Read an Excerpt
"I'm going to marry you, Mara."
"What?" The word didn't make a sound. "What!?" He placed a finger on her lips. "I'll marry you and give Todd's baby a home, medical care, collegewhatever both of you need. I'll pay the bills, the insurance premiums, the creditors. I'll put the baby in my will. I'll do everything. Whatever you want."
Balanced on a scale in her tiny bathroom, Mara stared up at the man in the doorway. Brock Barnett looked as he always had. Six feet, four inches tall. Two hundred pounds. Black hat. Black hair. Gray shirt. Wrangler jeans a little worn at the knees. Black boots. Nothing about him had changed.
He even acted the same. Moments ago, he had barged into her apartment and demanded to know why she hadn't told him about her pregnancy. When she mentioned the difficulty of seeing over her stomach to weigh herself, he had propelled her into the bathroom and onto the scale.
"I went to the county clerk's office this morning to check on the license," he informed Mara. "I've already been to the lab for my blood test. Now we have to get yours, and we're set." "But that's!that's"
"I'll manage Todd's company until we find a buyer," he went on. "I've already talked to the project director at the Bureau of Land Management. Dr. Long said the restoration of Fort Selden is on hold while they iron out the legal details of Todd's contract. I told him I'd find a capable person to take over."
"In Las Cruces, New Mexico?" she snapped, suddenly furious at his cockiness. "You think you can findhistoric restoration company?"
"Sure. Why not?" His brown eyes, like dark, wet oak, searched herface.
"You're nuts. Get out of my bathroom."
"The moving company gave me a date to box up your stuff. You can live in the west wing of the ranch house. There's a room for the baby, and you can use the Lincoln I'm always in either the pickup or the Jag. We'll fence the swimming pool, and I plan to turn the weight room into an indoor playground with a seesaw and one of those nifty little"
"Brock!" Mara pushed his chest. It felt like a granite wall. "Stop. You're rambling. You're scaring me."
"I'm not going anywhere. This apartment is my home. This is where Todd and I!we!" She couldn't start crying. Not in front of this man. She had the horrible realization she might want him to hold her. "Just move, so I can get off this scale."
"I'm not going anywhere until you listen to me."
"You can't trap me in my own bathroom!"
"Looks like I already did." He gave her a smile more tender than brash. "Come on, Mara. Hear me out."
"I heard you, Brock. You're talking nonsense." He propped one booted foot on the edge of the bathtub beside a novel she had been reading, and then he lifted his eyes to Mara's face. "You'd give up the chance to drive a brand-new car?"
"Of course I would."
"How about a big house with two maids and a French chef?"
"Forget it. Look, I told you"
"Free medical care?"
"I can take care of! I can get help." She searched for an escape, just as she had every day in the past months. Only blunt reality emergedhaunting her, nipping at her heels like a hungry wolf.
Orphaned at six, Mara had been raised in a series of foster homes until she turned eighteen. During her teen years, the Division of Family Services had placed her with a godly family who had taken her to church on Sundays and to youth group meetings on Wednesday evenings. This family had been different from the others she had lived with, and Mara came to understand why. Soon, she committed her own life to Christ, clinging to Him through the upheaval of the ensuing years. But never had she experienced anything like the turmoil and pain of her husband's death. Consumed with grief, Mara took comfort in only one thing. Todd had been a faithful Christian, a true man of God. Now he was in heaven. Though she missed him terribly, Mara knew he was where he had always longed to be.
She and the baby would learn to make do without him. Childhood as a ward of the state had taught her to treasure independence. For several years, she had supported herself and her husband as a history teacher at a private academy. But when Todd's restoration company began to be successful, she had resigned her position in order to help him with research. They had purchased insurance that Mara could no longer afford, and the company held contracts that now could not be completed. With the school year well under way, she wasn't likely to find a teaching position. History teachers who filled the few slots available rarely gave up their jobs until retirement. And what principal would hire a pregnant teacher who would need a substitute almost immediately?
Though Mara rejected the idea of welfare, she tossed it at Brock anyway. "The government," she said. "They have programs, you know."
