Breaking Bonds


Stephanie shot up from her bed with her heart pounding wildly. Her fists clenched the sheets, and she hugged herself to forget what she had seen. Her body trembled with a deep vulnerability that she could not escape.

Bloody hands crawled up her body toward her face. Others slithered along her arms and legs, and fingers weaved through her hair, slowly engulfing her. She squeezed her eyes shut to stop the attack on her mind, but her hand wiped the sensation of blood from her skin.

It's just a dream. You’re okay.

She used to have nightmares every night, but they had lessened over the years. She thought they were gone, but now they were back and more disturbing than ever.


She sprawled back against the bed, and her dark brown hair swept across her face. She didn’t want to move, but she knew she had to go to work.

Lifting herself up, Stephanie succeeded for a moment before her throbbing head and aching muscles caused her to collapse. Twenty-four years old but her bones felt like solid metal, impossible to infuse with life.

She heaved herself upright and dragged her feet along the carpet to the bathroom. Opening the medicine cabinet, she reached for the strongest dose available. Her chin lifted, and she swallowed the prescribed medication. She caught sight of the mirror and gave a haggard sigh. Rubbing her neck, she lowered her head to splash cool water on her cheeks, then dabbed her face with a towel.

She leaned closer to inspect the dark circles under her eyes.

“Here we go again,” she told the mirror.

If she had taken the time to look, she would have seen a heaviness in her soul, so deep that no one else could see.

She reached for her cosmetic bag. Makeup did wonders.

Picking up her comb, she vigorously brushed her hair. She was Stephanie Kenthal. Somehow, she'd get through this. Things had happened that she couldn't change. There was nothing else to do, except fight to do the best she could.

The single-story bookstore stood in the shadow of the surrounding buildings. A chill went through Stephanie, and she hesitated outside. She could hardly see inside because the front glass was covered with fliers. They were brightly colored, advertising local events, but she saw nothing bright about going inside.

With a deep breath, she pushed open the door.

“You’re late,” Julia announced, her lanky arms holding out a stack of books. Her long black braids made her look even younger than normal, and her dark eyes gleamed mischievously.

“Not as late as you were yesterday,” Stephanie replied curtly. She knew she was being teased, but she also suspected that, as manager, Julia was gloating at arriving before her employee—for once.

Stephanie passed the outstretched arms, knowing Julia wanted her to take the books. She unloaded her backpack and jacket under the counter, and prepared the cash register.

“And she never lets me forget it.” Julia dropped the books on the counter. The beginning of a smile formed as her banter faded.

Stephanie dragged the books toward her, annoyed but not enough for her coworker to notice. Julia was never a hard worker and seemed perfectly content to let others do her share. The only reason Julia had the job was because her grandfather owned the bookstore.

“So how was your morning?” Julia leaned across the counter, leisurely brushing the end of her braid up and down her face.


“That’s what you always say.”

“That’s what it was. Aren’t you going to open the store?” Stephanie hoped Julia would get the hint that they were there to work, but Julia never seemed happy with facts. Sometimes, Stephanie was certain that Julia would rather hear a fascinating story rather than true events.

Julia skipped to the door and flipped the sign. “We are now ... open,” she declared in her dramatic way.

Stephanie picked up her stack of books, overlooking her coworker's demand for attention.

“Aren’t you going to ask me?” Julia followed with her fingers laced behind her back.

“Ask about what?”

“My morning.”

Stephanie’s gut tightened. “How were your ...” she plastered on a fake smile, “first few hours of morning so far?”

Julia nearly danced, rattling on about the man she met in the bar and how when she woke up, he was still in the bedroom.

She giggled. “It was the best night of my life!”

Stephanie kept quiet, but inside, she wanted Julia to stop talking. Today would be one of those days. She needed another dose of coffee already—strong coffee!

“What’s his name?” she asked, fully knowing that Julia had no idea. Stephanie knew she couldn't claim a great track record with men, but at least she was in a better place than Julia.

“His name ... he ... uh ...”

“Did he say he would call?” Stephanie slid a book onto the shelf.

“No, I slipped my number in his wallet when he wasn’t looking. It’ll be a nice surprise when he finds it!”

Stephanie hid her face. “I hope he’s as surprised as you are farcical.”

Julia beamed at her presumed compliment. The poor girl never felt the need to look up words she didn’t know. If she had, she may have realized that more often than not, people were chuckling at her, not with her. Stephanie may not have completed her high school education, but she never let that stop her. She had always been bright, picking up bits of information from what she read, saw, or learned from others. She had a good memory and taught herself what she needed or wanted to know.

Julia tugged her braids. With a bounce, she swung around and pranced away. Stephanie shook her head, remembering the early days when she and Julia used to go to clubs together after work. She must have been desperate for a friend. Now it seemed impossible that they had ever bonded.

She was glad she was nothing like Julia.

