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Window rolled down and the engine of his Ford Super Duty rumbling pleasantly, Jace Carter was feeling good. Progress on the 1902 Victorian remodel was going well.
Overhanging oaks dappled sunlight onto the highway as he rounded the curve headed toward home. Ahead, a historic bridge spanned Redemption River and led into the small town of Redemption, Oklahoma.
He slowed to enjoy the view of the river, the way the willows wept over the railing, and the bridge itself, hand built by the town's early pioneers. A man who made his living in wood appreciated good workmanship, especially when it had lasted more than a century.
The familiar thump of the road projected him onto the long historic bridge. He was craning his neck toward the rain-flushed river when the unexpected happened. A pair of screaming, water-soaked men bolted over the railing, arms waving frantically.
Jace's heart bolted, too. He slammed on his brakes, yanked the wheel.
"Help! Help us!" Two hysterical men rushed to his window. Pale as plaster, terror dripped from both like the muddy red of the river dripped from their jeans and T-shirts.
Fear prickled Jace's scalp as he listened to a disjointed, breathless rendering of the basics. Their boat had capsized. There was a man in the water. They couldn't reach him.
He slammed the truck into park, killed the motor and leaped out to run down the slippery slope to the river. At first, he saw nothing but the thick, muddy water, swift and dangerous with the swell of spring rains.
"Call 9-1-1." He tossed his cell toward one man and ran with the violent current, searching and praying for a chance to reel in the hapless victim.
His boots slipped. The thick bog slowed his progress. He spotted a red ball cap snagged on a branch. Hope leaped.
With his boot toes clinging to the muddy bank, he stretched. Missed. The swirling maelstrom ripped the cap away.
Behind him one of the men choked, "Jerry. Jerry."
The noise of the current sucked the sound downstream with the red cap. With a sinking heart, Jace was convinced the same had happened to a stranger named Jerry.
By the time emergency vehicles arrived, Jace's legs and lungs ached and he was wet and muddy to the waist. The two survivors wandered aimlessly along the banks in shock and grief of a day that had begun as fun and ended in tragedy.
Within the hour half of Redemption had joined the search. Jace didn't hold out much hope at this point, but there was always a miracle.
"He could be halfway to the Gulf by now."
Jace lowered a pair of binoculars to look into the grim face of Sloan Hawkins. They stood together with other volunteers on the bridge. The preacher was here. So were Trace and Cheyenne Bowman. Cheyenne, a former policewoman, had helped organize the search with efficient skill. The old Dumpster Divers, GI Jack and Popbottle Jones had arrived with the sirens. They knew the river well and were guiding police boaters toward hidden inlets and snaggy coves.
Below the bridge, ATVs revved and spit mud beneath their tires in a desperate attempt to find the man. That was the way of Redemption. People here cared. That warm acceptance was what had drawn him to the little town fourteen years ago when he was searching for a place to begin life for the second time.
Regardless of fatigue and the shivers of cold running from his muddy, wet feet to his torso, Jace couldn't bring himself to leave.
Once, long ago, he'd been drowning, though not in water, and someone had reached out a saving hand. How could he not do the same?
The vision of a red ball cap floated relentlessly in front of his mind's eye. If he'd been a few seconds faster could he have saved a man's life?
A helicopter chop-chopped over the water.
A television news van rolled to a stop on the bridge, blocking the slow crawl of traffic to film the beehive of activity. A brunette in a blue News 12 windbreaker stuck a microphone in Jace's face.
"Sir, anything you can tell us about the missing man? Did you see anything? What do you know about the incident?"
Jace shook his head and turned away, lifting his binoculars to scan the scene below. Tension tightened the muscles in his neck.
Sloan Hawkins, a securities expert with experience in handling situations with aplomb, stepped in to answer.
"From all reports, three men were riding the current. They capsized. Two made it out. One didn't."
"Did you witness the incident? Or talk to any of the victims yourself?"
Jace held his breath, hopeful that Hawkins wouldn't point him as out as a possible witness. "Sorry. Didn't see a thing."
Jace released the breath. Talking wasn't his favorite activity, especially to strangers. Words could trip a man up if he wasn't careful.
"Do you know the victim? Where are the other two men?" The reporter's quick eyes scanned the bridge.
Sloan deferred, pointing the woman and her cameraman toward the gaggle of police units stationed on the flats directly south of the bridge.
