This Time [NOOK Book]

Overview

Oklahoma Rancher Belle Jamison's world topples when her best friend announces that Burke Benning, their former classmate and an NFL superstar running back, is coming to their fifteenth class reunion to act as Master of Ceremonies. Twelve years earlier the handsome athlete broke Belle's heart by deserting her minutes before their wedding ceremony.
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This Time

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Overview

Oklahoma Rancher Belle Jamison's world topples when her best friend announces that Burke Benning, their former classmate and an NFL superstar running back, is coming to their fifteenth class reunion to act as Master of Ceremonies. Twelve years earlier the handsome athlete broke Belle's heart by deserting her minutes before their wedding ceremony.
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Product Details

  • BN ID: 2940011230561
  • Publisher: Writers Exchange E-Publishing
  • Publication date: 2/14/2011
  • Sold by: Smashwords
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 77,621
  • File size: 521 KB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On Friday afternoon, just before dusk, a sweaty and dust-covered Belle Jamison tugged open the squeaky door to Haskell High's gymnasium.

Inside, it was cool, and the lighting dim. Belle pulled off her tattered hat and used its wide brim to slap the dirt from her faded jeans. After a moment, she strode across the wood floor, the heels of her well-worn boots thumping resoundingly.

Fifteen years, she thought. Hardly seems possible.

In a week, the gym would be alive with old friends getting reacquainted, laughing the laughter that comes only when reminiscing, sharing the bond and joy that come only from the past.

"Afternoon, green eyes. Been here long?" a smooth, familiar voice brought her around.

"Spencer, I didn't hear you come in."

"How can you miss the sound of that door opening and closing?"

"Lost in thought, I suppose," Belle answered.

Spencer Grey chuckled, loosened his tie and unbuttoned his starched white collar. "This old gym sure takes me back." He dropped his briefcase and crouched forward, pretending to dribble a basketball. "It's Spencer Grey, going for the three pointer. Two seconds on the clock. He shoots! He scores! Spencer Grey clinches the regional championship for the Haskell Haymakers."

He ran around the top of the key, arms raised overhead, cheering as if he were before a crowd of hundreds. "The crowd goes wild."

Belle stood back, arms crossed, laughing. "As I recall," she said, "you shot and missed."

"You have your memories, I have mine." Spencer shot another pretend basket.

"Spencer, we lost the regional that year."

He wagged a finger at Belle. "Yeah, but not on my shot."

Belle shook herhead. "How do you live with yourself?"

"I don't know... I shower daily, use deodorant. I'm not that bad really, for a lawyer type." Spencer stepped toward her, reaching for her hand.

She drew away and buried her hand in her pocket. "Spence, speaking of showers... I'm sweaty and smelly. I've been rounding up the yearlings all day."

"So?"

"So..." Belle squirmed.

"I had a great time at dinner last night," Spencer said, his eyes searching hers.

"About last night," she said, hesitating.

Spencer dropped his arm and took a step back. "Uh-oh, here we go."

"Spence..."

He held his hand up to her face. "Talk to the hand," he said smugly, then turned his back.

"Oh, that's mature, counselor." They sounded like they were back in high school.

"I'm tired of your excuses." Spencer folded his suit jacket and draped it over his briefcase.

"Would you let me explain?"

"Think you can?"

She sighed. "I just want to go slow, that's all."

"Slow? Slow! Belle, you're thirty-three years old. It's time to pick up the pace a little."

She flared at his condescension, and was about to give him a dose of his own medicine when the rattling of the gym doors stopped her short. The rest of the reunion committee strolled in together, their voices reverberating.

"Let's talk about this later," Belle whispered to him.

"If you have the time," Spencer countered, terse with frustration.

"Belle, Spencer, you'll never guess who we got to be Master of Ceremonies for the reunion." Gates Fuller's blue eyes snapped with excitement.

"Tyler McDermott," Belle answered pragmatically. As reunion chair, she had personally called and invited their most respected and honored classmate, a recently elected United States Senator, to act as the emcee for the fifteenth reunion of the class of '85. He had graciously agreed. Belle couldn't imagine anyone better to host the weekend.

"He's hosting Saturday night," Gates confirmed. "We have a schedule all made out for him. Just like you asked. But guess who has agreed to emcee Friday night?" Gates and Meg Carson giggled like schoolgirls.

"Tyler McDermott," Belle answered again, dryly. What were those two thinking? If they weren't her best friends, she'd, well she didn't know what she'd think of them. She often wondered what made that red head of Gates' tick. Her imagination constantly manufactured new ideas and worked new angles.

"Guess again," Gates prompted.

Belle lifted her hands, in no mood for guessing games. First, the tense exchange with Spencer, now this. "Gates, for crying out loud, what made you think we needed another emcee?"

"Tyler, actually," Gates answered, her attitude now defensive. "He'd been on the phone with our other emcee, and asked if he was coming to the reunion. One thing lead to another and well, we have a second emcee."

"Just tell us," Belle pleaded, weary.

The men of the committee, Spencer, Dan Green and Cody McDowell chimed in that they'd like to know, too.

Gates paused for one beaming moment, then blurted out, "Burke Benning!" She and Meg shrieked in unison.

The guys whooped and hollered, giving each other high fives. With two words, the reunion excitement rocketed, and everyone talked at once.