Dropping to her knees, Stephanie ran her finger along the titles to find where to put the next book. She called out, “Did Jerry’s order come in yet?”

“Not yet, and he’s coming by today to get it. He won’t like having to come back.”

“What else is new?” Stephanie muttered under her breath.

Professor Jerry Modin was one of their most frequent customers, but he was the kind of person who talked to people primarily to impress them with what he knew. Stephanie had endured many long speeches about the effects of ginger or the perfect balance of a cat or the alignment of the stars. Random—and in Stephanie's mind—useless information she didn't need to know. He seemed to think since he and her father had been friends that would automatically make her a friend too.

“Did you call him?” Stephanie asked.

“Yeah, but he must have been in class. Oh yeah, he keeps—”

“I know! He needs to mind his own business.”

Julia came out from around the shelf and said in a much softer voice, “
It is kind of about that. He called because your dad passed away on Friday, and Jerry wants to know if you’ll come to the funeral.”

Stephanie only stopped for a moment.

They weren't the words she was expecting, but she wasn't affected either. She could have been told that the traffic was bad on the freeway, and she would have reacted the same way. She thought she should feel something, and the more Julia kept looking at her, expecting to see concern, the guiltier she felt.

“Are you going?”


“Why not?”

“Julia, just drop it.”

“You know he's going to want to know why you won't go. Couldn’t you just talk to him about it and put an end to it?”

“Not about that.” Stephanie didn't look up.

The phone rang, and Stephanie squeezed past Julia to answer. She picked up the phone. “Reaching the Horizon, this is Stephanie speaking. How may I help you?”

Julia picked up the two books Stephanie had left on the floor and began placing them on the shelf.

“Calvin ...” Stephanie said, relaxing at the sound of his voice.

Julia’s head snapped toward Stephanie.

“Sure!” Stephanie nodded. “That sounds great. O…okay. See you then.”

She hung up and saw Julia’s face had turned white. She would have asked what was wrong, but she already knew. She brushed her hands down her jeans as though removing the soot from Julia’s burning stare.

“Breathe,” she reminded Julia.

“What did he want?” 

Stephanie strode back to the shelf, pulled out each book that Julia had placed, and put them in their proper places.

“Don’t start,” Stephanie warned.

“Why are you dating him? I told you. He’s not a good guy!”

“I date who I want to date. I don’t need your approval. Just because, technically, you’re my boss doesn’t give you any right to my private life.”

Stephanie headed for the back of the store, but Julia dashed after her with renewed energy. “I’m talking to you as your friend. We’ve worked together for years, and on that friendship, I’m asking you to trust me.”

“You still haven’t said why.” Stephanie spun around. “We keep going over this. Why shouldn’t I date him? Until you give me a solid reason, I can't give you what you’re asking.”

Julia opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. She lowered her head. “I told you, you just have to trust me.”

Stephanie shook her head pitifully, remembering so many times Julia had proven unreliable. The store was under her management, but Stephanie was the one who had to lock up at night because Julia took off early. In the morning, Julia showed up when she felt like showing up, and she told Stephanie things that she was going to do, but never did them. Stephanie often had to cover for Julia when she was in the back on her laptop, playing games or shopping online instead of running the store.

“I can’t do that.” Stephanie shook her head. “You haven’t earned that kind of trust.”

The bell jingled, and a short man with glasses on the edge of his nose shuffled through the door.

“Are my books here yet?” His head jerked from side to side as he looked at both girls with an air of needing instant cooperation. His darting glances resembled a gopher in constant danger.

Julia retreated to the backroom, leaving Stephanie alone with him. “No, Mr. Jerry, they haven’t come in yet.”

“Professor Modin!” he corrected. “If your father were—”

“Please, I've told you I don't want to hear. Now if you'll excuse me.”

“I still don't understand.” He shook his head, following her. “He was your father.”

“Exactly, and that's all that needs to be said,” Stephanie said as politely as she could.

“It doesn't make sense. He wouldn't talk about it either.”

“What can I do for you today?” Stephanie folded her hands on the counter in front of her.

He wiggled his nose in frustration.

“We will call you when your order comes in, Mr. Jerry.” Stephanie slapped on her thank-you-for-coming smile.

“Professor, professor, professor!” Jerry closed his eyes and raised both eyebrows. “Hah! Young people! No respect anymore.”

The door jangled closed, and Stephanie sighed with relief.

Julia peeked out from behind a bookshelf. “Is he gone?”


“Good. Was he upset about his books?”

“No more than usual.” Stephanie covered her disgust at being deserted by Julia, but even more so, that Jerry wouldn't leave her alone. She didn't want to share, and he had been so determined to restore her relationship with her dad before he passed on. She knew he had been sick. Jerry had pestered her to visit, but she hadn't seen her dad since she moved out. She wasn't going to change her mind.

