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Nothing much had changed in ten years on the farm where Rachel Charbonneau had grown up. The faded red barn sat against a backdrop of fields newly planted with grain and alfalfa. A gentle breeze rustled shiny green leaves in the cottonwoods lining the creek. The peaceful picture didn't tell the whole story. Despite its appeal, she hated this place.
Gripping her daughter's hand, Rachel squinted against the warm May sun in the cloudless sky over the South Dakota prairie. A silver pickup, coming down the lane, bumped across the ground and kicked up a cloud of dust as it came to a stop near the barn. When the driver emerged, she recognized him, even at a distance.
Tightness settled around her heart. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she brushed dust from her black silk dress. She wasn't sure what she would say to Matt Dalton. Time had made them strangers.
With a very obvious limp, Matt trudged toward the barn. His faded jeans and blue chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up accentuated his tall, muscular build. He'd been at her mother's funeral this morning, among a sea of people who had come to pay their last respects to Lynn Charbonneau, but Rachel barely remembered talking with him. Her mind had been consumed with grief ever since she'd learned her mother had died suddenly in a car accident.
As Matt disappeared into the barn, Becky tugged on Rachel's arm. "Mom, who's that?"
"Someone I used to know." Gazing at her daughter, Rachel wanted to gather Becky close but resisted the protective gesture that had become second nature in the past few weeks. A flush rose in the child's smooth, olive complexion. The breeze ruffled her brown hair lying in natural curls around her shoulders.Rachel brushed the wayward strands from Becky's cheek and wished she could as easily spare her daughter the heartaches of life.
"What's he doing in the barn?" Becky asked.
"I'm not sure."
"Can we go see?"
"No, we aren't dressed for that. We'll check out the barn another time." Rachel figured talking to Matt would come soon enough.
"But I want to go now."
"We'll be here a few days. You can wait." Rachel glanced toward the barn again just as Matt reappeared and retrieved a large sack from his pickup. "Look. Here he comes." Rachel summoned a welcoming smile as he drew closer. "Hello, Matt."
"Hi, Rachel, I'm real sorry about your mom. I didn't get a chance to say more than a few words to you this morning. Had to get back to the fields, so we didn't get to stay for lunch." The comforting sound of his deep voice made the years fall away like rich soil beneath the blade of a plow.
"Thanks." Rachel nodded. "There were so many people. It all seems like a blur."
"I'm sure it does." He stepped forward and held out the sack he carried. "Sarah sent this over for your evening meal."
Was Sarah his wife? Had Matt been with his family this morning? Rachel just couldn't remember. His going off to war and subsequent return as an injured soldier were the only news her mother had ever shared. When Rachel left town, he was engaged but not to someone named Sarah. Rachel had never dared to ask about Matt's marriage, and she couldn't bring herself to ask now.
When she took the sack, their fingers brushed. The sudden contact made her pulse quicken. Shaking away the unwanted feelings, she vowed not to let memories ruin this reunion. Besides, she shouldn't have such feelings for a married man. "You want to come up to the house for a few minutes while I put this in the kitchen? My grandparents would love to talk to you."
Looking back at the barn, Matt hesitated. "Feeding the horses didn't take that long. I can probably spare a few minutes."
"Still teaching school and helping out at the farm in the summer?" Rachel asked, wishing she could ask about his injuries but feeling it was the wrong time for such a discussion.
"Yeah, it's what I love."
Rachel looked at her little girl. Becky was Rachel's love. Nothing was more important in her life, especially now. "This is my daughter. Becky, say hello to Mr. Dalton."
Matt extended his hand to her as she looked up at him. "I'm glad to meet you, Becky. You don't have to call me Mr. Dalton. You can call me Matt. How old are you?"
Smiling shyly, Becky shook his hand. "Almost six."
"Your mom was the same age when I first met her. She used to pal around with me and my cousins when I visited their farm every summer." Matt hunkered down to Becky's eye level. "You look just like your mom when she was a girl."
"No, I don't," Becky said. "She doesn't have blue eyes like me. Hers are brown."
"You're right. Where'd you get those pretty blue eyes?"
"From my dad, but he died before I was born."
"I'm real sorry about that. Where'd your mom get her eyes?"
"From my great, great, great, great grandma. She was a beautiful Sioux Indian princess."
"But not as beautiful as you and your mom." Standing, Matt patted Becky on the head.
Shrugging and gazing at the ground, she sidled up to Rachel. "I guess."
Watching Matt charm her daughter just the way he'd charmed her years ago, Rachel tried to read his tanned features shaded by a ball cap. "I always thought you considered me more of a pest than a pal."
"Well, maybe, but we guys didn't mind having you tag along as much as we let on. Hero worship is good for the ego. And now I can say Rachel Carr, glamorous TV star, spent her summers following me around." Matt winked.
"You exaggerate." Leading the way across the farmyard toward the house, Rachel absorbed the strange sound of her professional name on the lips of a friend. Nothing had prepared her for dealing with the way people from her past thought of her now. Did they think success had gone to her head? Would they treat her differently? She hoped not.
He gave her a lopsided grin and, despite his limp, matched her step as they traversed the uneven ground. "No exaggeration. Your smiling face greets me from the magazine rack of every grocery checkout lane."
