To make amends for his troubled past, Joel Hunter goes back to the Herrera family farm in Nevada. The Herreras believed in him, supported him, and he let them down. Especially Mari, the beautiful girl he grew up with—and secretly loved. A changed man, Joel can now help save their farm and support Mari's mother and two young siblings. The one thing he can't do? Explain to Mari where he's been the past nine years. How can he expect her to understand—or want him around? Until Joel discovers that the road to forgiveness is paved with love.
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Marisol Herrera awoke with a jerk. She widened her eyes, peering through the shadows above her bed. Moonlight cast a dim haze through the slats in the window blinds. Her eyes drooped wearily and she rolled, scrunching the pillow beneath her head.
She glanced toward the doorway and rubbed one eye. Olivia, her seven-year-old sister, stood beside the dresser, wearing one of Dad's old T-shirts. The garment sagged to her ankles. The night-light in the hall silhouetted her long, dark hair and thin legs. Her pale, oval face gleamed in the darkness.
"Mari, are you awake?"
Biting back a groan, Mari propped herself up on her elbows. "I am now. Where's Mom?"
Which is what Mari wished she was doing right now. "What time is it?"
"I don't know." Livi shrugged.
Mari peered at the clock radio on the bedside table. Six twenty-eight in the morning. Stifling a wide yawn, she sat up. As usual, she'd worked late, transplanting petunias from seed trays into four-inch pots. Four measly hours of sleep and now this.
"Max is barking out by the basket houses," Livi said.
The basket houses. The three greenhouses where they grew hanging baskets of colorful vine geraniums and fuchsias. The dog had probably found another rabbit. Somehow the varmints kept shimmying their way under the heavy polyethylene of the greenhouses, eating their fill of cauliflower and pepper plants. "All right. I'll go check."
Mari flung her pillow aside, once again missing Dad more than she could say. At age twenty-five, she should be finished with college and starting her nursing career, not worrying about the family business and a mountain of bills.
She reached for the worn T-shirt she'd tossed aside earlier. As she thrust an arm through one sleeve, an explosion shook the house, rattling the windows. Olivia screamed and fell to the floor.
"Livi!" Mari bolted from the bed, her legs tangling in the covers.
She clasped her sister's arm and helped her stand. Cool night air wrapped around her bare arms and she shivered. Confusion fogged her mind. What had just happened?
"I'm okay. Was that an earthquake?" Livi's voice wobbled, her eyes wide with fear.
"No. Wake up Mom and call 9-1-1." Mari stumbled as she jerked on her blue jeans.
With a short nod, Livi turned and scurried down the hall. Mari yanked on her socks, then sprang for the door, passing Mom as she came out of her bedroom. When Mom flipped on the hall light, Mari blinked her eyes. Mom's short, gray-black hair stuck up in places, her plump face pinched with alarm as she pulled the folds of her bathrobe around her.
"Mari says we have to call 9-1-1, Momma." Livi scurried down the hall behind her mother.
Elena Herrera's brows drew together. "What on earth is going on?"
"I don't know, Mom. Can you keep Livi inside?" At least they didn't have to worry about Matt, who'd stayed the night at a friend's house.
"But I want to come with you," Livi whined.
"No! I need you to take care of Mom," Mari called as she raced outside.
"Aww!" Livi grouched.
On the front porch, Mari thrust her feet into her knee-high rubber work boots before sprinting toward the greenhouses. Her pulse pounded in her head and she drew cool air into her lungs to settle her nerves.
The new dawn painted the eastern sky with a haze of pink and gray. Frost covered the lawn. Mari preferred that to snow. You didn't have to shovel frost or rain. The March weather had been unseasonably warm, but Mari knew winter wasn't over.
She ran past the three-car garage, the mulching huts and rows of long, industrial-sized greenhouses. The heavy blanket of sawdust on the ground muffled her footsteps. At the end of the row, billows of smoke rose from one of the sheds next to the bedding plant greenhouse where she'd worked late last night. Her heart beat madly in her chest.
No, no! All her hard work. The variety of annuals she'd planted would have been a bumper crop. Her family couldn't afford to lose the flowers. Not if they wanted to eat and pay their bills.
Flames darted from one of the twenty-one-foot-wide press-wood end walls on the south greenhouse. The blaze created a clear, red glow in the sky.
