First Chapters

Check out the first chapters of some of my books and catch a glimpse of what's inside.

Yorkshire Lass

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Chapter One

 

“Excuse me, Miss. Hello! Excuse me! Gotta get through.”

As she stood by the ship’s railing, a firm tap on Jessica Montgomery’s shoulder tugged her attention from the bustling port’s activity.

 

“Excuse me, Miss, but I gotta get this luggage to the quay right away. I’d love to stop and watch the view with you, but there’ll be angry passengers if I don’t get this luggage moving.”

Turning, Jess realized she blocked a young porter struggling to push his loaded luggage dolly through the tide of moving passengers.

 

“I’m terribly sorry.” She stepped closer to the rail. “My mind was elsewhere.”

“You’re an American! Welcome to England.” He smiled, tipping his cap. “It’s difficult to move about on this deck, but I must press on. Have a pleasant stay.”

“Thank you.” Jess turned to join the masses disembarking, her stomach fluttering excitedly. England! She’d only ever dreamed of coming here. Despite the circumstances she was excited to see Mother’s homeland.

After catching a taxi to the train station, Jess boarded the northbound train to Harrogate, settled into her seat and thought of her mother. They had planned to visit England, but Mother had become deathly ill, forcing Jess to quit teaching to care for her. After Mother’s death, Jess was at a loss and felt very alone. Father had died in a train crash during a business trip three years earlier, and she had no close relatives… in America.

After writing her grandmother in England to tell of Mother’s death, Jess received her letter expressing great sorrow and urging Jess to come to England. Jess had prayed for guidance. Was this an answer to prayer? Grandmother had written often through the years, and she’d visited when Jess was ten. They’d played games, gone for walks, and she’d taught Jess to bake her delicious scones while Jess listened to Grandmother’s childhood stories. Oh, the memories of that visit!

Grandmother’s invitation had spurred Jess to come. And here she was…in England. Mother had told her so much about this country that Jess felt she was coming home.

As the train rumbled along she leaned her head back, closing her eyes. Grandfather McDonald died before Jess was born, and with Mother in America, Grandmother had no one. Grandfather left a substantial estate, which Grandmother put to good use. At the beginning of the Great War, she opened an orphanage on her North Yorkshire farm, housing war orphans. With emotional wounds, they needed love and personal attention, which Grandmother had plenty to give. Devastated by the war, children were brought to her, where she loved them, helped them to accept their loses, and introduced them to her Heavenly Father.

Jess watched the landscape speeding by. What lay ahead? Until Grandmother’s letter arrived she’d planned to return to teaching. One thing was certain. She knew she needed to trust God to guide her steps.

Swirling steam hissed from the train’s brakes as Jess stepped onto the Harrogate station platform. Other passengers, mostly locals, headed home from work, purpose in their stride. Soon she was the only passenger left. She glanced at the watch pinned to her jacket. Four-thirty. Grandmother’s telegram said someone would meet her, but she saw no one. Perhaps he’d be here soon. Collecting her trunk, she pulled it to a nearby bench to wait.

At five o’clock, Jess decided no one was coming. She approached the information window where a gray mustached gentleman sat reading the evening paper. She noticed the bold headlines: “Homeless Man Found Dead in Knaresborough Alleyway”.

She shuddered at the headline. “Excuse me.”

Laying down the paper, the man shifted his glasses up onto his nose. “Can I help ya, Lass?”

“I thought someone was meeting my train, but apparently he’s been delayed. I’m going to Hope Orphanage, near Pateley Bridge. Do buses run there?”

“No, but the Nidd Valley Light Railway train departs tomorrow morning to Pateley Bridge. Have you considered a taxi?”

Before Jess could answer, a voice spoke from behind her. “Sorry for interruptin’, lass, but I couldn’t help hearin’ ya say ya need to get to Hope Orphanage.”

Turning, Jess found an older gentleman, possibly in his seventies. A tweed cap covered his silver hair; his dark green corduroy trousers tucked into his knee-hi boots. A tweed jacket topped his green sweater.

“That’s right.”  She smiled at his deep Yorkshire accent.

“No need for ya to be waitin’ for the train or payin’ taxi fare when I’m headin’ out that way meself. I come into town to pick up farm supplies what’s come in on the train. If ya don’t mind waitin’ a bit, you’re welcome to ride along. I drive right past your Grandmum’s place. Me farm’s just past hers. By the way, me name’s George Higgins. Morag said you’d be comin’.” He extended a work worn but clean hand. Jess took it, only to have hers shaken vigorously. She glanced at the man behind the window, uncertainty in her eyes.

“Seems things have worked out nicely, Lass. George here’s a fine fellow. Don’t worry. He’ll get ya there right enough. I’ll vouch for him any day.”

“Thank ya much, Pete.” George bowed grandly. “Will do me utmost to see that Morag’s granddaughter arrives safely.”

 

He turned to Jess. “I’ll fetch me things and we’ll be gettin’ ya home.” Tipping his cap, he walked down the platform to retrieve his packages.

“Still concerned, lass? Ya needn‘t be,” Pete reassured. “George is as fine a fellow as you’ll find.”

“I’m sure you’re right. Thank you for your help.”

“I didn’t do anything. It was George there. Enjoy your visit with your grandmother.”

George hefted Jess’s trunk into his horse-drawn wagon alongside his packages then helped her onto the seat. Turning, she waved to Pete who returned her wave.

As George guided his wagon through Harrogate, Jess looked around the town, noting its Edwardian and Victorian architecture. They passed several large gardens where the early fall flowers bloomed profusely in shades of crimson, gold and amethyst.

“Your Grandmum’s sure happy you’re comin’.” George said. “She misses her daughter somethin’ fierce. She was a sweet, beautiful lass. All the young lads came a courtin’, but none caught her eye ‘til your dad come along. You look like her when she was your age.” George paused thoughtfully. “Don’t understand why Old Charlie didn’t come out to meet ya. He’s a do-it-all fellow on Morag’s farm. Somethin’ real important must’ve happened for him not to show up.”

“I hope nothing’s wrong. How much farther?”

Leaving the city, they traveled through the countryside past drystone rock walls, built decades ago, enclosing fields where sheep and cattle grazed contentedly. More stonewalls surrounded other fields and pastures, looking like a huge patchwork quilt pieced together and spread across the gentle slopes of the hills and valleys. The grass was the greenest Jess had ever seen. Patches of trees displayed early fall colors. Occasionally they passed a gritstone farmhouse built near the road, some so close they touched it. Aged green moss covered the slate roofs while ivy clung to the walls and attached barns.

“Not much further now. We’re almost to Pateley Bridge, and your Grandmum’s farm is t’other side.”

The village of Pateley Bridge draped down the side of a hill that ended by the Nidd River. Mr. Higgins explained that in the early 1800’s lead mining and textiles were the local industries, but the mines and most of the mills had long since closed, leaving the area to farming. The village’s High Street buildings would’ve looked dreary except for the scattering of flowers in window boxes and gardens. Arched alleyways between buildings hinted at the courtyards and dwellings hidden behind them. They passed The Old Bakehouse, its window filled with delicious breads and pastries, reminding Jess that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast on the ship that morning. Hopefully Grandmother would have something waiting for her.

The road from Harrogate was curvy and narrow, but the road to Grandmother’s was even more so, climbing higher than before. The Yorkshire Dales were known for ruggedly beautiful green hills, valleys and purple moors. Jess had never imagined the sheer wild beauty of the landscape spread before her as they reached the top. The western sky was bright with the evening sun shining from behind golden clouds, lighting the hilltops while the valleys lay in purple shadow. The drystone walls surrounding the pastures were topped by a golden reflection making the “quilt” appear to be stitched with golden threads. Farmhouses and cottages settled in for the evening; the chimney smoke indicating the chilly air.

Jess fell in love with the beautiful countryside where time seemed to stand still. Mother had told her about the many moods of the Dales and how the weather could change quickly, about the treacherous winds that often swept over the hills and into the valleys and of the rains that followed. Jess was glad the sun was shining, welcoming her to the Dales.

George turned the wagon down a dirt lane where a sign stood with bold letters: HOPE ORPHANAGE. A drystone wall lined each side of the lane, black-faced sheep grazing in pastures on either side. As they approached the farmhouse, butterflies danced excitedly in Jess’s stomach.

