Authors: Nelson, Kelly
WALNUT SPRINGS PRESS
For my dad, Owen, who was raised on Idaho farmland and had a successful career as a CPA
Text copyright © 2015 by Kelly Nelson
Cover design copyright © 2015 by Walnut Springs Press
Interior design copyright © 2015 by Walnut Springs Press
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be transmitted, stored in a database, or reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, “Attention: Managing Editor,” at the address below.
Walnut Springs Press
4110 South Highland Drive
Salt Lake City, Utah 84124
Printed in the United States of America.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, and dialogue are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real, and any resemblance to real people and events is not intentional.
Family, first and foremost—without their love and support, life wouldn’t hold the same sweetness and joy it does now. I am so grateful for them. Next, I wouldn’t be where I am without my amazing critique partner and sister Laura Johnston. Not only is she an excellent writer and editor, but she also stepped in as the cover model for Cat. Talk about going the extra mile for her big sister. I’m always excited when I get a cover designed by Tracy Anderson Photography, and this one is stunning. Thank you to my brother-in-law Quinn, who completed six tours with the Air Force in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait. And to all those in the armed forces who have fought to preserve the rights and freedoms of others, I express my appreciation to you and your families for your service and sacrifice. Thank you to Linda and Garry at Walnut Springs Press for launching my writing career. Your friendship and support is much appreciated. And finally I want to acknowledge my Heavenly Father, who always answers my prayers and from whom all blessings flow.
Oh what a tangled web we weave,
when first we practice to deceive.
Sir Walter Scott
I’ll never love again,
thought Catherine Lewis. She gripped the umbrella tighter, her knuckles white from the cold. It felt more like January than April, adding to the loneliness crushing her heart.
She watched the dedication of the grave, unable to fight back tears. Those mourning the soldier’s death left, one by one. Only his family and hers remained, reluctant to say a final farewell. She clutched the American flag, folded neatly into a triangle, against her chest. Was this truly all she had to show for the life Eric gave his country?
Lowering the umbrella, Cat turned away and walked across the spongy Northwest grass. She turned her face heavenward and opened her fingers, dropping the umbrella. The pelting rain cooled the hot tears on her cheeks. She laid her hand protectively over her stomach. As a little girl, she’d never dreamed life could hold such heartache.
Seven Years Later
Ty Bradford glanced at the clock. He had to be on the road in fifteen minutes to make his flight to Portland, Oregon. He shuffled through the last of the papers on his desk. With a twinge of guilt, he scribbled a note to Dave, the senior assigned to the Hopewell Frozen Foods account. For the past three weeks, Ty had wined and dined the CFO and CEO of the large company, selling them on the benefits of employing Hansen & Kaplan, LLP, to service all their professional accounting needs. They finally signed the contract over a lengthy lunch meeting. But tonight Ty was leaving Irvine, California, on an extended leave of absence. He’d be out of the office for eight weeks and return the weekend before the scheduled Hopewell audit.
As a senior manager, Ty was on the fast track to becoming partner at Hansen & Kaplan, and this trip home couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. But his mother’s voice, fraught with emotion, had convinced him he was needed.
A knock jerked his attention back to the present. Dave Larsen pushed open the door and leaned against the frame. “Hey, boss, is it true you’re taking time off?”
Ty nodded, then picked up the Hopewell file and crossed the room. “As much as I don’t want to, I’m headed home. I was about to drop this by your desk. Thanks for saving me the trip.”
Dave tucked the file under his arm. “Is it your dad?”
“Heart attack, three days ago. The doctors rushed him into surgery and ended up doing a triple bypass. My mom needs help running the place while he recovers. For a farmer like my dad, summer is the busiest time of year. He’ll make the majority of his income in the next few months—but only if someone harvests the crop. Unfortunately, that someone is now me.”
Ty twisted his mouth into a scowl at the thought of driving a tractor all day. To avoid such a thing, he’d spent six years studying until his eyes burned and the words in his textbook went blurry.
Dave smiled. “You’re a good man. Plus, there’s nothing more important than family. It’ll be worth it to spend some time with your parents. How long’s it been since you went home?”
Ty was the only son trailing behind three girls. His father had counted on him inheriting the eighty-eight-acre farm and continuing a legacy of several generations. But as a teenager, Ty had rebelled against the idea. He hated the tedious life of a farmer and vowed to get an education and free himself of the rut his forefathers had stuck him in. And he’d done just that. He now held a master’s degree, and following his name he sported the three letters coveted by every accounting student: CPA.
He slung his bag over his shoulder and slid his phone into his pocket. “Probably at least five years.”