Except for Belle. Gates announcement sent her heart to her stomach like a boulder hitting a smooth glassy lake. Waves of panic crashed over her, eroding bits and pieces of her senses.

"No! No, Burke Benning," she blurted out. The others gawked at her.

"Why not?" Dan wanted to know, peering over his glasses.

Desperate, Belle manufactured a weak reason. "Tyler McDermott's name is on reunion handbill.

"You have to do better than that," Gates said, arms crossed, giving Belle the eye. "The programs haven't been printed yet."

Belle squirmed, feeling cornered. "This is a committee," she argued. "Gates and Meg can't make the decisions like that without all of us weighing in."

Gates turned to the men. "Any objections?"

"No," they said with one voice.

"Well, I object," Belle said.

"Overruled," Spencer bellowed, sounding like a season judge rather than a lawyer.

"Sustained!" Belle fired back without thinking. She reddened at how ridiculous her own voice sounded as it echoed around the gym.

Everyone laughed. "You can't sustain an overruled, Belle," Spencer said, his laugh crowning every word.

I'm making no sense! I'm falling apart already. Blasted Burke.

Spencer stepped in front of her, his determined stare holding her gaze in a contest. "Belle, he's an NFL star running back. He's been All Pro since his rookie year. He was Rookie of the Year. He's an awesome athlete."

"I'm not impressed." Her words were flat and cold.

Gates pushed Spencer aside and took a turn. "Belle, I've known you since the Community Church Cradle Roll. You are one of my best friends, and one of the most extraordinary people I know. You are also one of the most inflexible. Put aside your personal feelings and realize the rest of the class would love to see Burke as emcee."

Meg added her logic to the argument. "This is the first reunion that he's attended since that spontaneous one we had the year after we graduated. It's an honor to have him. Not many small town high schools can say they have such a famous alumni."

"So, we make him Master of Ceremonies?" Belle challenged.

"Belle," Spencer began. "Give it up. It's five to one. He's going to emcee the Friday night events. It's a Square Dance, so there won't be much for him to do. Does that make you feel better?"

She looked at the determined faces of her committee. They wanted Burke Benning. No objection of hers would change their minds.

With a sigh, she conceded. She could never expect them to understand how the sound of Burke's name made her heart pound, her stomach weak and her mind confused.

For the past twelve years she'd managed to avoid him and the rest of the Benning family. Not an easy feat in a small town. Except for the magazine rack at the grocery checkout counter, she rarely saw him.

Now she would be confronted with him for an entire weekend. She shuddered. Yet, wasn't it that very morning she read the Apostle Paul's words, "I forget what lies behind and press forward to what lies ahead."

Obviously, she had not forgotten the past. She had not pressed forward. Not when it came to Burke.

Once, about ten years ago she had resisted a little nudge during a Sunday service to give Burke a call, to get it all out in the open, to clear the air. Forgive and move on.

But she could never bring herself to face him with the pain.

"Belle?" Spencer peered into her face. "You okay?"

She lifted her chin and glanced into his eyes, bringing her wandering thoughts into focus. "I'm fine. Let's go to the bleachers to discuss the rest of the reunion agenda."

Within an hour the reunion committee had finalized the weekend events, and each member had a list of to-do's.

Spencer and Meg jotted notes. Spencer in a leather bound organizer, and Meg in a cartoon covered notepad.

"I think that does it," Belle said.

"Great," Spencer said, tossing his organizer in his brief case and slapping his hands on his knees. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm hungry and thirsty. Anyone for a soda and burger at Charlie's?"

"Not me," Gates said, standing and moving down the bleachers. "Paul is grilling out tonight. He's holding down the fort until I get there."

"Well, my husband is not grilling out tonight, so if we are going to have dinner at my house, I need to get going," Meg said, following Gates.

Cody and Dan also had families waiting. "See ya'll," Belle called after them.

Spencer stood and reached for his briefcase and jacket. "Charlie's?" he asked Belle. "We can finish our conversation."

Belle gathered her papers and stuffed them in a worn leather saddlebag. The news of Burke's reunion appearance left her in no mood to deal with Spencer's romantic overtures. "Not tonight, Spence," she said, flinging the saddlebag over her shoulder and starting down the bleachers. "I'm tired, and in desperate need of a big bar of soap and a hot shower."

"Can I stop by a little later?"

"I'll be in my pajamas. Maybe another night," Belle said over her shoulder, as she stepped onto the gym floor and headed for the door.

"Belle," Spencer said with force. "You can't keep avoiding me. Avoiding us."

She turned and waved just before stepping outside, a weak smile on her lips, and heavy feeling coating her heart.

***

The Jamison ranch, Bar J, ran along the southern county line; six thousand acres of rich grazing land.

Mechanically, Belle turned her refurbished '57 truck into the homestead's long gravel drive, her thoughts still on the events of the meeting. She passed the large river stone, nestled between two tall, thriving cottonwoods and pulled alongside the barn.

A yipping, panting pack of Border-Collie mutts greeted her as she cut the truck's engine and hopped out of the cab. She threw her bag of reunion notes into the bed and bent down to greet her canine companions.

She buried her nose in Rascal's black and white mane, scratched Petie and Jasper behind their pointed ears, smoothed her hand over Scout and Junior's sleek tan and chocolate colored backs.

