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"Here's your chance."
Becca looked up from the shelf of canned goods she was stocking, glanced at her mother-in-law, Abby Kinder, and immediately turned her attention to the row of shopping carts parked along the front wall of the Kinder grocery store. Daniel Holden, tall and straight, tugged a cart free and aimed it toward the produce section. Becca felt a flutter of excitement inside her chest. With Easter just a week away, the time was right to begin repairs on her dilapidated ranch house. The weather was fine, she had managed to save a sum of money and it seemed that God had finally provided someone to do the work, at least according to the town scuttlebutt.
"You just don't expect the Marine Corps to turn out expert carpenters," she commented quietly. "I mean, soldiers, of course, and maybe mechanics, computer techs, even desk clerks, but 'carpenter' just doesn't seem to fit the mold."
Abby chuckled, swiping a feather duster over boxes of pasta dinners. "You'd be amazed at the kind of training the military offers. Cody considered signing up, you know." She smiled wistfully, the pain of loss clouding her clear gray eyes even after these many months, but then she shook her silver head, the bun at the nape of her neck sliding from side to side, and her customary cheer reasserted itself. "His dad and I thought it was too dangerous, so then he goes out and takes up rodeo." She waved the feather duster, as if to say no one could predict what life would hold. Becca knew exactly what she meant. After years on the rodeo circuit, Cody had been killed in his own backyard by a high-strung stud horse.
Becca squeezed her mother-in-law's hand and went back to emptying the box on the tiered flatbed cart at her side, giving Dan Holden time to finish his shopping. Resolutely putting thoughts of her late husband out of her mind, she concentrated on the proposition she meant to make the tall ex-marine with the carpenter's skill.
Every day she drove past the Holden house on her way to and from work. Empty for longer than she'd lived in the sleepy little town of Rain Dance, Oklahoma, the elegant place had gradually taken on an air of abandonment and decay, but over the past three or four months that Dan had lived there, the old-fashioned two-story prairie cottage had seemed to come alive and take back its dignity. Now it stood fit and neat, as straight and tall as its owner and occupant, who just might be the answer to Becca's prayers.
When Dan turned his shopping cart toward the single checkout stand, Becca quickly wiped her hands on her apron and moved behind the counter. As Dan placed the first items on the rubber mat, Becca gave him a bright smile.
"How're you keeping, Mr. Holden?"
He nodded, but made no reply. She'd noticed that he was a quiet man, rarely speaking and often seeming shy, though with his looks she couldn't imagine why. He'd pretty much kept to himself since returning to Rain Dance after an absence of some ten or twelve years, but Becca figured he'd just been busy with the house. She rang up the first items and bagged them, talking as she worked.
"The word around town is that you're something of a carpenter."
He made no comment, didn't so much as look at her as he placed several cans on the counter. Becca licked her lips and took the plunge.
"Fact is, I'm looking for someone to help me fix up my old house, Mr. Holden, and I was wondering if you might be interested in taking on the project?"
It seemed a good idea. To her knowledge he didn't have a job, not that there were many to be had in this part of south central Oklahoma. Most folks depended on ranching, farming and intermittent oil field work to keep afloat, or else they were pensioners making the most of their retirement income. Living was cheap, if limited, in Rain Dance, which boasted a population of some 500 residents within the narrow confines of its city limits and perhaps an equal number in the surrounding area.
Without ever making eye contact, Dan Holden placed a carton of milk on the counter and reached back into his shopping cart for a box of cereal. She took his lack of reply as a good sign. At least he hadn't refused her outright.
"I've got a little money put aside," she told him, "and you've done such a fine job on your place, I was thinking we could maybe help each other out."
He plunked down a jar of pickles and a squirt bottle of mustard. She reached for the mustard, judging it a perfect fit for the space left in the shopping bag that she was packing. Their hands collided, and he looked up with a jerk, as if she'd burned him. She tried that smile again.