Stephanie stared through the strips of open glass to the street, and all her frustrations ran through her head. Could she ever find peace? First, she had the disturbing dream, then Julia with Calvin, and now Jerry with her dad.

She watched the sprinkling of pedestrians passing by. They were all different—walks, speeds, looks, and pasts—but they had one thing in common. They were on the other side of the glass.


“Where are we going?” Stephanie asked as Calvin led her down the sidewalk toward the nearly deserted beach. “The shops are back there.”

They passed a weighed-down truck and two shirtless men, unloading wood for a bonfire. Calvin’s Hawaiian shirt flapped in the breeze, revealing his sturdy chest through his white tank top.

“Are you trying to spoil the surprise?” he asked playfully.

“No....” Stephanie looked beyond Calvin to the stretch of ocean, but instead of crossing the sand to the water, they turned to the right, walking along the sidewalk, parallel to the shore. “Just give me one hint!”

“No!” He laughed. “Not even a little one, so don’t ask again.”

“I wasn’t going to.” She pretended that she could care less, but she could tell she wasn't fooling him. “Okay, maybe I would have.”

“I knew it!” He tickled her.

Stephanie laughed and darted a few feet ahead. He reached for her, but she dodged with a triumphant smile. She could never understand how Calvin managed to strip her cares away.

Apart from his impressive looks, Stephanie loved the way he made her feel free. Free to say anything, free to have fun, free to laugh, free to be adventurous, and even—heaven forbid, going to the extent of Julia—free to be silly. Most of all, she was free to forget her problems, which was a huge relief compared to her previous relationships.

Calvin was everything she wanted.

They first met when Stephanie came to his firm on behalf of the bookstore. A customer was “attacked” by a bird outside the store. Holding Reaching the Horizon responsible for damages, she sued the store for allowing wild birds to assault customers. Fortunately, Calvin got the case dismissed because of her long history of fraud and outrageous claims.

Remembering the first meeting made Stephanie smile. She was jittery enough about meeting with a lawyer. Then when he walked in and introduced himself, wow, she was a mess. She couldn’t think straight, her words wouldn’t come out, she lost all strength in her legs, and was sure she appeared dumb.

But the impression must not have been as bad as she thought.

“Come on. You’re going to miss your surprise.” Calvin tugged her off the sidewalk and trudged through the sand. Hand in hand, they laughed and talked as the sun descended to their level.

She spied the end of the beach and small crags up ahead. “Are we climbing those?”

“You never know.

“Calvin ...” she moaned. “I don't have my suit on.”

She glanced down at her favorite flip-flops. “Just answer my question, please.”

“Do you always have to know?” Calvin stopped to look at her.

She stared boldly back. “Yes.”

He chuckled, and his hand brushed her cheek. “That’s why you’re my girl.”

For a moment, Stephanie almost forgot to breathe. Everything seemed to disappear. All thoughts fled like the seagulls soaring overhead. Her heartbeat could almost be heard above the crash of the waves, and her breathing matched the rhythm of the tide.

He took her hand again and led her closer to the crag. When he positioned himself to lift her, Stephanie gazed up with mixed feelings, none of which were delight.

Was this a romantic outing? She kicked off her shoes.

Flip-flops in hand, she scaled the cliff with him. She knew Calvin could have climbed much faster, but he stayed with her. He told her where to put her feet and what to grab.

When she reached the crest, the view overtook her with awe. A sunset masterpiece of purple, white, pink and gold swirled over a sparkling blanket of crystal blue.

“It’s beautiful.”

“I knew you’d like it.” His arms slipped around her waist and his chin rested on her shoulder.

“How do you know exactly what I like?” She pulled his arms more tightly around her.

“Magic.” His lips touched her neck.

“No, really.”

He gave a light chuckle. “Women like to be paid attention to, so I observe.”

“You observe women?” She stiffened at the idea.

“No.” Calvin shook his head as he kissed her neck again. “I know women. I observe you.”

His answer passed the test, and she relaxed again.

“What about your past girlfriends?” 

“What about them?”

“You haven't told me much about them.”

He groaned and sat down on a rock. “Honestly, I’ve known a lot of women, and I’m not proud of it. I have regrets, but I’m trying to forget and make the most of today.”

His words were soothing as she thought about her past. In the last six years, all her relationships had been filled with lies, control, and abuse. Dismal failures, and she was done with them. She wanted more.

“Calvin, what’s in your future?”

“Working in a top law firm, making a lot of money, and being the best lawyer in the state. What about you?”

She considered for a moment. “I want to be happy.”

“Are you happy now?”

“I’m always happy with you.”

Calvin leaned forward to kiss her, but she turned her head.

“What’s wrong?” he asked with concern, but she turned her attention to the view instead.

“Look at how the water sparkles in the light.” She breathed deeply as though the splendor could satisfy her forever.

“Oh no! You’re not getting out that easy.”

