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The Prodigal Returns
Twelve years ago, Lorrie Ann Ortega left the tiny town of Clear Water with stars in her eyes. Now she's back home—trying to live right and put her mistakes in the past. Even so, she'll never be the kind of woman who would make a good wife for the handsome widowed pastor, John Levi. But when she agrees to be nanny to his two sweet daughters, she's thrown constantly in his path. And she can't keep herself from ...
The Prodigal Returns
Twelve years ago, Lorrie Ann Ortega left the tiny town of Clear Water with stars in her eyes. Now she's back home—trying to live right and put her mistakes in the past. Even so, she'll never be the kind of woman who would make a good wife for the handsome widowed pastor, John Levi. But when she agrees to be nanny to his two sweet daughters, she's thrown constantly in his path. And she can't keep herself from dreaming that a man like John could one day love her. Can a prodigal daughter turn into a pastor's wife?
Lorrie Ann's sports car hugged the curves of the country road. Fence posts and cattle flew past her window as she ran back to the small town she fled twelve years ago. No one had warned her that in the pursuit of fame and fortune she could become emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. She glanced at the Bible with the purple tattered note sticking out of it. Well, her aunt might have, but she had been too stubborn to listen.
On the soft leather seat, next to the Bible, her cell vibrated again. Brent's face filled the screen. How did she ever find her now-ex-fiance's grin charming? For two years she had ignored his behavior—until yesterday. Their last fight had escalated to the point where he'd hit her. When had she become her mother? Relationships were not her thing, and the situation with Brent proved her right.
That was the moment she took a long hard look at her life and didn't like what she saw. She had no one to turn to. They shared the same friends. He played the drums for the band she managed.
She hadn't taken a vacation in three years. With the holidays coming up she'd called the lead singer of the band she managed and told her she was heading home. Where was home? With nowhere to go, she headed to the only place she had family—her aunt's pecan farm in Clear Water, Texas. She couldn't imagine anyplace more different than Los Angeles.
The phone went quiet only to start chiming again a moment later. Teeth gritted, she shifted gears and picked up speed. She didn't want to hear his apologies.
A burst of anger had her grabbing the phone and throwing it out the window. She dashed past the green sign that said Clear Water was eight miles. She turned up the music and pushed down on the gas pedal only to have the engine sputter and jerk. The steering wheel became stiff under her hands. With all her muscle she forced the BMW to the side of the road.
She checked the gauges and sighed. No gas, no phone, and she only had herself to blame.
One moment of temper had caused her to chuck her phone out of her car. Now she could walk the eight miles to town or walk back to find her phone—and hope that it still worked.
She needed to make the call she had been avoiding anyway, so she started the hike to find her phone.
Lorrie Ann fought to keep her balance as she walked back up the hill she had just driven down. Her five-inch-heel boots, designed for flat city life, didn't take well to the rocky hike across the uneven ground.
The cool breeze whispered over her shoulders. She adjusted her brown felt fedora and glanced around the vast landscape of the Texas Hill Country. The Black Angus cows stopped chewing and silently watched her stumble along the fence. With one hand on the rough cedar post, she stared back. "What are you looking at?"
Great—less than a day back in Texas and she was talking to cattle. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. "Dear God, I know for the last twelve years I put You in the backseat, and now I'm asking for help every time I turn around. Please, just give me the peace to know You're in control and I'm doing the right thing." Peace. She doubted she'd recognize it if it turned out to be a rattlesnake about to bite her.
A loud engine broke the endless silence of rolling hills. Lorrie Ann swung around, fearful for a moment of being so alone in the middle of nowhere without her phone.
A blue work-worn truck appeared over the hill. Coming straight at her, the black deer guard on the front looked menacing. The driver slowed down and pulled off the road.
Swallowing, she started praying for it to be a friendly stranger. The door swung open, displaying the Childress quarter-horse logo. Her heartbeat settled. She remembered the Childress family.
From behind the door stepped a walking Hollywood version of the American Cowboy. Tall and lean, his work-faded jeans rode low over slim hips. The dark T-shirt hugged his broad shoulders under a waist-length denim jacket. His fit body looked shaped by hours of working outdoors, instead of designed by a personal trainer. He must be one of the hired ranch hands.
He stepped across the road with confidence and walked in a way that might tempt a girl to give up her plans. Each stride of his long legs moved him closer to her. Her heart flip-flopped. She bit her lip. Stupid heart.
