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Dust fogged up around Kate Sanderson's sneakers as she ran across the open field.
It was hot for Thanksgiving. She stopped in the middle of the dry garden patch to catch her breath and wipe her sweaty brow on the tail of her T-shirt.
Dropping her shirttail, she grimaced as she noticed, again, the brown stain on the front of the shirt. I sure did it this time. Acted like a klutz in front of the whole family. And on my first day back.
She turned to look at the large white house behind her, recalling her mother's stinging words at the dinner table. For crying out loud, Kate. Will you never cease to embarrass me? Just look at that glob of cake on the front of your shirt.
Everyone else had looked at the smear of chocolate, too. Kate shook her head and heaved a deep sigh as she thought about her family still sitting around the big oak table. Then, turning, she feasted her eyes on her sanctuary on the far side of the garden.
Tall pines swayed in a sudden breeze, their long green arms beckoning her. A smile touched her lips as she lifted the mass of tangled curls from her neck to let the fresh breath of air cool it.
Dropping her hair, she bent and pulled a dry pea vine from around her jean-clad legs. Then she struck out running again across the garden patch.
At an old familiar opening in the undergrowth, she stepped into the coolness of the forest.
Green pine trees interlaced branches with sweet gums, maples and poplars painted with the reds and golds of autumn. A shower of bright color rained down around her.
As Kate kicked her way through fallen leaves, her shoes stirred up an underlayer of long-decayed foliage, a musty reminder of autumns past. She had very likely tramped on many of these leaves when they were crisp and fresh from the trees.
Sadness slipped over her. Attempting to shake it off, she lifted her face to the breeze and kept walking. She wanted to see the old farmhouse again. She wanted- She stopped and sniffed the air. Did she smell wood smoke?
Fear gripped her as into her mind flashed the image of her beloved woodland in charred ruins. She turned to sniff in all directions. All she smelled was sun-warmed leaves and spicy pine needles.
Satisfied her nose had been playing tricks on her, she began moving again.
But at the edge of a clearing, she stopped short. Her mouth flew open. There was smoke in her forest. One thin, gray wisp curled lazily upward from the charred remains of a campfire.
Beside the fire, on an upturned piece of firewood standing against a pine tree, sat a man.
He held a coffee mug in one hand, an open book in the other. His hair and beard glistened blue-black in a streak of sunlight.
She stared for a moment, transfixed. Then she noticed the tree. Her tree. The gnarled old oak in whose branches she had often sat to sketch and read.
Why, the nerve of him!
She was on him in a flash. "What are you doing here? How dare you hang your clothes on my trees and build fires on my land."
She snatched an offending garment from a limb and flung it to the ground.
Startled, the man jumped and dropped the book. Dark liquid splattered down the front of his shirt as his makeshift stool fell over, dumping him onto the ground. He stared up at her, his eyes big and round. "Wh-what did you say? Who are you?"
"I said this is my land! You are trespassing!"
A puzzled frown wrinkled a sunburned brow above the brightest blue eyes she had ever seen. He lay sprawled at her feet with his broad shoulders squeezed into a Garfield T-shirt, his dark hair in disarray-and covering most of his bronzed face.
He glanced down at himself, grinned and pushed nimbly to his feet.
Seeing how he towered over her, she backed off a step. Determined not to let him intimidate her, she quickly regained her stance and demanded, "Well! What do you have to say for yourself?"
He took his time brushing dust from his jeans and picking up the book from the ground. Then he looked at her. "I'm afraid you're mistaken, miss," he drawled. "This is my land. It is you who are trespassing."
His land! What did he mean, his land? Kate's knees began to buckle. The man's face swam before her eyes.
"Are you all right, miss?" He stuck the book under one arm and righted the makeshift stool. "Here. You'd best sit down. You don't look very good."
"Thanks. Most folks don't tell me so bluntly."
He threw back his head and laughed a deep hearty laugh that crinkled his eyes and exposed even white teeth above his dark beard. "I see you have a temper to go with the red hair. You must be the younger daughter. Your hair looks like your mother's and sister's."
"How do you know my mother and sister?"
"Met them when I bought the place." With one deft movement, he swept his shirts and cutoffs from the tree limb and rolled them into a ball.
