A Healing Season
Karly Kalakona's new nursing job is the perfect Christmas gift she and her son needed for their future. The single mom just never counted on dealing with not only a stubborn patient, but also with his prodigal son. After years away, pilot Tyler Childress is only a temporary traveler to the Texas ranch he's spent his life escaping. But the chemistry he shares with his father's nurse is undeniableand has him thinking of sticking around past the holiday season. Can Tyler learn to trust the woman whose caring ways are bringing his father back to life and who might just be the partner his wandering heart can find a home with?
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Karly turned the wipers to the highest setting, but they didn't help much. She knew the ranchers in Clear Water, Texas, were celebrating after the long drought, but she just wanted to get to her new home without drowning.
New home. If everything worked out the way she planned, her young son, Bryce, would be celebrating Christmas in a real home for the first time ever. Last Christmas they had been living in her car. At church, deacon Dub Childress had always made her feel welcome. Now he was recovering from a stroke and broken armand it was her turn to help him.
On the huge plus side, if she could pull this off, no shelter or cheap hotel for them this year. But would she be able to care for Dub and his house? She didn't even finish high school. Doing some research on stroke patients online might not be enough.
Deep breath in out. She made herself relax. This past year had brought so many changes, and with the help of her new church family, she was free of bad relationships. Hopefully no one expected her to cook. She could clean. She was very good at cleaning.
The rain pounded the roof, making it hard to hear anything else. In the backseat, Bryce finally calmed down.
Her five-year-old son hated stormsor any loud noise. She leaned forward, her knuckles white around the steering wheel. God had gotten them through worse storms.
Glancing in the rearview mirror at her son, she continued the game. "Let me see. Is it your baby picture on my visor?"
Kicking his feet against the passenger seat, Bryce grinned at her. His smile shone through the dark, dreary day. "Yes! Now it's your turn."
"Okay let me see I spy something blue and white."
Bryce gasped. Karly turned back to see what startled him. He pointed to the road in front of her.
Squinting to see through the heavy rain, she saw it, too. "No " She blinked to clear the image, but it was still there. A small aircraft hovered over the road. The spinning blades on the nose of the plane headed straight for them. The wings tilted from one side to the other as if trying to balance on the air.
Instinctively, she hit the brake and jerked to the right, taking them through a muddy ditch. The car bounced over the rocky terrain. Their seat belts were the only thing that kept them in place. The boxes and bags weren't so lucky.
After a hard stop just short of a barbed-wire fence, she looked back at Bryce, reaching for him, needing to touch him. "Are you okay?"
He twisted in his booster seat, pulling himself around as far as the seat belt would let him go. "It's an airplane." He looked at her for a second before pointing around the overturned boxes in the back. "An airplane on the road."
Sure enough, the small airplane she had just lost a game of chicken to sat on the opposite side of the county road, tangled up in the tall game fence.
Through the back window, in the gray, water-blurred scene, Karly saw a figure run toward them. She slowly filled her lungs, making every effort to breathe and stop the shaking of her hands. Eyes closed, she counted and relaxed each muscle.
Thank You, God, for protecting us. Please get us to our new home safely.
A tap on the window caused her to jump. A drenched man stood outside her car. Rolling the window down, she was hit with rain. She cupped a hand over her face and found Tyler Childress staring at her.
Tyler pulled his leather jacket over his head to block her from the onslaught of rain. Leaning closer to her, he looked into the car. "Is everyone all right? I'm so sorry. Cattle were on the airstrip and I thought I could make it to the field, but the pressure came in low."
"We're fine. A little shaken up, but fine. Tyler Chil-dress, right?"
"Oh, no." He smiledthe smile she heard the women of Clear Water sigh over whenever they gossiped about the good-looking son of Dub Childress. Wild and impulsive, but good-looking as all get-out. This phrase was repeated often. "We didn't go to school together, did we? I'm horrible with names." The rain started dripping off the sides of his jacket.
"No, we've never met. Why don't you get in the car and out of the rain?"
He gave a quick nod and ran in front of her car as she rolled up her window.