For the third time, Cat glanced out the window and frowned. The bus was late. She had hay to haul, but she couldn’t leave without her son, Danny. Where had the past six-plus years gone? There was a time when she had wondered if she would survive one more day of diapers. Survive one more sleepless night, alone, with a fussy newborn. Or survive her son’s frequent question as a three-year-old: Why don’t I have a daddy? But now time was flying and Cat wished to rein in that elusive commodity and slow it down. Danny was growing up too fast, and she wanted to savor every minute with him.
When she saw a flash of yellow through the trees, she grabbed her keys and the grocery sack full of snacks and toys for Danny. She pushed open the screen door of the 1960s-style house she’d grown up in and walked to meet the bus. Like a racehorse out of the starting gate, her son bounded down the steps and ran toward her. “Danny, how was your last day of school?”
“Good,” he answered.
She picked up his small hand in hers. “Come with Mommy. We have to go get hay.”
“Why can’t I stay with Grandma?”
“Grandma’s sick, remember? She needs to rest. It’ll be fun. You’ll see.”
Danny shrugged out of his backpack, and Cat traded him the sack for it. “I brought you something.” His little fingers dug through the bag and came out with a fruit roll-up. “Hop in your booster seat and buckle up,” she told him.
The plastic wrapper crackled in the back seat as he peeled off the dried strip of fruit. Cat drove the truck onto the road, wishing her mother felt better. For as long as Cat remembered, they had picked up the hay together.
She flipped the blinker and turned down Bill Johnson’s graveled drive. He had supplied her mother with hay for years. Cat knew the routine. She backed the trailer next to the stacked bales and waited. Soon, an old red tractor rumbled out of the barn and began loading hay bales onto the bed of her old pickup and the flatbed trailer.
Once the hay was loaded and secured, Cat stepped onto the truck’s running board. “Bill,” she yelled over the noise of the tractor, “I’ll call you when I’m on my way back for the next load.” He gave a knowing nod and turned toward the barn.
A few hours later, sweat trickled down her dusty face as she helped him tie down the second load. This would be it for today. A groan escaped her lips at the thought of hauling alfalfa next week. Bill hadn’t grown any this year, so Cat’s mother, Sally, had made the phone calls to arrange to buy alfalfa elsewhere. The thought of dealing with someone new left Cat feeling overwhelmed, but her mother had assured her the guy seemed nice.
Dreams of a cold shower and the rumble of her hungry stomach spurred Cat to hurry. “Thanks, Bill,” she said.
“You’re welcome. Say hello to your mother for me. I hope she gets to feelin’ better soon.” He gave the strap a final tug. “There you go. Drive careful—that’s a heavy load.”
Cat got in the truck and stuck her head out the window. “Sure thing.” With a wave she stepped on the accelerator and drove away.
She smiled in the rearview mirror at Danny. “Thanks for being such a good helper.”
“Are we almost done?” he asked.
She glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “Yes, sweetie, we’re almost done. When we get home, you can go inside with Grandma while I unload the hay.”
“Can I watch TV? I don’t have to get up early. Did you know there isn’t any school tomorrow?”
She watched her son in the rearview mirror, amused by his quirky grin. “Maybe for a few minutes. And yes, I know you don’t have school. I can’t wait to sleep in.”
Cat’s gaze shifted back to the road. The railroad tracks and stop sign loomed in front of her. “Shoot!” She held her breath and touched the brakes. Without a train in sight, she saw no need to risk losing a bale off the top of the truck by screeching to a halt. Every muscle ached from unloading and stacking the first three tons of hay, and she couldn’t wait to get home. There were sixteen horses to feed and this load of hay to be stacked before she could even consider resting.
The trailer lurched as it bounced over the uneven steel tracks. Cat frowned. “That was bad, Danny. I should have slowed down more back there.” Within seconds, a change in the way the trailer rode sent her eyes darting to the side mirrors. Shredded strips of tire littered the road behind her. “Ahh! You’ve got to be kidding me.”
She eased the truck off the side of the quiet country road and sighed. She’d watched Eric change a tire once when he was on leave, but that was the extent of her flat-tire training. Maybe she should have listened when her mother suggested she ask the elders quorum for help with the hay. But no, Cat was determined to do it by herself.
Hey, my home teachers are always asking what they can do to help,
she thought suddenly. She pulled out her cell phone, scanned the names in her contacts, then selected “Brother Adams” and watched the display.
Calling Brother Adams,
it read. Holding the phone to her ear, she waited. A loud beep and she yanked the phone away.
“Great.” She tossed the phone onto the seat.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” Danny asked.
“Honey, stay here while I look at the tire. Don’t get out of your seat belt.” Cat pulled the toolbox and jack from behind the seat and slammed the door.
