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By Jillian Hart
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Jillian Hart
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How did she get talked into this? Rachel McKaslin asked herself as she peered into the basement's deep-box freezer. The answer was easy — because she had a teeny-weeny problem saying no. Especially when it came to saying no to any member of her family.
Which was why she was hanging nearly upside down in the freezer and freezing. Her fingertips were numb from shoving packages around. There was a roast in here somewhere. She knew it was in here. But could she find it? No. She did manage to find everything else, though: packages of hot dogs, boxes of frozen fish fil-lets, bags of frozen vegetables and a big sack of ice pops. The Popsicles she'd been looking for the last time she'd been searching through this freezer.
Wasn't that just her luck?
She grabbed a couple of grape Popsicles and heaved herself over the edge of the freezer. Her feet hit the ground — yes, she loved being short — and she rubbed the small of her back. A home-cooked meal, that's what her brother Ben had requested for his military buddy, who'd apparently been eating more MREs than real food for the last few years.
Okay. Frozen fish fingers probably didn't exactly qualify as the main course of an old-fashioned home-cooked meal.
It would have helped if Ben had called while she'd still been at work at the diner. She could have made up something right there to bring home. Or she could have stopped by the store and bought a roast like the one she couldn't manage to find now.
Maybe it was time to call in reinforcements. Maybe her sister Paige could send someone over from the diner with a to-go box. And after putting in a twelve-hour day on her feet, she'd be more than glad to give that a try.
It wasn't as if she could cook a roast that wasn't here. Ben would understand. But would his best friend?
She sighed. Well, with her luck, probably not.
She closed the freezer lid, flicked out the overhead light and at the base of the narrow stairs rising up out of the basement, she could hear the briiing of the phone.
Great, how long had it been ringing? She imagined Paige calling, worrying about why Rachel hadn't answered after the twenty-seventh ring. Paige was a worrier. Or maybe it was her sister Amy checking in from her latest househunting quest. Or Ben — if it was Ben, then she could explain about the failed roast recovery mission.
She tried to dash up the stairs, but her bunny slippers on the narrow steps slowed her down. By the time she flew up and into the kitchen and wrapped her hand around the receiver, the ringing died. The dial tone droned in her ear. And she didn't have caller ID.
Her cell phone began to chime the opening bars to "Ode to Joy." Excellent! Whoever had called was trying her other phone. Except, where was it? As the electronic music grew louder and louder, she followed the sound into the kitchen and to the round oak table where her duffel bag sat, still zipped. She dug around until she found it.
And it was still ringing. Whew. She flipped it open. "Hello?"
"Ah, is this Rachel McKaslin?" a man's gravelly voice asked, as if uncertain he had the right number.
A man's voice she didn't recognize. I think I know who this is. "Yep, that's me." She yanked open the freezer door on the fridge. "Is this Jake, by chance?"
"That would be me. Your brother told you I was comin', but did he warn you about me?" There was a smile to Jake's voice.
Without a doubt a very handsome smile, she thought as she tossed the ice pops into the freezer section of the fridge for later consumption. "Yep, he sure did. The question is, did Ben warn you about me?"
His warm, easy chuckle came across the line. "He did. Ben said that you are the generous and lovely soul who agreed to look after us at the last minute and on a Friday night. I take that to mean you cancelled a date?"
"Who, me? Date?" She bit her bottom lip to keep in the snicker.
"Well, it is a date night, and I understand you're a single attractive lady."
Yeah, right. Not since high school. There were a lot of great men in the world, good and decent men. She firmly believed that, but they never seemed to be interested in her. Maybe it was because she was always so busy, and that didn't leave a lot of time to date. But that didn't explain why no one ever asked her out. Most men were looking for a more worldly woman and, as she looked down at her fuzzy pink bunny slippers, she was anything but worldly.
"I thought I'd sacrifice a date night for Ben's best buddy," she said diplomatically so he wouldn't know he was wrong, wrong, wrong about her. The reason why she was about to be a bridesmaid for the umpteenth time, and not a bride. "It's the least I can do for the man who braved machine-gun fire to help haul my brother to cover a while back."
"He was shot. I couldn't just leave him there for the enemy to trip over."
"My family and I, we're all so grateful to you." Rachel couldn't imagine the kind of courage it took for someone to do their job in the military. "Because of you, our brother's home safe and sound."
