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People were never who or what you thought. That's a lesson Beth Bradshaw knew from experience and she had the scars to prove it.
She had even learned things about herself that took her by surprise. Like the fact that she could be strong. She didn't always have to do what pleased others. Sometimes she did what pleased her.
The fact that she was the person sitting on a horse in front of Back Street Church, determined to talk Jeremy Hightree out of his plans for the building was a big moment for her. It was a mountain climbed. It was a fear tackled.
Someone had to do it. So, shaking in her boots, remembering the last time she was here, she sat and contemplated the confrontation.
The horse beneath her shifted, restless from standing. She waved at flies buzzing the animal's neck and ears but her gaze remained on the run-down church in front of her. Things changed, that was part of life. She'd obviously changed since the years spent attending this little church with her mother.
Jeremy Hightree had changed. She knew he'd changed because only huge changes could bring him back to Dawson, Oklahoma, with the plans he had for this building.
The church had been untouched and neglected for too many years. The lawn had grown into a field of weeds. The exterior had faded from white to gray and the paint was chipped and flaking off. After one hundred years of service, the tiny church with the tall steeple had become a forgotten piece of the past.
So why should she care what Jeremy planned on doing to a forgotten piece of Dawson history? The question rolled through her mind as she dropped to the ground and led the chestnut gelding up the sidewalk, metal hooves clip-clopping on concrete. She looped the leather reins around the handrail and walked up the crumbling concrete steps to the porch. The door stood wide open but she didn't go in. She glanced around, looking for Jeremy, her heart hammering a chaotic rhythm, afraid she'd see him. Afraid she wouldn't.
But this wasn't about seeing Jeremy. Her heart did a funny skip forward, asking her to rethink that last thought. But she wouldn't. She couldn't. This had to be about the church, not schoolgirl emotions.
She took a hesitant step inside the church. It took her eyes a minute to adjust to the dim interior. Filtered light from the dirty stained-glass windows caught dust particles that floated in the air. A bird glided through the building and landed on the pulpit. Her great-grandfather had made that pulpit. The wood was hickory and the stain was natural and light. A cross had been carved into the front.
Her history in this town was tied to this church. And she had ignored it. She took a deep breath, breathing in dust and aging wood. For a minute she was eight years old again and unscarred, still smiling, still believing in fairy tales and happy endings.
Jeremy was still the little boy who pulled at the ribbons on her new dress and teased her about the freckles on her nose.
But she wasn't eight. She was twenty-eight. Her mother had been dead for eighteen years. And Jeremy wasn't a little boy. He was the man who planned on destroying this church.
Eighteen years of pain tangled inside, keeping her feet planted in the vestibule. The little room where they'd once hung their coats was now draped in spiders' webs, and mice ran from corner to corner. The old guestbook still rested on the shelf where it had been placed years ago. She flipped through the pages and stopped when she got to her name written in a child's penmanship. She remembered her mom standing behind her, smiling as Beth scrawled her name, proud that she'd learned to sign it in cursive.
Too many memories. She didn't need all of them, she just needed to know the truth. If it was true, she would find a way to stop him. She walked down the aisle of the church, her booted feet echoing in the tall ceilinged building. She stopped and waited for everything to settle, for the memories to stop tugging at her. In this memory, her mom was next to her, singing. The piano rocked to a Southern gospel hymn. And behind her
"Bethlehem Bradshaw, I'll tell on you." His voice was soft in the quiet sanctuary. She turned, amazed that he could still unsettle her. He stood in the doorway, sunlight behind him, his face in shadows. She didn't need to see his face to know him. She knew that he had short, light brown hair and eyes the color of caramel toffee. She knew his smile, that it turned the left side of his mouth more than the right and always flashed white teeth. He walked with a swagger, his jeans hanging low on his hips and his T-shirt stretched tight across the shoulders of a man.
He was no longer a boy. He was lethal and dangerous. He had plans to destroy something that she wanted to protect.
