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By COLLEEN COBLE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Colleen Coble
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSilverware tinkled in the dimly lit dining room of Twenty, an upscale restaurant located inside Charley Creek Inn, a classy boutique hotel. Eden Larson smiled over the top of her glass of water at Kent Huston. He was so intelligent and kind. His blue eyes were filled with intent tonight, and she had known what he had planned from the moment he suggested this place for dinner.
The piano player's voice rose above the music as he sang "Waiting for a Girl Like You." Kent had spoken that very phrase to her often in the year they'd been dating.
"Warm enough?" he asked.
"It's a perfect night."
"In every way," he agreed. "I want to—"
"Kent." She reached across the linen tablecloth and took his hand. "I need to tell you something."
Before he asked her to marry him, he needed to know what baggage she carried. She'd intended to tell him before now—long before. But every time she tried, the pain closed her throat. She wasn't ready to talk about it then, and maybe she wasn't ready now, but he deserved to know.
Kent smiled. "Are you finally going to tell me what brought you to town? I don't really care, Eden. I'm just thankful you're here. I love you."
She wetted her lips. It didn't matter that he said he didn't care. She owed it to him to tell him about her past and the demons that had driven her here to Wabash, Indiana. "Kent ..." The sense of a presence behind her made her pause.
"Eden," a man said.
Her heart seized in her chest. She'd recognize the deep timbre anywhere. It haunted her dreams and its accusing tones punctuated her nightmares. The deep vibrancy of that voice would impress any woman before she ever saw him.
She turned slowly in her upholstered chair and stared up at Clay Larson, who stood under the crystal chandelier that was the centerpiece of the intimate dining room. "Clay."
How could he be here? He hadn't changed a bit. His hair was still just as dark and curly. His dark blue eyes were just as arresting. And her pulse galloped the way it had the first time she'd set eyes on him.
"I need to talk to you," he said, stepping toward her. "It's important."
Oh, she should have told Kent before now. This was the wrong way for him to discover her past. He was beginning to frown as he glanced from her to Clay, whose broad shoulders and vibrant presence loomed over their table. It was going to come out now. All of it. Her pretend life vanished into mist. What had made her think she could escape the past?
"Who are you?" Kent said. "And what right do you have to interrupt a private conversation?"
"The right of a husband," Clay said, his gaze holding her.
"Ex-husband," she managed to say past the tightness of her throat.
"No, Eden. Husband." He held up a sheaf of papers in his right hand.
"What are those?"
"I never signed the divorce papers," he said quietly, just to her. "You're still married to me."
She heard Kent gasp in the silence as the song in the background came to an end. "That's impossible." She stared at Clay, unable to take in what he'd said. "We were divorced over five years ago."
"You sent the papers over five years ago," he corrected. "I just never signed them."
She stared at the blank signature line he showed her. Why had she never followed up? Because she'd been too busy running. "Why not?"
He shook his head. "I had my reasons. Right now, there's something more important to discuss."
"What could be more important?" she asked. Fingers clutched her arm and she turned her head and stared into Kent's face. "I ... I'm so sorry, Kent. I was just about to tell you."
"Tell me that you're married?" Kent's eyes held confusion and hurt. "I don't understand."
She shook her head. "I'm divorced. Or at least I thought I was. I haven't seen Clay in five years."
Kent's frown smoothed out. "I think you'd better leave," he said to Clay. He scooted back in his chair.
She laid a hand on his arm. "Let me handle this," she said. Anger was beginning to replace her stupor and shock. "Why are you here, Clay?"
"Would you like to step outside so we can continue this in private?" Clay asked, glancing around the room.
Heat flamed in her cheeks when she saw the interested stares from the two nearby tables. "Just go away. We can talk tomorrow."
His firm lips flattened but he stayed where he was. "I've found Brianna, Eden. She's alive."
She struggled to breathe. She searched his face for the hint of a lie but saw only implacable certainty. She shook her head. "That's impossible. She's dead."
Beside her Kent jerked, his eyes wide. She half rose.
"I never believed it," Clay said. "Her body was never found so I kept looking. She's alive, Eden."
She studied his expression. He returned her stare. His face was full of conviction, and she felt a tiny flutter that might be hope begin to stir. "You're serious?"
"I know she's alive. I can't retrieve her alone. I need you to come with me."
"How do you know these things? I don't understand anything."
"I'll explain all of it. But come with me now."
She wanted to believe him, but it was impossible. Had his grief made him delusional? Clay was the most logical, practical man she'd ever met. But what he was saying couldn't be true.
"I need to talk to Kent first," she said.
"I'll wait outside your apartment."
"How do you know where I live?"
"I know everything about you. I always have." He strode away through a gauntlet of interested stares.