The two-story gritstone farmhouse with an attached barn was large compared to the ones on the road from Harrogate. Curtains in the windows of the barn indicated it had been converted into living space. The front of the house was covered with ivy, only the windows showing through. Moss covered the slate roof while a low stone wall enclosed the front garden where an open black iron gate beckoned visitors up the stone footpath to the front door. The neatly trimmed garden flaunted a colorful array of roses: pink, yellow, peach and crimson. Yellow and purple pansies grew by the borders while colorful trailing blooms crept over the wall waving a welcome to visitors.

Jess wondered how such beautiful flowers bloomed in the chilly fall air, but she knew the British took great pride in their gardens, keeping them blooming for months.

Halting the wagon by the front gate, George helped Jess down then unloaded her trunk. The front door opened and a white and liver English springer spaniel bounded down the path, running straight to Jess and jumping up on her. If a dog could smile, this one did, her tail wagging excitedly.

“Down, Jossie!” a voice called as Jess spotted Grandmother hurrying down the front path, leaving the door open in her excitement. Jess ran straight into her arms. Tears streamed down Grandmother’s cheeks as she held Jess back for a good look.

“My lands, luv, how you’ve changed! Where’s the little girl who helped me bake tarts?”

“Well, you haven’t changed a bit, Grandmother. You look just like you did when we baked those tarts. I haven’t tasted any as good since.”

“Then we’ll have to bake some.” She turned as George arrived with Jess’s trunk.

“What happened, George? Garth Samuels drove into Harrogate to fetch Jess. Charlie was supposed to go, but this afternoon the tractor fell on him while he worked on it and broke his collarbone, a couple of ribs, and his right arm. Garth came and patched him up. He’s one of our local doctors,” she explained to Jess. “Since Charlie couldn’t go, Garth volunteered to fetch you. We knew he wouldn’t make it in time to meet the train but hoped you’d still be waiting. But, you’re here, and that’s the important thing.”

“And very well she might be, too, I might add,” piped in George. He’d talked the whole ride out from Harrogate, was silent while Grandmother greeted Jess but was ready to go again. “I heard yer granddaughter askin’ Pete at the station how to get here. I step up and says I’m headin’ out this way meself and would be happy to give her a ride. Pete vouched for me.”

“Mr. Higgins has been very kind, Grandmother. He’s told me a lot about Harrogate and the Dales.” She smiled covertly at Grandmother.

“I’m sure he did,” Grandmother nodded. This was lost on George who carried the trunk into the house, talking to whoever was inclined to listen.

“Come inside, luv.” Grandmother linked her arm through Jess’s.

The front door opened into a large living room, the lower half of the walls oak paneled, the upper half cream painted plaster. Thick, aged oak beams crossed the ceiling while a large stone fireplace stood at the far end of the room, a huge oaken mantel above holding brass candlesticks and gilt picture frames. An overstuffed couch and armchairs and antique side tables surrounded a blue and cream woven rug. Blue curtains framed the windows while watercolor paintings, mostly of the English countryside, graced the walls. Jossie, the spaniel, curled up by the fire, keeping an eye on things.

“Have a seat, luv. I’ll call the children.” Grandmother turned to George who stood by the door, twisting his cap in his hands. “Won’t you stay for tea, George? I’ve the kettle on.”

“Thank ya, Miz Morag, but me missuz will be waitin’ me tea.” He turned to Jess. “It were a real pleasure to meet ya, Miz Jess. If there’s anythin’ I can do for ya whilst you’re here, just give a shout.”

“Thank you for driving me out, Mr. Higgins, and for telling me about the Dales. It was fascinating.”

After George left, Jess sat in an overstuffed chair. Realizing how tired she felt and how comfortable the chair was, she doubted she’d be getting up soon, but as the children filed in, she sat up, forgetting her fatigue.

Grandmother introduced the eleven children, each by name and age. “Jess, this is Claire, who is sixteen. Jason is fifteen. Paul and Paula, our twins, are eleven. Neil is nine. Kevin and Geoffrey are both eight. Jeannie is six. Tommy is five. Billy and Katie are both three.” The children stood straight, a couple giggling when introduced. Little Katie approached Jess.

“Will you be staying wif us, Miss Jess? You’re pretty.” She reached up, touching Jess’s cheek.

“For a while, Katie.” Jess lifted the child onto her lap. She looked smaller than her three years and weighed nothing. Jess turned to smile at Grandmother over the child’s blond head but instead looked straight into a pair of unfamiliar gray eyes. For a moment, she couldn’t look away. The smile in the gray eyes brought a flush to her cheeks, causing instant annoyance with herself.

“Garth! I didn’t hear you come in.” Grandmother saw the young man standing in the doorway. “Have you been there long?”

Reluctantly pulling his gaze from Jess, he turned to Grandmother. “Not long. Gwen let me in the back. I didn’t want to interrupt your introductions.” He smiled as the children gathering around him, the little ones pulling at his jacket. Picking up Billy, he reached over and rumpled Neil’s hair. Clearly the children adored him.

“Let me introduce my granddaughter, Jessica Montgomery. Jess, this is Dr. Garth Samuels, the man who tried to meet your train.”

Jess stood as Garth put Billy down and extended his hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you at last, Miss Montgomery. Your grandmother speaks of you often. She’s really looked forward to your visit.”

The deep tones of his voice struck a chord somewhere inside of Jess. Accepting his outstretched hand, hers was swallowed by his large one. Tall with broad shoulders, Jess had to look up to meet his smiling gray eyes. Set in a ruggedly handsome face, they seemed to penetrate right into her soul, making her self-conscious.

To her dismay the direct look from his penetrating eyes made her cheeks burn. Never self-conscious with other young men, what made this one so different?

“It’s nice to meet you, Dr. Samuels. I’m sorry for the inconvenience I caused you.” Jess gently but pointedly pulled her hand from his. “I’m sorry you made a wasted trip.”

“Not at all. Pete said George gave you a ride, so I came straight back. I knew you were in good hands.”

He ran a quick hand through his dark hair, only to have it fall forward again. Jess had an unexplainable desire to reach up and push it back. How ridiculous! she thought.

“I must add my thanks to Jess’s,” said Grandmother. “Both for going to the station and for treating Charlie. He was still sleeping when I checked on him.”

“The medicine I gave him will help him sleep, but ensure he stays in bed for a few days. He has some pretty bad breaks. He can’t do anything for a while.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll see he gets plenty of rest. Now, how about some tea? I’m sure Jess is hungry after her long journey. Won’t you stay, Garth?”

Grandmother’s inviting smile contrasted with Jess’s fixed one. For some reason he’d made a bad start with her and didn’t understand why.

“Thanks, Mrs. McDonald. There’s nothing I’d rather do than enjoy Gwen’s wonderful cooking, but I must go. I’ve some house calls to make before heading home, but I’ll check on Charlie first.” Garth turned to Jess. “I hope you enjoy your stay, Miss Montgomery. I’m sure we’ll see each other again.” The look in his eyes carried a promise.

Jess sighed deeply as the doctor left. She had a funny feeling he just might be right.

The Peaceful Valley Wounded Soldiers Anthology

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The Soldier’s Heart

“Have you heard who’s back in town, Myra?”

Beth Hayes couldn’t miss Myrtle Brown’s voice from the next isle over as she searched Hoover’s Pharmacy shelf for the supplies she needed.

“Nope,” Myra Washington replied. “Can’t keep up with who comes and goes in this dadblamed town. Seems the young’uns are always leaving and coming back. Never satisfied. Want to leave because the town’s too small. They leave and they don’t like what they find in the big world so they come back.”

“Myra, would you just hush up and listen to me?” Myrtle said.

Beth grinned. The two women had been best of friends for at least fifty years but were always going at it. They were pretty much inseparable, but to hear them talk, you’d think they couldn’t get along.

“What are you going on about, Myrtle? Which young’un has returned this time?”

Beth reached for a bottle of peroxide.

“Why it’s that Alex Hunter, don’t you know. He’s back from the Army. And he’s a looker too,” Myrtle added, “Mmmhmmm. He sure is. They say he’s a major.”

The plastic bottle of peroxide slipped from Beth’s fingers and hit the floor, rolling under the edge of the display unnoticed.

Alex Hunter? Her Alex Hunter? No. Not her Alex Hunter. Her Alex Hunter left for the Army twenty years ago never looking back. Why would he return? He wouldn’t. And he wasn’t her Alex Hunter. Not anymore.

Beth glanced into the shopping basket hanging from her arm. What was she doing? Her brain had gone numb. Myrtle’s words had thrown her for a loop and she needed to focus. Even if Alex Hunter had returned to Grace Ridge, there wasn’t anything she could do about it, and she needed to keep moving on as if he hadn’t.