"Why would you do this?" She hated that her voice shook. She despised that she wanted to run out the back door. The closer he got, the harder it was to breathe, to stand her ground.
She wanted to pound her fists against him and beg him to stop, to leave town and forget this church and whatever he had against the people of Dawson. Instead she stood, frozen, unable to do any of those things. Weak. She hated being weak. And afraid.
"Why would I do what? Tease you?" Jeremy Hightree stopped at the second pew from the front of the church, the one where she'd sat with her mother so many years ago. He leaned against it, hip against the side of the wooden bench.
He had always teased her, she wanted to remind him. He would sit behind her and pull ribbons from her hair. He'd once dropped a plastic spider in her lap during Sunday school.
And he had picked a ragged bouquet of wildflowers the day of her mother's funeral and pushed them into Beth's hands as she walked out the doors of the church with her brother Jason and her father. His brown eyes had been rimmed with red from crying and she had wanted to hug him because her mother had always hugged him.
Her mother had defended him. He was the son of her best friend from grade school. Other people had called him a dirty mess. Her mom had called him a little prince.
Beth's feelings had fallen somewhere in between.
She stepped down off the stage, closer to him. One thing was for certain, he wasn't the dirty little boy anymore. He was a man who had traveled. He had won two world championships; one in bull riding and another in team roping. Little girls had posters of him in their bedrooms and little boys wanted to be him when they grew up.
He'd built a business from nothing.
So why this? Why now? It took a few minutes to gather her thoughts, to know how to respond to him. She needed the right words, the right emotions.
"Why the church, Jeremy? You could buy any piece of land you wanted. You could leave the church and never think about it."
One shoulder lifted in indifference. Instead his gaze shot away from her and his jaw clenched. He was anything but indifferent.
"Let's talk about something other than this church. Funny how people have neglected it for years and now everyone wants to talk about it. It was a public auction, Beth. Anyone could have bought it. I was the only one who showed up to bid."
"I know. I guess we all thought someone else would take care of it." She hated admitting that to him and then begging him to let go of his plans.
He moved a few steps closer and Beth stood her ground. She didn't back away. She wouldn't let him get to her. And he could. She shivered and remembered. The memory was soft, sweet, jagged with emotion.
It was the briefest moment, the briefest memory. Yet she'd never forgotten. They had as much history as this church. They'd grown up together. They'd shared a childhood.
"I'm sorry how things turned out with Chance." His voice changed, got a little rougher, a little less velvet than before.
"You couldn't have known." No one would have guessed the abuse Chance was capable of. But it was over. The divorce had been finalized fifteen months ago.
Jeremy must have known something. He had tried to warn her what Chance was like. The day she left town, he'd seen her waiting at the park and he'd tried to tell her. But she had been desperate to escape.
"Beth?" His voice pulled her from the memories, from the darkness, back to the present and the problem at hand.
"I don't want to talk about Chance."
"I understand. And I don't want to talk about the church. It isn't personal, you know. It's a business decision."
"Is it really? It seems personal to me."
He crossed his arms over a muscular chest. "Maybe it is a little personal. I'm tired of this memory and I'm tired of this church standing like a beacon on this hill."
"That's a little drastic, don't you think? This church hasn't been a beacon in a dozen years."
One shoulder lifted again. "I don't know, maybe. But it's my story, not yours."
"This church meant so much to " She wasn't going to beg him. She breathed deep, willing herself not to cry.
"It meant a lot to your mother."
His tone had changed again. The rough edges were gone. She looked up as he stood straight again and took a few steps in her direction. His steps were slow, calculated.
Had she really thought she could talk him out of this? A shared moment gave her no claim over him. Memories didn't give her a right to assume he would listen. His story in this church mattered to him, not the memory of a kiss they shared a dozen years ago.