"Got a new one in the litter today," Duke Jamison said, coming across the barnyard toward the garage.

Belle looked around. A black, tan and white puppy face with round brown eyes poked his nose through the crowd with a high-pitched yip. "Where'd he come from?" she asked, picking up the puppy. His long, pink tongue slobbered on her face.

"Found him in a box at the feed store. Looks to be part hound, part collie. Figured he'd fit in here okay."

Belle laughed at the puppy's long, floppy ears. "Reckon Chet Guthrie's hound is the father."

"Probably," Duke laughed. At seventy-five, Duke Jamison was the picture of a life-long rancher--lean and leathery. His angular face fanned into long wrinkles when he smiled, though his blue eyes were young and vibrant. "How'd the meeting go?"

Belle stepped inside the barn and gave the dogs a treat before answering. "We finalized everything," she said, walking with Duke toward the warm light of the kitchen. An old western tune drifted from Duke's sixty-year-old radio through an open window, and the easy, tumbleweed melody comforted Belle. In the lean-to, she kicked off her boots and followed Duke into the kitchen.

"What you gonna call him?" Belle asked about the new puppy.

"This one's yours to name, I believe."

"How 'bout Little General? Isn't Chet's hound named General?" Belle went to the refrigerator and pulled out the pitcher of sweet iced tea.

Duke nodded his agreement. "So, you all ready for the weekend then?" he asked, motioning for Belle to sit at the table as he loaded up their plates with fried potatoes, slices of seasoned roast beef, and a scoop of green beans.

Belle waited to answer until her father had pulled up to the table and offered thanks to the Lord for the blessing of dinnertime.

As soon as Belle echoed his Amen, she said soberly, "Burke's coming."

"Burke Benning?"

"You know another Burke?"

"Ain't that something?"

"Ain't that something?" Belle repeated. "Makes me nauseated."

"Still?" His question met with her silent gaze. "It's been twelve years."

"Mom's been dead over twenty years. Are you over that?" Belle gave her dad a hard look.

"Your mom and I were married for over thirty years. It's not the same."

"You still miss her though, don't you?"

"Can't help it much," he said softly. "I see her every time you smile."

Duke's reference to Colleen Jamison's wide, bright smile cut to Belle's heart. "I'm sorry, Daddy," she relented, tenderly touching his arm.

Duke smiled his crooked smile. "Aw, it's all right, kitten. I reckon you didn't make plans for ever seeing Burke again, did ya?"

"No." She stabbed her meat with her fork.

"Ya know, I prayed about you and Burke not long ago."

Belle dropped her loaded fork. "Whatever for?"

"It come to my mind while I talked with the Lord. I reckon you and Burke never had any closure. The door to your heart is still ajar, leaving room for feelings and thoughts to come and go. Maybe that's why you haven't let love come near since him."

Belle sat back in her chair and rolled her eyes. "Now, where did you come up with a pop psychology theory such as that?"

"I don't know anything about psychology, pop or otherwise. I believe the Lord guided me. I simply prayed, 'Give 'em Your wisdom, Father. Let Your will be done in Burke and in Belle's life. My very words."

They ate the rest of their meal in silence, Belle's mind churning with questions she could not answer. Could it be that after all these years, the burden of Burke still weighed on her heart?

"I see you were chewing on more than your food," Duke said, when Belle finished eating and carried her plate to the sink.

"I have a lot to think about Daddy. This weekend, well-"

"The Lord don't give you more than you can handle." Duke loosely quoted First Corinthians.

"That verse is talking about temptation," Belle countered, smiling.

"This is a temptation," Duke said, filling the big ceramic sink with hot, soapy water. "A temptation to stay bitter and angry--chained to the past."

Belle picked up a dishtowel and started to dry. "It's my decision, isn't it?"

"No one else's."

After the dishes were done, Belle showered and called good night down the stairs. It was still early, but she needed some time.

"Lord, what am I to do?" she prayed, reaching for her guitar. She curled up on her bed and sank into the pillows. For the better part of an hour, she played and prayed, letting the peace of His Spirit wash over her and strengthen her soul.

Chapter Two

In the driveway of the ramshackle farm house, juxtaposed in its shadow, sat a new sports car convertible, burgundy with a black top and tinted windows. The sleek car seemed to mock the peeling paint and sagging front porch of the old homestead.

Yet, to Burke Benning, the house was his true treasure. He unlocked the front door, absently tucked his keys in his pocket and wondrously stepped into the past.

Grandpa Benning's old place made him feel like a kid again and instantly connected him to all the good that came from growing up in small Mid-western town of Haskell, Oklahoma.

Not much had changed in the house since he'd inherited it from his grandfather several years ago. The old furniture and fixtures remained the same, only now covered with dusty sheets.

Faded wallpaper peeled away from the wall, and the pea green shag carpet that covered most of the downstairs was a flashback to the '70's.

In the kitchen, Burke stuck his head inside the pantry and drew a deep breath. How could it be that after all these years it still smelled of baked ham and pumpkin pie?

The family room stretched along the southern side of the house. Large windows, opposite the stone fireplace, let in the mid-day light. Burke stepped into the room, and for a brief moment, stepped into the past. So many of his boyhood memories were made right here as he celebrated holidays and birthdays with the family.

