Forest ranger Brent Knowles has almost given up hope that his daughter, Evie, will recover from the tragedy of her mother's death. Then he meets caring special ed teacher Jill Russell. Jill adores working with Evie and helping her heal. She's less sure about the undeniable attraction she feels for Brent. Because Brent is investigating a timber theft, and Jill's own brother is a suspect! Can she reconcile her feelings when Brent has the power to destroy her family? Brent sure hopes so. Because Jill holds the key to his daughter's recovery and to his heart.
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Jillian Russell stared at the meter on the gas pump in stunned disbelief. Holding the nozzle, she listened as the liquid gold rushed into her car's fuel tank. Having just arrived in town, her empty gas tank sucked it in. She figured she should fill up before going home. After Mom's frantic phone call late last night, there was no telling when she might get another chance.
Home. A white-frame house with blue trim in Bartlett, Idaho. The small logging town where Jill had been raised. So small, it didn't even warrant a single traffic light. Population eight hundred and thirty-nine.
Almost everyone here earned their livelihood off of the lush ponderosa pine that blanketed the broad-shouldered mountains surrounding the town. Jill's family included.
Lifting her gaze, she looked past the blue pickup truck parked behind her car. Harvey Garson stood outside his grocery store across the deserted street, watering a clay pot filled with purple pansies. The bright flowers did little to hide the peeling paint of his shabby two-story building. Several empty offices lined Main Street, their vacant windows filled with dust and cobwebs. The poor economy hadn't been easy on this community. The bank and county courthouse down the road were new, complete with tan stucco and wide garden boxes planted with yellow tulips. The only modern buildings in town.
Jill waved and forced herself to sound cheerful.
"You in town long?" Harvey yelled as water cascaded from the spout of his watering can.
She hoped not. But that depended on Mom and Alan, her younger brother by two years. "Just a few days, I think."
"Hopefully we'll see you at church on Sunday." With another wave, Harvey set the watering can beside the flowerpot and slipped back inside his dingy store.
Jill released a sigh of relief, glad the conversation had ended. She hoped she wasn't in town long enough to attend church. She was not staying in this one-dog town any longer than necessary. The dreaded third degree she received from old friends every time she came home was extra incentive not to stick around. You couldn't expect much less in a place this size. Everyone knew everyone else and considered them family. They meant well, but she had no desire to share her life with them. Or explain about her adulterous husband and recent divorce. The pain still felt too raw.
Just then, Larry Newton, a boy she'd graduated from high school with, drove by and honked his horn. At the age of twenty-eight, he wasn't a boy anymore. Not with a wife and two kids.
Forcing a smile to her lips, Jill lifted her hand. She couldn't help feeling that true love and a family of her own had passed her by. After five years of marriage, she'd discovered her ex-husband had cheated on her. Not once, but many times. And then the harshest blow yet.
He'd said he never really loved her at all.
What a fool she'd been. So trusting. So naive. But no more. She was an educated professional woman with a special education career she loved. She didn't need a man. She didn't need anyone. Or at least, she kept telling herself that.
The cumbersome nozzle clicked off and Jill lifted it back into the holding bracket. With a few quick twists of her wrist, she put the cap back on her gas tank. She was determined not to let the cruelty of the past destroy her future. Determined to enjoy her summer break. Maybe being home was the distraction she needed. She wanted consistency in her life. Boring could be good sometimes. And nothing much ever changed in Bartlett.
Nothing except her.
Stepping past the melee of pumps and a tall garbage can, she headed toward the small convenience store to pay her bill.
A man's frantic yell drew Jill's attention toward the store. Ignoring the man's plea, a blond-haired girl who looked about six dashed from the store and into the driveway.
Out of her peripheral vision, Jill caught the streak of another car racing toward the child. Without thinking, she lunged into the driveway, scooped the girl into her arms and darted out of harm's way just in time. The driver slammed on his brakes, his car squealing in protest. Jill stood sandwiched between two gas pumps, clutching little Evie to her chest. The driver, a teenage boy with sandy brown hair and freckles, glared his disapproval, then sped on past.
