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Chance Taylor stepped off the bus and surveyed the town, which was nothing like where he'd spent the past two years. Yet, for a few seconds he fought the overwhelming urge to get back on the bus. Because no matter how much he wanted to, he couldn't. Not until he'd paid his debt.
The bus pulled away from the curb, leaving him behind. No escape now. The beating of his heart kicked up a notch. Chance glanced up and down the street. Sweetwater. It was exactly as Tom Bolton had described it. Quaint stores lined its Main Street. A row of Bradford pear trees down both sides of the road offered shade in the heat of summer. Even though it was the end of September, the hot air caused sweat to pop out on his forehead.
He closed his eyes to the vivid colors spread out before hima red sign above a door, yellow pan-sies about the base of the trees along the street. He'd lived in a world he'd thought of as black-and-white. Now every hue of the rainbow bombarded him from all sides. Opening his eyes to the new world around him, he wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, then grabbed the one duffel bag with all his earthly possessions and strode toward Alice's Café.
Inside he scanned the diners, all engrossed in their food and conversation. People doing normal, everyday things with no idea how their life could change in a split second. But he knew.
Drawing in a deep breath, Chance took a moment to compose himself. Again the question flashed across his mind: why had he come to Sweetwater? Surely there was a better place, one he could get lost in. New York City. Chicago. Even Louisville would have been better than this small town, where according to Tom, everyone watched out for each other. He didn't want that. Nosy neighbors had led to his destruction in the past. But Sweetwater was the only place where he could fulfill his promise to himself. He was stuck here for the time being, but once he had paid his debt, he would leave as fast as a bus could take him out of town.
Chance saw Samuel Morgan in the back booth and headed toward him. Aware of a few glances thrown his way, Chance hurried over, placed his duffel bag on the floor, then slid in across from Samuel, his back to the other diners.
Samuel grinned. "I didn't think you'd come."
"I said I would. About the only thing I have left is my word."
"Tom's death wasn't your fault. He made his choice."
"I have a chance to return a favor. I intend to. That's the least I can do."
A waitress with a pencil behind her left ear paused near Samuel and dug into her apron pocket for a pad.
"Want something to eat?" Samuel asked.
Chance shook his head, aware of the open curiosity in the older woman's gaze. His stomach tightened. He should be used to people watching him, having spent the past few years with no right to any privacy. But he wasn't. All he wanted when he was through with Sweetwater was to find a quiet corner of the world where he could put his life back together.
"Alice, I'll take another cup of coffee." Samuel pushed his mug toward the edge of the table.
"Sure, Reverend. Be right back."
After Alice refilled Samuel's coffee and left, he said, "Your timing couldn't be better. Tanya Bolton has just converted the space over her garage into an apartment. She's looking for a tenant and you need a place to stay.
Something in the reverend's expression alerted Chance that there was more to it. "You wouldn't have anything to do with Tom's wife having an apartment, now would you?"
Samuel's grin reached deep into his eyes. "I did mention it would be a great way for her to make some extra money. She took the suggestion and ran with it."
"I can't see the lady renting to an ex-con."
"You aren't an ex-con. Your conviction was overturned because you were innocent. The police have the right guy in jail now."
The horror of the past few years threatened to deluge Chance with all the memories he desperately needed to forget. He refused to let them intrude, shoving them back into the dark corner of his mind. He didn't have the emotional strength to return to the past. His wounds ran deep, to his very soul. "It doesn't change the fact that I spent two years in prison. When she finds that out.." He couldn't finish his sentence, the words clogging his throat. The knot in his stomach grew.
Suddenly he pictured a man he'd thought was a good friend, and his expression when Chance had seen him last week in Louisville. Fear had flitted across his so-called friend's features before he could mask his reaction to seeing Chance. Although in the eyes of the law he had been exonerated, he had seen the doubt in the man's gaze. Did they have the right guy this time?
Samuel leaned toward Chance and said in a low tone, "I'm not telling Tanya anything about your recent past. I'll leave that for you to tell when you feel ready. But I am going to vouch for you. I know you're a good, honest man, and what you've come to Sweetwater to do is important to you."
Chance thought about being so near Tom's wife on a daily basis. He wasn't sure he could handle it, the constant reminder that he owed his life to Tom. "Is there anywhere else I can rent a room?"
"Probably. But not as convenient, that is if you really want to help Tanya. Or are you here to hide?"
Samuel's question pierced through the layers of protection Chance used to shield himself from others. If he was smart, he would leave and do exactly that.
