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Two weeks later, with Dad's hand-drawn map on the seat beside her, Hannah glanced ahead and made a right turn at Humphreys Road. Her parents' future home should be about three-fourths of a mile ahead on the right. After another week of cloudy weather and heavy rain, today had dawned bright and warm.
On her way to Petite Portage, she'd chosen to take the back roads through kelly-green cornfields and sage-green cabbage fields. She'd stopped for lunch at a small hometown restaurant. There, in a lively conversation with the cook, she'd picked up two new recipes, one for preparing wild pheasant and one for wild duck. They'd make great topics in her fall columns.
Now on her way down Humphreys Road, Hannah passed three widely spaced houses, two newer ranch styles and one old farmhouse, then came to a dead end. She stopped, studied the map again, turned around. This time she drove like a snail, keeping her eyes to the left side of road. She found it, a muddy gravel track without a house in progress in sight. She turned in. At its end, she stopped.
Oh, no. Her mind repeated this phrase several times. With a sinking heart, she put her car in "park" and got out. Crows squawked overhead. Beneath her feet, soft ground under grass, then ahead, mud with a path of boards spanning it. A field of mud with truck-tire tracks carved through it in a deep criss-cross pattern, stray hillocks of muddy grass, stacks of lumber under heavy blue plastic tarps. A concrete foundation.
Just a foundation.
"I'm dreaming this," she whispered in the quiet of the country. "This house is supposed to be complete in eight days."
Things like this take time. Edward's irritating voiceechoed in her memory and set her teeth on edge. How many times had she endured hearing Edward say that galling phrase? Over the past three years, she'd put up with too much too long. Never again.
She could imagine all the builder's polite excuses. Bad weather slowed construction. Building materials shortage. Had trouble getting quality workmen. Each phrase turned up the heat higher under her simmering temper. "Guthrie Thomas," she growled to the place where her parents' house should have been. "I am not buying any excuses. My parents paid good money and signed a contract in good faith with you. If you couldn't fulfill the contract, you should have released them and let someone else build it."
Edward's disembodied voice interrupted. But, Honey, things can't always run on your schedule.
"Shut up, Edward!" Hannah declared. "And don't call me Honey! I'm not sweet, little Honey Kirkland anymore!"
She charged back to her fire-engine-red sport utility vehicle, got in and slammed the door. She started the car, then threw it into reverse. Mud flew up around her tires. At the road's edge, she ground to a halt, cast a hasty glance each way, then shot onto the deserted road. She shoved the gearshift back into "drive" and took off with squealing tires.
The powerful motor under the hood charged her with adrenaline, momentum. Consigned to the unappetizing past, she'd left Edward and her VW bug behind in Milwaukee. The last fourteen months had been the most difficult of her twenty-five years. A broken engagement, then . "I was a fool, a blind little wimp," she muttered.
With only a sustained pause, she slid by the stop sign at the empty crossroads, then barreled down the two-lane highway into town. She blew past the "Reduced Speed Ahead" sign and didn't slow until she saw the city limits sign, "Petite Portage—Population 2356—Speed Limit 25 M.P.H."
Still pushing the speed limit, she swept through town looking for the small motel where her parents were staying. Within minutes, she slowed on Front Street. Ahead, a red-and-white painted sign announced Hanson's Cozy Motel with a green neon Yes over Vacancy. The motel, a one-story white building with six red doors in a row, also had an attached restaurant, Hanson's Cozy Café.
Hannah had found her parents' temporary home. She rolled to a stop in front of the motel office. She'd barely stopped and exited her vehicle before a large woman in blue polyester stretch pants and a hot pink T-shirt that proclaimed her to be the World's Best Grandma hurried out of the office.
"You must be the Kirkland girl! I'm Mrs. Fink, Lila Fink, the owner. Welcome to Petite! You're just going to love it here! Your parents are great people. I knew it the moment I laid eyes on them!"
The flow of words sloshed over Hannah. She floundered in the sensation of being swept up in a rushing current. She said the first words that came to mind. "But this is Hanson's Cozy Motel."
The large woman shook with laughter. "Sure it is! Would anyone stay at Fink's Cozy Motel?"
Hannah could think of no reply to this, but Lila efficiently produced a plastic-tagged key, then led her to a small room. Hannah assessed the room, and her mood slipped another notch. Obviously Mrs. Fink had decorated the Cozy Motel thirty years ago. Avocado green and gold vinyl reigned supreme. But the off-white paint on the walls gleamed, and the brown shag carpet had been steam-cleaned recently.
Lila pressed a key with a bronze plastic tag printed with a large two into Hannah's hand. "I'll let you get settled. Then we can get to know each other."
"My parents?" Hannah prompted.
"They can't wait to see you. They told me, 'Honey is coming today.'"
"Where are they?" Hannah asked, trying to hold her own against the flow of words.
"They're at the church. They spend most of their days there. I only get to talk to them in the café in the mornings—"
"Where's the church?" Hannah edged toward the door.
"It's easy to find. Everything in Petite is easy to find." Lila chuckled. "Just go back up Front Street and turn right, go about half a mile, you can't miss it. I walk there on nice Sunday mornings—"
Escaping, Hannah smiled, waved and jumped into her car. Back up Front Street, she drove half a block then turned right. She wasn't surprised that her parents spent their days at the church. Good grief! Mrs. Fink rattled on more than Edward's mother, and that woman could talk the hind leg off a horse!