She had returned to Clear Water, Texas, to reconnect with God and to refill her spiritual bank, not to get tangled up in another relationship. Having her mom's defective gene for picking men, her best option would be to remain male free.
A welcoming smile eased across his face. Lines creased the corners of golden-brown eyes and ran down his well-formed cheeks. One lone dimple appeared on the left side. Her mouth went dry.
"Are you lost?"
His deep Texas drawl washed over her. Lorrie Ann shook her head and searched for words.
"No, but I'm sure that depends on who you ask." A nervous laugh ran away from her lips. She looked at the ground. Ugh, let me count the ways to sound like an idiot. Raising her gaze, she flashed her best smile. In California it never failed her.
Instead, he glanced off into the pasture, at the cows. "Is that your car up ahead?"
She sighed. Apparently, Texas cowboys were a completely different breed from the men she had been working with in Los Angeles.
"Yeah, I ran out of gas."
Bringing his gaze back to her, he looked puzzled. "Town is about eight miles that way." His long fingers pointed in the opposite direction she faced.
"I know, but my phone is somewhere over here." She waved toward the pasture, and her collection of bracelets jingled.
On cue, the phone rang somewhere on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. At least Brent was good for something. "Oh, it still works." She tried to climb between two strands of wire, but a barb snagged her long silk shirt, and her sunglasses hit the ground. When she turned to free the blouse, the top wire caught her hat, causing her hair to fall forward. The thick waves covered her face, blinding her.
"Hold still." The cowboy's voice emitted assurance. Gently his hands freed the corner of her shirt and held the wires farther apart so she could easily step through.
When she stood on the other side, she pushed her hair back. She reached for her oversize shades and shoved them over her eyes. Ouch! She'd forgotten the bruise. Her skin throbbed with a dull ache.
"Are you sure you're okay?" He leaned over the fence, handing her the hat.
Lorrie Ann didn't like the look she read in the cowboy's eyes. At best, it was concern, at worst, pity. Her nails cut into her palms. She hated pity.
"Anyone I can call for you?"
"No, no. Really, as soon as I get my phone, I'm good."
He turned that devastating smile back on her. "How your phone ended up in a cow pasture is bound to be an interesting story." He held his hand out to her, the fence still between them. "I'm John Levi."
The phone sounded off again. Forgetting his hand, she spun around to locate the device. In a tall clump of gold grass, it vibrated. "I found it!" She lifted it high.
He smiled. "Now we just need to get you some gas, and you'll be on your way. Where're you headed?"
"Can you believe my destination is Clear Water?"
Lorrie Ann smiled back at him, a genuine smile this time. It felt good. The past couple years anything real had been hard to find, especially any type of happiness or joy.
"Come on." He chuckled. "Let's get you back on this side of the fence before the herd gets too curious." He stepped on the bottom wire and held the top one up, leaving a large opening.
"Thanks." With one hand on her hat, she stepped through without a problem this time.
"I'll drive you to your car. I have some gas in a can in the back. Not sure your boots could make it down the hill." She had forgotten cowboys always stayed prepared for anything. He held out his arm, like a gentleman from an old movie.
Her fingers wrapped around his denim sleeve. Masculine strength seeped through the sturdy material, warming her skin. "Thank you for helping." Her shoulders rose and fell with a heavy sigh. "I can't believe I ran out of gas this close to arriving home."
"Home? You're a local?" A deep chuckle rumbled from his chest. "I should know better than to judge by appearances or license plates."
"Oh, I'm probably everything you thought. I'm sure if you ask anyone in town, they'll give you all the gory details."
"In order to ask them, I'd have to know your name."
She looked up at him, assessing his expression. "Hmm that's true." Fear of what they would say tightened her muscles. She had left town in a swirl of lies started by the homecoming queen.
He waited a moment with eyebrows lifted. He finally grinned and closed her door. The cowboy walked around to the driver's side. Climbing into the cab, he continued to grin.
His eyes stayed focused ahead as he eased them back onto the road. "So what brings you back to Clear Water?"
"My aunt. Maggie Schultz."
"You're Maggie's niece, Lorrie Ann Ortega? She didn't say anything about you coming home."
She shouldn't be surprised he knew her. Her aunt volunteered on about every committee in the small town and had always helped anyone that needed something, including her. "She doesn't know."
"She's going to be thrilled."
Lorrie played with the rip in her shirt. He obviously didn't know the whole story. "I'm not so sure about that. It's been a long time."
"She's been waiting for you." He flashed her a quick glance accompanied by a grin. "Trust me. She'll be very excited to see you."
