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Slowing her red Chevy Blazer on the outskirts of Homestead, Texas, Greer Bell passed a population sign that read 2,504. Wasn't it decidedly less than that now, at least according to the current mayor? Directly ahead in the center of town sat Homestead's most impressive landmark, the old courthouse. Its yellow granite columns and soaring clock tower told Greer she was home.
She knew that a lot of small Texas towns boasted similar landmarks. This courthouse probably hadn't changed since it was erected by a German immigrant in the 1840s; as the story went, his wife had refused to budge once they reached Loveless County. Oh, the tales that old building could tell.
Maybe returning home after ten years away wasn't going to be as easy as she'd imagined. Greer had certainly never expected her first glimpse of Post Street to bring such a mix of nostalgia and angry butterflies to her stomach. Frankly she'd assumed there'd be more visible change because of the land giveaway. She'd figured there'd be more people out and about in the middle of the week. Mayor Miranda Wright's plan to revitalize Homestead by offering land or vacant homes to families willing to rebuild the dying town didn't appear overwhelmingly successful. This was the same backdrop Greer conjured up in every dream of home during the past ten years. Maybe there were a couple of new stores. She pulled over and dropped her head onto both hands, still clutching the wheel.
She was parked in front of Tanner's General Store. Had it been revamped? Painted? Ohdown the street that sign for a Dollar Store was new. And the cafe.
Shelby, Greer's nine-year-old daughter, had slept on and off during their second day's journey from Denver. Stirring, the girl rubbed sleepy hazel eyes several shades darker than her mom's, which were generously flecked with gold.
"Are we there yet?" she asked for the millionth time, punctuating her query with a massive yawn.
Greer quickly raised a clammy forehead. "Not yet, honey bunny. We're in downtown Homestead. Our ranch is several miles thataway." Greer jerked a thumb toward undulating hills barely visible beyond the courthouse, where a couple of old men sat on benches.
Shelby pressed her nose to the side window.
"Then why are we stopping? Oh is this where Grandma works?" Her voice warbled excitedly.
"My mother, you mean? Uh, no. Loretta, uh, teaches math at the high school. It's a few miles out of town." Greer's eyes strayed to her daughter's image in the rearview mirror, she noted her own deep frown. She wiped it away. After all, she'd taken many things into consideration before making up her mind to move back to the place of her birth. And yet she'd sheltered Shelby from the truth about her familywhy her only grandparents were nothing but a scrawled signature on Christmas and birthday cards. But sitting in far-off Coloradowhere she'd helped manage a busy guest ranchfilling out an application for a piece of Homestead's almost-free land had seemed simple. Here, facing the stark reality, even knowing it was time to confront her past, Greer wasn't sure she had the stomach for it. Still, this wasn't the moment to begin divulging the truth to Shelby. Not when so many unsettled feelings boiled within Greer.
"Groceries," she said suddenly, digging up a reason for stopping. "We need a few things to tide us over until we get to the staples I sent in the moving van. This is Tanner's," she muttered, peering at the weathered sign. "It used to be the town's only grocery store. I figured Homestead would have a superstore by now, but apparently not," Greer said, scanning the two-lane street flanked by old one-and two-story red brick or cream-colored buildings. Her stomach pitched again. She'd counted on change, but there didn't seem to be much, and now Greer wasn't sure she could get out and step back in time.
Shelby felt no such compunction. Unbuckling her seat belt, she threw open her door and slammed it shut with a bang.
Watching her energetic daughter bound over the curb onto the sidewalk, Greer emerged more slowly from the Blazer, and then took a minute to lock the doors, even though no one in Homestead had ever done so in the past.
Shelby didn't wait for her mom at the entry, but shoved open one of the peeling double doors and disappeared inside, causing a bell over the door to jingle. Such a small thing, but Greer was further catapulted back to her childhood, when she'd trailed up these steps after her dad, clutching money she'd earned doing chores around the farm. Robert Bell, always stern, invariably scolded her for spending every last penny on books, knick-knacks and candy. And yet despite his own thrifty ways, he'd never tried to stop her. The memory was a sharp reminder of all she'd lost.
A lump settled in her throat as a string of familiar scents wafted past on the breeze created as Shelby let the door bang shut. Greer knew what her daughter would find inside. Oak barrels of varying sizes, brimming with gourmet goodies.
Well, gourmet by Homestead's standards. Delicacies such as home-cured jerky, fat dill pickles, peppermint drops, or specialties like imported teas. Seasonally, Mrs. Tanner stocked spicy cinnamonorange, or pear-and-apple blend. For as far back as Greer could remember, stepping into Tanner's had been like walking into a treasure trove. Food was the least of what they offered. Collectibles, toys, Christmas ornaments, kitchen gadgets and sundry gifts hung from the ceiling or were tucked in a myriad of cubbyholes. She'd have to bribe Shelby with a second trip to town if she hoped to pry her out of the store anytime soon.
