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"My life stinks."
Honor Crosby could sympathize with the teenage boy trudging ahead of her through the woods. Some bug swooped at her. She batted it out of her face and ignored the flutter of something high up in the trees and tried not to think of what might be lurking overhead. A giant mosquito, a gross spider, who knew? And worse, her poor shoes. They were sinking in the squishy carpet of dead pine needles and moss, an aspen leaf skewered on one heel.
"Sure, but you don't have to make life harder than it has to be," she told the kid with his hangdog expression. "You waste more time trying to put off your work than actually doing it. If you jumped in and got your studying over with, you'd have more free time."
"I don't want to study at all. It's summer. I don't need to get into that stupid school and I don't need a tutor." He hung his head. Jerrod Lambert wasn't a bad kidnot at all. Just an unhappy one.
Understanding filled her as she remembered being a teenager trying to handle her parents' pressure to succeed. She knew where Jerrod was coming from, but the Lord was a great comfort and she prayed Jerrod would lean on his faith more to find solutions to his problems instead of running away from them.
"I'm not so bad of a tutor, am I?" she asked.
"Much better than the last one, but that's not the point." Jerrod blew out a sigh as he tromped through the underbrush and broke out into the bright sunshine. "I'd rather be dirt biking."
"And I'd rather be at the beach club with an icy soda in one hand and my e-reader in the other." For an instant, the remembered roar of the ocean, the sweep of the waves on the sandy shore and the chime of cheerful conversation felt so real she could almost feel herself there, where she belonged.
She missed home and her posse of friends so much she almost stumbled when her heels hit the manicured lawn. Leaving home had been an impulsive decision and not the most brilliant one she'd ever made. Montana, she mused as she pulled the leaf off her shoe heel. What had she been thinking?
"What is it like at Wheatly?"
"It's one of the best Christian schools in southern California." She'd gone there as a teen and returned after college to teach English. She loved the school and the community of teachers and staff that felt more like family than coworkers. She missed them sorely, too. With the current economy, her job had been cut, since she'd been the newest teacher there. Her dearest wish was to return to her beloved Wheatly and teach once again. Maybe when the economy improved? A girl could hope. "I hated leaving. Actually, I didn't really leave. I substituted there for most of last year."
"And then I came along, needing tutoring."
"Once you're there, you'll love it. I promise." She tromped up the stone steps, ignoring the rugged scenery and architecture that surrounded herhigh mountain peaks, stone masonry and a sprawling log-and-glass estate that simply could not compare to Malibu. Nothing on earth could.
"If I pass the test, that is. You sound like my dad." Not encouraged, Jerrod's head hung lower looking like a prisoner on his way to death row, dragging his feet across the deck. "I won't tell if we don't work this afternoon. My dad would never know."
"But I would." She opened a glass-framed door. "In you go. It won't be so bad, I promise."
"Yeah, I've heard that before." Unconvinced, he plodded into the air-conditioned library and slung himself into an overstuffed chair. "I'd rather be dirt biking."
"Who wouldn't?" Honor quipped, not quite able to relate. She was no outdoors girl unless hanging pool-side counted. She plucked a book off the Chippendale writing desk and handed it to the bummed teenager. "Start reading, kid. Think of it this way, if you ace the entrance exam on the first try, then you won't ever have to deal with another tutor."
"You're not seeing the problem." Jerrod blew out a sigh. "I'm wasting my summer in here."
"I get it." She slipped into the upholstered chair behind the desk, where her laptop sat. "Sorry, but you still have to read the book."
Another beleaguered sigh and the tome opened, the teenager bowed his head and at least it looked as though he were reading.
She knew exactly how Jerrod felt. This was her summer, too. She hadn't planned to spend most of it being a private tutor, but at the time it seemed like a brilliant option to get away from a certain man. Little did she realize she would be hidden away at the Lambert family compound in the middle of the wilderness. Literally. Forests stretched in every direction and the nearest town was forty minutes away.
Which meant email was her best link to civilization. Since her student was busy and she'd caught up on all her work, she turned to her laptop. Her best friend and roommate's message filled the screen.
Totally missing you! Kelsey wrote. We're off to the movies. Wish you were here!
Me, too, she thought with a pang. Onto the next email.
We're sitting in the theater, read Anna Louise's message, sent from her phone. Kelsey had to go and buy the jumbo popcorn. Can't stop eating it. Miss you!
Yeah, she could almost taste that popcorn. She gave a little sigh, glanced out the wall of windows overlooking a shocking amount of trees. Just three more weeks, she told herself. Jerrod will take his exams, my job here will be done and I'm back home.
She went on to her next email.
Honor, we missed you at the book chat last night, Luke's message read. Where were you?
Luke McKaslin. Her online buddywell, she didn't know what other word to use to describe him. She gave a little sigh of exasperation, or was it confusion? She didn't know which.
When she'd arrived here in March, stuck in the middle of nowhere, she'd gone into serious withdrawal, so she went looking for social connections online. She'd kept up with her friends and joined Good Books, a social network and a site devoted to books.
That was where she met Luke, or Montana Cowboy as he was known on the book site. She'd made a lot of online friends on the site, and Luke was one of them. Okay, a special one of them. They'd just hit it off right from the start.
Mrs. Lambert had a big barbecue, she typed. I meant to get away and sneak onto my computer, but I had a surprisingly good time. I miss being social, so I couldn't make myself break away. How did the book discussion go?
She hit Send. One of her great loves in life was books. She loved reading. Always had, always would. Maybe that's what she liked about Luke best. He felt the same way.
A beleaguered sigh drew her attention.