I’ll change it myself. How hard can it be? Unscrew the old tire. Screw on the spare.
She strained to loosen the first two lug nuts but finally managed to remove them. As she struggled with the next one, her hand slipped, the knuckles grating across the metal fender. “Ouch!” She yanked her hand back and watched the spot of shredded skin turn red with blood. She slumped onto the shoulder of the road and pressed her injured hand against her dirty jeans. Wisps of brown hair escaped her ponytail and fell in front of her eyes as they filled with tears. At this rate, she’d never get the tire changed.
The rev of a motorcycle shifting gears and slowing brought her head up. Cat wiped below her eyes, trying to erase the signs of despair. Then, realizing she’d probably smeared blood and grease across her face, she tried to raise the sleeve of her T-shirt to her cheek. The motorbike stopped behind the trailer, hidden from view by the load of hay. She scrambled to her feet as a man in grease-stained blue coveralls walked toward her. He was tall, with blond hair cut short, and penetrating blue eyes that didn’t look particularly friendly. And the scowl on his face made it perfectly clear he’d rather be anywhere but here. “You need a hand?” he asked.
“No, thanks. I’m fine,” Cat lied.
Raising his eyebrows, the mechanic looked from her bleeding knuckles to the flat tire. “It looks to me like you’re losing.”
“I said, it looks to me like you’re losing. You’re losing the battle with that tire.”
Cat glanced down at the bloody cut. “Well . . . I just started. I’m not finished yet.” She bent to pick up the wrench, but he stepped on it. Using the heel of his boot, he slid it across the asphalt and picked it up. Flustered, she straightened and folded her arms.
“Do you have a first-aid kit in your truck?”
“I don’t know . . . yes . . . I think I do.”
The guy pointed at her hand and said curtly, “You should put a Band-Aid on that. I’ll work on the tire.” He turned his back on her and loosened one lug nut after another, laying them neatly in a row. She shrugged and walked to the truck.
Might as well let him change the tire. Danny needs to be checked on anyway.
As Cat pulled open the door, a smile spread across her face. Her son slept peacefully, clutching his Batman toy in one hand and his last fruit roll-up in the other. She searched the glove compartment before finding the first-aid kit under the front seat. She ripped open a wet wipe and cleaned the blood and dirt from between her fingers. After smearing a glob of antibiotic ointment over her knuckle, she covered it with a bandage. Noticing her heart racing, she wondered why she wasnervous.
It has to be that guy. His eyes. The way he looked at me, like he was sizing me up.
She tucked the first-aid kit beneath the seat. Intent on inspecting the progress of the tire change, she stepped over the tongue of the trailer and peered around the load of hay. At the sight of the guy’s broad shoulders hunched next to her trailer, her breath caught in her throat. He picked up the jack, the toolbox, and the wrench before walking over to Cat and saying, “It’s done.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate it. I can put those in the cab.”
He moved closer and set the jack in one of her hands and the wrench and toolbox in the other. The scent of cigarette smoke clung to his clothes. “Are you alone?” he asked.
He’s doing it again—sizing me up.
She took a step back and crossed over the tongue of the trailer, retreating to the driver’s side of the truck. “No . . . I mean yes,” she said, not wanting to admit that her young son was in the truck. “I’m late. Thanks again, but I’ve got to be going.” She had no desire to become any more familiar with this stranger. To an LDS girl like Cat, his appearance blared trouble.
She threw the tools on the floor of the cab, climbed in, and hit the lock button. Then she fired up the diesel engine and jammed the gearshift into drive. A glance in her mirror revealed the mechanic—Larry, according to the embroidered patch on his coveralls—stepping away from the trailer and watching as she pulled onto the road.
A half mile later, Cat studied the side mirror. “Now what?” she said to herself. “Is he following me?” Surely it was a coincidence. He had been going that way before he stopped to help her. She eased off the accelerator and hugged the side of the road, but he didn’t pass. Her turnoff was less than a mile away, and she didn’t know anything about this guy except his first name. A sick feeling hit the pit of her stomach at the thought of him finding out where she lived.
A moment later she passed her road, taking an unplanned detour. She’d give him more time to turn off to wherever he was headed. Five miles later, the road forked. The left fork would take her back toward her house. If the guy wasn’t following her, he’d take the right fork. Instead he doggedly turned left when she did.
Cat picked up her phone and checked her door locks before stopping. When the mechanic parked his motorcycle behind her trailer, she flipped open her phone and pushed 9-1-1. He walked to her window and pulled off his helmet. Cat held the phone to the window, her thumb hovering over the call button. A hurt look spread across his face as he threw up his hands in a show of innocence and backed away from the truck.