With a determined nod she peered around. Hadn’t she been looking at a bottle of peroxide? Oh yes, there it is. She grabbed it from beneath the edge of the display, dropped it into her basket, finished her shopping and headed to the cash register. She’d get on with her day as if she hadn’t heard this…extraordinary news. Grandpa was waiting for her.

“Have a good afternoon, Beth,” Mrs. Compton said from behind the register.

“You too, Mrs. Compton,” Beth said, “and stay cool. It promises to get really warm today.”

“Don’t I know it?” The lady fanned herself in spite of the air conditioned pharmacy. “The heat just shoots in that door when someone comes in or out. Well, have a good day.”

Waving her fingers, Beth grabbed her bag of supplies and rushed out the pharmacy door. Turning toward Grandpa Hayes’ office, she ran smack into a hard chest and bounced backward losing her balance.

Hands reached out and grabbed her before she could fall backward and hit the pavement. Stunned and with the air knocked out of her, it took several moments for her to realize what had happened.

“Take slow deep breaths, Beth.” A deep voice said as she was half led, half carried to the bench that sat between Hoover’s Pharmacy and Valley Hardware next door. “Take it easy.”

Beth did as she was told because she needed to breathe again. What was that wall she’d hit? Or rather who had she run into? Then as reason began to return and her breathing settled back to normal, she looked at the man beside her, and her face warmed. She knew it wasn’t the end of the June warm day that caused it. Of all the people in the world she had to physically run into, why did it have to be Alex Hunter?

The last time she’d seen him he was eighteen years old. He was good looking at eighteen, but he was devastating at thirty-eight. Apparently the Army had been good for him. It had been twenty years and he’d never returned. He’d left a skinny kid right out of high school. He was anything but that now. He was taller and muscular, his dark brown hair cut in the high and tight favored by the military guys. But his face…his face looked as if he’d seen things. Hard things. His jaw had become more square and stronger.

Beth’s gaze was drawn to Alex’s and there she saw strength. The same gorgeous gray gaze looked back but there was a maturity that hadn’t been in the young Alex. What could he have seen and done in his years in the military to build this man from that untried and untested teenager?

Right now compassion and concern filled his gaze. “Are you alright, Beth? You ran into me pretty hard. Where were you going in such an all-fired hurry, anyway? You could’ve been seriously hurt.”

Beth’s breathing had returned to normal and her ire rekindled. Standing, she grabbed the bag of pharmacy supplies he’d thoughtfully placed on the bench beside her. “You’ve been gone a long time, Alex. You can’t just come back and pretend twenty years away.”

Without a second glance she hurried toward Grandpa Hayes doctor’s office. She could feel the anger coursing through her veins. Who did he think he was? After leaving her high and dry twenty years ago to show up now out of the blue and act like nothing had changed. They had been inseparable since sixth grade. They did everything together. Then in high school they’d planned to go to the same college, and then the future? Who knew? But it probably would’ve been together. Right?

Then Alex decided he wanted to serve his country. There wasn’t anything wrong with that. Beth’s father was an officer in the US Army and had died serving his country when she was sixteen. She was very proud of him and his service. But Alex had just up and joined without talking to her. They’d made plans and he’d ruined them.

Beth flung open the back door of the doctor’s office and stomped up the hallway, by this time in a fine dander.

She hurried into the supply room where Jeannie Mason stood surveying the shelves with her clipboard.

“Oh good. You’re back. The supply company said they could get the shipment out by early next week so we’ll just have to plug along with pharmacy supplies until then.” She turned as Beth dumped her bag of supplies on the work table. “What goodies were you able to find?”

It was only then she noticed the steam pouring from Beth’s ears. “Uh oh. What happened?”

“He’s back.”

Jeannie was not only Beth’s co-worker but her best friend. “Ok. I’ll bite. Who’s back?”

“Alex Hunter. That’s who’s back.” Beth paced the small floor of the supply room then stopped in front of Jeannie. “What am I going to do?”

Jeannie chuckled and put her hand over her mouth to cover it up. “Why should you do anything? It’s been twenty years. The man has served his time. He can do whatever he wants. Yes, even come back to his hometown if he wants to. Hello! He did grow up here.”

Beth felt as if a bubble popped inside her. Jeannie was right. This was his hometown. He’d been born and raised here the same as her.

“You know, Beth, just because he went off and joined the Army and decided to have a different life than you doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing for him to do. Maybe it’s time for you to get over it.”

“Beth, I need you to prep the rooms ASAP.” Grandpa stuck his gray head into the supply room. He peered at her over his wire-framed glasses. “Everything okay? You don’t look so good. We’re running behind this morning, and the first patients are already in the waiting room.”

Beth nodded numbly. Jeannie’s words had stung but she didn’t have time to think about them right now. Getting the supplies at the pharmacy and running into Alex had made her late. She’d have to hurry to get things back on schedule

~

A grin lifted the corners of Alex’s mouth as Beth marched away. Yep. She still had that same spitfire spunk she had as a kid. Her auburn ponytail swishing back and forth as she walked was just as cute as it had been then too.

Had she changed in twenty years? Oh yeah. A lot. She was always a cute kid but she’d matured into a gorgeous woman. Now to have her come flying out of Hoover’s Pharmacy like a tornado and smash right into him had been a pleasant surprise but it had been nearly disastrous for her. She’d had the wind knocked right out of her.

It was pretty obvious she was none too happy to see him. Her hazel eyes had always changed colors when she was angry and their darker hue now indicated ire. Twenty years ago he’d tried to explain his reasons for wanting to join the Army but she’d refused to listen. It had been important to him to serve his country, but every time he’d tried to tell her, she’d slammed the door in his face. For six weeks before he was due to leave for boot camp, he’d tried to talk to her, but Beth would leave when he came into a room. She’d lock the door when he came over to talk to her. She’d hang up when he called. She wouldn’t let him explain.

Glancing at his watch Alex remembered his appointment with the bank manager, Mr. Edwards, and walked over.

“Alex, please come in and have a seat.” Mr. Edwards waved him to a chair in front of his desk. “I have all your paperwork ready for you to sign. I know you’re excited to get to work on your grandparents’ property. It’s an amazing thing you’re doing out there.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m excited to get going on it. It’s a much needed ministry,” Alex said.

“And you’re just the man to fulfill that ministry, Alex. Here you go. Just sign here, here and here, and we can get this project going.”

Alex leaned forward, signed the papers and stood to shake hands with the bank manager. “Thank you, sir. Have a good day.”

“You, too, son. I look forward to seeing great things from this ministry.”

“Yes, sir.”

~

Jeannie ran out at lunchtime to grab takeout for her and Beth. When she returned, she not only had food but news for Beth.

The office closed for an hour from noon to one and Doctor Hayes always walked home to have lunch with his wife.

“I’ll be back shortly, ladies.” He hung his white lab coat on the peg in his office. “Don’t start without me.”

“We’ll try to keep them at bay till you get back, Grandpa,” Beth said. “You know how they only come to see you.”

“Well, it’s my swashbuckling personality, don’t you know.” He put his finger over his lips. “Shhhh. Don’t tell your grandma.”

Then he patted his paunch belly, adjusted his wireframe glasses, chuckled and headed out the door.

Beth and Jeannie laughed and opened their take out.

“So, what’s the news,” Beth asked.

“You know I’ve been dating Chuck Williams over at Williams Building Supply? Well, guess who’s put in a huge building supply order. And I mean huge.”

Beth shook her head. “I don’t know. Who?”

“Alex Hunter.” Jeannie drawled out the name for emphasis.

Beth stopped chewing and swallowed the bite, almost choking. She quickly took a drink from her water bottle.

“What? Did he say what he’s building?”

Jeannie shook her head. “No, but the supplies are being delivered to his grandparents’ property.”

Alex’s dad had passed away when he was sixteen and his mom had passed while he was away in the Army. Beth didn’t think he had ever come back, but now she remembered he’d returned when his mom died. He must’ve been in his early twenties. His grandparents had died long before his father had passed, and their property would have passed down to him.

What was he doing to the property? Was he fixing it up to sell? Or was he fixing it up to move into?

Whatever it was he had the right to do whatever he wanted to. It had nothing to do with her. It was his hometown, too, just like Jeannie said. She guessed it was big enough for the two of them. If he was staying, it would have to be.

~

Beth sat at the computer entering patient files the next morning and heard the front door of the office open then close. She continued working as foot falls crossed the floor. Glancing up to see who it was she did a double take. Heart hammering, she quickly slipped on her professionalism.

“Alex? Good morning. Can I help you?” Her voice was brighter and cheerier than she intended. Fake. Oh so fake.

