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A Man's Heart
By Lori Copeland
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Copeland Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlmost four years later
Im?pos?si?ble. a: incapable of being or of occurring. b. felt to be incapable of being done, attained or fulfilled: insuperably difficult.
Jules tossed the paperback dictionary aside, took a sip of hot tea, and then yawned. Yeah. That one. Insuperably difficult. That was her to a T. Reaching for another seed potato, she dropped it and two mixed seedlings into the hole she'd finger dug in the dirt tub. She should give up. After years of trying to grow the perfect potato she was no further along. She'd gotten her wish; she'd attended WSU for almost four years and she'd been involved in exciting research. Last year she'd been granted special dispensation to conduct a private project for her thesis. The experiment gave her extra time to complete the document: How to Grow the Perfect Potato. She must have been intoxicated with sleep deprivation the day she thought of the idea. So far no mixture of hybrid had panned out. The dissertation was done and only needed a satisfying conclusion.
Of course she'd lost Cruz in the process.
She moved to the futon, lined with dirt tubs.
She couldn't grow a "perfect potato." She couldn't even hold on to a man's heart. Cruz Delgado's to be exact. Resting her head on a sofa pillow, she pictured the good-looking potato farmer. Delgado men were large, over six feet tall, dark hair and complexion. Did he ever think of her in the gutwrenching, totally sold out on love way she thought of him?
Shoving the past to the back of her mind, she stood and brushed graham cracker crumbs off her pajamas before she tackled the stack of plastic TV dinner containers piled high in the sink. Finals always left her trying to manufacture time.
The crowded living space was starting to grate on her nerves. Five wooden half-barrel tubs littered the living area. All filled with tubers - potato experiments. The tubs, a worn black sofa, an overstuffed chair piled with textbooks, a table with two chairs and a kitchenette had been her home the past four years. By choice, she lived off campus of Washington State University. At thirty, she didn't exactly fit in with dewy-eyed eighteen-and nineteen-year-old college students, and socializing wasn't her thing. She longed to go home, to be back on Blue Bayou, ride her horse, and raise potatoes. See Cruz. Catch a glimpse of him.
She wasn't a city girl; college had proved that. She loved Pop's old farm where they scraped by selling Ranger Russets to a factory up north, and a few local markets, but it was barely a living. Lack of rainfall was a big factor in these parts; farmers had to irrigate and irrigation cost money.
After running a sink full of steaming water, she washed the disposable containers and a few coffee cups. She didn't own a dish. She drank from accumulated McDonald's cups, and ate from sandwich wrappers and carry-out paper plates. Every chance she got she headed home, but Pullman, where the college sat, was a hundred and thirty miles from Blue Bayou and she was usually buried in experiments.
Around midnight, her cell phone played a jazzy version of Beethoven. Jarred awake, Jules closed the book she'd been studying and reached to answer. A phone call this late at night either had to be a wrong number or bad news. She relaxed. It couldn't be Pop; she'd talked to him this morning and he would have been in bed hours ago.
"Jules?" The voice of Pop's foreman, Joe Fraker, came over the line.
A shiver raked her spine. "What's wrong?"
"It's your dad, hon. He took a hard fall late this afternoon. We were planting the north field and he went a little too far out on a ridge. The tractor overturned - now they don't think he's hurt badly. I'd have called sooner, but you know how clinics are. We've been waiting on tests and he didn't want me to call you until we knew something for certain."
Jules struggled to clear her rattled thoughts. Clinic. The injury couldn't be too serious, or they would have moved him to Pasco.
"Where is he?"
"He's lost a lot of blood. Hit his head on a rock and cut about an inch slash in his noggin. They want to move him on up to the hospital in Pasco. If I have your permission, I'll give the go ahead."
"Of course. Is he stable for now?"
"I have to go, hon. I've called your sister."
Crystal. He'd called Crystal? The fall must be more serious than Joe was saying.
"I'll start now, Joe."
She sensed a nod in his tone. "I think you'd better."
It took all of five minutes to throw a few things into her backpack, and lock up. Her gaze fell on the potato tubs. Who'd look after her experiments - and she needed to record the last hybrid mix ...
Hang the experiment.
Locking the door, she headed for her Geo Tracker. The apartment complex was quiet this time of night. Pop was hard-headed. A little fall wasn't going to stop him, so why did Joe have to bring Crystal in on this?
Chapter TwoFranklin County, Washington May
Cruz Delgado hefted a fertilizer sack and pitched it to his brother, Adan. The Delgado truck sat in front of Mayse Feed and Seed this morning.
Any mention of Jules Matias set him off. When her Tracker pulled up to the mortuary, he looked the other way. He had to hand it to his brother; it took Adan a good five minutes before he mentioned the fact that the irritant had arrived at Mellon's.