"Are you really reading that book or just staring at the same page?" she asked Jerrod. "Maybe you're napping?"
"Sorry." He shook his head and at least made the appearance of making an effort to read.
Funny kid. She squinted at her screen, smiling to see Luke's next email. He must be sitting at his computer, too.
The discussion wasn't as lively without you, he wrote. Still missing home?
You know it, she tapped out. I know you like living in Montana, but how do you do it?
I've always lived here, came his reply. So it's hard to say since I don't have much to compare it to. I read a lot. I ride my horse. I hang with the cows.
That's about what I expect from a cowboy. Honestly. If she wasn't a California girl and she wasn't not looking for a boyfriendand she so, so wasn'tthen Luke's gentle humor would be just the thing to spark her interest.
If. That was a very big if. Thinking of Kip, she shook her head. Yep, she was off the market. For a long, long time.
There aren't any cows or horses here, not that I would know what to do with them. I never hit that horse crazy phase a few of my friends went through.
I've never left mine, he answered. But if you're missing hanging with people
You mean instead of trees? She typed, biting back her smile.
My sister is getting married tomorrow. I know it's last minute, but Bozeman is only a few hours' drive for you
A few hours' drive was considered not a big deal in Montana. That always cracked her up.
but it will be fun, you'll get in some social time and I think you'll like my sisters.
I'm sure they're nice. But that didn't mean she should meet some man she didn't know, at least face-to-face. Online he was nice and she felt safe chatting with him. He was respectful and funny and friendly. But in person? Who knew what he could be like? Hadn't she believed in the man Kip pretended to be?
You couldn't always tell who someone was behind the mask they wore.
I get it, if you don't want to come. It's your day off. You might not want to spend four hours of it in the car.
Yes, that's true. And it was. She didn't want to drive that far, but wouldn't it be fun to meet him? He'd always come across as an amiable guy. Not overly ambitious, and decent in a country boy sort of way. She'd absolutely looked up his profile on the website when she first "met" him. His picture had been friendlyreally great smile, honest violet-blue eyes and talk about handsome. At thirty, he was five years older than her, and he was solid.
She'd liked that.
"Jerrod, are you asleep?"
"Whaa?" His head snapped up. He looked around and picked up the book he dropped. "Sorry."
This wasn't the first time she feared that kid wasn't going to pass the entrance exam. But at least she wouldn't be stuck in this isolatedbut lovelyspot the rest of the summer. Three more weeks and she would be in her car driving toward the state line. Woo-hoo! She couldn't wait.
Luke's email popped on her screen. Too bad you can't come. You'll be missing out on some pretty good cake.
Cake? Why didn't you say so? Now I'm really tempted. Plus, I could get out of this house. Didn't a change of scenery sound like just the thing? She was tempted to accept. She had fun chatting with him online. Would it be even more fun in person? She did miss having friends and going places. Maybe she would say yes
A knock rapped on the door. Mrs. Lambert sashayed in. She was tall, lean and eternally youthful thanks to a good dermatologist and Botox injections. "Honor? May I have a word with you?"
"Yes." She gave thanks that Jerrod's nose was studiously in his bookor at least it appeared that wayas she rose from the desk. She tapped into the hallway.
"I saw you and Jerrod. Coming in from the forest." Olive Lambert drew herself up. "He ran off again, didn't he? And you didn't inform me."
"It was just for a few moments. He didn't go far."
"How many times do I have to tell you? He's fifteen. He's old enough to learn the value of self-discipline. If he can't do it for himself, then you will do it for him." Concern softened harsh words, but not enough. Olive Lambert was a woman used to setting the standards and getting her own way.
In the library, Jerrod's head bowed lower. Honor couldn't see his face, just the tense corner of his jaw. The poor kid. "He's doing well over all. You know he is. He's worked hard all week."
"When he wasn't trying to sneak off to ride his bike," Olive interrupted. "You need to keep a better eye on him. Let's try a little harder, shall we?"
A movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. Jerrod's head bobbed lower, his total misery palpable.
It hadn't been an easy time for the Lambert family, with their impending divorce. She'd watched the fallout when her parent's marriage failed, so she understood. She wished she knew how to make it easier for her student.
"Of course." She watched Olive tap down the wide corridor, heel strikes knelling on imported marble.
Well, that could have gone better.
Inside the library came the thud of a book slamming shut in frustration. Jerrod stayed in his chair, firsts clenched, muscles bunched in his jaw, upset.
Lord, please help me find a way to help him. He was a good kid.
"I didn't mean to get you into trouble," he muttered, resigned. "I just wanted to get out of this house."
"I know. You've been studying so hard."
"I don't want to fail it again. It's embarrassing taking the makeup exam as it is." With a frustrated sigh, he opened his book. "I'm tired of being stuck here. There's hardly anything to do. I wish"
He didn't finish that thought. Instead, he launched out of his chair with his book in hand. "I'm going outside."
"I really need to get this book read. I know, I know." Jerrod rolled his eyes and shouldered open the door.
Funny kid. When she glanced at her screen, a picture of a gorgeous wedding cakethree beautifully decorated tiersstared at her, a picture embedded in Luke's email.
Chocolate, chocolate chip cake, he wrote. Cream cheese frosting. Lots of icing flowers, as you can see. Voted by all four of my sisters as the best-tasting cake in existence. Tempted?
Very, she wrote, hesitating. Luke was nice. He was friendly and funny and kind-hearted in his comments on the website and in the messages they had been sending back and forth over the last few months. She'd had fun corresponding with him. Maybe it would be fun to meet him?