“I certainly hope so,” he grinned. “I’m looking for someone who might help me with some decorating. I was wondering if you might be available.”

Beth blinked then blinked again. Then she said patiently, “Decorating? This is a doctor’s office. We don’t offer decorating here.”

Alex chuckled. “I’m well aware. But I thought perhaps in your spare time you might be willing to work for me. You were always interested in interior design back in the day and had a good eye for color.”

He glanced down at the counter then back at Beth. “I know you’re angry at me for the decision I made. I don’t know what you did with your own life and whether you went on to college or not.”

Beth breathed in a heavy sigh and let it out. “I did get my degree in interior design, but things didn’t go quite the way I’d planned. Grandpa needed me here. I’ve written a couple design books and designed for folks here in town on occasion, but that’s about it. But it’s okay. I’m happy here. It’s where I’m supposed to be.”

Alex nodded. “That’s good. Think you can help me out?”

Beth considered for a moment. Did she want to work closely with this man that had betrayed her so long ago? Had he betrayed her? She thought he had.

“I don’t know. Can you give me some time to think about it?”

“Sure.” He pulled a paper from his pocket. “Here’s my proposal and what I’d pay you. I know you work here days, so you could work evenings and weekends if that’d work for you. Take your time in looking it over and let me know.”

Beth nodded. “If I don’t, what will you do?”

Alex thought for a moment. “I guess I’ll hire one of those big city designers to come in and do the job.”

Beth nodded again. “I’ll let you know. How can I get ahold of you?”

Alex pointed to a cell number typed on the proposal. "Call anytime. I’ll be out at my grandparents’ property.”

 

With a devastating smile, a wink and a quick rap of knuckles on the counter, Alex turned and was gone.

Beth sat in stunned silence. What just happened? Had she really just been offered a design job by her old boyfriend who’d dumped her years ago and who’d now returned to do who knew what at his grandparents’ property? She’d forgotten what his smile did to her. Made her feel all gooey inside.

With a huge sigh, she straightened her spine and attempted to get back to work. Her eyes kept roaming over to the proposal. Should I take the job, Lord, or no? It didn’t mean she’d have to commit to him again. It didn’t even mean she’d have to have a relationship with him other than professional. Could she keep it that way? Well, of course she could. She couldn’t trust him not to take off. He’d proven that once before.

She dropped the proposal into her purse and went back to work. Too many patient files to work on to sit and worry with this now. She’d decide later.

~

Alex awaited the building supply trucks out at the property at noon. Excitement coursed through him. This was happening. There was a lot of work to do before the end game, but it was actually happening.

When he’d walked into the doctor’s office that morning to ask if Beth would be willing to do the interior design work for the ranch house and the cabins, he was pleasantly surprised that she didn’t send him packing immediately. Instead she actually said she’d consider it. Thank you, Lord. It’s a start and I’ll gratefully take it.

Alex glanced around at the buildings on the property. The main house was a five bedroom stone rancher with a wide porch and large stone chimney. Inside was a huge fireplace for that chimney. Behind the house a once-red barn could house lots of horses, if he chose. Other out-buildings near the barn were in various stages of decay and would either need to be torn down or rebuilt, depending on the need. There were a hundred and seventy-five acres of property here. Plenty of room for his needs.

He turned at the sound of trucks on the road and spotted three building supply trucks driving through the stone and wrought iron archway at the entrance to the property.

Alex waited for them by the house. When they stopped, the lead driver jumped down from his cab.

“Hello there,” the man greeted. “Expecting some supplies today?”

“A few,” Alex said.

“Well, we’ve got a few,” the man chuckled. “Where you want ‘em?”

“Follow me around to the back and you can put them in the barn. It’s in pretty decent shape. Everything should stay dry there.”

“Lead on my friend.”

~

A week had passed since Alex had asked Beth to work for him. To his credit he hadn’t said another word to her about it. She’d seen him in church on Sunday and he’d waved to her, but had headed out the door after church. She’d seen him around town a few times, but he hadn’t approached her. Was he giving her space to think? No pressure on his part. She appreciated that.

She was more than impressed with the proposal he’d given her. Not the amount of money he’d pay her, but what he was doing with the property. He wasn’t selling it. He was making it into a rehabilitation home for wounded soldiers and their families. When she’d read that she’d almost started crying. Had he been through a terrible ordeal himself to make him want to do that for others? She’d love to know but she couldn’t ask.

This plan for his grandparents’ property gave her the impression that Alex wasn’t the same Alex he used to be. Perhaps she shouldn’t judge him on his past actions after all. Then her own words rebuked her as a Bible verse she’d learned a long time ago returned to remind her to “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Who was she to judge Alex? It wasn’t her place to judge him or anyone else. Forgive me, Lord. Help me to be understanding of what he’s been through and to forget about the past.

She’d take the job and help him however she could. It was a most worthy cause, and she looked forward to seeing the faces of the families who would benefit from it.

~

Alex watched as the cement mixer poured the foundation of the first cabin to the south of the main house. There would be a row of ten cabins far enough apart to give privacy to the families staying in them. Another row of ten would be positioned north of the main house. The families would join others in the main house for meals. Part of the rehabilitation would be the families helping one another and spending time together. The wounded encouraging each other. The spouses doing the same.

“Hello?” Alex answered his cell phone. He moved away from the cement mixer in order to be able to hear. He pulled off the hard hat he wore and wiped the sweat from his forehead.

“Alex?” Beth’s timid voice sounded in his ear.

“Beth? Is that you? Sorry. There’s some equipment running here.”

“Yes. I was wondering if I could meet up with you sometime this afternoon or this evening to discuss your proposal.”

She sounded less than confident. Alex’s heart dropped. Did that mean she wasn’t going to work for him? Don’t jump to conclusions till you hear her out.

“Yeah. Sure. Let’s discuss it over dinner?”

“Dinner? Oh, well, okay.” Beth said.

“I’ll pick you up at six.”

“At six? Okay. Sounds good. Thanks. Bye.” Click and Beth was gone.

Alex chuckled. That very confident young woman sounded anything but. Should make for an interesting dinner date. Date? Who knew where things might go from here? Only you, Lord.

~

Promptly at six o’clock the doorbell rang indicating that Alex had arrived. Beth put the last touches of makeup on while Grandpa answered the door. She didn’t mind letting the older set meet and greet. Mom, Grandma and Grandpa would entertain and delight, or annoy as the case may be.

Beth had decided on a sleeveless jersey mini-print sundress and leather sandals. She quickly ran her brush through her shoulder-length auburn tresses, left them loose, grabbed her shoulder bag and hurried downstairs.

As expected Alex sat on the couch surrounded by the above-mentioned elders being regaled by stories of Beth’s college days. She’d put a stop to that.

“Hi, Alex. Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, I know Alex isn’t interested in those stories. Besides, it’s time to go.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Sounds fascinating to me,” Alex grinned. “I’d love to hear more. Maybe another time?”

“Absolutely,” Mom said. “We’ll have you back for supper one evening. How about that, Alex? There’s a lot of time to catch up on.”

“I’d like that, Mrs. Hayes,” Alex nodded. He turned to Grandpa and shook his hand and placed a kiss on Grandma’s still smooth cheek. “It was a pleasure seeing you both again. I hope to see you again soon.”

Grandma tittered cheerily. “Please do come again soon, Alex.”

Grandpa guffawed. “Yes, yes. And take good care of our Beth, young man.”

Alex grinned, nodding. “I’ll do that. Good night.”

As they settled into Alex’s car, which Beth noticed was a rather sporty model, she said, “I apologize. They can be a little stifling at times, but I know they have my back, and I know they love me.”

Alex turned in his seat and peered closely at her. “Don’t apologize. I know your dad’s gone, but you still have the rest of your family. Enjoy them while you can. You’re right. They love you very much. And as for the stories, they’re very proud of the young woman you’ve become.”

Beth’s cheeks warmed as Alex’s gaze locked with hers. All at once it was hard to breath. His jaw tightened and she spotted a nerve jumping. Abruptly he turned and started the car, slipping it into gear and driving toward the restaurant. She released the pent up breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.

Alex talked about mundane topics and Beth was glad it was only a few minutes’ drive to the restaurant. What had happened back in the driveway? Were her feelings for this man changing? Well, she couldn’t let that happen until she knew more about him and what had happened to him in the years he’d been away. Twenty years was a long time, and she didn’t know anything about him anymore.