The air smelled of propane and her breath stalled, her hands clammy and cold. Had the tank exploded? No! Common sense told her if the 2,000-gallon tank had blown, the whole place would have gone up. This must be caused by one of the small propane heaters leading to the older greenhouses to keep them warm. She'd adjusted all the heaters last month. With the cool March temperatures, the danger of frost could destroy their plants. So, what went wrong?
The two tall mercury vapor yard lights came on, bathing the dirt road in blue light. Mom must have turned them on, bless her.
Mari came to a halt at the end of the rutted road and scanned the last greenhouse. Their dog, Max, stood barking at the fire. A Border collie and Australian shepherd mix, the black and white mutt had proven to be a good, but noisy watchdog.
The polyethylene siding of the greenhouse melted, curling back and evaporating in the heat of the fire. Flames engulfed the wooden trusses of the structure, licking at the long benches where thousands of potted seedlings waited for sunshine, water and time to turn them into beautiful flowers in someone's garden.
Tall galvanized steel pipes supporting the structure in high gothic arcs appeared like the skeletal remains of a dead giant. Several pipes had given way in the blast and the elegant fuchsia baskets crashed to the ground in a ruined melee of dirt, hemp and limp plants. The explosion had blown out the propane heater and pressboard wall on the west end of the greenhouse. Flames ate at the end wall and baseboards, scorching the tender plants and incinerating the white PVC pipes of the automatic watering system.
Horrified by the sight, Mari pressed a hand to her mouth. They had no insurance. The premium had been too steep, so she'd let the policy lapse.
In the smoky haze, she sprang toward the water hose hanging on the side of another garden shed. Max ran after her, barking and jumping on her.
"Down, boy!" If she hurried, she could put the fire out before it spread to the outbuildings and other greenhouses.
Before it destroyed their entire livelihood.
With quick twists of her hand, she cranked on the tap and jerked the hose free of the wall hooks. Squeezing her index finger, she depressed the trigger on the spray gun and directed the water in a high-velocity stream at the fire. Compared to the flames, the piddling spray didn't have a chance. She persisted, hoping to contain the blaze until the fire trucks arrived.
More pipe supports collapsed and the other large end wall creaked and swayed. What on earth—?
Mari screamed as the fifteen-foot wall slammed toward her. She lunged, trying to get out of the way. She wasn't quick enough and it struck her hip, knocking her flat. As she hit the ground, the air whooshed from her lungs and her face and arms scraped in the dirt. She gasped for breath, trying to scramble away. The wall landed on her legs, pinning her to the ground. Pain forced another scream from her throat.
Mari lay on the ground, shocked and panting as agony washed over her in shattering waves. She clawed the earth, fighting to pull herself free of the heavy wall, but she couldn't get loose.
In a change of tactics, she twisted her body and grasped the edge of the wall to push it aside. It didn't budge. She only needed a few inches to squeeze free, but the heavy lumber held her tight.
Looking up, she saw the fire traveling along the baseboards, moving nearer. She grit her teeth against the nauseating pain, fighting off the darkness threatening to swallow her up. She couldn't faint now. Not with the fire so close. She had to stop the flames before they reached more propane heaters.
Before they reached the wall pinning her down.
She clawed at the wood, fighting for her life. Splinters stabbed her fingers, but she ignored the pain. If they lost their crop, they'd face bankruptcy and scandal. If she were killed, who would take care of Mom and her brother and sister?
Please, God. Please help me.
A dark shape appeared overhead. A man! He bent near her shoulders and placed his hands on the edge of the wall. Large, strong hands that lifted the side of the pressboard with seeming ease.
Where had he come from?
Max kept up a shrill litany of barking, snapping and snarling at the stranger.
"Shut up, Max!" Mari yelled in a hoarse voice. The dog quieted for a few moments, then started barking again.
"Can you move?" The man's deep voice mingled with the dull roar of the fire. He grit his teeth against the strain of holding up the wall.
Breathing in wheezing pants, Mari pulled herself free. She locked her jaw, fighting the urge to cry.
The man dropped the wall. A whoosh of dust sprayed her in the face and she coughed.
Who was he? And what was he doing here?
In a glance, she took in his eyes cast in shadow, his dark, shaggy hair and heavy denim jacket. Threadbare blue jeans molded his long legs, his scuffed work boots covered with dust. He might be a homeless person who had sought shelter for the night in one of their sheds. But what was he doing so far outside of town?
The stranger crouched over her and she tried to think clearly. To sort out what was happening.