She knew she couldn't avoid it now. “I didn’t want to ruin the moment. I have a history of things not working out, and I swore I wouldn’t rush anything.”

“Ruin the moment?” He sounded dumbfounded. “It’s not like we’ve never kissed before.”

Stephanie glanced down at the ground. “I know, but I want to enjoy what we have.”

Whether or not he heard, she couldn’t tell. Either he heard and didn’t want to acknowledge, or the shock was too much and had temporarily stunned his hearing.

“Ruin the moment?” His mouth opened and closed several times without speaking. Finally he said, “I’m beginning to think it’s me you don’t want.”

“No, that’s not it.” Stephanie reached out, but he pulled back.

“In all the time we’ve been together, have I ever pushed myself on you?”

“No, you’ve been amazing.”

“Because of you!” Calvin grabbed her hands. “You’re the amazing one. You make me want to be better. Closer. You’re awesome, fun, sexy ...”

The compliments soothed her. She enjoyed having someone admire her. He calmed her troubled nerves and took away her self-condemning thoughts. He saw something good in her, and that made her dare to believe it was true. Maybe someone could see more than what she saw.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I’m not hurt!” He walked to the edge of the cliff. Folding his arms, he stared down at the crash of the waves against the rocks.

“I’m stunned.

She quickly stole behind him and slipped her arms around his waist. Pressing her cheek against his shoulder blades, his head moved slightly, but no response came. 

“Can I make it up to you?”

Slowly he turned, as if to ask how. She took her cue with a luring step. Her hand reached out and traced up his abdomen to his chest. Her fingers caught his shirt and pulled him toward her, causing his smile to crack. He was only inches away. Then she began to tease him. She came so close that her lips barely brushed his, then retreated. Again, she came closer and drifted away. Both hands slithered up around his neck as she continued, until no longer could he take this game. He dove for the goal, enjoying her tantalizing lips.

A sense of security washed over her. Julia was wrong. Being with Calvin wouldn't be like her other relationships. She snuggled against his chest. I won’t let it.

Still the thought of her relentless nightmares put fear in her heart. What if she couldn’t protect this relationship any more than she could control the images that kept her awake at night?

The plush cushion sank as Stephanie relaxed in the chair's embrace. Uton's Cozy Coffee was her favorite place to sit in the corner and read. But today, she needed to talk.

She closed her book as her friend Holly slid across from her.

“What is it today?” Holly’s wavy blonde hair slipped from her shoulders as she peeked at the cover. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she read aloud and sat down. “I thought you finished that already?”

“I did. I’m reading it again.”

“Again?” Holly set her steaming cup on the small table. “Well, you should buy a new one if you want to keep reading it. One that's not falling apart.”

“This is a collector’s edition.

Holly held up two hands like old-fashioned scales. “Collector's edition ... in one piece.” The hand representing “in one piece” dipped lower than the other.

“I'll get it rebound.” 

Holly shook her head. “I’ll never understand you. You don’t even like reading, but you come here on your free time to read. You hate books, but you read the same book over and over. And you work at a bookstore.”

“I don’t hate books. I hate being around them.”

Holly’s eyebrows knit together. “There are a lot of books in a bookstore. Plus, don’t you have to be around a book to read it?”

Both girls sat as though waiting for the other to explain.

“Don’t ask me,” Stephanie said. “I guess books are familiar, and familiar things are hard to leave.”

“Okay, but I still don’t get it.”

She shrugged. “Me neither.”

“So why don’t you get another job?”

“I don't know,” Stephanie hesitated. She had never told Holly that when they met, she was sleeping in the park.

Stephanie had just ended a relationship when she lost her job and couldn’t afford her apartment. So with nowhere to go, she went to the park and hid in one of the enclosed domes to sleep. She would come after dark, and before dawn, she was up before anyone could see.

Stephanie remembered quietly locking the restroom door in stinky gas stations and fast food joints to bathe from the sink. Every day she spent at the career center, looking for a job.

Holly had been working at the bookstore and the coffee shop. When she decided to work her way through college, she quit the bookstore because the hours conflicted the most with her classes.

When Holly came to the career center to use the computer lab, she noticed Stephanie’s persistence day after day and sent a recommendation to her former employer. Since her old position hadn't been filled yet, Stephanie got the job.

“It won’t bother me if you leave.” Holly watched Stephanie warm her hands on the coffee mug.

“I know. But I don’t think I’m ready to rock the boat.”

“Even if you’re miserable?”

Stephanie thought for a moment before forcing a smile. “I got my best friend out of it.”

Holly picked up her cup and held it in the air. “Well, here’s to looking out for each other.” Stephanie lifted her mug, and a clink resounded before both girls sipped.

“So ...” Holly leaned forward on her forearms, “what did you want to talk about?”

“Do you think dreams mean anything?” Stephanie asked abruptly.

“What kind of dreams?”