Mountain of Peril, Faith in the Parks Book 1

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Chapter One

 

With a whistle on his lips, Jake Stuart rounded the corner of the ranger station. He pulled his keys from his pants pocket, prepared to flip the Closed sign by the door to Open as he did every morning. As he approached the front stoop, he froze. The whistle hung in his throat. He jerked back, a gasp slipping out. The decapitated head of a black bear perched on the floor of the porch stoop, a pair of severed paws positioned on either side of the head. Blood seeped from beneath the black fur of the head and ran across the cement stoop dripping into the grass. Jake tasted bile as his gut knotted. He clenched his fists and shook his head. Who would do such an awful thing? And why? The glazed eyes of the bear were haunting. This bear had died needlessly.

Avoiding the horrible mess, Jake stepped onto the stoop from the side and unlocked the station office. Grabbing the phone, he called his supervisor, Cal Bishop. He’d come out and assist in the processing of the crime scene. Because that’s exactly what it was. He pulled his digital camera from the desk drawer. Photo-documenting the evidence was an important part of any investigation. After searching carefully, no vehicle tire tracks or footprints could be found. Too much grass and gravel and not enough dirt to hold a print.

By the time Cal arrived, the spring morning had warmed considerably and flies had found the bear head.

“Now that’s not a pretty sight to greet you in the morning.” Cal climbed out of his National Park SUV. “We’re getting more and more reports of poaching lately, and out of season too. They took the carcass and left the head. Pretty disgusting.”

“Yeah, well, this is different.” Jake squatted down, pulled out his pocketknife and probed the fur for possible gunshot wounds. “This is more than just poaching. Someone’s left us a strong message.” But for what? A warning, maybe? Or a threat?

~

“What’d she say, Burt?” The elderly man turned to his companion where they sat on a bench in front of the old service station.

“I dunno, George. Can’t understand her.” Burt cupped his ear with his hand and leaned forward. “What’d ya say, young woman?”

Molly Walker stepped closer and raised her voice. “Sir, I asked for directions to Deep Creek Ranger Station.” This was the first business she’d found open on this road and somehow she thought she’d gotten turned around. The two elderly gentlemen sitting on the bench in front of the station were why she’d stopped, but she wasn’t getting very far with them.

“Sounds like gibberish to me, George. Can’t make out a word.” He turned his head toward the screen door beside him. “Hey, Bertha!” he called, hand cupped around his mouth like a megaphone. “Come out here a minute, would ya!”

Molly sighed as a large lady in a bright print blouse, orange-red curly hair and large dangly earrings propped open the screen door. “What ya bellowin’ about, Burt? Oh, hello there,” she added with a congenial smile upon spotting Molly.

“This here young woman wants something, and I can’t understand her.” Burt and George both shook their heads.

The woman rolled her eyes, “What can I do for ya, sweetie? You need help with the gas pump? It’s not one of those newfangled ones, but it works. Some of the young folks can’t figure it out.”

Molly smiled wide. “No, thanks. I just need directions out to Deep Creek Ranger Station. I seem to have gotten turned around somehow.”

“Oh, sure. Take this road into town then turn right at the courthouse. It’s the big building with the gold dome.” A touch of pride edged her words. She gave Molly detailed directions all the way to Deep Creek.

“Thanks! You’ve been a big help.” Molly waved at Burt and George. “Thanks, fellows!”

“Who’s Hank Bellows, Bertha?” George raised his bushy eyebrows.

“Never mind, George.” Bertha huffed as the screen door banged shut behind her.

Molly followed Bertha’s directions, liking the laid-back quaintness of the little town. It had that certain “Mayberry” feel to it. She half expected an old black and white to cruise past with Andy or Barney at the wheel. Turning right at the courthouse, she spotted two more elderly men sitting on a park bench, a checkerboard between them. Remembering Burt and George, she grinned. Laid back, indeed!

Small storefronts, a hardware store and an old drugstore lined the street. Taking another right at the old train depot, Molly left the town behind, passing small mountain homes along the green hillsides, a country store and the occasional mobile home. The North Carolina Smoky Mountains rose up from the valley she drove through, their smoky blue color beautiful against the brilliant blue sky. Spring had arrived in the Smokies, and the vibrant pink and white Laurel bushes were in full bloom. Redbuds and dogwoods peeked between the new green leaves sprouting on the poplar, maple and oak trees.

Molly spotted the sign for Deep Creek Campground and a surge of exhilaration knotted her stomach. She’d waited a long time for this. It was her first position with the National Park Service, and she was certain great-grandpa Murphy would’ve been pleased. Having trained for this very day, she was ready to begin her new career. Gratitude for how circumstances had worked out swelled in her heart. Thank you, Lord.

Turning right, she crossed a bridge that spanned a swiftly flowing creek then entered a large clearing in the woods. A small brown building sat near the center with a sign beside it that read Office. The early afternoon breeze stirred an American flag at the top of a flagpole.

Molly parked across from the office and exited her SUV, stretching stiff muscles and glancing around the quiet clearing. Strolling over to the little office, she opened the squeaky screen door, hoping Cal Bishop was in. As head ranger over the campground and this part of the park district, he was meeting her here to explain her duties.

The small front office was split by a wooden counter along the front, a desk holding a base station radio and a file cabinet positioned behind it. Mountain scenes and maps graced the walls while a tattered and torn backpack hung by the front door. An old coffee pot and tin can, both punctured and bent, hung from the backpack. Beneath, a sign read, Campers: Please Store Food Properly. A partition to the left of the counter indicated more office space.

A young auburn-haired man dressed in a National Park Service uniform leaned on the counter, grinning as Molly glanced around. His hair was short and freckles spattered across his nose. His name badge read “Craig Wilson.”

“Can I help you?” A bright smile crossed his lips.

“I hope so.” Molly returned his smile. “I’m looking for Cal Bishop. Is he in?”

“No, he’s out in the campground somewhere. I can call him if you’d like.”

“I’d appreciate that. My name’s Molly Walker. I believe he’s expecting me.”

“Molly Walker!” He extended his hand to Molly. “You bet he is. He’ll be glad to know you’re here. I’m Craig Wilson. It’s nice to meet you.”

“I’m happy to meet you, Craig.” Molly shook his outstretched hand.

“Hang on a minute. I’ll call Cal.” Craig reached for the base radio microphone on the desk, depressed the button and called out some numbers followed by Cal’s name. “Guess who’s here? Yeah, she made it. Come back?”

A deep male voice responded he was on his way.

“He’ll be here shortly. I just made some coffee a little while ago. Would you like a cup?”

“I’d love some.” Molly glanced around the office. The coffee maker sat on a small table near the desk. “May I help myself?”

“Sure. May as well. You’ll be working here so make yourself at home.”

“Thanks.” Molly chuckled, filling an insulated cup. “Where are you from, Craig?”

“Montana.”

“Wow! You’re a long way from home. Been in the park service long?”

“This is my first season.” He perched on the barstool behind the counter. “You’re coming in a little late, I suppose.”

Molly settled onto the rolling chair at the desk, sipping the hot brew. “I understand I’m replacing someone that didn’t work out.”

“Yeah, that was Howard, Cal’s assistant ranger for the past two seasons. He took seriously ill. Don’t know the whole story, but I don’t think he’s returning to the park service. Early retirement, I think.” He shrugged his shoulders.

“So what do you do?”

“I’m a summer seasonal park aide. I’m still in college and working my way through, but I’ll graduate next spring. The experience here will be good.”

The screen door opened and a man of stocky build strolled in. He wore the gray shirt and dark green pants of the National Park Service uniform, and when he removed a dark green NPS ball cap and sunglasses, Molly noticed his sandy colored crew cut and bright blue eyes surrounded by laugh lines. Determining he was in his mid-forties, she stood as he approached with outstretched hand.

“I’m Cal Bishop,” his voice deep and gravely. “Welcome to Deep Creek, Miss Walker.”

“Please, call me Molly.”

“Certainly, but you have to call me Cal. We don’t stand on formalities around here. Come on back and have a seat. I have some things to go over with you.” He led Molly behind the partition where another desk and file cabinet made up Cal’s office. Through an open door to the left, Molly spotted what passed for a bathroom. It would be a tight fit, but certainly better than nothing.

“Did you have a good trip?” Cal motioned her to sit in a chair beside the desk while he took the rolling chair behind it. “Where’d you drive from?”

“From Charlottesville, Virginia. Except for a couple really bad storms that kept me alert, it was uneventful.”

“They’re predicting storms this evening. We need it. It’s been a dry spring so far.” As he chatted he drew a file folder from the desk drawer, removing several pages. “Here’s a list of required uniform items and you’ll get a uniform allowance, so that’ll help you out.”