"Look you don't have any way of getting around except walking, and Tanya's house is close to downtown so you can get just about any place you'll need to go from that apartment."
Chance held up his hand. "Okay, Reverend. You've convinced me. I'll see the lady about it."
Samuel took a long sip of his coffee. "Good. I also have lined up the interview with Nick Blackburn for that job I told you about when we spoke last week on the phone. He's looking for an assistant to help him with the part of his company he's moved to Sweetwa-ter. Still interested?"
"I need a job while I live here, so yes, I'm still interested. What does Mr. Blackburn know about me?"
"That you are a friend of mine, that's all."
"I'll have to tell him where I've been."
"Yeah, I know, but it needs to come from you. Nick will respect that." Samuel sipped his coffee.
"When's the interview?"
"Nine o'clock tomorrow morning. His office is two blocks down on Main. The brand-new, seven-story tall redbrick building. You probably saw it coming into town on the bus."
"Yeah. He works Saturdays?" Everything was moving so fast. Was he ready to plunge back into the world of big business? Once that had been his life. Once he'd worked long hours to get ahead at his job. Now he wished he had that time back, that he'd spent it with the family he no longer had.
"Sometimes. Usually he spends his weekends with his family, but he knew you were arriving today and decided to do it tomorrow. He said something about having to be in Chicago early next week."
"I've heard of Blackburn Industries. I didn't realize he'd moved his corporate offices from Chicago to Sweetwater."
Samuel shrugged. "Love is a strong motivator. His wife is from here." Samuel finished his cup of coffee. "I'll drive you over to Tanya's."
"No, I need to do this on my own. You can call her and give her a reference so she'll open the door, but the rest will have to be up to me."
"Fine, but, Chance, you aren't alone in this world. I told you that in prison and I'm telling you that now."
"I know. I know, Reverend. God is with me. He stood by me while I watched my family taken from me and while I was on trial. He was there with me in prison when I was fighting for my life." Chance saw the disappointment in Samuel's eyes that his sarcastic words had caused.
"I know how you feel, but you didn't give Him a chance to be with you."
Chance slipped from the booth. He didn't want to hear it. Samuel knew how he felt about the Lord who had abandoned him in his time of need. They'd even had a discussion about it when Samuel had come to the prison to minister to the inmates. "How do I get to Tanya Bolton's house?"
Samuel wrote an address on a napkin and handed it to him. "Go three blocks north on Main to Second, then go five blocks east on Second and that's Berryhill Road. Sure you don't want me to at least drop you off?"
"No, the exercise will be good for me." Chance turned from the booth and headed for the door. The very act of going anywhere he wanted was precious to him. He would never take freedom of movement for granted again.
Outside he relished the warmth of the sun on his face, the fresh air, laced with newly mowed grass and grilled meat from a barbecue restaurant on the next block. A slender man dressed in a suit passed him on the sidewalk and nodded a greeting. Automatically Chance returned it with his own nod. The sudden realization that for the next few months he would be thrust into the middle of life in a small town sent panic bolting through him. He'd grown up in a small town and knew that little was a secret for long. He didn't want to see the doubt and possibly even fear in the eyes of the residents of Sweetwater when they learned he'd been in prison.
"I've got the sign out in front and I've advertised in the paper. Now all I need is someone to rent the apartment over the garage," Tanya Bolton said as she switched the cordless phone to her other ear.
"You did such a nice job fixing the place up. I don't think you'll have any trouble finding a tenant."
"I hope you're right, Zoey, because I need the money. Having a teenage daughter who's growing out of all her clothes is expensive."
"Will I see you at Alice's Café tomorrow?"
"Of course. I wouldn't miss our Saturday get-together." Tanya lowered her voice, cupping the mouthpiece closer to her. "I don't know if I would have made it without you, Darcy, Beth and Jesse. You know I'll be there."
"See you tomorrow," Zoey Witherspoon said as a beep sounded, indicating another call on the line.
Tanya pushed a button. "Hello?"
"This is Samuel. I'm glad you're home, Tanya. I've got a friend coming over right now to see your apartment. He's going to be here for a while and needs a place to stay."
"A tenant! I was just talking to Zoey about not having shown the apartment to anyone yet."
"Then this is your lucky day. He'll be a great tenant. His name is Chance Taylor."
The sound of the doorbell ringing drew Tanya's attention. She walked toward the front door with the cordless phone still in her hand and noticed through the frosted glass a large man on her porch. "Looks like he's here. Thanks, Samuel. I really appreciate the referral." She laid the phone on the table in the small foyer, then hurriedly opened the door.