Reaching across the seat, she pulled the lock up, then started stuffing bags and containers in the seat behind her. The off-road adventure had scattered their worldly possessions throughout the car. They would have to repack everything. Tyler slid into her '97 Volvo wagon. The space got a lot smaller with his tall, well-built body. He looked like a pirate just rescued from a shipwreck.
She focused on her hands. He was dangerous, the kind of man that could bring trouble to her new, safe world.
Carefully tucking her leather-bound Bible into the console, she ran her fingertip along its spine. It was a gift from her church family at her baptism six months ago. The idea that she now had people who cared about her and Bryce still felt a bit surreal. And with this man now beside her, it was a good reminder.
Dub's son reminded her of all the bad choices she had made based on wanting to be rescued by a knight in shining armor. This job her pastor offered her was more than a way to repay kindness or even make money. It was an opportunity to make a stable future for her son. An opportunity she couldn't afford to waste.
Tyler adjusted himself in the passenger seat and slammed the door to the storm outside, his long legs not quite fitting. He looked too big for the small space, like a jack-in-the-box ready to pop out if someone pulled the roof open. Her car had a new scent now, a clean masculine fragrance.
"Would you mind following me over to the county airport?" He pointed his perfect chin to the turnoff about fifty yards ahead of her.
"Oh, sure." Stop trying to smell him.
"Hi! I'm Bryce. I like your airplane!"
Tyler turned and held out his hand to her son. "Hi, Bryce. I'm Tyler. Glad to meet you."
Karly tightened her lips, forcing herself not to say anything as she watched Childress's reaction when he realized her son didn't have a right hand to shake, only five unformed digits right below his elbow. Without hesitation he laid his hand flat, palm up, on his other hand. "Give me five? Hope I didn't scare you."
"No, that was fun!" He leaned forward to slap their guest's hand.
Karly was a bit surprised by Bryce's enthusiasm. Most of the time, he pulled back from men and he never wanted to meet someone new.
She had to admit that Tyler's nonreaction automatically bumped him up in her opinion no matter what everyone said about him. Bryce's dad had taken one look at their son and walked out of the hospital and never came back. Of course, he had been a seventeen-year-old boy already scared of being a father.
Tyler might be a late coming home, but she didn't know his story and it wasn't her place to judge. She'd been hired to do a job. Keeping a safe distance from this good-looking adventurer would be best for them all.
She placed her hands over her son's short active legs. "I'm sorry about the small spacewe might be able to move the seat back a little bit." There wasn't much room available with all the stuff she had wedged between the seat and Bryce.
"No worries." He chuckled and winked at her. His clear blue eyes matched his father's perfectly. "I've been in tighter places. Besides, we aren't going far."
She put the car in Reverse and hit the gas, but all that happened was the whirling sound of a spinning tire. She gripped the steering wheel and tried again, pressing harder on the gas pedal.
"Whoa. You're just digging in deeper. Go forward."
She gritted her teeth against his short demand and reached up to shift gears. His hand stopped her. The touch startled her, and she jerked back.
He didn't even seem to notice her reaction. "Hold on.
Let me put one of those branches in front of the tire." Without waiting for her to agree, he sprang out of the car. Running hunched over, he gathered some of the larger limbs that covered the ground on the edge of the cedar break. Climbing back into the car, he nodded. "Now go forward. Keep the pressure on the pedal nice and steady."
Holding her breath and sending a quick prayer, she followed his instructions. After a few bounces, they were back on the road. She couldn't help giving him a big grin. "Thank you."
"Well, it was my fault you ended up in the ditch."
With a slow U-turn on the highway, she headed back toward his plane.
"Are you going to be able to drive the plane to the airport?"
"Yeah. I think a wing is damaged, but it can move across the ground without a problem. The Kirkpatricks aren't going to be happy. I think I ran through their fence a couple of times back in high school." With one hand on the door, he turned to face her. "You don't mind following me to the hangar, do you? I'll need a ride to town."
"Town? You're not going to the ranch?"
"You don't need to drive all the way out there." He glanced over her stacked and labeled boxes. "You look busy. Do you need help?"
He didn't know she had been hired to stay with his dad? She made herself stop chewing on the inside of her cheek. She hadn't even introduced herself.