He removed a small plastic bag stapled to the list then handed the list to her. “You can order by mail or online, but it takes a week or so to get your items. However, if you don’t mind taking a drive, there’s a store in Maryville, Tennessee that carries the NPS uniform shirts, pants and leather belt. You can also pick up the ball cap.”

Cal pointed to his on the side of the desk.

Molly glanced at it. “What about the “Smoky-Bear” hat?”

He tapped the list in her hand. “It has to be ordered. Pick up some good hiking boots too. You’ll need ‘em.”

Dumping the contents of the little plastic bag onto the desk, he picked up a little brass bar. “I took the liberty of ordering your name tag so you’d have it when you arrived.” He handed her the name tag and a metal, shield-shaped badge. “This gives you your authority.”

“When do I start?” Eagerness threatened to overwhelm Molly. Had he noticed her wiping her palms on her pant legs? It was hard to tone down her beaming smile.

Cal glanced at his wristwatch, a broad grin on his lips. Yeah, he’d noticed. “If you want to drive over to Maryville for your uniforms, go today. Then you can start in the morning. On your way, if you don’t mind, you can deliver something to the remote Twentymile Ranger Station for me. I have some paperwork for Ranger Jake Stuart.”

“I don’t mind. Is it on the way?”

“Yep. You drive right past it to get to Maryville. Before you go, I’ll take you up to the duplex where you’ll lodge temporarily until you find a place.” Grabbing a notepad, Cal drew a rudimentary map and handed it to Molly along with a manila envelope. “Here are directions to Maryville with Twentymile marked on it. This is the packet for Jake.” Unlocking a drawer in his desk, he opened it and pulled out a Glock 19 9mm and a brown leather holster.

“This is your sidearm.” He peered closely at Molly. “From your weapon scores, I see you know how to handle one of these.”

“I didn’t do too badly.” Pleasure warmed Molly at his compliment. “Besides, my father made sure my brothers and I knew how to protect ourselves.”

Cal nodded and handed her another form. “That’s what I like to hear. Sign on the dotted line. This says you were issued the weapon. Just make sure the serial number matches the paper before you sign.”

Comparing the numbers, Molly signed the form and returned it to Cal.

“Follow me and I’ll show you to your quarters.” Clapping his cap on his head, he led the way out the door.

~

After Molly and Cal dropped off her suitcases, bags and boxes at the little duplex up the hill from the office, Molly grabbed lunch at the drugstore in town then headed west toward Twentymile Ranger Station. The drive was pleasant with the road winding past the edge of a huge lake and around hairpin curves. According to Cal’s map, the lake was Fontana Lake. The scenery was gorgeous. Molly’s family had visited the Great Smoky Mountains in her childhood, and she’d always loved the gentle yet mysterious smoky-blue mountains. Not nearly as tall as the Rockies or some of the other western mountain ranges, the Smokies had a quiet, peaceful beauty all their own.

Molly spotted a sign for Fontana Dam and another for Fontana Village. Having read up on the area before coming, she knew the dam, one of many in the area, was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority during WWII. The village was a summer resort with a lodge, swimming pools and hiking. It was located south of Fontana Lake, while the boundary to Great Smoky Mountains National Park lay along the northern shore.

With no time to explore the area today, Molly vowed to return on a day off to investigate further. Passing the entrance to the village, she descended a winding, wooded mountain road to the bottom where a bridge crossed a wide river. To her right, the sheer wall of Fontana Dam rose far above. A power generating station sat to one side. On the left of the bridge, the river flowed into another lake. Here in the valley below the dam, the road wound along the lake’s edge on the left while on the right the wooded foot of the mountains rose up into the park.

Turning into a gravel driveway by a sign for Twentymile Ranger Station, she parked in the small lot in front of the building. Climbing out, she stretched, listening to the peace and quiet that enveloped her. A creek flowing merrily alongside the station, a gentle breeze rustling the trees and birds singing were the only sounds. Bright sunshine belied any sign of a predicted storm.

Molly stepped onto the small front porch and found a large wooden clock face with movable hands indicating the ranger would return in an hour. She glanced at her wristwatch. She couldn’t wait that long. Not with an hour drive to Maryville.

Exploring the grounds, she hoped to find Jake Stuart. A long, dark green garage stood fifty feet behind the station. A light green NPS Jeep was parked in front beside a blue Ford Ranger. The gravel and dirt driveway wound past the station, the garage and on up the hill. It curved past a little brown shanty before disappearing around the bend.

Well, now what should she do? A faint sound came from up the hill. Was that a metallic ringing noise? Following it, she stopped at the little shanty only to find it locked. Twenty-five feet further an iron gate blocked the road that meandered into the woods. Ducking beneath the gate, Molly followed the road toward the sound of a faint voice, an occasional metallic ring and a horse nickering. Ahead she spotted a barn surrounded by corrals.

Shoving open one of the barn doors, she glanced around for the owner of the voice. Two horses and a mule stood in their stalls, softly nickering at her appearance. As they stirred, motes of dust danced in the sunbeams that slipped through the cracks above the rafters. The scent of hay and horses filled her nose.

“Hello?” she called in a soft voice. Frightening the horses would be a bad idea. “Anyone here?”

Molly approached one of the horses and stroked its head, crooning softly to it. “Easy, fellow. Where’s the ranger, huh?”

The voice spoke again, louder this time. The owner switched back and forth between talking and humming in a deep baritone. Striding to the double doors leading to a corral, Molly found a man working beside a horse. Bent from the waist, he held the horse’s back hoof between his knees, a hoof pick in his hand. With his back to her, he hadn’t heard her approach. The horse noticed her and nickered, shifting his weight.

“Whoa, Billy!” A deep voice soothed. “Stand still, boy. We’ll be done shortly.”

“Excuse me,” Molly said quietly. “Sorry to interrupt your work, but I’m looking for Jake Stuart.”

Glancing over his shoulder in surprise, the man accidently allowed the weight of the horse’s leg to slip from his grasp. Suddenly off balance, he fell forward, landing on his shoulder and knees.

“Oh, no!” Molly gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Picking himself up, he dusted off his pants and grinned. Molly wasn’t sure if the red in his cheeks was from embarrassment or from leaning over too long. She had a pretty good idea which it was. Her hands still covering her mouth, she tried not to laugh, but found one working its way out.

~

Jake Stuart noted the woman was trying unsuccessfully not to laugh at him. “You know, seeing as how we’ve never met, I don’t think it’s very polite to laugh at me.” His voice and face were stern, but his dark sapphire eyes shone with laughter. “Especially since you’re the one who startled me.”

“I truly am sorry, but if I’d shouted, would I have startled you any less?” The pretty woman chuckled again.

He shook his head. “I suppose you have a point. Did you say you’re looking for Jake Stuart?”

“Yes, I am.”

He surveyed her thoroughly, taking in the long brown braid hanging carelessly over her shoulder. The soft curve of her cheeks, and the dark chocolate eyes. Her lips were a delicate shade of pink, slightly compressed at the moment and compressing more and more as he observed her appearance. She wore a pair of blue jeans and a white button-down shirt with flowers embroidered on the collar.

“Do you know where he is or don’t you?”

Uh-oh. A frown was forming between her delicate eyebrows.

Jake couldn’t take his eyes from her. She blushed, and the pink color delighted him. Was that a Virginian accent he detected? Whatever it was, it sounded great coming from her.

“What do you need him for?”

Eyes narrowing, she lifted her chin defiantly. “That’s none of your concern. I have something for him, and I need to give it directly to him.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “Well now, he never mentioned expecting you. I’m sure if he knew you were coming, he would’ve made sure he was here to meet you.”

Boy, this was fun. He checked his grin as she crossed her arms as well and tilted her chin upward.

“Be that as it may, I’m still looking for him.”

~

Molly jumped as the walkie-talkie propped on a nearby stump crackled to life. After the usual call numbers, a deep voice said, “Come in, Jake, this is Cal.”

Whoever this man was, he glanced at the walkie-talkie then back at her. Was the call for him? “Come in, Jake. This is Cal. Do you read me?”

Molly watched with dismay as the man hesitated momentarily before reaching for the instrument and pressing the button, responding. “Cal, this is Jake. What’s up?”

“Just wanted to let you know that Molly Walker will be by sometime this afternoon to drop off those papers you wanted. She’s the new ranger over here. Should be getting there soon, I expect. Was going to call sooner, but got caught up in a situation here.”

Jake’s gaze flicked back to hers. “Thanks Cal but she beat you to it. She’s already here.” He shrugged, never removing his eyes from her face.