Before her stood a man several inches over six feet tall with broad shoulders, a narrow waist and muscular arms. His large presence dwarfed her small porch and blocked her doorway. Her gaze flew to his face, taking in his hard, square jaw, his nose that had been broken once, his vivid blue eyes and his short black hair. All his features came together in a pleasing countenance with just a hint of sadness in it. Surprised by that thought, Tanya wasn't sure where the impression came from.
His neutral expression evolved into a half grin.
His presence filled her vision. "Yes," she managed to say, stunned by how overpowering Samuel's friend was.
"I'm Chance Taylor. Samuel was supposed to call you about me. I'd like to rent your apartment."
The deep, baritone of his voice flowed over her, smooth like a river of honey. Slowly his dark blue eyes lit with a gleam like periwinkles basking in the sunlight.
Then his mouth lifted in a full grin, causing dimples to appear in both cheeks.
"Is it still for rent?"
She nodded, for some reason her voice still unable to work properly. "How much?"
She mentally shook herself out of her daze. This was business. "Three hundred a month plus utilities."
He dug into the front pocket of his black jeans and withdrew a wad of cash. After peeling off three one hundred dollar bills, crisp and new, he handed them to her.
She peered at the money, thinking of all the bills she needed to pay. Then common sense prevailed. "I don't want to take your money until you've seen the apartment."
"I'm not choosy about where I stay."
"The apartment is open. It's above the detached garage at the side of the house. Why don't you go and take a look at it? I wouldn't feel right if you didn't do that. I'll be along in a moment."
After repocketing his money, he tipped his head toward her. "I'll do that, Mrs. Bolton."
She watched him descend the steps with duffel bag in hand, then head for the garage. When he disappeared from view, she went into the kitchen and grabbed the lease that Beth had insisted she needed a tenant to sign and left the house by the back door.
Her daughter would be home from school in half an hour, and she hoped to have this all settled by then. After she crossed the driveway, she climbed the stairs to the apartment over the garage at the side of the house. The door stood ajar.
Inside Chance slowly turned in a full circle, surveying the place, no expression on his face. When he saw her, he stopped, one corner of his mouth hitched in a half grin, dimpling one cheek. She was beginning to wonder if that was his trademark.
"This is nice."
His compliment caused a catch in her throat. She'd worked hard on the apartment with some help from her friends and was proud of what she'd accomplished on a limited budget. "Thanks."
He faced her, his large presence filling the small two-room apartmentmuch like her porchhis shoulders set in a taut line, his arms straight at his sides. His gaze lit upon the paper she held in her hand. "Do you want me to sign a lease?"
"Yes. This is for six months."
"I don't know how long I'll be here. I've got an interview with Nick Blackburn about a job, but nothing's definite."
Tanya glanced at the standard lease and folded it several times. "Then we won't use the lease. Where did you come from?"
"Why did you come to Sweetwater? Because of the possibility of a job with Nick?"
"No, actually Samuel has always talked so highly of Sweetwater that I decided to come pay him and the town a visit. He knew I was looking for a job and mentioned the one with Blackburn Industries." Again Chance withdrew the wad of money from his pocket and unrolled it. Covering the short distance between them, he thrust the rent toward her. "Three hundred. Do you require a deposit?"
Deposit? Tanya bit her lower lip. She hadn't thought about that. Having never been a landlord before, she realized how new this all was to her. "I guess a hundred. That should cover minor damages if there are any."
"There won't be."
"Not from what Samuel says. He basically told me I couldn't go wrong with you being my tenant."
Chance glanced away for a few seconds as if embarrassed by what Samuel had said. Clearing his throat, he returned his attention to her. "Samuel does have a way about him." He gave her the money for the deposit, then immediately stepped back as though he was uncomfortable getting too near her. He looked toward the kitchen area in one corner with a two-burner stove, a sink and a small refrigerator. "Can you give me directions to the nearest grocery store?"
Tanya thought of the bare kitchen and blurted out, "Why don't you have dinner with me and my daughter tonight? That's the least I can do for someone new to Sweetwater and a friend of Samuel's."
Chance plunged his fingers through his black hair, then massaged the back of his neck. "I don't want you to go to any trouble, Mrs. Bolton."
"My name is Tanya and it isn't any trouble. I have to warn you, though, it won't be anything fancy."
"I'm not used to fancy."