He closed his eyes trying to remember the smell of spring air blowing through open windows, perfumed with the sweet scent of new mown grass.

"Takes you back, doesn't it?" A hand clapped solidly on his shoulder.

Burke whirled around. "Dean," he said, embracing his older brother. "I still miss them."

"Me, too."

"I suppose we never outgrow wanting our grandparents."

"It's home, Burke. It's home."

A young, deep voice interrupted. "Hey, Uncle Burke." A bright face appeared around Dean.

"Jack?"

Jack smiled sheepishly. "Yeah."

"You've grown a foot since I saw you last summer!" Burke stepped back and surveyed his only nephew. He sported the wide, mischievous Benning smile and strong chin. He looked more a like a grown man than Burke wanted to admit.

"He's sixteen, Burke," Dean said, then boasted. "Starting quarterback for the Haymakers this fall."

Burke congratulated his nephew, proud that he continued the Benning legacy at Haskell High.

"Your dad and I had a lot of fun times in this old place," Burke said. "Remember the attic, Dean?"

Dean nodded. "Granddad had old model trains up there with the track and town all laid out. That thing kept us out of trouble for hours."

"Let's check it out," Burke suggested, starting for the attic.

When they reached the hot and dusty third floor, they found the treasure they'd hoped to find. Under a waterproof tarp sat Granddad's trains, still waiting to pull away from the station.

"Hello! Anybody home? Hello?" Muffled calls resounded up the stairwell.

Jack glanced out the attic window. "Granddad and grandma are here."

Burke left the attic and met his parents in the front foyer, grabbing his mother in a big swirling hug. "Hello, Mother."

Laughing, Elaine Benning slapped her son on the shoulder. "Now, put me down before I get dizzy."

"Hello, son." Reese Benning stepped up and gave his youngest son a manly, yet loving hug.

"Dad, good to see you," Burke said. Dean and Jack joined them as they moved into the family room.

"This place hasn't changed in fifty years," Elaine said, glancing around, hands on her petite waist. She seemed like a delicate rose blooming in the shadow of towering trees standing next to the broad, tall Benning men. The top of her brown head barely squared off with Reese's shoulders. "Reese, that mantle picture was there the first time you brought me to meet your parents."

"The folks didn't go in much for change," Reese commented, a far away look in his dark, deep eyes as he walked around the room. "You going to fix this place up Burke? It'd be worth your money. It's got a sound construction. You could rent it out for a nice price."

"I plan on fixing it up," Burke said, rubbing his hands together, an edgy, nervous feeling creeping over him. He had news to share with the family and wanted to get it out in the open. "Why don't we all sit in the family room? I want to talk to you about something."

Elaine and Reese took a seat on the couch. Dean pulled a sheet off of an old rocking chair that squeaked when he sat down. Jack flopped down next to his grandpa and scrubbed Reese's thick gray head with his knuckles then tried to arm-wrestle him. They tussled and grunted for a few seconds before Reese won.

"Not bad for a fifty-seven year old grandpa," Reese said, patting his forearm, muscular and powerful from years of working the ranch and roping cattle.

Meanwhile, Burke paced the floor in front of them, his mind rehearsing what he wanted to say. When he had their attention, he said in one tight breath, "I'm retiring from football."

All smiles faded.

"Why?" Reese asked, serious and concerned.

"Now? At the height of your career?" Dean trailed his father's question with one of his own.

Burke put up his hands for silence. "It's time," he said, meaning it.

"Burke, how can it be time? You're at the top of your game. You have at least five or six seasons left," Dean pointed out.

Burke's gaze fell on each family member, his eyes meeting theirs for a fleeting moment. "Last season was my last. I believe the Lord has called me to retire."

"What's changed, Burke?" Reese asked, studying his son with intensity. "When your mother and I visited with you at Christmas, you had a five year plan to play with the Broncos."

"I've changed."

Elaine shifted in her seat and leaned toward Burke. "How so?"

Burke ducked his head and cleared his throat. Thinking of the events of the last six months still stirred his heart. When he felt in control, he looked up and said. "I encountered Jesus again in a way I hadn't in a long time."

"Good for you," Elaine whispered, tears in her blue eyes.

"What happened?" Reese prodded.

"I started attending a new church right after Christmas. Every Sunday, week after week, the sermons, the worship songs, everything seemed to be tailored just for me. The Lord removed my tinted glasses, and I saw how prideful I had become and frankly, it scared me. I hadn't been praying, or reading the Word. Finally, my own stench got to me, and I committed several months to intense prayer, even fasting some. I put my life on the altar and told the Lord to take it all."

"And He lead you to retire from football?" Reese asked.

Burke stopped pacing and rested on an ottoman, elbows on his knees, shaking his head as if he didn't believe the answer either. "Dad, when you encounter the love of Jesus, everything in life pales. At least that's how it seemed to me. Last season I couldn't imagine ever leaving football. I lived the game. It consumed me. When I finally got quiet enough in my soul to listen, the Lord began to whisper to me in ways I'd never encountered before. He gave me a choice. I could continue in football, and He would bless me because He loves me and that's the kind of God He is, or I could take a new road He offered. It seemed to me to be a higher, narrower road. I knew my success would be measured by a different standard. So, I chose."