"So what do you think?"
He frowned as if puzzled, then muttered, "I think I have everything I need."
Becca felt her smile wilt. "I see." Tamping down her disappointment, she quickly rang up the rest of his purchase. "I guess that means you're not interested in the job?" He didn't dignify that with a reply, so she gulped and asked, "Might you be able to recommend someone from around here who could help me?" She'd been asking that question of everyone in town, and his name was the only one that ever seemed to come up.
Dan peered at the digital readout provided by the cash register and plucked bills from his wallet. She counted out his change, figuring that he was thinking over his answer, and left it on the counter. He picked it up, coin by coin, gathered his three bags of groceries and walked out.
Becca's jaw dropped, but she quickly snapped her mouth shut again. The man hadn't answered her with so much as a shrug.
Abby had been hovering nearby with her feather duster, listening unabashedly to every word. She now looked at Becca with sad confusion on her face. "Well, he's sure changed. The Dan Holden I remember was a polite, outgoing young man. He wasn't much more than a boy, but still, that's not the same Dan Holden who left here for college. That's all I've got to say."
"I wonder what changed him," Becca mused, leaning a hip against the counter.
"God knows," Abby replied. "God always knows, and that's what matters, honey. If Dan can't or won't help you, God'll send someone else. You'll see."
Becca smiled and put aside her disappointment, knowing that her mother-in-law was right. She wouldn't have been so certain a few years ago, but she had learned, thanks to the Kinders. When she'd first arrived in Oklahoma as a nineteen-year-old bride of only days, she'd thought she'd made a terrible mistake. She'd met Cody at a rodeo and married the cute cowboy after knowing him for only two weeks. The rodeo life had seemed exciting to a country girl reared on an Iowa farm, but then she'd realize that she'd be spending most of her time in Rain Dance, which had seemed precisely the sort of place from which she'd thought she'd escaped, a dying town peopled with old folks and country yokels.
Then Abby and John Odem Kinder had opened their hearts and their lives to her. They'd shared their small house, their affection and, most important, their faith, and almost before she'd realized what was happening Rain Dance had become homeand she had become a mother to a blond, blue-eyed baby girl. Cody had eventually scraped together enough winnings to buy them a place of their own on a quarter section three and half miles northeast of town.
The house had needed work even then, but the ranch had needed a good pair of breeding stock even more. They were hoping to start the horse herd that would provide the income that would keep Cody at home with his growing family, as Becca was pregnant again. Even without the much-needed repairs on the house, she wouldn't think of living anywhere else now, not even after finding herself a young widow with two children to support.
Rain Dance had its limitations, but she knew in her heart that this was where the good Lord meant her to be, so this was where she'd stayeven if she could see daylight through some walls of her little house.
Becca shepherded her daughter, Jemmy, into the pew near the front of the church where the Kinders sat, smiling as the four-year-old moppet preened in the simple blue-and-white-polka-dotted dress sewn for her by her grandmother. With her pale blond hair twisted into curls that most likely wouldn't last the service and a white straw hat tied with a blue ribbon under her chubby chin, she had sat for photos on the front steps of the narrow orange-brick church, giggling as John Odem had snapped away with his camera. Thirteen-month-old CJ had gone up onto his knees, trying to filch plastic eggs from his sister's Easter basket, his shirttail poking out of his navy blue shorts, matching bow tie seriously askew.
Finally Abby had brought the picture taking to a halt, warning that they would be late if they delayed any longer. Eager to show off her finery, Jemmy had insisted on accompanying her mother to the nursery, where CJ could play without disturbing the service, while her grandparents secured seats in the crowded sanctuary. By the time the middle-aged nursery attendant had finished gushing over how Jem's dress matched her blue eyes, the pianist had started to play the opening prelude.