"They sold the land to you?" She dropped to the log stool.
He pitched the ball of clothing inside the opening of a small tent and then turned to study her. "Joyce Sanderson-your mother?-and her brothers, Robert and Sidney Cummins, sold it to me."
Kate suddenly felt weak again, but she fought to keep him from seeing it. Still, she couldn't hide the fear in her voice as she asked, "What about the house?"
Her head jerked back. If he didn't know about the house, perhaps there was yet hope. "Over the hill there." She indicated the direction with her head.
"Oh. The old tumbled-down farmhouse."
"Tumbled down! It can't be!"
He stood another piece of firewood on end and sat down facing her. "It's not completely. But it would take too much work and money to make it livable again. And, yes, it belongs to me, too."
"They couldn't have sold it all to you. The house and this little strip of woods are mine. Grandpa said they would be."
"Perhaps he thought you'd inherit them from your mother."
"No. He knew he couldn't count on that."
"Were you planning to live here? Did you have some kind of special plans for the place?"
Her strength suddenly returned. She jumped up from the log. "Was I planning to live here? Did I have special plans? There's no past tense about it. I will get my land back. And I will live in my house again."
Turning on her heel, she stalked away from him. When she reached the edge of the clearing she heard him call, "You're welcome to walk in the woods anytime."
Without a backward glance she plunged into the trees.
When she was well out of the man's sight, she stopped and dropped to the ground under a giant oak tree. She needed time to calm down and think before she went back to the house. She didn't relish another scene with her mother.
Glancing at the stain on her shirt, she thought about the many times her mother had said to her, I don't see why you can't be more like your sister and cousins, instead of running around with broken nails from playing in the dirt.
Playing in the dirt. Cutting words meant to express her disapproval of Kate's chosen profession, horticulture, which she studied while working at a garden center near Auburn University. Rather, it had been her chosen career. This news may have put an end to her dream.
She leaned her head back against the tree trunk and stretched her long legs in front of her. She dashed a tear from her cheek. I can't be like them, no matter how much Mother tries to make me. I can't be who I'm not, just to please her.
But who am I anyway? What am I going to do with my life if the land really does belong to him?
Unbidden, words from a familiar verse of scripture came to mind: I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to give you hope and a future.
Future? What kind of future? As for hope-
A bright orange-and-gold leaf drifted down beside her, lightly touching her cheek.
She looked up into the branches of trees high above her. Filtered sunlight glistened through the glorious autumn leaves. For the first time, she noticed the songs of birds filling the air.
A sudden flash of gray among the leaves caught her eyes. A squirrel skimmed along a branch of the oak. It paused at the end of the limb and then sailed through the air and landed on the branch of a tall pine. Darting from branch to swaying branch, it moved higher and higher until she could no longer see it.
She felt a faint smile touch her lips. The forest always had a way of making her feel at peace. And it felt so good to be back.
But now her mother had sold her land to a stranger. An infuriating, arrogant stranger. With a foolish grin and startling blue eyes.
This is my land. It is you who are trespassing.
She jumped to her feet and brushed at the seat of her jeans as she thought about his words. "We'll just see about that, Mr. High and Mighty. I'm going to get this land back. And I'm going to live in my house again."
She shot a menacing glance behind her, in the direction of a faint smell of wood smoke. Then she set out in a determined stride toward the house on the far side of the field.
It was about time she and her mother had an honest little talk.
In the woods behind her, Steve Adams stood staring at the opening in the trees, scratching his bearded chin. Was what she said true? Did the redheaded whirlwind actually have some kind of claim on the property?
If she does have a legal claim as one of the old man's heirs, she can hold up our operation indefinitely. He would wait and try to find out a little more about the woman before talking to the others about it.
He grinned thinking about her-the way she looked as he had stared up at her from where he lay on the ground. Her hands planted firmly on her hips, hair falling about her face, flaming red and gold in a streak of sunlight.
Getting to know her might be interesting-and fun-if the matter weren't so serious.
Frowning, he turned back to his campsite and looked across at the hillock where the first building would stand. He was almost ready to begin laying it out, driving in stakes and stringing up line. He'd already bought the materials, had them piled behind the old house, ready to haul over as soon as he widened the path enough to get his pickup through.