Silence. Everyone was lost in thought and reflection. Finally Elaine said softly, "You chose wisely, Burke."

"No glory goes to me, Mom. I just knew He'd called me to a new life," Burke said.

"What's next, then?" Reese wanted to know.

Burke did not hesitate. "I'm coming home."

"Here? To Haskell?" Dean asked, surprised

"Home. Haskell." Burke let out another stunning confession.

"Why here? Your home in Denver is lovely." Elaine asked intensely. "You have friends, a church family and an established life there."

Burke actually laughed as he thought of the reason. "Tyler McDermott and I'd been talking, reminiscing about old times when he suggested I come to the reunion and help him emcee the weekend events. Then I talked to Gates Fuller. You know, she still giggles like she did in high school? Anyway, it just hit me; it's time to come home. Truthfully, I've had a hankering to move back to Haskell for a long time. I could never figure out how to do it."

"Burke," Reese started in a fatherly tone. "You're a grown man and I'm busting my buttons over here to hear my son say he's choosing Jesus over fame and fortune, but coming back to Haskell, well, it won't be like coming home from college for the summer. This is a small town. We're simple people. You've lived a life some people only see on TV or at the movies. Will you be happy here?"

"Hush, Reese," Elaine interjected. "If the boy wants to come home, don't discourage him."

Reese continued with his serious tone. "In the fall, when your team is playing football, you won't be on the field. You'll be here in Haskell where the biggest events of the fall are the Fair and Homecoming."

"I know, Dad. Believe it or not, it sounds wonderful to me."

"How'd you get out of your contract?" Dean asked.

"My contract ended last season."

For the first time, Jack joined the conversation, an innocent desperation in his voice. "The Bronco's need you, Uncle Burke."

Burke chuckled. "You think so Jack?"

Jack nodded vigorously.

"I used to think they needed me, too. And maybe for a time they did, but there is plenty of excellent talent coming up behind me. One of them will stand out next season."

"That's like saying the Bulls could replace Michael Jordan," Jack reasoned with a moan.

Everyone laughed. "You have a point there, Jack," Reese commented.

Burke shook his head in sincere humility. "I appreciate the comparison, Jack, but I'm not football's Michael Jordan."

"Don't underestimate your abilities," Reese said.

"I never have Dad. You wouldn't let me."

Dean and Jack's head bobbed in agreement.

"I just want you to be sure, Burke. Though, I must confess, it's not like you to quit. Never seen you give up on anything you've put your mind to do."

"Well, that's not entirely true, Dad," Burke whispered, instantly reminded of a commitment he'd abandoned years ago. He'd rather face a line of determined defensive tackles than to look into Belle's eyes after twelve years. Elaine reported to him that she was the "Belle of the town" as a member of the town council, and was turning the Bar J into a successful business.

"What were you saying, Jack? Sorry, I drifted off," Burke said, realizing his nephew was talking to him.

"Dad said you were going to make a movie."

Dean corrected his son. "No, I said I read in the paper he might do a movie."

"Are you?" Jack asked eagerly.

"The movie is on hold. My agent is busy sending me sitcom scripts for guest appearances. One is to be a regular member on a sports parody show. Last night he called and said he'd lined me up with a few engagements this summer, but other than that..."

"Burke," Reese started, "you've been in the football limelight since you were in high school. What are you going to do with yourself?"

"I believe the Lord lead me in my career even when I wasn't serving Him wholeheartedly. I can't doubt Him now that I've completely laid myself open to Him. I believe he had something in mind before I took the challenge of the narrower road."

"Any ideas of what He might have in store?" Elaine asked.

"For one thing, a simpler life, Mom. Less of me, more of Him."

"The Lord's ways are not our ways. They are infinitely better," Reese said.

"Exactly," Burke agreed. "This is a step of faith for me. Don't misunderstand and think this has been an easy decision. I've struggled with God over this, but I have a profound sense of peace. And that is what I'm using to confirm my every move. I'm letting the peace of God rule my heart and mind."

"What about Grace?" Dean asked.

All eyes were on Burke, repeating Dean's question. What about Grace?

"She's trying to understand. We are at different places in our lives, which makes it hard. She's leaping into the height of her career, and I'm bowing out of mine."

"Will she move here eventually?" Elaine asked.

Burke grinned, the motive behind his mother's question thinly veiled.

"Is that your subtle way of asking if we are getting married?"

"You could do worse, brother," Dean said, teasing, a glint in his eye. "Much worse."

"The question is," Burke began slowly, "could I do better?"

Dean pondered his question. "Only you can answer that, I guess," he said after a moment.

Grace Peterson, Burke's personal Hollywood star. Despite all efforts to keep the relationship private, they had become the couple to talk about. He, as one of football's most eligible bachelors, and she as one of Hollywood's most beautiful and talented actresses.

Reese slapped his hands on his knees and stood. "Well, I'm convinced. Welcome home. It will be good to have you around for a while."

"Maybe you could come to our football practices," Jack suggested wildly.

Burke laughed. "I'd love to, Jack. I don't want to interfere with Coach Anderson's program, but I'd love to help out if he needed me."

Elaine stood beside her husband. "I'm sure the Lord will open that new door for you soon. His timing is perfect!"

Reese clapped his hands together. "Diamondback Steak House, on me!"