"You're giving me a lot of credit. I was just doin' my job. And Ben's a pretty tough guy. I should know, since we serve together. It takes more than a bullet to stop him."
Humble, with a sense of humor. Judging by the deep rumbling baritone of his voice, Rachel figured that Jake had a drop-dead handsome face to match his charm, his smile and his voice. Which meant he was far, far out of her league.
Too bad. She sighed, not really disappointed. She had resigned herself to her unmarried status. She trusted God's plan for her life. Maybe she wouldn't always be single. Maybe He was simply making her wait for the very best man.
The thing was, she was getting extremely good at waiting.
"Rachel, can I ask you something?" There was a slight hesitation in his attractive baritone, as if something was wrong.
He's canceling. That's why he was calling at the last minute — not that she blamed him. From his perspective, he was probably imagining that being with his best buddy's over-thirty-year-old spinster sister wasn't the most fun way to spend an evening. As her slippers scuffled along the kitchen floor, she supposed he was right.
It was just as well because the roast she'd planned to rotisserie was missing in action. "I know Ben probably felt he needed someone to meet you, since you came all this way and he ran off to spend a romantic evening with his bride-to-be. But eating supper here probably wasn't your first choice. I understand if you'd like to cancel."
"Backing out isn't in my nature. The trouble is, I can't get to your house."
"Oh, you're lost."
"That's not my problem. I found my way here from the airport just fine. But getting to your house is harder than you'd think. I'm parked down the way in your driveway."
"You're here?" No way — she hadn't heard anyone come up. Then again, hadn't she just been in the basement nearly upside down in the freezer?
"How long have you been sitting out there without me knowing it?" Rachel headed straight to the sink and yanked the curtain out of the way. She squinted through the long rays of sunlight. The parking area and the gravel lane leading up to it were empty.
"I'm not exactly at the house yet. Look down the road and you'll see my problem."
A break-down? A flat tire, what? She scanned the length of the newly graveled driveway, past the lawn's reach to the point where the tidy white board fencing paralleled the road.
There he was. At least she figured it was him behind the wheel of a bright red SUV. She could barely make out an impression of a tall, dark-haired, wide-shouldered man behind the wheel, but with the glare on the windshield it could have been her imagination filling in the details.
So, why was he just parked in the middle of the road for no reason?
Then she saw the giant ungainly brown creature leap into the middle of the road, between the vehicle and the house. The bull moose lowered his massive four-point antlers, and he meant business. He bellowed an ugly, flat-noted call before he pawed the ground with his impressive front hooves.
Moose attack! Rachel dropped the phone and flew out the back door. She grabbed the first thing she passed by and ran full-out down the path, swinging what turned out to be the old kitchen broom.
"Get! Go on!" she waved the yellow bristles in the direction of the stubborn moose.
The creature didn't even bother to turn around. He kept his hind end to her, as if he already knew there was no way she was a threat.
Well, as if she'd let her brother's best friend and rescuer be bullied by a stubborn old moose! "You can't bully anyone you want. Get out of the road."
Nothing. The moose had dismissed her entirely. Instead, his unblinking gaze remained on the shiny red vehicle that gleamed in the autumn sun. The animal swung his head as if in a challenge and pawed.
Disaster. All Rachel could see was the animal attacking that brand-new vehicle. That wasn't going to happen on her watch. She swung the broom closer to his hind end. "Hey!"
The moose didn't acknowledge her in any way. What he ought to be doing was bolting in fear of a human being with a weapon. Okay, it was a broom, but he was a wild animal. Weren't they afraid of people? "Go! Shoo!"
Nothing. How was she going to help Jake now? The driver's-side window rasped down. That deliciously low male voice called out, "Need any help?"
"Oh, no. I can handle it."
"I see. You're doing an excellent job."
Was he mocking her? The moose shook his head menacingly, and bowed low, as if preparing to charge.
Okay, this wasn't going well. It would be a shame for the moose to bash up that new vehicle with his antlers, plus scare the city boy half to death. Lord, a little help would be appreciated.
The door of the Jeep whipped open and a lean hulk of a man dropped to the ground as if he'd fast-roped from a Black Hawk helicopter. "Shouldn't your pet be in the pasture or something?"
Excerpted from Blessed Vows by Jillian Hart Copyright © 2005 by Jillian Hart. Excerpted by permission.
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