“Touching and emotive . . . sizzles with passion . . . a beautiful story of hope tackling betrayal and love manning up to win the game.” —USAToday.com
The third and final book in the Songbird series from country music star Sara Evans and New York Times bestseller Rachel Hauck!
Jade and Max share a deep love, though revelations from his past have recently shaken their marriage. And Jade is completely smitten with Max’s little son, Asa, whom she is now raising as her own. Their blended family brings her a joy she’s never known. But there is one more secret to be uncovered. One that will impact them all.
Max is doing his best to “man-up” and prove himself worthy of Jade’s devotion. As well as that of his young son. It seems like life in Whisper Hollow, Tennessee, will pick up where it left off until Max is faced with an unusual opportunity—leave his family’s law firm to coach high-school football in Texas.
Realizing a fresh start will bring healing to their marriage, Jade takes the leap of faith and moves with him and baby Asa, bidding good-bye to her beloved Blue Umbrella shop.
The new beginning in quaint Colby, Texas, is soon sullied when Max discovers the high-school program isn’t all it seemed. While Max struggles to rebuild a once glorious football team, Jade wrestles with news that could break Max’s heart . . . and change their lives forever.
Country singer and songwriter Evans and novelist Hauck (Dining with Joy, 2010) have proven to be a winning team.” —Booklist starred review
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Love Lifted Me
By Sara Evans Rachel Hauck
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Sara Evans
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBy the time July's heat settled over the Appalachians, Jade Benson was getting a little bit stronger. As she unlocked the front door of her riverfront Chattanooga shop, the Blue Two, she knew what she had to do.
The hollow sound of her footsteps in the empty shop echoed in her soul and back again.
Jade dropped her keys on the sales counter, a lovely antique case once belonging to Woolworth's, and peered in the Walmart bag swinging from her fingertips.
If she'd learned anything from the spring, it was that sometimes a girl had to let things go—the past, fears, hurts, dreams—and start over.
You are here. Chart a new course.
Jade wadded up the plastic bag as she pulled out the For Sale sign and considered her options.
Should she sell? Surveying the shop, she considered the remodeled walls, the new windows and door. The fragrance of lumber and fresh paint lingered in the air.
When a racing F350 had crashed through the Blue Two in the wee hours of a March morning, she never dreamed it would symbolize her life.
But, ho boy, and boy howdy. Jade tapped the sign against her palm. Yeah, sell. She never wanted a second vintage shop anyway. The venture had been her mother-in-law's brainchild. Not for herself, of course, but for Jade.
She'd resisted until the second miscarriage. But then busyness proved to be the drug she'd needed to get through the days.
A lot had changed since she opened this store over a year ago. She wasn't just Jade Benson, business owner and Maxwell Benson's wife. She was a mother. At least that's what her heart told her every morning when she woke up with Max's son sleeping down the hall.
Asa. The twenty-two-month-old with expressive brown eyes and bow lips called her Mama. He was the beautiful silver lining amid Max's betrayal and Jade's mama's death. The mama who forced her to take command of her life and stop being led where she didn't want to go.
All this time she thought she was in control. But fear had ruled her from her core out.
Asa was a complete and utter wonder. Jade never tired of him and each time his pulpy little hand slipped into hers, she changed. It was the most magical feeling on earth. Possibly in heaven.
Oh Max, you broke my heart, then healed it with your son.
Except things with the little charmer's father weren't settled. Their Saturday calls were charged with feelings waiting to be spoken face-to-face. Jade expected Max home any day now, but when she asked for a specific date, he'd answered with a vague, "Next week."
Believe it or not, she understood him. He was nervous. Not quite ready to face his mess. Neither was she.
Jade leaned against the window and stared toward the Tennessee River and the downtown park. She missed springtime—the festivals and the flow of vintage-hunting customers. She missed the bloom of the magnolias. With the remodel, this shop could—no, would—take off. But her heart belonged somewhere else.