Cheers of agreement filled the room.

"Let me call home. Elise and Molly can meet us there," Dean said, reaching for his cell phone. He dialed his wife and daughter.

Burke agreed dinner sounded good, but suggested the family go ahead without him. He'd meet them there. "I got a few things to do here first."

He walked with his family out to their cars and waved good-bye, reminding them to order him a nice thick porterhouse steak, medium well, with a baked potato. He went inside and sat in his grandfather's prayer chair and closed his eyes. He prayed for a few minutes, listening and waiting, a peaceful habit he'd come to love.

His thoughts and prayers drifted to Belle. He winced as he imagined the confrontation that awaited him. Deep in his heart he understood that part of facing the future meant facing the past.

Mentally, he'd prepared to see her again, but he had to confess that the idea brought certain trepidation. For days now, he'd rehearsed various reunion scenarios, bracing himself for her reaction.

If she greeted him with anger, he'd remain calm. If she melted into a puddle of tears, he'd respond with tender words of comfort and regret. If she ignored him, he would subtly pursue her. And, if she demanded an explanation...

The thought moved Burke to prayer again. In the twelve years that had passed since he'd last seen her, he'd not forgotten the devastating way in which he'd left her. Yet, he struggled to connect with the feelings that had gripped him on that dreadful day. Time, and the Lord's forgiveness, had washed away the panic he'd felt then, and healed his own broken heart. Now, as he contemplated the only explanation he had to offer her, it sounded trite and hollow, void of good sense.

He sighed and got up from his chair, reaching for his car keys. The family would be waiting at the restaurant by now. As he walked to his car, his thoughts still trapped in the past, he wondered at how he could have caused Belle such an avalanche of pain.

Chapter Three

When Belle walked into the gym on Thursday, it had been utterly transformed. Hay bales lined the walls, and loose hay covered the floor. The tables were draped in bright red-checkered table clothes with shiny tin lanterns as centerpieces.

Overhead, thousands of balloons and streamers hid the steel beam ceiling. Meg Witherspoon, with her decorating committee, bustled about adding the final touches and setting placards on the tables.

"Meg, this is wonderful," Belle said, breathless.

Meg brushed a wild curl out of her eyes and smiled. "Thank you. It went smoother than I thought."

"Your crew has obviously worked very hard. The class will appreciate all you've done."

"I took the liberty of thanking myself. I put Tyler McDermott and his wife at my table. Also Burke." Meg gave Belle a sideways glance with raised eyebrows.

Belle turned away.

"Good for you. You can have the honors."

"Burke is bringing a date." Meg said without any preamble.

"Oh?" she said, feeling herself bristle. She wanted to act and sound casual, but the quiver in her simple "oh" gave her away.

"Gates told me today. Grace Peterson is flying in to join him."

"Grace Peterson is coming to our reunion?"

"Got the placard right here." Meg flashed a small pale green card in front of Belle's face.

She sighed and rubbed her forehead. "This reunion is going to turn into a circus."

"No, it isn't Belle."

"A U.S. Senator, a famous football player, and a Hollywood starlet. It's going to be a circus."

Meg stationed another placard, smiling as she said. "Well, it won't be dull, that's for sure. When we graduated, I never imagined that we'd have such famous alumni."

"Life is full of surprises, eh Meg?"

"I can't wait to meet her. I hear she is stunning."

"I'm sure she is," Belle answered.

Meg faced her with her hands on her hips. "Come on, aren't you the least bit curious? "

She came back with a quick, "No."

"Well then," Meg started, holding up Belle's placard. "I have one last placard and it's yours. Where do you want to sit?"

"Anywhere but near the circus."

"You're the reunion chairperson, you have to sit at one of the head tables."

"Fine, but not at Burke's."

Meg agreed and dropped Belle's placard at the head of another table. "Are you going to speak to him at all?"

"Not if I can help it."

Meg started to scold, but instead she shifted her focus over her friend's shoulder and said softly, "You better decide quick, 'cause here he comes with Gates."

Instinctively, Belle glanced over her shoulder as the six-foot-three athletic form of Burke strode gracefully across the gym floor, a very jovial Gates Fuller walking beside him. She all but bounced with each step. When they reached Belle and Meg, Belle shot Meg a "help me" glance. Subtly, Meg stepped between her and Burke.

"Here's our first emcee," Gates said, overly sweet.

Belle dropped her gaze to the floor, her heart beating wildly.

"Burke, it's wonderful to see you," Meg said, greeting him with a slight hug.

"It's good to be home," he said, his voice smooth and deep. "I'm honored to be Friday night's emcee."

Covertly, Belle slipped around the small group and found a safe place among the bales of hay. Once out of sight, she buried her face in her hands and wept.

All the steeling of her heart, all the barricading of her soul crumbled at the first sound of Burke's voice. She let the tears come; tears of hurt, tears of anger, tears of frustration. Slowly, she sank to the floor, her back resting against a sweet smelling bale.

Lord, seeing him stirs up all the junk from the past. Give me grace to deal with him.

The tears flowed uncontrollably. Belle wept and prayed, pouring out her fears and feelings to the One who loved her most. Peace finally came just as Meg tenderly called her name.

"Over here," Belle answered in a loud whisper.

Meg came around the hay bale. "Are you okay?"