She tore her gaze from Clay's broad back and directed her attention to Kent. There would be no tender proposal now. She hated the hurt in his eyes, hated that she'd put it there.
When she reached across the table to him, at least he didn't flinch away. His fingers gripped hers in the same confident way that had first attracted her. "I'm so sorry, Kent."
"You want to tell me about it?"
She didn't want to but she had to. "Clay and I didn't really know one another very well when we married. We met in Hawaii. He was on leave from the air force. He's a photojournalist. Our ... our fling on vacation resulted in an unexpected blessing."
His brows lifted. "You got pregnant?"
"Yes. Clay wanted to do the right thing. And I wanted to provide the best upbringing for Brianna. I was in love with my daughter the first moment I laid eyes on her." Her eyes misted at the memory. "She was beautiful."
"I'll bet she was," Kent said, his voice soft. "She died?"
Eden nodded. "A kidnapping attempt that went wrong." Oh, she didn't want to talk about it. It hurt too much. Pain radiated from her chest to her throat. She swallowed hard. "Our marriage was all about her, not us. I ran away, unable to deal with his pain and my own." She managed a smile. "But I ended up here in Wabash, where I found Christ. And you. At least something good came of it."
They'd met at New Life, and she knew Kent understood the way her life had changed. He'd become a Christian a few weeks before they met.
Kent's eyes were troubled. "But now he's saying Brianna is alive."
She furrowed her brow. "I can't believe that's true."
Kent's expression grew calm. "Don't you think you'd better find out? If there's even a chance, you have to go with him."
She studied his dear face. While theirs had been no grand passion, they had a special relationship based on mutual respect, faith, and fondness. She'd had every intention of accepting his proposal when it came. His stability attracted her at the deepest level.
She pushed back her chair on the plush carpet. "You're right. Pray for me?"
"You know I will." He stood and walked her to the door, where he paused. "And if you come back to Wabash, we'll see what God has for us then. I think we both want his will."
She lifted her face for him to brush his lips across her cheek. "You're a good man, Kent Huston."
A slight smile tugged his lips upward. "Let me know what happens, okay?"
"I will." She left him at the restaurant and walked across the hotel lobby to the front doors.
Her cell phone rang before she reached the exit. She glanced at the caller ID. Daniel, her foster brother. He'd been in a snit ever since she told him she intended to accept Kent's proposal, and he hadn't answered any of her phone calls since. Well, he could wait himself now. Clay's revelation was too important to interrupt.
Through the glass door she saw Clay standing outside under the old-fashioned streetlight. He was staring at the marquee above the old Eagles Theater.
A forgotten emotion tugged at her heart. Memories vied for possession of her mind, but she pushed them away and stepped outside. Brianna couldn't be alive. Could she?
* * *
Clay stood outside the hotel on the brick sidewalk. Eden's apartment was just down the block, so he had time to admire this pretty town where she had ended up. Victorian-era buildings lined the downtown. Many had been renovated, even the old theater. The historic hotel that housed the restaurant also had a chocolate shop and other specialty stores. Too bad he wouldn't be here long enough to explore.
This was hardly Eden's type of place. He'd thought she would have fled to a big city where she could hide herself in the masses. She liked bright lights and nice clothes. At least she hadn't known he was a Larson when they first met. His family money had nothing to do with their instant attraction that day on the beach.
He reached into his pocket and his fingers touched smooth ceramic. He rolled the necklace around until his fingertips could trace the raised figure of a mother with a child. Clay had given the pendant to Eden when they married, and she had left it behind when she left him. An impulse had made him grab it today. Now that they knew Brianna was alive, maybe it wouldn't be as painful for her to wear again. She'd loved it once, a symbol of the family unit they wanted to build. Because the jewelry was from Colombia, it was a bridge between his two lives.
He heard a sound and turned to see Eden step through Charley Creek Inn's double glass doors. She wore a short skirt with heels and a rust-colored V-neck top that showed off her curves and made her auburn hair glimmer in the streetlight. The sleek glossy locks emphasized her high cheekbones and large turquoise eyes. She stared at him with a million questions in her expression.
"Ready?" he asked.
"I'm ready for some answers."
"Let's go to your place. You'll need to pack anyway." He fell into step beside her.
She stiffened but said nothing as they crossed with the light at Miami Street. He opened the double doors of her building and they entered a foyer dominated by a six-foot-wide staircase. Entering the place was like stepping back into the late eighteen hundreds.
"Nice," he said.
"I'm on the second floor." She led him to her apartment. The living room was spacious with gray-green walls and comfortable furniture. "I need coffee," she said.
He followed her into the kitchen and watched her measure water and coffee into her Cuisinart. When the aroma of coffee filled the kitchen, she leaned against the counter. "Tell me what you know about Brianna."