Why did doing the right thing prove challenging? Jade crossed the barren shop with a determined thump of her heels and snatched the Scotch tape off the top of her desk.
Tearing off two strips, she returned to the front pane and stuck the sign to the glass.
She stepped back, testing her decision. The Blue Two was for sale. Closing. Going away. This part of her life would be over.
Jade exhaled. Relief. The shop had served its purpose. Now it was time to move on.
She didn't have time to linger—she needed to pick up Asa from school. Jade had him in Ritterhouse Academy from eleven to two every day. While he played, she ran errands and took care of shop business.
She might be selling the Blue Two, but she still had the Blue Umbrella up the mountain in Whisper Hollow. That shop would never go away.
Jade tossed the tape onto the sales counter and snatched up her keys and the Walmart bag. Tomorrow, she'd call a Realtor. Make it official.
It felt good to decide. She was getting a little bit stronger every day.
As Jade headed for the door, a woman—a svelte and toned brunette in designer clothes and sun-kissed hair—walked in.
"Can I help you?"
The woman returned Jade's query with brilliant blue eyes. "Are you Jade Benson?" Her voice was low and unsure.
"Who would like to know?" Jade rattled her keys, crunching the Walmart bag with her fingers.
"Taylor Branch." She approached Jade with her hand outstretched. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."
"Actually, I'm on my way out." Jade matched Taylor's firm grip. "I need to pick up my son."
Jade stepped back. How'd she know? "Is there something specific I can help you—"
"I'm a friend of Rice McClure's. I'm a paralegal at the law firm where she worked. I was in Nashville visiting family and decided to drive over to see you."
"How did you know where to find me?"
"I called your other shop. The girl there said you were here."
Lillabeth. Trustworthy girl Friday. Always faithful—but a bit loose-lipped.
"Rice was more my husband's friend." Jade tugged her phone from her pocket and checked the time, making a point. "If you want to talk about her, you might want to drive up the mountain to Whisper Hollow and see her parents. I don't believe they've left for Europe just yet."
"I came to see you."
"Me? Why?" A warm rush under Jade's skin. A familiar sensation, one stirred by her heart when she braced for unexpected news. But how many more surprises could this year bring?
The warm air of the shop hovered close. Jade wished for a cool drink and a river breeze.
"Selfish reasons, I assure you." Taylor inched farther inside the shop, confident and poised. "Rice talked about you. She respected you even though she never regretted what happened with your husband."
"Max said she did. They both did."
Taylor smiled. "Rice knows how to say the right things to the right people."
"Why are you telling me this?" For claiming to be Rice's friend, this Taylor painted a darker picture of the woman Jade knew. A childhood friend of her husband's. His former fiancée. The mother of Asa. "What are your selfish reasons for being here?"
"Rice left Whisper Hollow because she felt bad for you, yes, but once she had the baby, she hoped Max would follow her to California." Taylor peered at the floor, skipping the toe of her leather shoe over the painted cement. "She was a brilliant lawyer, but a bit of a dreamer when it came to everyday life."
"Manipulative would be a good word."
"It's what made her a great lawyer. In the courtroom she was solid, grounded, levelheaded. In her personal life, she was more of a romantic with her head in the clouds."
"So ... you drove from Nashville to tell me Rice loved my husband?" After this spring, such a confession merely bounced off Jade. Worse had happened.
"Not exactly." Taylor shifted her stance. "Holding out for Max was the one thing I never got about Rice. I mean, the man of her dreams was married. And from what I could tell, he wasn't giving up his marriage to you for Rice. Even after Asa was born. He came to see him, but—"
"He flew to California?" Jade fielded the small confession, then tossed it from her heart. She wasn't really surprised. Max did try to do right by his son, even if he had betrayed Jade by not confessing his bachelor-weekend encounter with Rice.
"He came to see him for a day, signed the birth certificate, and held him for a while. Then flew home. His company has a jet, I guess?"
"Yes, Benson Law has a jet." Pieces of Max's confession surfaced. "Max said Rice wanted to raise Asa alone. She didn't want him in her life."