She nodded, wanting to say more, but feared she would lose control and cry again.

Gentle hands caressed her shoulders, and Meg joined her on the floor. "You're crying."

Belle laughed weakly. "Just a little, Meg. Just a little."

Meg whipped out an old dishrag she'd been using to wipe down the tables. "Here, blow your nose on this."

"It's filthy," Belle noted.

"It's all I have, and you can't go out to say hi to Burke with a runny nose and mascara under your eyes."

She smiled and reached for the smudged rag.

"He asked about you," Meg offered.

Belle blew her nose and used a clean spot on the towel to wipe her face. "What did he say?"

"Just wondered where you were."

"Oh," she said, feeling disappointed.

"You still love him?"

"No! No, no, no, definitely no!"

"So, the answer's no, then?" Meg asked.

"Definitely."

"Why all the tears?"

"The moment he spoke to you, I felt it coming. This wave of emotion, you know? I wasn't ready for it. I thought I'd cried all the tears I could possibly cry over that man."

"You okay now?" Meg asked, tenderly brushing her hand over Belle's hair. "I like this short cut you have now."

Her hand went to her head. "This is the first time he's seen me with short hair."

"I think he'll like it."

"I guess it doesn't really matter if he does or doesn't," Belle concluded, looking Meg in the eye. "Thanks for listening."

"Hey, what are best friends for? You want to go say hi to him now?"

"Do I have to?" Her eyes twinkled at her friend.

"I think you should. Gates is going over tomorrow night's agenda with him."

"I guess I should get out there, then."

"Belle, you know you have to face him sooner or later. You can't avoid him this whole weekend."

"I've managed to avoid him for the past twelve years."

"Well, this weekend is your weekend of facing the past; good and bad. Reunion and reconciliation."

"We'll see," Belle said, standing. She took a deep cleansing breath.

Meg smiled and followed Belle out from among the hay.

By now, Tyler had arrived. Belle plastered a smile on her face and greeted him warmly. As they stood talking, she began to relax and occasionally stole a peek at Burke. He looked as handsome as ever with his strong chin and high cheeks. His hair had darkened some over the years, and he wore it trimmed close to his head. Belle liked it. His lean frame had filled out with the muscle that comes from professional football training, and his wide, rakish smile still made her knees feel weak.

She expected to see an arrogant, cocky super star. Instead, she sensed humility about him, a steady confidence. He was a man at peace.

You're the same Burke Benning, she thought, only more so. So how could you have-

A vivacious call came from the back of the gym. "Never fear, the life of the party is now here." Spencer walked across the floor, his declaration sparking a laugh.

He worked the room, greeting each person heartily, boldly interrupting Gates and Burke when he got to the stage. He gregariously welcomed his old high school football teammate and rival, over-complimenting his pro success.

He shook hands with Tyler and brought up the hottest political issues. They debated amiably, Spencer baiting the Senator with opposing views just for fun. After a few minutes, Tyler laughed and assured the crowd that Spencer would make a fine Washington politician.

"No, not me," Spencer laughed, holding up his hands, his playful smile lighting his face. "I let my home town girl here do all the politicking."

To Belle's surprise, Spencer wrapped her in his arms and spun her around the floor. She couldn't help but laugh, his spontaneity lightening her mood.

By now, Burke and Gates had joined Meg and Tyler down on the main floor. Spencer entertained them all.

"I think you missed your calling, Spence. You should have been an actor," Gates said.

"Actor, lawyer, politician. What's the difference?"

Belle glanced around the small circle, her eyes landing on Burke's face and, just before his eyes met hers for the first time in a long time, he looked away.

He's as uncomfortable as I am, Belle realized.

Gates grabbed Tyler to rehearse his part for Saturday. Meg had some last minute details to attend to, so in a matter of moments, Belle found herself alone with the past and the present.

Spencer seemed to sense the tension between Belle and Burke and tried to make light of the moment. He clapped his hands together and said, "Say, you kids know each other? Burke, Belle, Belle, Burke." He chuckled at the alliteration.

This time Burke did not avert his gaze. "I believe we know each other," he said, extending his hand to shake Belle's. "How are you, Belle?"

"Fine, Burke." She took his hand and gave it a hard squeeze; afraid he could sense her trembling. To her surprise, his hand felt cold and clammy. She remembered that as a telltale sign of his nerves. A small, sudden wave of compassion hit her. This wasn't easy for him.

For a brief moment, their eyes locked. But before Belle could see deep into those clear pools of blue, Spencer blurted out an idea.

"How about some dinner? Burke, Belle? My treat. The Diamond Back Steak House."

Burke dropped her hand. "No, thank you Spencer. Mom's tempted me with some of her good home cooking tonight."

"Then you and me, Belle?" Spencer wrapped one arm possessively around her shoulder.

"You two an item?" Burke's asked, curious.

"No, not really," Belle answered.

Spencer admitted, "I'm working on it, Burke. Working on it."

Belle stepped out of his one arm embrace. "You always did like to work alone," she said, indignant.

Burke couldn't hide his grin. "As I recall, Spencer, Belle is her own woman. Likes to makes up her own mind."

She couldn't stop the words as they flowed out, but there they were, straight from the core of her heart. "I'm surprised you recall anything about me."

"Ouch," Spencer said, stepping away from her as if he would be bitten next.