Stephanie gnawed her lip. “Things no one should ever see. Things that'll send chills up and down your spine ... make you afraid.”

Holly looked thoughtful. “Afraid of what?” 

I don't know, Stephanie shrugged.

“Are you sure?” Her friend's blue eyes held steady.

Stephanie sunk lower in her seat and took a deep breath. “What should I do?”

“You keep looking for what's bothering you from your past.”

“And if I don’t want to remember?”

“It seems like something inside of you needs to remember," Holly said. Her cell phone vibrated in her pocket, and she pulled out the device and turned off the alarm. “My break’s over. I’ll come over tonight, and we can talk.”

Stephanie shook her head. “I have a date tonight. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine.”

Holly’s hand brushed Stephanie’s shoulder. “I’m here if you need me.” Stephanie watched her go, then picked up her book again. She knew she would keep fighting to move forward, but part of her wished she could stay in the corner forever.

She was getting tired of battling the unknown. 


The coffee shop bell rang, and Stephanie looked up from her reading. A tall figure rushed inside followed by a gust of wind. He greeted Holly with a warm smile. Judging by Holly's response, Stephanie figured they were friends.

He seemed to have a boyish charm that was engaging, and as he looked around for an empty seat, Stephanie thought he looked adorably lost.

She pointed to the seat across from her. “There’s room here if you like.”

“Thanks.” He sat down and gestured to her book. “Don’t let me interrupt.”

Stephanie laid the book on the table. “I could use a break. I’m Stephanie.”

“Kevin.” He shook her hand and glanced at the cover. “Interesting choice.”

“Yeah, it passes the time.”

“And changed history.”

“Well, I guess if you’re going to live, you might as well go big and make a difference.”

He chuckled and glanced away.

“You find that funny?” she asked.

“No. It’s a good motto. It's just that I sometimes wonder if we get so focused on what we think is making a difference, we forget the little things that count.”


She wanted to ask him what he meant, but she wasn’t sure if she should. Instead she guessed, “Like people?”

He smiled in surprise. “Yeah … like people.”

After a few moments, Stephanie said, “So, Kevin. How do you know Holly?”

“School. I’m a part-time student at the college.”

“Part-time?” Stephanie tossed her hair to one side. “ What do you do with the rest of your time?”

“I host a radio show during the week. And weekends, I work at my uncle's landscaping business.”

“Wow, busy. Why do you go to school if you already have two jobs?”

“I want to.” He shrugged. “I figure education's a good way to prepare for the future and open more doors.”

Stephanie cringed at the reminder that she didn't finish high school. From an early age she was on her own and had to work. But even if she had the option of higher education, she might not have taken that route. Dad would have wanted her to go to school.

“Why didn’t you start college earlier?” she asked.

“I think debt makes slaves of people, so I work to pay for school. When I got the job I loved, I didn’t quit. It’s a lot of juggling, but I want to be ready in case I’m led in another direction someday.”

Holly interrupted by handing Kevin his forgotten coffee.

“Thank you.” He gave a sheepish grin.

“Don't worry about it,” she told him before returning to work.

Stephanie could tell from the look in Holly's eyes that she wanted to talk later. Stephanie continued to pepper Kevin with questions, and he didn't seem in a hurry to leave. As they chatted, he soon had her talking about her job. She wanted to change the subject, but he sounded excited.

“Reaching the Horizon? I used to go there when I was little.”

“You should come by again sometime.”

“I might have to do that. Well,” Kevin glanced at the clock, “I have to run. It was nice meeting you.”

“You, too.” Stephanie stood and shook his hand.

He waved goodbye, and when he left, a strange disappointment overtook her. He was only being polite about dropping by her work, she was sure.

Wait a minute! She was in love with Calvin. Why did she want to see this stranger again? She could get herself into trouble, and suddenly the idea of entertaining the attraction repulsed her. Deception had taken different forms with her prior boyfriends, and she would never do that to Calvin.

Well, it's not like I'm ever going to see him again.

Stephanie leaned back in her chair and replayed the encounter with the man she'd never see again.

“I see that grin. You liked him.”

Stephanie jumped at the sound of Holly’s voice. “What grin?” She tried to act normal.

“The cute grin you get when you really like something. Or someone.”

Stephanie shook her head. “You’re ridiculous.”

“I’m always ridiculous to you,” Holly poked Stephanie’s side, “when I’m right!”

“Okay yes. He's cute, but I have a boyfriend.”

“Oh yeah ... Calvin.”

Stephanie stiffened. “Have you been talking to Julia?”

Holly shook her head, but Stephanie didn’t believe her. She stood and grabbed her backpack from under the table.

“So Julia doesn’t like Calvin?” Holly asked.

Stephanie stuffed her book into her backpack.

“Do you think we were talking behind your back?”

She zipped the bag shut.