His frown deepened as he thought of the girl's words about the house. She was planning to live there? When she'd mentioned a house, he'd thought there surely must be a better building that he didn't know about someplace on the property.
He shook his head, trying to remove some of the cobwebs, and then glanced down at his coffee mug still lying on the ground. He grinned again, shaking his head in disbelief. Man, she was something else, the way she'd shot through those bushes at him. Likely to have scared him half to death. He would have thought a bear had him-if he'd had time to think anything.
Picking up the mug, he went to check for more coffee in the blackened pot on a rock near the remains of his fire.
A little later that evening, Kate stepped from her uncle's car onto the graveled parking lot of the small rural church her family had attended for four generations. Closing the car door, she glanced at the hillside behind the church building. White marble glistened in the setting sun. Several generations of her family lay out there under those markers. How she wished her grandfather could tell her what he had meant when he'd said one day his house and woods would belong to her.
"I'm glad you'll be with us awhile, Kate." Her aunt flashed her a smile as they walked toward the church house steps.
"Thanks, Aunt El. I appreciate your inviting me."
"With Charlotte off on the mission field and your uncle Rob on the road so much, it can get quite lonesome around our place at times."
"Yes, I'm glad you'll be there with Ellendor," her uncle agreed as they hurried up the steps.
They heard singing before they stepped onto the small porch. Kate frowned. "I'm sorry. I stayed in the woods so late I caused you to be late for church."
Her aunt glanced at her as her husband stepped around them to open the door. "I'm just glad you're here for the special Thanksgiving service. I think you'll like our new pastor. And you'll get to see a lot of folks you haven't seen in a long time."
Kate grimaced as she followed her aunt inside the building. Seeing a lot of folks was one of the last things she wanted to do. But she felt she couldn't refuse to attend the service after Aunt El and Uncle Rob had invited her to spend her Thanksgiving holiday with them.
"To thy house, Oh, Lord, with rejoicing we come, for we know that we are Thine "
The familiar hymn reverberated through the old wooden structure where Kate had spent many happy hours of her childhood. She slid into a pew beside Aunt El and picked up a hymnal.
She couldn't help but smile at the feel of the familiar old book in her hand. It was good to see somebody still used hymnals.
She liked the praise songs churches were singing nowadays, the few churches she had visited during the past year or two, anyway. But it was good to be able to sing these familiar words again-and hold the worn book in her hands as she sang. It brought back happy memories of earlier times.
Times when she'd played barefoot around the farmhouse, gathered tomatoes from the garden, ran barefoot through the woods-
Her mother and her brothers had sold it to him.
Kate glanced at her aunt and uncle. Had there been a formal reading of Grandpa's will? If so, why had she not been told about it?
She was glad her parents had left for home while she was in the woods so she couldn't talk to her mother about the land as she'd meant to. She wasn't sure she could trust her mother about it. Who could she trust? Certainly not her sister, who was probably the attorney for the sale.
Maybe she'd find a lawyer for herself, have him check out the legitimacy of the sale and what rights she might have to part of the land.
"Be thankful and be glad!"
The words rang through the sanctuary as the preacher stepped into the pulpit, jarring Kate back to her surroundings.
"The Bible tells us God has wonderful plans for our lives here on this earth. Plans to give us a future and a hope. And Jesus Himself said He is preparing a wonderful place for us after this life is over. He has gone back to Heaven to prepare a home there just for you."
Oh, yeah? If He has, Mother will probably find a way to take mine over and sell it.
Kate's cheeks warmed at the irreverence of her thoughts. She turned her eyes from the minister's probing gaze to a window on the far side of the sanctuary and the marble stones barely visible in the evening light. She closed her eyes trying to envision this wonderful place the pastor described instead of the cold, dark graves out there.
Could she trust God to provide such a place when she died? Could she trust God to provide anything at all for her, here in this life or anyplace else, when He let all the things she loved most be taken away from her?
Biting back threatening tears, she ignored the minister's words as she stared out the window at the gathering darkness.
Soon, the white tombstones and bright flowers at the grave sites were no longer visible.
Like her future, only a black void remained.