"Yes, it did mean a lot to her." But Beth had only been inside the building a handful of times since her mother's funeral. Eighteen years. After her mother's death her father had caught her here once and dragged her home.
Jeremy watched her. His smile faded a little. His eyes narrowed as he stared hard. His Native American heritage was evident in the smooth planes of his face, tanned a deep brown from working outside. But almost everyone in Dawson shared that heritage, that ancestry. Redheads, blonds, brunettes; hair color and eye color didn't dictate a lack of Native American ancestry. The people of Dawson were proud of that heritage, proud of their strength and resilience.
They were known for bouncing back, for not letting the past get them down.
The past was tied to everything, though. It was the shadow of pain in Jeremy Hightree's eyes. It held her own heart captive. It was the fear that clawed at her chest and woke her up in the middle of the night.
"I'm not sure what to tell you, Beth. Your mom meant a lot to me. But this church is."
"What? Tell me what this church ever did to you?" She pinned him with a stare, hoping to make him squirm. Instead his expression softened, as if he understood her pain, and was hiding his own behind anger.
She remembered the boy with the bouquet, the one she'd wanted to hug. She couldn't allow herself to compare him to that boy. "Tell me, Jeremy, what will revenge do for you?"
Well, now, the kitten had grown some claws. She stood in front of him, pint-size with dark eyes that flashed fear and fire simultaneously. Her dark brown hair hung in pigtails. She picked that moment to lick lips that trembled. He smiled and for a few minutes he didn't quite know what to say to her, because he was picturing her as a cornered kitten, shaking in her boots but ready to swipe at him. He had a lot of questions for her. He had questions about her life, about Chance Martin, about Dawson.
Instead of asking questions he shook his head and considered walking away. She'd mentioned revenge. He really didn't like that word.
And when she'd said it, his decision didn't feel as good as it had even an hour earlier when he'd stood outside picturing this hill without this church, without the memories that had been chasing him down, biting at his heels.
"It isn't just about revenge." He shrugged and smiled at Bethlehem Bradshaw. He'd always been a fan of her full name, not the shortened version. The full name had meant something to her mother. And her mother had meant a lot to him. She'd done more for him than people would ever know.
That loyalty struck a raw nerve with him right now. Because Bethlehem's mamma was gone and here was her daughter begging for something that woman would have wanted. She would have wanted this church to remain standing.
But he thought she would have cried at its condition now, because it hadn't been used in years and no one had cared to keep it maintained. She wouldn't have wanted that either.
Of course she would have told him to forgive.
Forgive his mother for being the town drunk. Forgive Tim Cooper for a tiny indiscretion more than thirty years ago and not owning up to it. As far as Jeremy was concerned, Tim Cooper didn't need his forgiveness. That was between Tim and Mrs. Cooper.
Jeremy had a truckload of bad memories. He'd learned early to fight for himself and his little sister. At eight he could make a mean box of mac and cheese. By the time he was ten he could sign his mother's signature on school permission slips. He learned to braid his little sister's hair and wash her clothes.
His sister, Elise, was married now. She and her husband owned a convenience store in Grove. They sold bait to fishermen and coffee mugs to tourists. Elise was big on forgiveness, too.
"It looks a lot like revenge." Bethlehem's soft voice intruded into his memories, shaking him up more than a green Oklahoma sky on a stormy afternoon.
"Bethlehem, I'm not sure what you want me to say."
"Say you won't do this."
"I can't say that." For the first time since he'd bought the church, he had the biggest urge to forget his plans. Because of Beth.
Jeremy shook his head to clear the thoughts. "I have plans for this piece of property."
He needed a bigger shop for the custom bikes he'd turned from a hobby into a business, an extension of the chain of motorcycle dealerships he owned.
"Do you have plans or are you just angry?"
He leaned in and then he regretted the move that put him a little too close to Bethlehem, close enough to see the flecks of gold in her brown eyes, close enough to get tangled in the soft scent of her perfume.