“I haven’t talked to Julia in months, but Calvin’s …”

“What?” Stephanie’s head snapped up, a challenge in her tone.

“Never mind. Just be careful.”

“No, don’t stop now.”

“Well, he hasn’t impressed me.”

“That's because he’s not out to impress you.” Stephanie slung the backpack over her shoulder. “He likes me.
She charged out the door.

Holly sighed. “That’s what I’m worried about.”

Stephanie paced her apartment. Why couldn’t she get a handle on this? Her dinner date would arrive any minute. She was excited to see Calvin, but her mind kept returning to the coffee shop that morning. What was so gripping about Kevin? His smile, his eyes, his words—ah!

She pulled off her heels. They swung at her side as she continued back and forth. She had made her decision, and Calvin was the one for her. She didn’t need any more complication in her life, and she certainly didn’t need bothersome thoughts of a man she hardly knew.

The sound of knuckles rapping on the door sent her scurrying. She flung open the door, and Calvin stood in the hallway. His hair was gelled into place, and his suit neatly pressed. His arm swung around, producing a bouquet of the most beautiful, red roses Stephanie had ever seen. Of course, she thought the same about the last bouquet she had received, but who needed to know that?

“They’re breathtaking!” She took them from him and inhaled the sweet aroma.

“You are breathtaking.” Calvin leaned closer for a reward, which Stephanie granted with an impressive kiss.

“We should go. Do you have a vase?” Calvin began to take the roses, but Stephanie pulled them away.

“No, they’re so beautiful they deserve a night out.”

He shook his head. “Silly girl.”

“I'm not silly.”

“Yes, sometimes, you are very silly.”

She smiled and gave him a quick kiss. “Well, only for you.” She locked the door, slipped her hand into his, and headed down the hallway with him.

Outside, the couple climbed into Calvin’s glossy-black, convertible, V-8 Corvette. They whipped out of the parking lot with a screech and weaved through traffic.

Arriving at the restaurant, Stephanie glanced around as she climbed out. She had never eaten here before, but that was no surprise. Most of the places Calvin took her were new experiences.

Stephanie thanked the valet, who held the door open, and Calvin ushered her inside. Her eyes grew large as she followed him. He spoke with the hostess, and Stephanie avoided touching anything. Simply breathing made her feel like a contamination. The blonde hostess escorted them to a reserved table, and Stephanie wanted to disappear. Suddenly, her best gown, the dress she’d been so excited about being on sale, seemed unsuitable.

“Breathe,” Calvin reminded her as they sat down.

In a daze, she set the roses next to her plate. Suddenly, she snatched up the flowers from the pristine tablecloth, but as she did, she knocked over the empty wine glass.

She glanced up at the subtle frown on the hostess' face. A nearby waiter came to assist them. “I'm sorry.” She reached out, but he stopped her.

“Allow me.” He set the glass upright, and the annoyed hostess left. “Can I get a vase for you?”

“Yes, thank you.” Calvin told the waiter, and as the waiter left, Calvin turned back to her with an amused smile. “You like it?”

“It's beautiful.” Stephanie watched the waterfall slip down the dark grey stone to the pond below.

“I thought you’d say that.” Calvin contentedly opened his menu.

Stephanie did likewise. Her eyes scanned the lists of words. Was this French? She couldn't make out any meaning. How could she order without understanding what was offered? As her eyes searched, she longed for something familiar.

The waiter returned with a vase to hold her flowers. “May I take your order?” 

Stephanie swallowed. She had to choose something quickly.

Calvin promptly responded with two orders, but Stephanie didn't understand what he asked for. He surrendered his menu, and the waiter extended his hand to take Stephanie's. She smiled and yielded her menu to his care. He left with purpose behind each step.

“Thank you for ordering,” she told Calvin.

“That’s what I’m here for. Now, you probably have some questions on your mind?”

“Not really. You take me to a lot of nice places.”

“But not this fancy.”

“No, this is really nice.” She peeked over her shoulder at the marble surroundings. What was he trying to say? Her birthday was in June, their anniversary wasn't for months.

“I wanted to make this night extra special.

Is this …? No, it couldn't be. But he’s ... it’s that kind of place.

Stop being stupid, he won’t ….
Her heart beat faster. Was she excited or did she want to run?

All she knew was that she tried to follow what he was saying, but despite her best effort, she kept glancing at his hands, waiting for him to reach into his pocket.


The icy breeze stung Stephanie's cheeks as she hurried home through the dark streets from the restaurant. Clutching her coat, she rushed up the steps. Inside, she climbed the four flights of stairs to her floor. It seemed like fifteen flights tonight.

Her numb fingers fumbled with the overcrowded key chain. Home sweet home. Unexpectedly, the keys slipped from her fingers and clattered on the floor.

She stooped down and retrieved the keys. As she stood, she looked down the hall at the dreaded neighbor's door and held her breath. A few moments passed, and she released a sigh.