Jill stood there, breathing hard. The full impact of what had almost happened swept over her like a cold, drenching rain. Her heart pounded against her ribs. She tried to swallow, but a dry lump of cotton seemed to have lodged at the base of her throat. Her arms tightened around the little girl as she took a deep, settling breath. Trying to gather her thoughts. Trying to absorb that they were safe.
No harm done.
"Are you okay?" Jill asked against the child's soft hair.
Evie didn't speak. She fisted her hands around Jill's neck like a vise and gulped air into her lungs, hyperventilating with fear. Something had really set her off.
Jill rubbed Evie's back. "Shh, it's okay. You're safe now."
The girl didn't draw back to look at Jill. Didn't let go. Didn't move.
Jill tried to set Evie on her feet, but she gave a pitiful whimper and held on tighter. She wrapped herself around Jill the way a baby gorilla hugs onto its mother. The girl's thin body trembled, her breath whooshing in and out of her lungs like a panicked ventilator. When Evie tucked her face against the curve of her neck, Jill's heart gave a powerful squeeze.
"Evie! Are you okay?" The man reached them, his startling blue eyes filled with panic.
Taking a deep inhale, he reached for the girl. Evie tightened her arms around Jill's neck in a stranglehold. She wasn't ready to budge.
Jill tried to pretend she didn't see the guarded hurt in the man's eyes, followed by an expression of vulnerability. If this was his daughter, Evie's rejection must sting him pretty hard.
"She's not letting go," Jill told him, a self-conscious laugh slipping from her throat.
Taken off balance by the girl's weight, Jill tottered backward. She bumped against a bucket sitting beside the gas pump. Grimy water sloshed over the sides. A squeegee for washing windows bobbed around in the brackish liquid.
"I'm sorry about this." The man clasped Jill's arm to steady her before whisking the bucket out of her way.
With Evie facing her and literally sitting in her lap, Jill slid down to the ground. She perched on the ledge of cement beside the two nearest gas pumps and tucked her sandaled feet back toward the island in case another car zipped past. The last thing she needed right now was a broken foot.
"Thank you for rescuing Evie." The man scooped up Jill's purse from out of the driveway and set it beside her. Then, he raked his fingers through his thick, dark hair, making it stand on end.
The light stubble on his blunt chin showed that he hadn't shaved that morning. Not surprising, if he was a logger. But Jill knew almost everyone in town. This guy was new and she couldn't help wondering who he was.
"You're welcome." Jill sat there, stunned. Not knowing what to think about this odd situation she'd been thrust into. Thankfully, as a special-education teacher, her work with autistic and developmentally disabled children in the public school system had taught her patience. Now that Evie was out of danger, Jill knew what to do.
"Why don't we just sit here and catch our breath for a few moments?" she suggested.
The man stepped past the island and leaned one broad shoulder against a gas pump. He towered over her in awkward silence, shifting restlessly, as though he didn't know what to do. Finally, he sat beside her and leaned his elbows on his knees. He stared at her sandals and pink-painted toes for several moments. His handsome mouth quirked into a nervous laugh.
"She hates gas stations," he said. "I shouldn't have taken her inside the store with me, but I couldn't leave her out in the truck all alone."
Jill had no idea why a gas station would cause such an adverse reaction in a young child. For all she knew, Evie was throwing a temper tantrum after her father told her she couldn't buy a piece of candy. But Jill sensed it wasn't quite that simple.
She turned her face toward the quivering child, speaking gently. "I hate gas stations, too. They're usually smelly, dirty places."
The man shook his head, his beautiful blue eyes creased with sorrow. He opened and closed his mouth, as if he wanted to say something, but couldn't quite get the words out. Finally, he spoke quickly. "Actually, her mother was killed inside a gas station convenience store. That's why Evie doesn't like them."
Jill's brain stumbled to a halt and she blinked her eyes. "Oh. I'm sorry to hear that."
A surge of sympathy pinched her heart. Knowing this personal bit of information made her feel even more protective of Evie. At the same time, a barrage of questions pummeled Jill's mind. The special-education teacher in her rose to the forefront. She'd like to know more about Evie's problem but didn't think it was her place to ask.
"I'm Brent Knowles. Evie's father." The man thrust out one of his large, calloused hands.
Jill lifted her right hand off Evie's back long enough for Brent to shake it. "My name's Jill. Glad to meet you."