The reporter sprinted away.
"Be dark soon." Jace squinted into the western sky. He dreaded the moment when light would fail and hope would diminish.
By midnight, weary, disheartened searchers began to slowly leave and the search was called off until daylight.
"There's a man down there somewhere." Jace drew in a long breath and repeated softly, "Somewhere."
Sloan clapped Jace on the shoulder. "Come to the house with me. Eat. I know you haven't."
"I couldn't." But he wanted to. He didn't relish being alone on a night when he'd become too aware—again—of his own mortality.
"Sure you could." Hawkins whipped out a cell phone—one of the fancy kind—and touched a single icon. "Annie, I'm heading home. Jace Carter's with me. They're calling off the search for the night." He listened then laughed softly, though his expression was humorless. "Starved. Love you, too."
The endearment made Jace uncomfortable. Or maybe envious. He'd never had that kind of casual, confident relationship with anyone. Never would.
But he'd accepted his lot in life. He'd created it, and he'd learned to be grateful for what he had. He made one final glance toward the river. Not everyone got a second chance.
Kitty Wainright stirred the pot of chili on Annie Hawkins's beautiful vintage cookstove. "This will taste good to them after being out on that river."
She and Annie, along with Cheyenne Bowman, had been in the middle of planning a fundraiser for the Redemption Women's Shelter when word of the accident had come. Both Cheyenne and Sloan had left immediately to join the rescuers. Annie and Kitty stayed behind with the children, Cheyenne's stepdaughter Zoey and Annie's pair, Justin and Delaney. Annie had long ago put the two nine-year-old girls to bed after a call to Cheyenne. The preteen Justin still dragged his feet, miffed at being considered too young to join the search and rescue effort. Annie was allowing the late night as a salve to his wounded pride.
Outside a motorcycle engine rumbled. Justin leaped from the couch. "There's Dad."
He was out the door in an instant.
Kitty smiled inwardly. The snarly boy had blossomed under the tender-tough care of his father.
"I'll set the sandwiches out." As she moved past the coffee pot to the refrigerator, she hitched her chin. "Do you think they'll want coffee this late?"
"Sloan won't. I don't know about Jace."
"Me, either." A building contractor who'd gone out of his way to help her after her husband's death, Jace Carter had been in Kitty's motel many times, but she couldn't claim to understand him. "He's so quiet."
"Still waters run deep." Annie grimaced. "Sorry. Poor choice of words. Jace is cute though. Nice guy, too."
Kitty made a noise of agreement but didn't pursue the conversation. Annie wasn't finished.
"He looks good. Works hard. Obviously thinks you're someone special."
The comment surprised her. "What makes you say that?"
"Oh, come on, Kitty." Annie waved a jar of mayo. "He spends more time at your place than anywhere."
"I run a motel. An old motel that needs constant repair."
"Uh-huh. There are a lot of old buildings in this town."
Annie was right. Over a hundred buildings in Redemption were on the National Register of Historic Places and only an expert with Jace's eye and skill could work on them. Kitty's motel, a throwback to the fifties, was not on that list.
"Jace is the original Mr. Nice Guy," she said.
"True. But have you ever considered that he might be the least bit interested in you?"
Kitty's heart bumped. "No."
Annie rolled her eyes. "Oh, girl. What am I going to do with you? You're what? Thirty?"
"There you go." She slapped a plate of sandwiches on the table. "Open those gorgeous baby blues and take a close look at Jace Carter. He's a doll and he has a thing for you."
"Annie, stop. You know I'm not in the market. Never will be." The very idea gave her a stomachache.
Annie quieted. A nurse with a heart as big and warm as the sun, she knew Kitty's history. "Dave was a great guy, Kitty. We all liked him, but he's gone. Has been for a long time."
Kitty bit her bottom lip. Seven years was a long time but memories never died the way Dave had. "I'm not interested in finding anyone else."
"Really?" Annie's compassionate green eyes bore into her. "Think about that, Kitty. Love is a beautiful thing. Too beautiful to live without."
Didn't she know it? Hadn't she had the best in Dave Wain-right? Insides squeezing, she tried to laugh off the conversation. "Oh, you newlyweds. All you think about is love."
Annie arched one blond eyebrow but didn't say anymore because at that moment the men trooped into the country kitchen. Fatigue pulled at their faces.