"What are the tabloids saying these days?" she asked, pretending she didn't know. The stories they printed were laughable, sometimes irritating and mostly untrue. They often took half-truths and turned them into stories. Now, her mother's death added to her trouble. Would the heartaches never end?
When they reached the patio at the back of the house, Matt stopped next to a wrought-iron umbrella table. His golden eyes twinkled with amusement. "You're involved with three handsome actors, feuding with your agent and leaving your TV show because you've been diagnosed with some debilitating malady." The twinkle left his eyes. "You aren't really sick, are you?"
"I don't have any debilitating diseases, but "
The concern in his voice touched her heart. "I'm not doing the TV show next year because I need a rest. Besides, I'm being considered for the lead role in a feature filmsomething I've always wanted. I don't want anything to keep me from getting that part."
"You'll get it. You've gotten everything else you've wanted in your career."
Rachel could only nod as a bitter lump rose in her throat. His statement reminded her that, despite a successful career, her personal life was full of tragedy. Fame and money could never replace the people she'd lost. "I'm glad you have so much confidence in me. It's too bad you're not making the final decision."
"Mom." Becky gazed up at her. "Can I change my clothes?"
"Sure, tell Grandma and Grandpa we have company." Rachel thought of her mother's parents and their grief over their daughter's deaththe grief they all shared.
Lagging behind Becky as she sprinted to the house, Rachel glanced over her shoulder at Matt. He smiled, and her heart skipped just the way it had so many years ago when he'd smiled at her. As they reached the back door, he quickly stepped in front of her and opened it. The courteous gesture reminded her that things were kinder and gentler in the country compared to the big city.
The smell of morning coffee still lingered in the kitchen. The old oak table and chairs were the only familiar things in the room. Blue and white checked curtains, decorating the window over the kitchen sink, matched the chair pads. Gleaming white counters and light oak cabinets had replaced the butcher-block counters and dark pine cabinets she'd known as a child. The changes reminded her that she'd been gone a long time.
"Does this stuff need to go in the refrigerator?"
"Yeah." He let the screen door slap shut behind him as he removed his cap and finger-combed his thick wheat-straw-colored hair. "I see you passed on the family history to your daughter."
Nodding, Rachel removed a white casserole dish from the sack. "It all started over the question of eye color. She wanted to know why her eyes are blue and mine aren't."
"A legitimate question."
Rachel put the dish in the refrigerator, then turned to face Matt. "She asks lots of questions these days. And I don't always have the answers."
Matt chuckled. "Not the birds and bees already."
"No. Life and death," Rachel said, unable to miss the scars on the right side of his face, more visible now that he had removed his baseball cap.
"Tough subjects. I've always found trust in God provides a lot of answers and comfort, too."
Rachel looked at the floor. She didn't want Matt to see the doubt in her eyes. Is that the way he still felt after all he'd been through? Matt had faced death as a soldier and survived. She wondered how he'd managed to keep his faith when her faith in God had died ten years ago along with her father.
Scared and alone in a hospital emergency room, she'd prayed that God would spare her father's life, but the heart attack had killed him. God hadn't helped then. He wasn't helping now. Nothing could dull the pain of her mother's death.
"I suppose you could say that," she mumbled, blinking away her tears.
"Are you all right?" Matt stepped closer and put his arm around her shoulders.
"I'm coping, but I can't always keep the tears from coming." The warmth of his touch made her want to slip into his embrace and shut out the anguish of losing her mother. She had treasured their friendship that had begun when he visited his uncle's farm one summer. He was twelve, and she was just a six-year-old kid with a ponytail and skinned knees.
After his first visit, he came every summer to help on the Dalton farm. The summer after his high school graduation, he came and stayed, going to college at South Dakota State in the fall. He worked on the Dalton farm during the summers until he finished college. Her junior year, he started teaching biology at the local high school.
He patted her shoulder. "I wish I could make it all better."
"Like when I was a teenager." She nodded, remembering how Matt had been there to console her when she'd lost the 4-H competition at the state fair, made her laugh when she didn't get the lead in the school play and had run interference when she'd driven her mother's car into a ditch.
But she had to keep in mind that he wasn't single anymore. A friend was all he'd ever be. Her thoughts came to an abrupt halt when Becky reappeared wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
"Mom, Grandma and Grandpa are resting."
"Then we won't disturb them."
"How long do you plan to stay?" Matt asked.
Rachel shrugged. "I'm not sure."
"It would be great to have you around for a while."
"I don't have definite plans right now. I have some big decisions to make."
"Yes, you do." He stepped toward the door. "I'd better get going. Say hi to your grandparents. I'll see you at church tomorrow."
"I suppose." Rachel didn't want to tell him she didn't plan to be there.
He pushed open the screen door and stopped. "I'll be praying for you and those decisions you have to make, too."
Stepping outside with Matt, Rachel forced a smile. Could he ever understand she didn't share his faith or reliance on prayer anymore? "Tell your wife thanks for the food."
Matt chuckled as surprise showed on his face. "Sarah's not my wife. She's married to John."
Rachel's heart skipped a beat. "Your cousin?"
"Yeah, I'm just the single deliveryman." Matt grinned. "John would be pretty upset if he thought I was trying to run off with his wife."
"Sorry. I should know better than to jump to conclusions. That's what the tabloid press does all the time."
"No problem." Matt grinned again. "I'll introduce you to Sarah tomorrow. You'll like her. And they have a little girl the same age as Becky."