Needing to let her eyes adjust to the dim interior after leaving the bright fall sun, Greer hesitated beside a barrel of shiny red apples. She supported herself against it to make sure her jelly knees weren't going to let her down.
Once, she'd loved this store. Loved this town. She blinked rapidly to stave off tears she thought had all been shed long ago, and attempted to locate Shelby, all while compiling observationswell-oiled dark oak floors, a painted tin ceiling, dancing wind chimes tinkling softly in the lazy breeze of a fan. Her gaze skipped over the clerk standing behind the counter. She did notice he operated a more modern cash register than she recalled.
A customer laughed at something the clerk said. Greer judged both men to be a bit older than her almost twenty-seven years. It was hard to tell until her eyes adjusted. But she was reassured that something had changed. Affable LeRoy Tanner, a contemporary of Greer's dad, obviously no longer owned the store. LeRoy and his wife had been fixtures in town forever, it seemed.
In her sporadic letters, Greer's mother had indicated that a number of old-time residents had fallen on hard luck and left town.
A booming voice addressed Greer by name, and she snapped her head around. Realizing it was one of the men at the counter, she squinted to see better.
Shelby abandoned the Madam Alexander doll she was inspecting to burrow into Greer's side. "Mama, that man knows you," she said in a stage whisper.
Greer cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, you ah have me at a disadvantage. I'm still sun-blind." She was pretty sure it was the clerk who'd spoken, yet it was the customer who galvanized her attention. A good two inches shorter but broader-shouldered than the clerk, the customer wore typical rancher garbsquare-heeled boots, blue jeans and a long-sleeved cotton shirt. It was his arresting blue eyes under a worn baseball cap that gave her pause. Not your typical cowboy, but in spite of the general consensus, there was more to Texas than cowboys.
"I'm Edmond Tanner," the clerk said, rounding the counter with his hand outstretched. "My dad, LeRoy, would've been here at the time you left. I've gotta confess, your hair gave you away. I'd've known those red curls even if Loretta hadn't told us you were due to get in today, Greer." His hearty chuckle was cut short by a rib-jab from his companion.
"Oops, forgive my bad manners." Edmond cocked his thumb like a pistol. "I figured you two knew each other. Greer Noah Kelley. Er I reckon I oughta call him Father Kelley. With your dad being on the church board and all, I assumed Loretta had passed on the news about Father Holden's stroke. We're lucky the greater regional Episcopal council saw fit to let Noah fill in until his pop's back on his feet."
Greer reeled at the announcement and did a double take. Now she remembered Noah Kelley. They'd both been much younger. And he had certainly changed. Holden's son used to wear his hair slicked down. He'd lookedwell, stiff in starched white shirts and the requisite Sunday suit.
Noah responded to the lengthy introduction with a dismissive shrug. "I'd probably graduated from college and entered seminary before you got out of high school, so there's no reason you'd know I ended up an associate priest at a church in Austin for oh, more years than I care to think about. Time sure flies."
Ed Tanner stroked his chin. "You're gettin' old, Noah. I forgot your mom recently ordered a cake for your, uh, thirty-second birthday wasn't it?"
"Thirty-first," Noah said, playfully aiming a punch at Ed's bony arm. "Years come and years go. Think how long you've been an old married man, Ed. Why don't we forget age and just welcome Greer home." Noah's eyes rested on her briefly. "I do remember you," he said after a pause. "You wore pigtails and were nearer the age ofis the charming girl at your side your daughter?"
"Yep, my name is Shelby," the child piped up without a shred of modesty.
Noah's teeth flashed in a grin. "Well, I hope I'll have the privilege of seeing both of you lovely ladies again soon. At church on Sunday?"
"No, you won't," Greer shot back so quickly it surprised everyone. "We haven't even moved in yet." She grabbed Shelby's hand and hurriedly collected a shopping cart. How did she tell the local Episcopal priest that she hadn't darkened a church door since she'd left Homesteadbecause his dad had been instrumental in convincing her parents to send her into exile? Noah Kelley was a sneaky one. Not only didn't he resemble any man of God Greer had ever seen, where the heck was his identifying collar? How dared he go about town looking like an ordinary rancher.
"Come on, Shelby, let's start with vegetables." Greer aimed her cart toward the very back of the store where she remembered Tanner's displayed fresh produce. Talk about bad luck. Of all the people she'd give anything not to run into here in Homestead, a relative of Father Holden Kelley topped her list.