Kitty's stomach quivered oddly when she looked at Jace Carter. She wished Annie hadn't said such a silly thing. She'd never allowed herself to consider Jace as well, as a man, but now she couldn't help noticing. Average height, he bested her by several inches. The word neat always came to mind when she thought of him. But tonight his usual tucked in, tidied up appearance was disheveled and dirty. His brown hair was rumpled and tagged with dirt as though he'd run a muddy hand through it.
He had the softest, quietest eyes. Hazel she thought, though she'd never noticed before. And he had strong, carpenter hands, a little rough and work-scarred, but capable. She had noticed them before, the way he held a piece of lumber almost tenderly as though he could envision the beauty hidden inside. He was an artist with wood.
"You guys okay?" she asked to stop the flow of her thoughts. Annie and her suggestions.
"Rough night." Sloan did the talking.
Sloan Hawkins, dark and dangerous-looking with blue eyes that could melt a rock, crossed the room to kiss Annie's cheek. "Smells good." He smiled a tired smile. "So does the food."
Annie blushed prettily and swatted at her husband. The newlyweds' sweetness put a catch in Kitty's chest. She and Dave had loved like that. She glanced at Jace, saw him avert his gaze. He removed his ball cap, crushing it in those capable, tattered hands.
"I should go. I'm too dirty to be here." The voice was as quiet as his eyes, warm, too, and manly.
"Don't be silly," Annie said. "Kitty, get him a towel, will you, while I put this food on the table?"
"Got it." She hurried out of the kitchen, glad for the momentary reprieve from her own crazy thoughts. She was tired. That's all.
Jace settled into the chair Sloan shoved at him, glad to be off his feet. He was cold to the core. Should have gone home, but when Sloan said Kitty was here, he'd been too tired to resist. Just looking at her helped soothe the ache of these last few hours.
Tonight her hair was swept up in a knot atop her head and held by a black doodad, but he'd seen it down before, long and pale. She was like a fairy tale, a blonde Rapunzel with a hint of Tinkerbell in her heart-shaped face and blue-bonnet eyes. Jace laughed at his fantastical thoughts but thought them again when he saw her coming toward him with a big blue towel.
"I warmed this in the dryer." She draped the heated terry cloth around his shoulders. "You look cold."
He was cold, inside and out. Tonight's failed rescue chilled his soul.
"Thanks. Feels good." The towel smelled good, too, clean, fragrant and warm. Or was that Kitty?
"You really should get out of that wet shirt. Sloan could probably loan you one of his."
The rain had started, a soft drizzle right before they'd given up the search.
"I'm okay." She couldn't know that he would never remove his shirt in front of anyone. Ever. He was modest, yes, but more than that, he was ashamed.
Kitty hovered, and he searched for something, anything to say, but his useless tongue stuck to his mouth. He'd had no one to fuss over him since he was small, and having her bring him a towel or a glass of tea or a cheery smile felt good. Too good to ruin with words.
Ah, who he was kidding? If not for her motel and the work he did there, Kitty Wainright wouldn't give him the time of day. The motel office was a shrine to her hero husband and according to the local gossip he'd picked up over breakfast at the Sugar Shack each morning, Kitty had openly declared herself a widow forever. As was her way, Kitty was kind-hearted and good to everyone. Even a stray dog like him.
Which made them friends and neighbors and nothing else. Ever. He had long ago declared himself a lifetime bachelor, though his reasons were far less heroic than hers. He rubbed at his shoulder and remembered a time too ugly to forget.
"Let's eat." Annie waved her hand over the steaming bowls of chili she'd set at each place. "There's plenty. Hope it doesn't keep you up all night."
They chuckled at the joke, knowing it wasn't indigestion from the spicy chili that would keep them awake tonight.
They ate in silence until Justin broached the topic of tonight's tragedy. "Do you think they'll find him?"
Sloan laid aside his sandwich, chewing thoughtfully. "Drowning victims are usually found."
"But not always?"
"No. Not always."
Annie shuddered. "Gruesome."
"I wonder if he has a wife and family," Kitty mused and Jace turned to look at her. "I remember when Dave was killed. The army sent an officer. Who tells a civilian's wife?"
Annie said, "I wonder if it's on the news."
"Should be. There were reporters everywhere." Sloan trekked over to the counter where a small TV hung from the cabinet. He positioned the screen toward the table.
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