She seemed not to have considered that Clay might lie, which warmed him. He'd forgotten how beautiful she was, how she stirred his senses and made him forget everything but her.
Clay cleared his throat. "When her body was never found, I couldn't believe that she was dead. I hoped maybe someone had rescued her. I scoured orphanages, checked foster-care places in all the surrounding states, followed every lead. The trail went dead for over four years. Then I got this." He pulled the picture from his pocket and held it out to her.
Eden took it and held it under the wash of light. "Five little girls."
He'd studied it over and over. A row of little girls, all about five. In the background was a ranch, and a sign beside them read Bluebird Ranch, Bluebird Crossing, Texas. "Look at the back."
She flipped it over. Her eyes widened as she read it aloud. "'Your daughter misses you. You'd better hurry if you want to see her.'" The color drained from her face, and she continued to study the picture. "What is this place?" she whispered.
"It's for kids in the foster-care system. They seem to do a good job with helping children."
Her eyes were pained. "She's been in foster care?"
"At least she's alive, Angel."
"I'm no angel, b-but maybe God has sent an angel to look over our daughter?" Her voice was breathless, just beginning to hold a tinge of hope.
He'd called her Angel the first time he met her in Hawaii. She'd thought it funny at the time. He'd been utterly serious. Her love had seemed so pure, so uplifting. Surely she was an ambassador of God to him. "I believe God has done just that."
She stared at him. "You're a believer now too?"
She'd become a Christian since he'd seen her last. That had been a constant worry for him. He nodded.
She stared at him. "Is it possible?" Her voice trembled and her gaze wandered back to the photo. "Where did you get this picture? How do you know it's not someone playing a nasty trick?"
He'd hoped she wouldn't ask. "I don't. Not for sure. It came in the mail, postmarked from El Paso. I took it to the police and they dismissed it as a joke. They never even discovered the name of the kidnapper, so I didn't expect them to have any leads. But look at the girls, Eden." He watched her study the picture again. "Something in my gut says she's there. Can we afford to ignore the possibility?"
"Who would send this?"
"I always thought the kidnapper who drowned had an accomplice. Maybe the partner sent it."
"Why? To taunt us? And why now?"
There was too much he didn't know. He couldn't let her see any weakness in him though, or she might not come. And he needed her. "I don't know the answer to those questions. Maybe it's a trap. It could be dangerous." He shrugged. "Maybe he wants his money after all. But can we afford to ignore even a slim chance of finding her?"
Eden's head snapped toward him. "I can't quite take it all in," she said.
Her eyes held a yearning that clutched at his throat. He'd felt the same way. "I don't understand what is happening either. Or why he's waited this long to get in touch again. But I have to go, and I need you to help me."
She stared back down at the picture. "Which one is she?"
Eden's beautiful face had haunted his dreams. He realized she was still waiting for an answer. "I don't know. Did her hair turn your shade or mine? We don't have any idea what color her eyes became. They were still blue when she was taken."
He knew the photograph by heart. There was a cute little blonde with blue eyes. Beside her sat a somber brunette with hazel eyes. The laughing one had auburn curls, a dimple, and green eyes. That was the one he was betting money on. A giggling girl with dark skin and large black eyes was next. The last one in the row of girls was a towhead with brown eyes. He'd been a towhead once, so she was a possibility too.
"I need to get a DNA sample from all the girls," he added. "We have Brianna's DNA on record."
"It will take ages to get the tests back," Eden said. She stared at the picture again. "I want to know now." She pushed the photograph back at him. "I'm happy here. Content. I don't know that I believe it, Clay. It might be the kidnapper's partner just trying to hurt us."
He had to make her see the truth. "You trusted me once, Eden. Can you put aside your doubts for a while and go with me on this?"
She glanced at her hands. "My peace has been hard won. I'm afraid."
Her admission made his chest squeeze. All he'd wanted was to protect her and build a home with her. But they'd barely started getting to know each other when their daughter was taken.
"I'm afraid too. But I know she's there. Still, let's say you're right—that someone's playing with us. This is the only shot we've got at finding out the truth. How can we ignore it?"
Eden's lips flattened. She took the picture again. "Where is this place?" She tapped a finger on the Bluebird sign.
"The ranch is near Big Bend National Park."
"I've never heard of it."
"It's in West Texas." He shrugged.
She turned back to pour cream into their coffee. "Why do you need me?"
"The ranch is looking for a married couple to serve as counselors. We'd be working directly with these girls."
She whirled back around to face him. "We'd be spending all our time with them?"
Excerpted from LONESTAR ANGEL by COLLEEN COBLE Copyright © 2011 by Colleen Coble. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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