"I'm Karly Kalakona. I was hired as the new housekeeper and to care for your dad after he had the stroke. I'm heading to the ranch anyway, so it's not a problem. I've never been to the ranch, so it would be great if you could show me where to go. I mean I know where the ranch is, but once on the ranch I have no clue." Stop rambling, idiot. No, she reminded herself, no more name-calling. Be kind to yourself.
She held her expression neutral as his eyes narrowed. The space in her old Volvo seemed to get smaller and warmer. The heavy raindrops hitting the roof was the only sound for what seemed like hours. Taking his hand off the door, he turned and looked straight at her. Karly pushed her dark hair back.
"You're moving into my dad's house?" His friendly tone had been replaced by a sharp edge. "Who hired you?"
"Uh Pastor John Levi. He was married to your sister, Carol, right? He told me he still helps your dad with the ranch." Silence. Tyler stared out the windshield. She was getting the feeling he was not happy. "Is there a problem?"
He shook his head. "I just thought " Instead of finishing the sentence, he sighed and looked back at her. "How do you know John?"
"A little less than a year ago I started attending his church, and a few months later they helped me get out of a bad situation. When your father had his stroke, Pastor John asked if I would be a live-in assistant. Your father had always been a great support to me so I really wanted to repay all the help I found here in Clear Water."
"You look really young for a nurse."
"I'm not a nurse."
"Do you have nursing exper?" Flashes of lightning flooded the car with white light, followed by a rolling boom of thunder. Bryce cried out, covering his ears. She reached for him again.
"It's okay, baby. We're safe."
"Hey, big guy, have you ever gone bowling?"
Bryce looked up at Tyler and shook his head. Karly couldn't keep from raising her eyebrows. Bowling? What did that have to do with anything?
"Well, I'll have to take you so you know that's what it sounds like. A giant marble ball hitting a bunch of wooden pins. Sounds scary, but it's actually loads of fun."
"Really? I wanna go, Momma. I wanna go bowling." He looked at his new hero. "When are we going?"
"Now, Bryce, I don't know. We have a lot of things to do and you just got your braces off." She cut a glance to Tyler. "Between the surgeries and physical therapy, we have to be careful of the activities we pick." She didn't want Bryce disappointed in the things he couldn't do. She wanted him to focus on what he could safely accomplish. "We have to get moved into our new home and get you back in school."
"Yes, ma'am." His narrow shoulders slumped. Well, at least he wasn't crying.
"Sorry, big guy. Your mom's right. We gotta get you all settled in. Then we can make plans. Right now, I've got to get my plane to the hangar."
Her son perked back up. "Can I ride in your airplane?"
Tyler considered her. His eyebrows rose.
Great, he was going to make her be the bad guy again. "Sorry, sweetheart, you would have to get out in the rain. I need you to stay with me in the car."
Tyler reached across the back of his seat and tugged at Bryce's foot. "Hey, we'll do it another day. I promise." He grabbed the door handle, jumped out of the safety of her car and darted through the rainstorm to his plane.
She had a feeling she might be headed down a road she had not planned. With a sigh, she watched her son focus on every move Tyler made. Karly saw a joy on his small face that she hadn't seen in a good while.
Her son should know by now that a pretty package wrapped in easy smiles and good manners could be masking a monster.
Unfortunately, Tyler Childress would not be the first man to break his promise to them.
Blinded by heavy rain, Tyler pushed the Piper back from the tangled fence. Hopefully, none of the Kirkpatricks' stock would test the damaged wire. He needed to call Henry and let him know. Yeah, so much for proving to his dad he had managed to become a responsible adult.
He could hear Dub Childress's voice now. Don't start with the excuses, son. Somewhere along the way your choices put you in this position.
The argument already played in his head. An argument he needed to avoid. Yes, he'd procrastinated coming home, had buzzed the house one too many times and flew needless circles over town. By the time he'd headed to the airstrip, the storm had hit and livestock had escaped one of the ranches, blocking the only way to land.
So no excuses, Dad. It was my fault I ran a young mother and her child off the road.
With the plane turned in the right direction, he climbed up and pulled the door shut to the cockpit. He wished he could just stay therehis favorite place in the world. A place he was in total control.