"I'm sorry to impose on you like this, Jill." Brent reached to take Evie again, his powerful fingers engulfing the girl's thin arms.
In response, Evie's hold constricted around Jill's neck and she shook her head. She didn't want to leave yet.
"Let her stay with me for a few more minutes. She's still trembling," Jill said.
Brent let go and didn't argue the point. Jill fought off a wave of discomfort. After all, these people were complete strangers to her. They were probably passing through town and had stopped to fill up their gas tank. But Evie's behavior wasn't normal for a child of her age. No, not at all.
"How old are you, Evie?" Jill spoke against the girl's warm cheek, trying to take her mind off whatever had upset her.
Jill tried again. "What grade are you in?"
"She doesn't speak. Not since her mother was killed last year during an armed robbery," Brent whispered reluctantly.
Oh, dear. It seemed Evie's problem was more serious than Jill had first thought. And Jill couldn't suppress a desire to help. This was a unique situation she found herself in. Without hearing any more details, she would have diagnosed Evie with post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, Jill wasn't a medical professional, but she was trained in how to help kids cope with difficult problems in their lives. Even if that didn't translate to her personal life. With her skill set, she should at least be able to manage her own woes. But she hadn't been able to. At least, not yet.
"Did you see what happened to your mom?" Jill whispered to Evie.
In response, the child buried her face deeper against Jill's shoulder. That was answer enough. Jill had no doubt Evie was suffering from PTSD, brought on by witnessing her mother's violent death. Something no child should ever see. No doubt the trauma had caused Evie's selective mutism, too. The girl had been literally scared silent.
It was bad enough for a kid to lose her mom, but to actually witness her mother's death made it even worse.
"Don't worry. You're safe now. We can sit here for as long as you like," Jill told the girl.
Evie's hold on Jill's neck relaxed just a bit.
"You seem good with kids," Brent said.
She nodded. "I have a master's degree in special education and teach for the Boise School District."
His mouth went slack. "Evie isn't a special-ed kid.
She's very intelligent. She just saw something really bad."
He sounded defensive and Jill figured he'd dealt with people thinking Evie was mentally challenged because she wouldn't speak. Because of his protectiveness toward his daughter, Jill liked him immediately.
"I'm sure she's very smart. She's just experienced a terrible trauma, which is why she's chosen to be silent." Jill hugged the girl closer, wishing she could somehow shield Evie from being hurt again.
Life could be so unkind.
"Most people don't understand. They think Evie should just get over it and start talking again," Brent said.
Jill shrugged. "Well, I understand. Many disabled people are very bright. They simply have a unique issue they have to work through. And sometimes that takes a very long time. But most people are impatient creatures. They want answers now and aren't always willing to work for it."
His blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he looked at her with awe. "You really do understand, don't you?"
Jill smiled, thinking it all sounded so easy when she talked about it like this. But real life was actually a very messy affair. Not so easy when you had to wade through the muck and figure things out on your own. If God hadn't abandoned her after the divorce, she might not feel so alone now. But He had and she did.
"Are you from around here?" he asked.
"Yes, I grew up here and still consider it home. My family lives in town. Since the school year ended yesterday in Boise, and I'm off for the summer, I decided to come back for a visit."
For another five minutes, she sat there with Evie's very tall, muscular father hovering over her. She took a moment to study him without appearing to do so. Long legs sheathed in faded blue jeans and worn cowboy boots. He had startling blue eyes and saber-sharp cheekbones. Highly attractive. In his eyes, she saw his concern and anxietyand all the love he had for his daughter. He was the kind of guy that made her think maybe love hadn't passed her by after all. That maybe she should reconsider dating and give love one more chance.
No! She mentally shook her head, telling herself she wasn't interested. Not in any man. Not ever again. Her heart couldn't take it.
"Evie, can you be really brave and let go of me now?" Jill finally asked the girl.
Evie drew back and gazed at her. She had a cute button nose and blue, translucent eyes identical to her father's.
"Do you feel better?" Jill asked her.
Evie nodded, but she didn't speak. She simply looked deep into Jill's eyes, as though peering into her soul. Jill felt as though this innocent child were assessing each and every one of her flaws and determining if she was worthy of her trust.