Her neighbor seemed to hate any reminder that other people lived in the building and regularly complained about the slightest disturbance. No matter how minor the offense.

Stephanie inserted her key, and just as she was about to unlock the door, a gray head popped out of the door down the hall. The dreaded voice crackled, “Keep the noise down! Do you know how much damage your ruckus does to an old woman?”

Stephanie swallowed the sour taste in her mouth. Before she had turned completely, Mrs. Averad continued, “Of course, you don’t. You don’t care! I hope people treat you like this when you’re old.” The old woman slammed the door, making more noise than Stephanie had made.

She groaned and opened the door.

Relief swept over Stephanie as she closed the door and set her keys on the counter. Her coat slipped to the floor, and she headed to the bedroom.

What a night! She thought about her dinner with Calvin. I can't believe I thought he was going to—of course, it wouldn’t happen. You didn’t have to be so jumpy. Getting a raise was a good thing. He should be proud.

Then again, he didn’t have to make it seem like a proposal.

She cast herself across the bed as she remembered how the cab blew a tire, and she ended up walking home. But what really bothered her was Calvin's phone call. Who was it, and why was the call so important?

He had called a taxi to get her home.

If she didn't know better, she would have thought the voice sounded like Julia, but that was impossible. She shook her head with a yawn. It couldn't have been. Probably something important with work.

She slipped beneath her covers and drifted off to sleep.

An hour later, she began to twitch and her face cringed. Her eyes popped open, and she cried out. She looked around the room. Again? These nightmares were relentless.

She got to her feet and staggered to the chair by the blanket-covered window. Her body shivered, but not from the cold. She wrapped the lap quilt around her shoulders anyway.

2:47...This would be a long night. She stared blankly into the dark room. 


Sergeant Mike Conner looked at the girl’s picture once more before climbing out of his patrol car, then headed toward the children’s center.

Another missing child. Presumed to be a runaway, but a recent report indicated she may have stumbled into far more than she bargained for with this guy. They were last seen together in a nearby town, and the alert went out to all the neighboring police stations.

He knocked, taking a deep breath. He hated when cases involved children.

A woman answered the door. “Hello, Sergeant.”

“Morning, Angie. I’m here to speak to your brother. Is he in?”

“Just a moment please.”

As Conner waited, he wondered if Dalton remembered their high school days. They never ran in the same circles, but he knew who Dalton was.

For a long time, Dalton had disappeared before coming back when his mother died to run this children's center with his sister Angie. Anyone who asked Angie was told that Dalton left to “discover himself.”

Whatever that means, Conner shook his head.

An ordinary-looking man in his mid-fifties came to the door. “Sergeant Conner.

“Good morning, Mr. Dalton. I have another post for your announcement board. The girl went missing yesterday, and we think she might be in this area.”

He handed him the photo.

“Of course.” Dalton took the photo and studied the face. “I’ll spread the word, and keep my eyes peeled.”

Sergeant Conner hesitated for a moment before leaning closer. “I also wanted to tell you and your sister to …” he paused and glanced around as though someone might overhear, “keep a close eye on all your kids here. I don’t want any more missing children, especially in my reports.”

Dalton nodded. “Neither do I. Thank you, Sergeant.” 


All morning, Stephanie tediously tapped her pen on the cashier's counter. She watched the pattern of pedestrians passing as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. The tapping increased, and when the door opened, the bell didn't faze her.

A voice said, “So you do work here,” and she nearly jumped.

The warm grin she thought she would never see again greeted her, and she lit up. “Hi! I wasn’t expecting to see you again.”

Kevin shrugged. “I happened to be close, so I thought I’d stop by. See if the place has changed.”

“Has it?”

“Only the clerks,” a half smile lurked, “and they’ve changed for the better. When I was a boy, they used to have really solemn ladies working here. They were nice but stern.”

Stephanie grinned. “That must have been my boss’s aunt before she passed away. She and her sister used to run the shop when they first opened.”

“Probably,” Kevin chuckled.

The bell rang softly in the background, but neither of them noticed, until a deep voice interrupted them. “Who’s this?”

This time Stephanie did jump. “Calvin! This is Kevin. Kevin this is my … uh … Calvin.”

“Pleasure.” Kevin held out his hand.

Calvin accepted, reluctantly, and immediately turned to Stephanie. “I can’t make lunch. I have a meeting, but I’ll pick you up at six for the game.”

“Okay, I’ll see you tonight.” She gave a little wave goodbye, but he stepped forward and gave her a long kiss instead. Then he turned to Kevin, looked him up and down, and left. Stephanie pressed her cool hand against her flushed cheek.

“Game?” Kevin asked.

“Basketball.” She searched for something to say.

“I’d better be going.” He gestured toward the door. “It was good to see you again.”

“Okay. Thanks for dropping by.” Stephanie nervously rubbed her hands together. “It was good to see you too.”