"Bluffing. Another thing she was really good at. Did you ever play poker with her?" Taylor closed her eyes, shaking her head. "Anyway, Rice figured Max couldn't resist the lure of a son. After all, he is a third or fourth generation lawyer, heir to a big legal dynasty. What prince doesn't want an heir? A son? I told Rice to move on, you know? California is a bastion for good-looking, savvy, smart, wealthy men. She could've had anyone she wanted. But she had her mind set on Max. He was the one that got away. Maybe convincing herself one day she'd get him back, especially since they were bonded by a son, was her way of coping."
"Coping with the fact that Max was married to me or that she seduced a man before his wedding?" Jade checked the time on her phone again. "I'm sorry, but I need to go pick Asa up from school. We have a playdate in the park with some friends." Jade took an affirming step toward the door but Taylor didn't move. Jade sighed. "Is there anything else?"
"Rice wanted what she couldn't have and the more she couldn't have it, the more she wanted it. That woman loved a challenge. I drilled her a hundred different ways. Why Max? Of all the men in the world, why some old boyfriend from high school? Why the man she could've married but didn't? For crying out loud, if she really wanted him, why didn't she marry him when she had the chance? I swear she only wanted him because you had him."
"Wouldn't surprise me. So, Taylor, do you have a point somewhere in this story?" Jade kept a slight irritation in her tone, hoping to prod Taylor along.
"I'm getting to it. This is where it gets sticky. Where Rice went too far and why I'm standing here."
Now she had Jade's attention. Her heart waited. Wide open. The mood between them shifted. Friendly fire fixing to hit.
"Asa was Rice's ultimate coup. It's how she figured to keep Max in her life forever." Taylor paced to the sales counter and propped against it, her confidence fading. "She created an unbreakable bond by having his child."
"His first, I know. And a son." Those two facts visited Jade at night and demanded her attention. Max had a son. But she was not his mother. She'd cried out for peace and wisdom from her Lord in those times.
"Right, right, of course, you've thought of that." Taylor fell silent.
"Is that all?"
Taylor shook her head. When she peered at Jade, her eyes glistened. "I thought this would be easier." She exhaled, pinching the bridge of her nose, squeezing her eyes shut. "It just makes no sense, but—?" She tossed her hair over her shoulder. The blue light of her eyes dimmed. "Rice lied, Jade."
"She lied? About what?"
"She lied about Asa. Max is not his father."
Chapter TwoUnder a blaze of Texas sun, Max rolled left, arm cocked for the pass, looking for his receiver. A teen named Calvin Blue.
When the kid broke through a pack of defenders and slanted across the meadow, Max spiraled the football toward him, hitting the young would-be tailback in the hands. Calvin tucked the ball away and raced for the orange pylons.
Touchdown. Calvin juked and jived in the makeshift end zone. "Can't touch this. Can't touch this." He spiked the ball into the mowed grass, then strutted past his opponents, taunting, "Sorry to make y'all eat my dirt."
"All right, Calvin, bring it back. Nice play. We're all amazed." Max had been around football his whole life. It was his passion next to Jesus, Jade, and the law, and he'd never seen a sixteen-year-old cut and run the ball like Calvin.
The boys gulped water from the cooler. Max reached for his shirt tossed on the ground. Today was a shirts and skins game. The last.
Taking a long drink from his own water bottle, Max dumped the rest over his sweaty head. The cool wetness ran down his hot face and into the collar of the T-shirt that swung loose about his waist. Between fasting before the Lord, ranch work, and afternoon football, Max's lawyer physique had been whittled down and chiseled.
He whistled for them to huddle up. Calvin arrived first and propped his arm on Max's shoulder, sweating and panting, his dark skin glistening.
"Good job today, everyone. I'm proud of you. Dale, nice crab block on Sam here." Max jutted his elbow into big Sam's ribs. He was what, fifteen, sixteen, and twice Dale's size. "And Tucker? You created the hole for Calvin's touchdown." The shy sandy-blond boy kicked at a clump of grass. He was lean and built, with undisciplined athletic prowess because he lacked the confidence to develop his skill.