As mother and daughter slipped into the pew, Becca smiled at the family in the seats behind them and patiently lifted her gaze toward the rear of the church while Jemmy climbed up onto the cushioned seat. Dan Holden stood in the doorway, a look of consternation on his face. Becca was struck by how handsome he was, standing there with his military bearing in well-pressed slacks, shirt and tie, his square jaw cleanly shaven, short, light brown hair neatly combed, sky-blue eyes searching the crowded pews for a seat.
She'd seen him here before, of course, but he usually slipped in a little late and took a seat on the aisle in the very last pew and then was gone again before she and her family had worked their way to the door. Today, however, even the back pews were packed. She saw him hesitate and then turn slightly as if to leave. Something in her couldn't let that happen. It was Easter Sunday, the day of all days when a Christian should be in church. Beckoning him with a slight crook of her hand, she quickly turned and slid into the pew, crowding close to her daughter in order to leave space for him on the aisle.
For several long seconds she didn't know whether or not he would take her up on her invitation, but then she felt his silent presence at her side and glanced up with a welcoming smile. Color stood in small, bright red patches high on his cheekbones, but he nodded thanks and folded his long frame onto the bench seat, elbows pulled tight to his sides. The pastor already stood in the pulpit, and he immediately lifted his voice to welcome all to God's house and comment on how nice it was to see so many in the congregation.
A few minutes later the music leader took over and got them all onto their feet for the first hymn of the morning. Becca joined in the singing. Jemmy climbed up into her grandfather's arms so she could see better, while Abby held a hymnal for him. His gravelly bass voice boomed so loudly that Jemmy covered her ears with her hands, which was exactly what John Odem had intended. It was a game they played, one of many. John liked to say that one of the most important lessons he'd learned in his nearly seventy years was to have as much fun as possible to help balance the difficulty that life often dealt. Having fun definitely included teasing his granddaughter. Smiling indulgently, Becca glanced at Dan Holden out of the corner of her eye. To her surprise Dan stared straight ahead, rigid and silent.
Realizing that he didn't have a hymnal, Becca briefly considered offering to share her own, but his stiffness made her uncertain. Compelled to seek another remedy, she looked down the pew, spying an extra hymnal in the pew pocket in front of her mother-in-law. Becca caught Abby's eye and pointed to the hymnal. Abby plucked it up and passed it to her. Becca immediately handed her own hymnal to Dan Holden, opened to the correct page.
He jerked, as if shocked by the gesture, and shook his head. His hand dipped with the weight of the heavy book before his gaze locked on her face, blue eyes piercing hers. Something there made Becca's breath catch, something intense and aching. His gaze moved from her face to the music on the page. The next instant he snapped the book shut, dropped it into the pew pocket in front of him and clasped his hands behind his back, a proud soldier at ease before a commanding officer.
Stung, Becca ducked her chin, brow beetled as she tried to figure out this guy. What was his problem, anyway? One moment he seemed charmingly shy and the next downright rude. It was almost as if he didn't know how to act around people. She now wanted to ignore him, but since he occupied the space right next to her, she couldn't help being uncomfortably aware of his every movement, or lack of it, to be more precise. During the sermon she noticed that he never took his eyes off the pastor's face. He appeared rapt, almost eerily so, and he seemed genuinely moved at several points. By the time the service progressed to the invitation, her puzzlement had deepened significantly. Dan Holden's actions and reactions just didn't seem to add up, and Becca's curiosity had definitely been piqued by the time the service ended.
As expected, the instant they were dismissed, he turned into the aisle, but Becca impulsively reached out to trap him with a hand clamped firmly upon his forearm. He turned wary eyes of such intense attention on her that she once more caught her breath, but the next moment she heard herself babbling, "Oh, Mr. Holden, you remember me, don't you? I'm Becca Kinder."
"From the store," he mumbled in a voice so low that she had to lean close to hear him.
He glanced past her, his blue gaze sliding over Jemmy to John Odem. Becca released him, a little abashed by her forwardness now. He nodded at John and said, a little too loudly this time, "Mr. Kinder."