"You'd turn down life insurance? Health insurance? The best medical care money can buy for you and the baby?"
"Oh, Brock, don't be!" She couldn't finish. What was he? Irrational, ridiculous? Or a taunting temptation sent to lure her off the straight and narrow path she was trying to walk? For months, Mara had prayed that God would help herthat He would show her a way out of the mess that entangled her.
But Brock Barnett? Surely God hadn't sent him. "How about a college fund? I can send your son to Harvard, Mara."
"Harv" She caught herself and stared at him. Who could think of college? "But he's not even born yet. And what makes you think it's a boy?"
"Boy or girl, that kid's going to grow up. He'll need thingsclothes, toys, education, summer camp, a car. I'll make you the beneficiary of my estate. Both of youyou as my wife and the baby as my child."
She drew back and wrapped her arms around her middle. Everything unbearable that had happened in the past five months went back to this man. "My baby will never be yours!"
He sucked in a breath at her vehemence. "Look, I am the baby's godfather. Todd wanted me to be."
"Who told you that?"
"Your friend Sherry Stevens. We met at your wedding. I saw her again at Todd's funeral, and I've called a few times to check on you. She let it slip that you were pregnant." His eyes went dark. "And she told me Todd wanted me to be the godfather. You'll honor that wish. I know you will."
Furious at her best friend's betrayal, Mara lashed out. "You're trying to buy me off so I'll release you from your guilt."
"Wrong!" He lowered his head until his mouth was an inch from hers. "That is wrong!"
"You think you can walk out of this with a clear conscience."
"Never." He swallowed hard, as though a fist had formed in his throat. "If you think I won't live with this for the rest of my life, you're the one who's crazy. Todd was my best friend."
"I know!" His voice boomed off the tiled walls in the tiny bathroom.
For a moment Mara thought she saw the ropes that held him in control start to unravel. He stared, breathing like a locomotive, eyes of molten bronze. And then he leashed the angervisibly took it, folded it and stuffed it away. His brown eyes turned to wet oak again; the corners of his mouth turned down.
"I know he was your husband," he whispered.
Mara bit her lower lip as she watched pain write messages across his face. For the first time in all of this, she felt the urge to reach out, to comfort, to console. She had tried so hard to forgive him. Tried to let go of her resentment and anger. To give it all to God.
But how could she allow any tenderness toward this man? It was him. Him!
"Mara," he said gently. "I'm not trying to buy your forgiveness. I'm doing what I can to honor Todd and take care of the people he loved."
Her shoulders sagged as the breath left her chest. "Oh, Brock, I'll be all right."
"You'll be better than all right once we make it all legal." He set his hands on his hips. "Come on, let's go get that blood test."
"No!" She grabbed his sleeves and twisted them in her fingers. "No, Brock! I'm not going with you. I'm not going to marry you."
"Because it's! You're! I don't want to marry you!"
"Yes, you do, for the child's sake."
"I don't like you!"
He caught her shoulders. "What does that have to do with it?"
"It's your fault! Your fault!"
"Listen, Mara, don't make me"
"I hate you! I hate"
He scooped her up in his arms, turned to the door and carried her down the narrow hall. "I don't care how you feel about me, Mara. You will marry me. It's the only way."
"The only way for you to soothe your guilty conscience!"
"It's the only way out for both of us. For all three of us." He carried her across the threshold and kicked the door shut behind him.
"You didn't lock" She twisted in his arms, her bare feet flying, kicking. "My stuff, my things"
"We'll buy you new stuff."
"I don't want your money! Put me down. Brock Barnett, you put me down this instant! I'm in my nightgown. I'm pregnant!"
At the Jag, he cocked one leg and balanced her on his knee as he jerked open the door. She fought him, but it was useless. He set her down and grabbed the seat belt. As he fastened it around her swollen stomach, she hammered his back with her fists.
"Just a blood test, Mara!" he growled, snapping the buckle. "You can have the next two days to try to talk me out of the marriage."
By the time she could respond, he had slammed her door, opened his, climbed inside and started the engine. He managed to drown her words as he gunned the Jag out of the parking lot.