“Roger that, Jake. Talk with you later. Cal out.”

“Jake out.”

Molly spun on her heels and headed back through the barn. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Jake yank off the leather apron covering his uniform and nametag. He tossed it on the stump, slipped the walkie-talkie into its belt holster, and hurried after her.

“Hey, wait up,” he called.

She sped toward the station, wanting to put some distance between them.

Jake caught up with her just before the gate. Catching hold of her arm, he gently tugged her around. “You’re quick, you know that?”

Molly turned her best blank expression on him and pulled her arm away.

 

“Thanks.”

“Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have led you on like that, but I guess I was little sore at being caught off guard and having fallen flat on my face. I think they call it male ego or something like that. Anyway, I know you didn’t surprise me on purpose.” One side of his mouth lifted in a crooked grin as his eyebrows rose. “Am I forgiven?”

Molly grinned at the “male ego” comment and knew she couldn’t stay mad. She’d have to work with him some time or other. Best to get things squared and make life a little easier. Besides, she had laughed at him. She held out her hand. “You’re forgiven, if you’ll forgive me for laughing at you.”

His large calloused hand engulfed hers then released it. “Done. Now let’s start over. Hi, I’m Jake Stuart.”

“Molly Walker. I have an envelope for you in my car. The one Cal referred to when he gave you away.”

As Jake strode on long legs back toward the station, Molly tried to keep up.

He shortened his stride. To match hers?

 

“Right. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting you. I knew someone was replacing Howard, but I didn’t know who. It’s been awhile since I’ve been over to Deep Creek.” As they stopped by her car, Molly retrieved the envelope.

“When did you get to town?”

“Today. I checked in with Cal, dropped my things at my temporary quarters then headed here. He suggested purchasing my uniforms in Maryville so that’s where I’m heading. He asked me to drop this off to save him a trip.”

“You’re heading to Maryville, huh?” Jake’s eyes gleamed with interest. “Could I impose on you to pick up something for me?”

“Sure. What do you need?” Another errand for another ranger? Was she going to be a ranger or a courier?

Jake pulled out his wallet and handed her a few bills then removed a notepad from his shirt pocket. “I’ll jot down what I need.”

 

As he wrote, Molly took the opportunity to observe him unnoticed. His thick black hair was cut short and neat. A very handsome man in spite of the faint scar marring the right side of his chin. When she’d first seen him at the barn she’d noticed his broad shoulders and his dark sapphire eyes beneath black brows.

She suddenly realized those same eyes were gazing at her now. Uh oh. She’d been caught staring. Looking down at the paper he was holding out, she willed herself not to blush.

“R…right,” she stammered. “I’ll pick these up for you and drop them off on my way past. Will you be here?”

Jake’s smile was bright against his tanned face. “I’ll be here. When you live in the backcountry, there aren’t too many places to go. If I’m not here at the station, I’ll be up at the barn. I still have two more horses to shoe.”

As Molly drove away, she was still embarrassed that she’d stared, much less been caught at it. What had come over her? Staring at a man wasn’t her style. She shook her head and concentrated on the winding road.

Ocean of Fear, Faith in the Parks Book 3

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Somewhere off the coast of Cape Hatteras, NC

August 10, 1990

Prologue

 

"Pretty exciting, isn’t it, Mr. Amato?” Tom Barnett, the head of the salvage operation halted beside the elderly man on the boat deck. He removed his hard hat, swiped the sweat from his forehead then replaced it. “Surely they’ve found something this time.”

Howard Amato, his thick white hair blowing in the strong ocean wind, watched as the yellow two-man submersible surfaced in the choppy Atlantic waters. He watched as the crane operator expertly guided the long hydraulic arm across the heaving deck of the salvage ship. He was paying the man a lot of money to perform his duty. As a matter of fact, he was paying an astronomical amount of money for this whole infernal expedition. He just hoped that the men in the submersible had found something this time. At the age of seventy-nine, he didn’t have too many more years to devote to the search for the one thing that had consumed him his whole life.

“You’d better hope so.” Howard’s voice was gruff as his gaze swept the dark clouds swirling just to the south. “This expedition is done for. They didn’t find anything on the first two dives. This is the last chance. We’re about to get socked in with a major storm, and we have to head into shore.”

“I’m sure it’s The Satisfaction, Mr. Amato. It has to be. All the other expeditions you’ve pursued throughout the years haven’t even produced a boat. We at least have a boat that fits the description of your uncle’s rum-runner.”

Howard turned to face Tom squarely in the eye, his own narrowed, a sneer on his lips. Tom took a step back, fear written on his features.

“Mr. Barnett, I may have plenty of money to pursue other expeditions, but I’m not a young man, and I’m running out of time. If you can’t get this job done, I’ll find someone who can. And you won’t live to tell the tale. Do I make myself clear?”

Tom’s Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “Yes, Mr. Amato. Very clear.”

“Good.”

The submersible was lifted from the choppy waves and moved to its resting place onboard The Lucky Find, water streaming from its smooth, round surface.

“Now let’s see what the divers found. They’ll have to go into the compression chamber for a time, but I want to know what they found first. Understood?’

“Yes, sir.” Tom glanced in the direction of the submersible. “The divers are climbing out so let’s quickly check with them before they head into the chamber.”

With a cane to steady him on the heaving deck, Howard made his way to the divers followed by Tom Barnett.

“Report,” Howard demanded in a sharp but course voice, leaning heavily on his cane.

Before either diver could speak, a man of about fifty walked up and placed an arm around Howard’s shoulders giving him a gentle squeeze then kissed his wrinkled temple.

“What’s up, Pops? Any news?”

Howard cuffed the man’s cheek with affection. “Hush, Sabastian. We’re just about to find out. Please, gentlemen. Tell me what you found.”

One of the divers walked around to a basket attached to the side of the submersible near the robotic arms used in their search for artifacts. He retrieved a large, flat, square item and handed it to Howard.

“Mr. Amato, this is what we found. It’s the name plate for a boat named Caper’s Run. There are a couple other smaller items. A glass bottle that I would date around 1900 and a few pieces of broken ceramic ware. That’s it. Nothing more.”

Howard’s face acquired a red tinge, his nostrils flared as his features pinched in anger. Tom Barnett swallowed, his face turning pale. The crew glanced at one another, unsure what to expect from the billionaire. Shuffling uneasily, all eyes turned toward Howard Amato.

The wind whipped around the ship even as the first fine raindrops began to spit, leaving tiny wet marks on the wooden deck. The ocean waves lifted the ship, then dropped it again, indicating the wind was growing stronger and the need to head for land was imminent.

“So, what you’re telling me is the boat we’ve just spent the last three days diving on is not The Satisfaction?” Howard’s hoarse voice raised, anger oozing from every pore.

The diver swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple an obvious sign of his distress. When he spoke, his voice broke, causing him to have to start over again. “N…no sir. It’s not. It’s not The Satisfaction.”

Howard’s chin raised high, a glare in his eyes as his gaze took in first the divers, then Tom Barnett. Then it swung around to the crew that stood stock-still as if hoping he wouldn’t notice them. Not a chance. He made eye contact with each and every member. Howard raised the Caper’s Run name plate in the air and slammed it to the deck. With the help of his cane and Sabastian’s arm, he made his way toward his cabin.

“Make them disappear, Sebastiano,” Howard ordered his son in soft but raspy tones. “See that it’s done. All of them, so no one’s the wiser. You know how to take care of things.”

Sabastian gently squeezed his father’s shoulders. “Sure, I do, Pops. Just leave it to me. I’ll take care of everything.”

 

 

Cape Hatteras, NC

Present Day

Chapter One

 

"Now, look at that guy,” Bethany Rogers elbowed Ruth Campbell lightly on the hip as Ruth stood beside the younger girl’s high stool. “He’s just flat drop-dead gorgeous.”

Ruth bent over and glanced out the tiny ticket window as a tall young man walked past, hands loosely tucked into the pockets of his blue jeans. A shabby denim ball cap covered his dark brown hair but it couldn’t hide his ruggedly handsome features. His navy blue hoodie jacket only enhanced his physic and certainly did nothing to cover it up. Ruth dropped her gaze back to the cash drawer and slammed it shut.

“You are incorrigible, Beth,” she sighed. “Is that all you ever think about? Guys?”

“Well, yeah. And food.” The eighteen-year-old volunteer shoved her long brown hair behind her ears and turned a cheeky smile on Ruth. “He was pretty good looking, huh? Even you have to admit that.”