Adan swung a bag in the pick-up bed, head bent, lips sealed. The truck's worn springs sagged beneath the weight. Then the elephant waltzed into the room, as it usually did. "You didn't expect her to skip her dad's funeral, did you?"
"With her you never know."
Grinning, Adan shook his head. "You're never going to get over her. Face it." A sack of fertilizer caught him mid-section. He grabbed for support. "Hey!"
"Hey yourself. I'm over her. Got it?"
Adan ducked when another sack whipped through the air. The men paused for a breather. Cruz averted his gaze when Jules got out of the vehicle but Adan lifted a friendly hand.
"Can't you at least offer your sympathies?"
"I'm going to Fred's ser vice."
"Yeah, but you won't say a word to her." Adan's gaze followed the petite figure walking up the mortuary's flower lined sidewalk. "Sure is a shame about Fred. An aneurysm to the brain, and bam, he's history."
Cruz shook his head. No, he wouldn't say a word to Jules. He'd said all he was ever going to say to that woman four years ago. Pitching the last sack on the truck, he pulled the brim of his Stetson down over his eyes, and then climbed into the cab. Truth was, he would miss ole Fred. He was a good neighbor, and if you needed something, Fred had it. Shame the farm he'd worked for over forty years would fall into strangers' hands. The rural community was tight knit; neighbors were extended families. Most had been born and raised in the county. Nearly all raised potatoes, unlike the apple growers in other parts of the state.
Cruz started the truck. Face it, Delgado. You're not worried about Fred's potato patch. You're worried that when it goes, Jules goes. The admission caught him unawares. A hot branding iron rammed in his eye couldn't have stung worse. Count your blessings. She and Crystal would sell out and that would be the end of Blue Bayou. Jules had been back in town less than twenty-four hours and already she had his mind going nuts.
Adan climbed in the cab, and Cruz backed out of the feed store lot and shifted into first gear. Well not this time, Miss Matias. He glanced at her car, once a sight that sent his heart into overtime.
Twice stung, and you've made your point.
* * *
Jules stepped out of the funeral home, shading her eyes against spring sunlight. The community where she'd been born and raised sat twenty miles outside of Pasco, Washington, deep in the heart of the Tri-Cities area. She loved everything about the community with the exception of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation outside of Pasco. Anyone could have lived without those 586 square miles. The fiftyish spring air had a bite to it this morning. The past thirty minutes had been the most trying in her life. Joe offered to come with her, but she'd refused. She needed a strong arm to lean on, but Pop's foreman's wasn't it.
An ache latched onto her heart when Cruz had driven away without a word of condolence. They'd been friends a lot longer than the state they now found themselves in, which she couldn't identify if she tried. Jilting a man twice was admittedly hard on the ego, but in her mind she had never jilted him, simply postponed the inevitable. She could not ever imagine herself married or having children with any other man. To this day, that was her goal.
He was the one who jumped the gun, acted with pure egotism. Cruz knew that she didn't jilt him; that she longed for a solid marriage - maybe not as badly then as now, but her needs seemed to be more pressing at the time. She'd been crowded too often and she hated the feeling.
Sliding into her vehicle, she snapped her seat belt in place and turned the key, listening as the old truck sprang to life. Crystal wouldn't make it to Pop's funeral. She'd bet a bushel of spuds on that. Joe said she promised to come, but Crystal's promises were like Mom and Dad's marriage. Empty.
What she needed now was a strong dose of her best friend, Sophie.
Cruz Delgado's sister.
Chapter ThreeJules!" A spoon of oatmeal sailed through the air when Sophie bound to her feet to hug her. "It's so good to have you home." Pausing, she drew back and her features distorted in a heartbreaking expression. "I'm so sorry about Pop. Everyone prayed so hard; we thought Fred's injury was minor."
"I know." Jules patted her on the back, shed another bucket of tears. She reached for the oatmeal-covered Olivia. "Livvy's growing so fast."
"Like ragweed." Grinning, Sophie wet a washcloth and cleaned the toddler's face. "She's twenty-two months now and you won't believe her vocabulary. She must take after her father's side. She's almost two, going on nine."
Time sped by too quickly. Jules had been with Sophie through labor and delivery, but a week later she'd returned to college and the winter session. Last summer flew by and she was back in college before she realized it. Sophie emailed pictures, but there was only so much to be said in cyberspace and even harder to imagine that this chubby angel was growing up fast. Sophie motioned to a chair. "Tell me what's happening. I know you're reeling with Pop's death."
The dam burst and Jules stepped back into her friend's arms and poured out her heart. Once the flood of emotion subsided, she wiped her nose and concentrated on happier days. "I'm graduating in a couple of weeks."
"I know. Pop and I ..." Sophie paused. "I'm planning to be there."