In the occasional letters Greer received from her mom, Loretta Bell had probably avoided mentioning Holden or any member of his church board on purpose. No surprise there, given the shouting match they'd all had ten years ago.
Noah exchanged a blank look with Ed. Intrigued, he excused himself and hurried down the aisle after the woman and girl. He caught up quickly because Shelby had stopped to inspect a rack of kids' books. "My invitation to attend church remains open for whenever you get settled, Greer. Attendance at St. Mark's fell off even before Pop's stroke. My main goal is to recapture the strayed or lost," he said, turning up the wattage on a slightly crooked smile. "I'd especially like to entice back young families such as yours." Noah's bright gaze again shifted to Shelby. "You'd be eight or nine? We have a growing Sunday school that would gladly make room for one more. Perhaps your mom remembers Debra Coleville, or she may have been Debra Rooney then. She teaches a combined second-and third-grade class."
Shelby hugged the book. "Will some of the kids be in my third grade at regular school? I just turned nine."
"I think Megan Ritter's eight. Her sister, Heather, is six or seven, and their brother, Brad, is nine. So's Callie Montgomery's sister, Brittany. And the Gallaghers have a range of ages," he said, rattling off a stream of names.
Some sounded vaguely familiar. Greer scrabbled through her mind but was unable to place anyone specific except for Gallagher. Every Texan knew State Senator Clint Gallagher.
"Mama, if I met some kids Sunday, I'd have friends for when I start school next week."
Greer released her breath and gave a severe shake of her head. "I said no, Shelby. We need every waking hour to get the ranch cottages ready for our paying guests. Church is out of the question."
Glancing between mother and child, Noah offered what he thought was a compromise. "I understand you and your husband are probably anxious to spruce things up in order to get your business off the ground. You could send Shelby with her grandparents."
Pulling herself up to her full five-foot-three inch height, Greer let stormy eyes rake the much taller man's guileless expression. "Shelby's never met my parents. And for the record I don't have a husband. Now, if you'll excuse us, I'd like to finish shopping so we can get out to our ranch before the movers show up."
Spinning on one heel, she sped down an adjacent aisle, uncaring that she'd been rude to a man of the cloth. She didn't let up her mad dash until she reached the bins of vegetables and began pitching items willy-nilly into her cart.
Shelby finally found her. "Yuck, Mama. We don't eat turnips. And what's that green stuff with the red edges?"
Greer frowned at her cart. "It's chard. On second thought, these greens will probably spoil before I have a chance to use them." Meekly she put back the chard and some lettuce snatched up in her hasty attempt to escape Noah Kelley. Father Noah!
Greer's heart tripped fast. It would be better if Noah did resemble his formidable dad. Instead the son had straw-blond hair that fell appealingly over a suntanned brow. Standing a good six feet in boots, Noah's worn blue jeans fit his long legs as if sculpted. Even at a distance, Greer had been aware of eyes the color of a Hill Country sky. Up close, once he'd taken off his cap, those same blue eyes surely saw straight into her guilty soul.
Now why would she think that? She was guilty of nothing! She threw baking potatoes haphazardly into a paper bag. Father Noah would change his tune fast enough. As soon as his ailing dad clued him in about her ignominious fall from grace.
It seemed so long since she'd raced home from college in East Texas, heartsick and needing comfort. Instead she'd endured hearing Father Holden advise her folks to send her to Denver to live with her dad's sisterso she could adopt out her illegitimate child. Oh, he'd made it plain she wasn't the first girl in their parish to be shuffled off. Any girl in her predicament set a bad example, for their congregation, he said.
Greer's dad, one of St. Mark's loyal board members, went along with it. That still hurt. Even after all these yearsor so she gathered, reading between the lines of her mom's sparse letters Robert Bell hadn't changed his stance. Greer had hoped that with the passing of time, and with her added maturity, it'd be possible to get over the past. Maybe not.
She still quaked inside as she recalled what a humiliating experience that had been at seventeen. It wasn't as if she didn't already feel like dirt over being duped and dumped by a college senior she'd thought loved her. In truth, Dan Harper couldn't shed her or his responsibility for a baby fast enough. When her parents and her church turned against her, too, that had been the worst blow.
"Mama, can I get this cereal?" Shelby ran back to the cart with a box of a kid-popular variety her mother rarely let her eat.
Greer opened her mouth to refuse, but saw shadows lurking in Shelby's eyes that she recognized. A favorite cereal spelled comfort to a nine-year-old. Mom and child had left behind everything in Shelby's world.