"Guess I deserved that," Burke said with a hint of humility.

"Maybe you did," Belle said, biting the inside of her lips and blinking away the tears. Burke started to say something, but she excused herself and walked away.

***

"I can't do it, Daddy. I can't." Belle sat next to Duke on the family room's old sofa. The soft hum of the window fan drowned out the song of the crickets and sent a cool breeze through the warm room.

"What's this now? Saying I can't?" Duke leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees and peered into Belle's eyes.

"I can't be around Burke. I can't."

"I figure you can do anything you put your mind to, Belle. You went back to college carrying your broken heart in your hands. You graduated with honors, then helped me get this ranch back in the black. Last year you ran for town council and beat the ten year incumbent."

Tears pooled in her eyes as she listened to her father's encouragement. Yes, she'd done all of those things, but this was different. She felt tired and weary as if all her strength were gone.

"You're about the strongest, most confident woman I know. I'm proud to call you my daughter. Don't know how the Lord blessed me with such fine women in my life."

Belle spoke honestly and openly. "I'm not so strong, Daddy. Not when it comes to Burke. I want to be strong, everyone expects me to be long over this, and I'm not. I'm not."

Her dad nodded, thinking, rubbing his chin. "After your mother died the Lord told me I had to teach you to deal with life's pain. I didn't do much to shelter you. I guess we just take it for granted you can handle most any situation that comes your way."

She squeezed his hand. "I'm grateful for what you taught me. I'm grateful to Jesus for being so real in my life, but right now, I need you to pray for me. Please."

Duke did not hesitate. He wrapped his strong arm around her shoulders and started to pray as Belle dropped her head against him.

"Father, we come askin' for grace and peace, wisdom and understanding. Just wrap my girl in Your mighty love and give her strength to get through this reunion. And Lord, once and for all, let there be a healin' between Belle and Burke. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

"Thank you," Belle whispered.

He smiled his tender, fatherly smile and kissed her on the cheek. "Mind if I change the subject here for a minute?"

Belle waved her hand at him. "Please do. I'm tired of focusing on me."

For the next thirty minutes they sat at her desk situated in one corner of the spacious ranch kitchen and discussed the business. Belle's improved grazing methods had produced better data on the cattle they sold for beef, and the Bar J's profits were up.

"I knew sending ya to college would pay off," Duke teased, winking at her.

"Considering I barely made it through my last year..." Belle said, stopping suddenly as an image of Burke flashed across her mind. How lonely and disoriented her senior year had been without him.

Duke continued talking about the business, and it kept her thoughts in the present. Together, they finalized their summer plans by deciding to fence in the land they bought last year from Chet Guthrie. They would rotate the cattle to the new pasture and give the older ones a rest.

After making a few notes on her task list, Belle turned on the computer in order to send a few emails. While the modem dialed, she turned to her father and asked, nonchalantly, "Did you ever wish for a son to work the ranch with you?"

From the kitchen sink where he'd started to clean the coffee pot, Duke looked over his shoulder at her, surprise in his hazel eyes. "Now what possessed ya to ask a question like that?" He rinsed the pot and reached for a dishtowel.

"I don't know." She shrugged. "I've always wondered."

He set the pot back on the coffee maker and joined Belle at her desk. "You know your mom and me waited a long time to have a child. We'd been married almost twenty years when ya finally came along. Seeing your beautiful face for the first time, well, I reckon it was just about the best day of my life. We were so amazed by the Lord's favor on us, we never even questioned his choice for boy or girl."

"Ever wish you had another one? Maybe a boy?"

Her father shook his head and said plain and simple, "Nope."

Belle smiled.

Duke went on, a far away look in his eye as he remembered. "Your mom was almost forty-one when ya were born. We felt more than blessed to have ya. Purty little thing, ya were. Right purty."

"Maybe I'll have a son to give the ranch to, hmm?"

Duke playfully popped the dishtowel at her leg. "Got to get ya married first, girl."

She grew serious. "I want to, Daddy. I do. I just haven't found the right man yet."

"Spencer seems right sweet on ya."

"He's a good friend." She peered into her father's face, her look communicating more than any words she could express.

"I see," Duke said with a slight nod of his head. He strode across the newly tiled kitchen floor and pulled meat from the freezer.

Belle faced the computer and started composing an email. "You're not upset are you?"

Duke chuckled softly. "Why would I be upset, kitten?"

She turned from the screen and her emails. "I don't know. I thought you might want some grandkids by now."

Duke walked over to her and patted her arm tenderly. "Not if it means settlin' for something your heart ain't yearnin' for. Ya take your time and marry the man the Lord has for ya, hear? Ain't no other way to go.

"I don't think I could get married unless I knew the Lord wanted me to," she said, returning her attention to the computer, attempting to finish the day's work. But images of Burke replayed in her mind. Over and over she saw him striding smoothly across the gym floor. Conflicting emotions battled within her. Any hint of longing, any joy at seeing him again was overshadowed by the painful questions that plagued the past.

After several frustrating minutes of trying to forget Burke and focus on her work, Belle gave up and powered down the computer. Saying goodnight to her father, she headed to bed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2012

    Great Christian romance series

    I really enjoy this author and this series of books. Each can stand on their own, but it's great to read them all and see how each character grows.

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