one part-time job in addition to her sculpture sales to make ends meet—but that was before the recession. When folks are struggling to put gas in their cars, they don’t buy sculptures to put on their mantles.
She only brought what they needed back to Nebraska—she had sold all their furniture to pay the back rent—but what she really needed right now was all her old friends she left behind and a sense of belonging.
I neglected to bring my soul.
Even though she grew up close to Loraine and went thirteen years to school there, she had cut her ties with the community shortly after college. She shook the dust off her feet and left, only to return for short holiday visits. And even then, she never ventured into town. She came back now only because she was completely out of options, and she couldn’t take Aidan with her to live under a bridge.
She flopped on her side, trying to will her mind to shut off, but old thoughts, feelings, and tensions kept coming to the surface. How am I going to live here? This place will kill me. She tried to reassure herself that it wasn’t forever—that she’d find her feet and get out again. She just needed to keep her head down and not let them destroy her.
Or her son.
I don’t like them and they don’t like me. Don’t worry, Loraine, I’ll get out of your hair just as soon as I can.
Sarah walked into the medical clinic in Loraine early one morning a week after the bucking palomino had tossed her to the dirt. She still had inflammation and inflexibility in her left hand and began to fear that if something wasn’t broken, it might be cracked.
Because she was a new patient, she had several pages to fill out about her medical history and insurance—of which she had none—and with some embarrassment, wrote down her dad’s name as the “responsible party.” When did I lose that title? She wondered if it was an illusion that she ever really had it at all.
She scribbled her signature at the bottom and carried it back to the counter. She saw the clinician’s brows rise when she read the name, and she wondered why it never occurred to her to change it. Now it seemed so obvious to her that she should have changed her name before moving back. It was the name they dragged through the dirt. Maybe they wouldn’t recognize me at all without it.
“Have a seat, Sarah. We’ll call you in a minute.”
Sarah turned abruptly and ran right into a tall guy built like a brick wall who had entered the clinic without her notice.
“Whoa! Sorry, sweetheart. I should have been—”
But Sarah stepped back and changed direction without even looking up. Sweetheart? Another big, brutish idiot of Loraine, Nebraska, takes the stage. Making her way to the other side of the waiting room, she chose a seat in the corner, grabbed the magazine off the top of the pile beside her, and buried her nose in it. Fishing. Great.
As the minutes ticked by staring at a picture of a scruffy guy holding a bass, she began to feel guilty about her rude behavior. I can’t let this town get to me. Maybe Dad’s right. Maybe I’m imagining things. She closed her eyes behind the paper wall she had put up and forced herself to slower breathing. She opened them slowly and risked a peek over her magazine. The fellow she’d run into was looking at her with what seemed like concern. His dark eyes twinkled into hers, and he smiled.
She felt her jaw tighten. No, you don’t get to do that.
“Sarah Palmer, we’re ready for you now.” The nurse was holding a door open for her expectantly, and Sarah jumped to her feet, very aware of the deep brown eyes that followed her.
Dark-haired Marty Scott couldn’t help watching the small, feminine creature as she left the waiting area. He wasn’t sure why she was so pissed off, but he hoped it didn’t have anything to do with him. After all, she was the one who had run smack dab into him. That had been a surprise, but he was even more surprised when he got a look at her walking away and realized she wasn’t the young girl he had thought. She was far too curvy. She was just short, especially next to his height of six feet, two inches. She was obviously pretty steamed about something. Probably a billing issue. Money can make people crazy.
“Careful, Marty,” warned the woman behind the counter.
He turned to her and raised his eyebrows questioningly, but she had already gone back to her paperwork. As he waited for his turn on the x-ray machine, he reviewed the last ten minutes…
After their crash at the counter, the clinician told him to have a seat. He didn’t have any paperwork to fill out today—he’d been there many times in the last few months. He and the dynamo who had ploughed into him without so much as a word were the only ones in the waiting room at the moment. Marty chose a seat facing her but at a fair distance.
She was wearing unusual clothes for the area. A short skirt that seemed to be composed of un-hemmed cloth strips and men’s ties was on her lower half with lace-edged, tight stretchy shorts underneath that went three quarters of the way to her knees. The bottom portion of a bright blue top was all he could see of her upper half below the magazine she was staring at without turning any pages. Marty couldn’t help but be amused by her choice. Field and Stream. Yeah, right, I believe that.
Above the reading material she was obviously just using to hide behind, was a hint of honey blond hair with a streak of blue on one side. All in all, a very trendy urban look, Marty decided. Not Loraine in June, when almost everyone was in casual shorts and shirts. And nobody he knew under the age of sixty dressed up trendy or otherwise to go to the doctor.
He noted that her toes were curled tight in flat blue sandals with rhinestones on the straps, and her fingers were gripping the magazine so tightly, she was probably losing circulation. He had to fight the urge to go give the poor girl a neck rub.
As he was studying her, the magazine slipped down, and he was caught staring. Normally, he would have felt embarrassed at having been caught so intently looking, but the emotions in those eyes held his gaze. What’s got you so tied up in knots, sweetheart? He ventured a smile, but that only seemed to re-light her eyes in a fire that dared him to reevaluate his motives for even being in the same room with her. Then her name was called, and she leaped up from her seat, leaving the outdoorsman publication behind in a flutter of pages.
Without her shield, Marty saw the rest of her outfit—the loose blue top was layered over a tight black tank and was almost slipping off her freckled shoulders. He just couldn’t keep himself from watching her walk away, her crazy, ragged skirt swinging fetchingly with each step.
Be careful. That’s what people say when danger is at hand.
But oddly they don’t say stop.
What People Are Saying:
“Jodi’s book is refreshingly clean and delightful!! I found myself staying up past my normal bedtime so I could find out what happened in the next chapter. This book captured my attention from paragraph one and held it until the end! I was enamored with the characters and found myself wondering what would happen next with Marty and Sarah as I went about my day. I enthusiastically picked it back up at the end of my day and had the entire book read in 3 days. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to enjoy a well-written, clean romance novel that you’ll hardly be able to put it down! I think this book would make an awesome movie!!”
“I really prefer to read action and adventure or mysteries, but I picked this up at the recommendation of a friend and soon found myself taken in by the story and would have read the whole book in one day, but work got in the way! This is an excellent story, easy to read, the characters are believable. I laughed and I cried and at the end I sighed! You have to read this one.”
“Very creative, and I definitely wasn’t expecting the ending, but LOVED it. The spiritual aspect was much appreciated, and I liked how the characters changed throughout their trials in the book. Would recommend if you’re looking for a romantic adventure! ;D”
“This book had me from page one. There was romance, intrigue, suspense, more romance, and some good biblical lessons — and, of course, more romance. The book was tastefully written with just a hint of sex. I would recommend this book to all who like a wholesome romance novel.”
“What a great read. So good to know that writers can still hold you in suspense yet reach us thru bible verses and how we can really put everyday situations into trust and prayer and be rewarded. This story had many twists and turns. Great read.”
“How can you not be intrigued with a title like that? The book definitely lived up to its promise. It was hard to put down because this was well written. I look forward to more from this author.”