“No, I don’t. I barely saw him.” Ok, so maybe that wasn’t a hundred percent accurate, but it didn’t really matter. He was a tourist and would be vacating the premises shortly. A quick tour of the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters. A stroll around the grounds. Then voila’. He’d be on his way. No more tourist. And certainly no one to turn her head about.

Beth scrunched her nose and furrowed her brow. “Ruth, you’re such a spoil sport, you know that?”

Ruth chuckled and put on her NPS “Smokey-Bear” hat. “Sorry. Anyway, I have to head up to the gift shop to drop off the cash bag. Then I’m heading out to make my rounds.”

“Searching for nests already? But it’s late April.”

“That’s right, sweetie. It’s perfect piping plover nesting time,” Ruth laughed. “Now say that three times fast.”

Beth rolled her eyes and shook her head with a touch of disgust. “Biologists.”

Ruth laughed again and opened the door on the side of the little ticket building. “I’ll see you later, Beth. Stay out of trouble, okay. I know that’s a challenge for you but at least try.”

“Hey, what’s life without a little fun?” At Ruth’s stern look, the younger woman lifted her hands in defense. “Okay, okay. I’ll stay out of trouble, but I won’t stop trying to get you to have some fun.”

Ruth closed the door on Beth’s words, ignoring them. Or attempting to. Beth was always telling her she was a boring person and needed to lighten up. The younger woman told her she lived the life of a nerd and that she needed to have some fun every now and then, but Ruth preferred to let things stay as they were. She loved her job as biologist and natural history interpreter. Sharing her love of nature with visitors to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the dream of a lifetime. What more could she want?

She walked up the path to the gift shop and through the double glass doors.

“Hi, Naysa.” Ruth greeted the sixtyish woman in a volunteer uniform behind the cash register. “Here’s the cash bag from the ticket booth. Not many visitors this afternoon. But then, I guess that’s to be expected. It is late April.”

“Oh, sure.” Naysa Withem shoved her glasses up and waved a hand in dismissal. “Things won’t really pick up until mid-May. Not till the kids start getting out of school anyway. Maybe even into June, you know.”

Ruth nodded, her honey-colored ponytail bouncing beneath the back brim of her hat. “Yeah, I know. I’ll see you later, Naysa. I’m heading home after my rounds. You have a good evening. Tell Mike I said hi, will you?”

“Sure will. Checking on your nests?”

“Yeah. I hope to find at least a couple being built. They’re getting harder to spot, I’m afraid.”

Naysa cast a sympathetic gaze as she leaned on the counter. “Well, be careful out there, sweetie, and have yourself a good evening.”

Ruth stepped outside the gift shop and tucked her head, zipping up her uniform jacket. As she looked up and took a step, she slammed right into someone, jamming her “Smokey-Bear” hat down over her eyes.

Hands clasped her upper arms and held her away, then lifted the brim of her hat. A pair of concerned steel-blue eyes gazed down at her from a ruggedly handsome face beneath a shabby denim ball cap that covered dark brown hair. It was Beth’s drop-dead gorgeous guy.

Ruth gasped and stepped back.

“Are you okay?” the guy’s deep voice rumbled. His gaze roved over her face then settled between her eyes. “Looks like your hat left a mark on the bridge of your nose. Mostly just a scratch, I think.”

Ruth removed her hat and ran her finger across the bridge of her nose. It stung a little but she didn’t really feel anything there. She placed the hat back on her head, and barely met his gaze as she spoke.

“Thanks. Sorry, I…I wasn’t looking where I was going. Have a good day.”

She ducked her head and started to walk away.

The man caught her arm. “Hey, no it was my fault. Can I buy you a cup of coffee to say I’m sorry?”

Ruth jerked her arm away and stepped back, panic squeezing her insides. No, now was not the time. He was just a park visitor. Nothing more. He didn’t mean anything by it. She attempted to tamp down the feelings that threatened to wash over her and plastered as close to a smile as she could muster onto her face.

“Thanks, but no, I have to get back to work.” She tossed a stilted wave and hurried away before he could stop her again.

~

For such a beautiful woman, she sure was acting strangely. Gage Hampton watched as the woman’s honey-blond ponytail swung back and forth as she hurried away. Hurried? She was almost running away. Was it something he’d said? Thinking back over their brief conversation, he couldn’t think of a thing that should have made her wary of him. She was wearing the National Park Service uniform so he’d be working with her come Monday morning. Interesting.

Gage strolled toward his car, climbed in and drove to the beach parking lot. He’d been in Buxton for a few days and had settled into a townhouse on the beach. Today he’d driven over to the lighthouse to walk around before starting work on Monday. He’d walk up the spiral painted beacon another day. For now, he just wanted to get a feel for the grounds and the lay of the land.

He parked his car in the beach parking lot and strolled over the sand toward the ocean. Wow, what a view. He watched as the white-capped waves rolled toward the shore. As the new NPS park police officer on Hatteras Island, he had a lot to learn, especially after his last job. This was quite a contrast from the Grand Canyon where he’d worked as a park police officer.

Ramming his hands into his jean pockets, he shook his head. This would take some getting used to. From dry desert canyons to the Atlantic Ocean? Oh yeah.

~

Ruth strolled slowly down the beach, her binoculars hanging from her neck and her clipboard under her arm. She tried to get the face of the young man at the gift shop out of her mind. He’d raised a profusion of feelings within her. Panic, fear, wariness, attraction. Attraction? Nope. That was impossible.

Yanking up her binoculars, she scanned the sandy beach along the vegetation line then several feet out. Time to focus on what she was here to do. Find nests of the piping plovers, those sweet little light-sand-plumed birds with bright orange legs that dashed about the beaches. At least when you could spot them. It was becoming harder and harder to find them.

Standing still she scanned down the south side, then turning, scanned the north end of the beach. Wait. Ahh, yes. Success. She spotted a pair of orange legs moving near the vegetation. Marking it with a landmark, she moved slowly in that direction. When she was about thirty feet away, she zeroed in with her binoculars again and watched as not only one, but a pair of piping plovers worked in unison to build a nest.

Excitement stirred in Ruth’s middle. She would do everything she could to see that this couple were undisturbed and the family grew to maturity.

“Finding anything interesting in your sights?” a male voice spoke from a few feet behind her.

Ruth’s heart leapt into her throat even as butterflies took flight in her stomach. Without turning around, she knew it was the man from the gift shop. Had he followed her here on purpose? Panic threatened to overwhelm her. No, just stop and turn around. Face him and see what he wants. He’s a visitor who has every right to be on this beach.

Swallowing hard, Ruth dropped the binoculars to her chest and slowly turned. As much as she didn’t want to meet his gaze she had to in order to assess the situation.

His steel-blue eyes held a benign smile, his lips curved in a grin. “Did you find something interesting? You were searching for quite a while there.”

Ruth glanced back up the beach toward the plover nest. “Umm, actually, yes. I’m doing a study on the piping plovers on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and I spotted a pair.”

The man’s eyebrows rose quizzically. “Really? And is that unusual? The tone of your voice sort of indicates it might be.”

Ruth nodded. “Unfortunately, it is. The piping plover is a threatened species.”

“Threatened?” His brow furrowed.

“Yes. All along the Atlantic coastline of the US and Canada. They’re not quite endangered but heading in that direction.”

The man’s face twisted into a thoughtful expression, his hands propping on his hips. “What would cause that?”

“Oh, a variety of reasons, people being at the top of the list.” Ruth reached up to adjust her hat as a gust of ocean wind threatened to unseat it. “Nests get accidentally stepped on or crushed by people or vehicles on the beach. The very presence of people can cause the birds to desert their nests, then predators or the hot sun take a toll on eggs or chicks. Then there are various recreational, residential and commercial developments that contribute to their endangerment. I could go on. Their numbers will continue to dwindle if we don’t do something about it.”

“I see. And that’s what you’re doing?” He tilted his head in her direction.

“Well, I’m trying to do my part.”

“So, what is your job here?”

Ruth clasped her clipboard to her chest like a barrier between them. “I’m a biologist and one of the natural history interpreters here at the seashore. But I really should be going now.”

Giving him a wide berth, she hurried around him.

“I know, you have to get back to work, right?”

Ruth heard a note of humor in the man’s voice and without understanding why, she stopped and turned back to him, so out of character for her. “Yes, actually, I do. But…I hope you enjoy your stay here at Cape Hatteras.”

The man looked out at the ocean with a thoughtful expression then he turned his gaze back to Ruth. A grin lit his handsome face. “Thank you. I believe I will.”

J. CAROL NEMETH

Faith in Romance & Mysteries ~ Yesterday, Today & Forever

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