"He almost lived long enough to see his dream realized." Jules sighed and reached to butter a piece of toast. "Pop was really looking forward to the event." He'd been proud of her accomplishment and rooted for the experimental potato; he'd also been grateful because he knew she'd sacrificed Cruz's love with her unselfish act.
Nodding, Sophie said, "I was going to drive, and then we were going to take you for a celebration dinner at Holliman's."
"Ah. I'd have loved that."
Silence closed over the kitchen as Jules fought back tears. Pop had to scrimp to send her to college. The money could have gone toward a new irrigation system, but he figured her education would pay off more in the long run if they could grow the business, and growing the business took more educational savvy. With Pop gone, enlarging the business made little sense. Crystal hated potato farming. She'd want to sell the operation as soon as possible and split the proceeds.
"Crystal coming to the funeral?"
Jules smiled. Sophie was always tuned in to her thoughts. "She told Joe she was. I haven't talked to her."
"When is the ser vice?"
"Day after tomorrow." Jules reached for a napkin and dabbed the corners of her eyes. She hadn't seen Pop yet, just taken his clothes to be buried in. Sunday suit. Blue tie. White shirt. She'd shined his best shoes to be set at his feet. Seeing him would be hard; he was always so full of life.
"As sad as it is, you wouldn't wish him back," Sophie comforted.
"No." She glanced up and smiled. "Everything okay with you?"
"The usual. Money is so tight right now."
Jules didn't know how Sophie kept a cheerful spirit; she'd married two absolute losers.
She flashed Jules a grin, a grin from a woman who had been unlucky in love more times than Jules could fathom. "Ethan's dad isn't exactly Father of the Year, but he pays support on time. The kids and I make it. Barely, but we survive, and Cruz says the crop looks pretty decent this year -" Her tone caught and she sheepishly glanced away. "Sorry."
Jules could read her like a book; they both tried to avoid her brother's name but it naturally came up. "I saw him and Adan earlier when I was making Pop's arrangements."
"Ha. He didn't glance my way. Is he still struggling to keep the farm afloat?"
"Oh, you know that old farm. Never did produce much. Don't know why Dad held onto it, but Cruz and Adan can't sell it, so they've moved back to the house. Cruz has the lower floor and Adan took the second one. They're making ends meet."
"Pop mentioned that they hit a rough patch these past couple of years."
"You know my brothers. They don't give up easily. We'd have been okay last year, but then we got tuber-moth infestation and it ruined the crop. It's zero tolerance in tubers headed for the processor these days. Nobody cares to find a worm in their fries."
Nodding, Jules finished the toast. "I hate myself for what I did to Cruz, Sophie. I love your brother with all my heart, I just get ..."
"Cold feet when you think about marrying him?" Her friend smiled. "I know my ordeals haven't been the best influence for matrimony - or your parents' marriage. I'd like to tell you that Cruz will eventually get over it, but he was pretty ticked at you this time."
She wasn't telling Jules anything she didn't know. Four years and they still were ignoring each other. That was the worrisome part. And yet she sympathized with Cruz. If Mom and Pop's turbulent marriage hadn't soured her, Sophie was living proof that a woman ought to think before she leaped into matrimony.
Sophie glanced at the clock. "Oh great. I have two doctor's appointments. Livvy has a check-up and I have one."
"Are you sick?"
Her friend grinned. "Yes. The thought of a physical makes me ill, but since I skipped the last one, I figure I'd better show up for this one. Come by later tonight and we'll have supper."
Jules helped her clear the table. "Can't, but thanks. The church is bringing in all kinds of food. I need to be there with Joe - and Crystal, if she shows up."
"You think she will?"
Lifting a shoulder, Jules rinsed a cup and stuck it in the dishwasher. She thought of her drop-dead gorgeous, blonde haired, blue-eyed, year-round-tan sister, the picture of the quintessential "love child." "I'd be surprised if she did. She loved Pop, but they lost closeness a year or two after she and Mom left."
"That's sad." Sophie lifted Livvy above her head and grinned. "You're a good girl. Yes you are. You're a -" A blob of oatmeal hit Sophie between the eyes. She lowered the child, wincing. "Rats. I know better than to do that."
Chapter FourIt was close to ten when Cruz removed his hat, and stepped into the Mellon Mortuary foyer behind Adan and Sophie. As he'd figured they would be, gleaming oak pews were filled to capacity. Fred was well-respected in the community, and his death came as a shock to his neighbors and friends. If it weren't for Fred's friendship over the years, Cruz sure wouldn't put himself through the ordeal. He stepped to the guest book, scrawled his signature and then followed the crowd to the chapel, searching for Sophie and Adan, whom he'd lost in the shuffle. They promised to save him a seat.
Excerpted from A Man's Heart by Lori Copeland Copyright © 2010 by Copeland Inc. . Excerpted by permission.
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