"This isn't happening," Hannah told the steering wheel. She pressed down on the gas pedal.
Instantly, a police siren 'burped' just behind her. A look in her rearview mirror confirmed a police car nearly touched her rear bumper. "Where did he come from? Thin air?" She pulled over.
A tall, lanky police officer who didn't look old enough to shave appeared at her window. "Hi, do you need any help?"
Of all the words she might have imagined this junior office asking, these weren't them. "What?"
He pointed back to where she had turned. "You were driving kind of fast and I didn't recognize your car. I thought you might need help, directions or something." He gazed at her, hope in his eyes.
"Aren't you a little young to be a police officer?" She asked feeling like Alice after she'd passed through the looking glass.
"I'm eighteen and I'm going to go to college this fall in law enforcement. But my dad had to testify in court at the county seat today, so he deputized me to keep an eye on things. It's been pretty boring. Are you sure you don't need—"
"I'm just driving down to the church."
He hung his head like a scolded puppy. "Okay."
"May I leave?"
"Sure. Just wanted to help." Mournful, he took a step back.
She moved the gearshift into drive and headed on. "Good grief!" She had the sensation that she'd driven a bit too far that day. Around the bend maybe?
The white steeple loomed ahead. As she pulled into the small parking lot, she gathered the scattered pieces of her purpose for coming to the church. Mrs. Fink and Officer Peach-fuzz had thrown her a bit off stride, but she wouldn't take excuses. She'd find out from her parents where the builder was and she'd have a talk with him today regardless of what her parents might say. The house should be nearly built by now, not barely begun.
If the builder couldn't deliver on time, she'd do everything she could to persuade her parents to enforce the contract deadline, no excuses. She wasn't going to let any man give her the runaround, as Edward had, ever again.
When she parked and slipped out of the car, the sound of hammer on wood greeted her. Well, something was getting built in Petite today!
Hannah recognized her parents' ten-year-old blue sedan parked beside the quaint one-story classic white prairie chapel. Good. They were here, as reported by Mrs. Fink. Hannah edged around the grassy side of the church, following the noise of the hammering. The squishy, soaked grass underfoot wet her shoes. She tried to ignore it.
Looking skyward, she noted the church's roof had been stripped of shingles. One patch of new plywood looked out of place above the period building, but the majority of the roof looked old and discolored with water damage. What was going on?
She halted, stunned by the man she saw straddling the peak of the roof facing the steeple.
Definitely the most perfect male she'd ever seen in real life. He wore no shirt. Tanned brown, his chest, shoulders and arms bulged with muscles. Real muscles, not the kind a man got from working out at a gym. His firm legs stretched against the tight blue denim covering them. Heaven in blue jeans.
She watched him lift the billed cap off his head and swipe his forehead with his arm, obviously brushing away the sweat on his brow. Sunlight glinted on golden waves.
Hannah swallowed with difficulty.
The man settled the hat on his head and eased up. Cautiously he balanced himself until he squatted, perfectly poised. Was he going into the steeple?
Feeling her pulse racing, Hannah wished he'd get down from the roof. He was making her nervous. Shouldn't he be wearing a safety harness or something?
A flicker of movement caught her eye. She followed the man's gaze and saw, in the opening at the bottom of the steeple, her father reaching out.
"No! Daddy, don't!" Her shout echoed in the stillness.
The man on the peak lost his balance. He tried to catch himself on a roofing rack. He couldn't.
Horrified, she watched the man sliding down the side of the bare roof on his rump. He hit the gutter. It launched him forward.
Hannah screamed and closed her eyes.
He landed with a sickening thud facedown in the nearby grass.
She rushed to his side and knelt. With shaking fingers, she took his wrist to check for a pulse. His heart was still beating, racing, in fact.
"Oh!" Her mother ran toward her. "Is he all right?"
"He's got a pulse." Thank you, God!
"Is he breathing?" her father shouted as he came around a corner of the church.
Hannah rested her hand on the man's broad back. No. He wasn't taking breaths. "Call nine one one!"
The strong back under her hand shuddered. The man rolled over. He spit out a wad of grass and sputtered, trying to rid himself of green grass particles in his mouth. Grass clippings stuck to his face and hair. His eyes opened. Grass matted his thick eyelashes.
"Oh, Guthrie!" her mother exclaimed. "You're alive!"
Forcing down her budding hysteria, Hannah turned to her mother and caught her hands. "Sit down and lower your head. You're as white as a sheet!"
Mom obeyed, but she gasped, "You look as white as a ghost yourself. You sit down, too."
Concerned, Hannah turned to her father, who stood about ten feet away trying to catch his breath. "Dad?"
He held up a hand. "Okay I'm okay. Take care of Guthrie."
Hannah went to her original victim. She'd arrived in Petite and in less than an hour nearly finished off her parents and their builder! This man fit Doree's description to a T. Guthrie Thomas, the hunk, the very man she had intended to tell off!
She knelt by Guthrie again. "You landed in a pile of grass clippings. Do you hurt anywhere?"
He sat up. With his knees bent, his elbows propped on them and his head bowed, he drew in deep breaths. "I just fell off a roof, lady."
"I know. I screamed."
"I heard you."
The vision of him catapulting toward her flashed in her mind. "Why weren't you wearing a safety belt?" she accused.