"How do you know her?"
He gave a casual shrug and smiled. "We're at the same church."
The big truck pulled up behind her small BMW. "Go open your tank. I'll get the gas." With a quick motion, he jumped out of the cab and went to the bed of his truck.
Leaping down from the side step, Lorrie Ann made her way to the silver BMW. She glanced into her car and cringed. With the top tucked away on her convertible, he would see the mess she had made in her twenty-five-hour run from Cali-fornia—the candy wrappers, huge plastic cups and haphazard packing that littered the backseat.
Yeah, it pretty much represented her life with Brent in L.A., all pretty and shiny on the outside and chaos on the inside. Now with no gas, the expensive machine sat on the side of the road, useless.
She leaned inside and picked up the Bible. The handwritten note from Aunt Maggie stuck out, purple and tattered around the edges. She didn't need to read the words as they were etched in her memory. Matthew 11:28, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Those words had brought her back to Texas, to the closest place she had ever called home. She had been working so hard to prove herself, but somewhere along the way she had lost sight of the big picture.
"You have a note from Maggie." He nodded toward her Bible. "Which verse did she send you? I have a full collection."
Unaware he had approached, Lorrie Ann blinked to clear her thoughts. Did Aunt Maggie send these notes to everyone? Not sure how that made her feel, she laid the Bible back in the car. "She's always looking for ways to help."
He nodded. "She's a prayer warrior. We're blessed to have her."
This all felt very surreal. In the world she just left, no one spoke of God and prayer, let alone Bible verses. And if you did, they'd only laugh and make some witty cut-down.
She pulled in a deep breath. "I need to be going. Thanks so much for your help."
"I'll follow you into town. The closest gas station is the mercantile. We can stop there and get you filled up then head out to Bill and Maggie's farm."
"Oh, no. You've done enough."
"It's on my way. I can't look your uncle and aunt in the eye if I don't make sure you're delivered safe and sound." He winked at her. "See you in town." He stepped back and walked to his truck.
Okay, then. Her knight in denim remained on the job. She shouldn't like the idea. Slipping into her car, Lorrie Ann turned the key and pulled back onto the road. With a glance at her rearview mirror, she watched John follow her.
Scolding herself, she muttered, "Remember, Lorrie Ann, your short-term goal is to get your life back in order and get back to work. A boyfriend's not even on the long-term list."
John Levi turned on the radio. Music he had shut out five years ago filled the cabin of his truck. His fingers tipped the guitar pick hanging from the rearview mirror. Carol, his wife, had given it to him when they were still dating. He watched the heart she had drawn on it swing back and forth. It was the only piece of his music career he kept after her death. The pick reminded him of what he had taken for granted.
The sporty car in front of him pulled out, and he followed. Lorrie Ann Ortega was a surprise, and any pull he felt had to do with her needing help. Through her aunt and mother, he knew her past, and now he saw the wounded look in her eyes. She needed encouragement and support. He could do that for her.
He tapped his fingers along the cracked steering wheel.
Holding the phone in her hand, Lorrie Ann wavered calling Aunt Maggie. What if she didn't want her? Her mother hadn't wanted her. Now that she was an adult, her aunt and uncle had no responsibility to help her.
As she came into town, she eased on the brake. A burst of purple and silver stretched across Main Street and covered every storefront window, each proudly supporting the Fighting Angoras football team.
Homecoming week. The day after graduation, she'd made sure to tell everyone that she would never be back. How ironic that she return the week of the homecoming game. Some rituals never changed. Lorrie smiled. An unexpected comfort washed over her. Not a single fast-food or chain-store logo cluttered the skyline.
Her phone vibrated. With clenched teeth, she battled the urge to throw the phone out of the car again. She imagined running over it until nothing but dust clung to her tires.
She wanted to leave everything in Los Angeles behind, long enough to figure out her life, anyway. The band had taken the holidays off. Could she develop a new-life action plan in less than four weeks?
Posted October 4, 2013
Beautiful story from cover to cover.
I enjoyed Lorrie Ann's journey to find her home. I like to think she will go on to use her gifts in the music industry. God is raising up artists in the media that will glorify Him and bring the world to Him. This story just shows this and the possibilities could be endless with God. I enjoyed John and his kind ways. I appreciated that he wasn't perfect even as a preacher. He was human and for that, he made a great church leader...and a wonderful hero. Great debut, Jolene Navarro! I really enjoyed this story!
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