"And you." Max turned to the cocky star player leaning on his shoulder, then bounced the ball against his head. "Remember, every great player needs a team."
"Coach." Calvin clapped his hand to his chest. "You think I don't appreciate my homeboys?"
"Just keep it in mind." Max took a few more minutes to encourage the rest of the players in the huddle. He'd practiced what he wanted to say next—his good-bye speech—but emotion gummed up his words. "This is the last day of camp because it's my last day at the ranch."
He exhaled, fighting the tears behind his eyes. Why was this moment so hard? Something had happened in his heart when he started working with these Colby, Texas, teens. They were good kids, but adrift, looking for a safe place to land.
"I'm going to miss y'all. Thanks for coming. You've ... you've impacted me." Max patted his hand over his heart.
Every afternoon for six weeks, a Randall County rec center bus drove the kids to the ranch. Forty minutes out, forty minutes back. Not one boy ever missed a day.
The bus driver said he'd never seen kids stay so committed to a program.
Maybe, Max decided, it was because he needed them as much as they needed him.
Axel Crowder, the man who ran the Outpost Rehab Ranch, suggested the camp one evening after he and Max had talked football, and since Max had hours in his day to fill, he agreed. Besides, it was football. Say no more.
He watched his team file onto the bus, a missing-them sensation traveling across his chest. When the last one got on, Calvin hopped off.
"Got something on your mind, Calvin?" Max started gathering the gear.
"So, no more ball, Coach?" Calvin said. "They're letting you out of this nut farm?"
"It's risky, but they have to cut me from the herd." After three months and a lot of face-to-the-ground time, Max knew he had to face Jade and the dirge he'd left playing in her heart. "I miss my wife and my son." He stuffed footballs into a duffel bag.
"You got a kid? No fooling." Calvin picked up a ball and tossed it between his hands. The bus driver tooted the horn, but he waved it off.
"He's almost two." Max didn't admit he'd only held his son once in his young life before March rolled around. Then all the buried lies surfaced when Rice McClure died.
"Think he'll play football?"
"If he has any talent. If he wants to play."
"I got talent for it."
Max tossed the duffel into the bed of the Outpost pickup. "About as much as any kid I've ever seen."
"Really? Who've you seen? Ain't you a lawyer or something?"
"Yeah, I'm a lawyer, but I played in high school, a year in college. Used to coach youth league, sort of what we did here this summer."
"I thought so, I thought so. Seemed you knew what you was doing."
The bus beeped. "Calvin, the bus is leaving." The driver inched forward.
Calvin gazed over his shoulder but didn't flinch. "Our football here stinks. Can't keep a coach. Five in six years."
"Yeah, I know." The Outpost was just on the edge of Colby, Texas, a panhandle city that once reveled in state football championships. But in the last decade, something fierce went wrong with Colby High football and no one knew how to fix it. "I hear the coaches quit or get fired."
"Yep. The more we lose, Coach, the worse the coaches. Who wants a job with the Colby Warriors? It'll kill a guy's career." Calvin squinted at Max."My brother got recruited to Texas from here. Got his college paid for, but there ain't no chance for me."
"I'm sorry, Calvin. What about academics?"
He laughed, pressing his fist to his lips. "I can run. That's what I do. Run and catch footballs. I got grades that'll get me in, but nothing so high and mighty as a academic scholarship." At sixteen, the muscled, quick Calvin stood eye to eye with Max, caught somewhere between boyhood and the man he was to become. "Scouts don't even bother coming our way these days. Why should they? All the good players transfer to Amarillo or Canyon."
"Why don't you?" Max crossed his arms and leaned against the side of the truck. From his position he could see the rec center bus inching down the winding Outpost driveway.
Excerpted from Love Lifted Me by Sara Evans Rachel Hauck Copyright © 2012 by Sara Evans. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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