"You okay?" he asked, his voice low and soothing.
He looked vaguely familiar. "Who are you?"
He didn't answer as he reached out and removed her rubber boots, then pressed his palms against her shins. He squeezed gently along her calves, checking for damage. She drew in a startled breath, more from shock than pain.
"You're lucky. I don't think any bones are broken." His gaze never wavered from hers, his eyes hard. Again, she had the impression that she knew this man from somewhere, but the darkness kept her from seeing his face clearly.
As the early morning sunlight blazed behind the greenhouses, a brief spark of sympathy flashed in his eyes. Blue eyes, so bright and clear they reminded her of the beautiful topaz necklace Mom kept buried in her jewelry box. Dad had given Mom the piece when they had first married and Mari sometimes took it out and wore it when no one was watching.
A lock of black hair fell over the man's brow, adding to his dangerous aura. She opened her mouth to speak, but choking smoke made her cough. He stared at her, a glint of rebellion in his eyes.
"There might be more explosions. We should move back." Bending at the waist, he scooped her into his arms and carried her a safe distance away from the ruined greenhouse. Her weight didn't seem to hinder him in the least and she had no time to react before he propped her against the small tractor by the side of the toolshed.
Sirens pierced the air and the red glare of lights whirred overhead as two big engines loomed into sight. Max tore off toward the fire engines, barking at these new strangers.
The man grasped the garden hose and sprayed the press-board with water, wetting the wood before the flames could spread. If not for him, Mari shuddered to contemplate what might have happened when the fire reached the wall where she'd been trapped.
"Mari! Are you okay?" Mom came running down the lane, now dressed in blue coveralls and knee-high boots. She grasped Max by the collar and leashed him so he couldn't chase after the firemen.
Livi slogged behind, wearing blue jeans and Matt's oversized boots. The child shadowed Mari everywhere and she couldn't contain a smile of endearment as the girl screamed at the top of her lungs. "Mari! We called 9-1-1, just like you said."
An ambulance bounced down the narrow road behind the fire engines. A host of firemen wearing heavy yellow suits and helmets descended on the greenhouse like ants on a birthday cake. Mari prayed they didn't cause more damage with their axes and tromping boots.
As if in slow motion, she watched the men unwind a thick hose. Within minutes, powerful jets of water extinguished the blaze and soaked everything in sight. The dry earth churned into mud, but the rest of their precious greenhouses were safe. Thankfully, the thick poly covering held against the strong blasts of water, protecting the delicate seedlings and flowers inside. Too bad it wasn't as effective against little cottontail rabbits.
"I don't think anything's broken, but you should go to the hospital for some X-rays," an EMT told her.
Thinking about the expense, Mari flexed each of her legs before bending them at the knees. They felt bruised, but solid and she decided they didn't need any additional medical bills. "No, I'm fine. Really."
Instead, they gave her oxygen and wrapped an elastic bandage around each of her calves and knees. When they finally left, Mari pulled herself up and Mom helped her. "Mari, I want you to go to the hospital. I can't lose you, too."
Knowing she was thinking about Dad, Mari reached out and cupped her mother's cheek with her hand. Mom had been through so much, losing her husband and trying to raise Mateo and Livi on her own. Her eyes crinkled with concern, her face lined with fatigue. Mari felt compelled to reassure her. "I'm okay, Mom. Just a bit sore."
Mom smiled, but lines of worry creased her forehead. They huddled together with Livi, watching the firemen work.
Sometime later, Larry Henderson, the fire chief, came to speak with them, his face streaked with dirt. "Looks like you had a small propane leak. Probably a simple valve failure. I'm guessing the igniter on the heater clicked on and created a spark that caused the fuel to ignite. My men have checked your other heaters and they seem secure."
Mari shook her head with disbelief. She'd checked each propane heater herself. Or so she thought. Lately, she'd been pushing too hard to get the seeds planted so that they germinated in time for the family to meet their contracts. Exhaustion burned through her body. She must have missed one heater. Maybe—
"Wait! Where's the man who rescued me?" She craned her neck, trying to find him in the crowd of firefighters. He seemed to have disappeared.
"What man?" Mom asked.
Mari caught no sight of him. Surely she hadn't imagined the tall man who'd saved her from the fire.
Mom frowned as she faced the fire chief. Although Elena had lived in the United States for twenty-nine years, fear and fatigue caused a hint of a Spanish accent to lace her words. "Can we start cleaning up the mess now?"