He left with a wave just as Julia appeared, and she hurried to Stephanie’s side. 

“Who was that?” She grabbed Stephanie's arm.

“Where have you been?” Stephanie pulled away from her grasp.

“In the back. Who was that?”

“Who?” Stephanie feigned ignorance. “The guy?”

“No...the squirrel that was in here. Yes, the guy!”

“His name is Kevin. Why?”

“Why?” Julia hurried to the glass, hoping for a second glance. “Because he’s cute!”

“Julia, you’re being ridiculous. Stop staring and get away from the window.”

Julia leaned closer to the glass. Stephanie grabbed her friend’s arm and yanked her away.

“What’s your problem?” Julia wrenched her arm free. “I can look out the window if I want to. Geesh—relax!”

Stephanie froze. “What did you say?”

“I said to relax.” Julia rubbed her arm gingerly. “Why? Stephanie—?”

Stephanie didn’t hear any more. Her mind reeled back to her reoccurring nightmare. At first, the dreams had been vague, but over time more details were revealed. They started with the hands swarming over her body, and then the blood appeared. The most recent addition was a husky voice coaxing, “Relax. Just relax.”

“Stephanie!” Julia snapped her fingers before the petrified face.

“Sorry.” Stephanie jolted back into focus.

“Are you alright?”

Stephanie tried to smile. Without a word, she retreated to the backroom, hoping Julia wouldn't follow. Julia stood in bewilderment, but with a shrug, she overlooked the incident.


Stephanie could not shake the strange feeling that had dampened her mood all day, even during the game with Calvin. She sat alone on the couch, munching on popcorn and replaying Kevin’s unexpected visit in her head.

This is stupid! Think of something else…of what?

With a grunt, she sprang to her feet to call Holly. She couldn’t spend the weekend alone like this. She needed to do something, be around people, and get away from her thoughts.

“Hey Holly, I was wondering what you are doing tomorrow. Hoping we could hang out .... Oh, dinner with your parents. Okay well .... No, I wouldn’t want to be a bother .... But it’s your family.”

Stephanie hesitated at the idea of visiting family, but she knew she needed to get away; so when Holly insisted, she agreed to join her. 


Stephanie knocked on the apartment door. Holly's roommates were gone, and Holly mentioned on the phone that there might be some time before they head to her parent's for dinner. Stephanie really hoped so.

She heard a faint call to come in and opened the door. She stopped. Holly wasn’t in the room, but lying on the floor was a little girl hovering over her coloring book. Her sun-streaked hair parted as she looked up and smiled.

“You wanta see my picture?” she asked, holding up her drawing.

A child? Stephanie’s heart pounded. She expected Holly to be alone, and she didn't have much experience around children. “Holly—” she called out as she glanced around for help.

“I’ll be right there,” she heard from the bathroom.

The innocent eyes didn’t move.

“It’s nice,” she told the girl without taking a step closer.

“She’s a mermaid.” The girl giggled as she enthusiastically went back to coloring.

Stephanie timidly closed the door and gnawed her lip as she stood waiting.

When Holly finally came out, she offered Stephanie a lemonade. Stephanie accepted, and Holly led the way to the kitchen.

“Who’s that?”

Holly reached for the cupboard. “That's Grace, my little sister.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“My parents adopted her when she was born.”

Stephanie glanced toward the living room. Adopted? Why did that word seem synonymous with outcast, unloved, and unwanted?

“I hoped we could hang out before leaving for dinner,” Stephanie told her.

“That’s the plan.”

“No, I mean ... just you and me.”

Holly looked up from pouring. “We can’t hang out because I have a six-year-old with me?”

She hesitated. “But kids and I, we don't ...”

Holly handed her the lemonade. “She won’t bite.”

Stephanie took the glass, and Holly poured another for herself. “Why’d your parents adopt?”

Holly shrugged. “I guess they thought Grace needed them.”

Putting the bottle back in the refrigerator, she said, “Come on. I promise you’ll live.”

The next hour Grace kept Holly entertained as she colored, rocked her doll, played hide and seek, and consumed her older sister’s energy. Holly tried to include Stephanie, but she declined, spending most of her time watching.

A knock sounded at the door.

“Stephanie, could you answer that?” Holly asked from the floor before Grace tackled her.

Stephanie opened the door and found a frail young woman.

“Uh ... is Holly here?” 

“Come on in, Cindy,” Holly called out.

Stephanie stepped aside, allowing the timid woman to enter.

“Stephanie,” Holly looked up at them from the floor, “I’d like you to meet Cindy. Cindy, this is my friend Stephanie.”

They greeted each other, while Holly gave a pretended yell as Grace tried to jump on her again.

“Oh no! Tickle time!” 

The girl squealed as she squirmed to get away.

“Okay, Grace...” Holly laughed as she got to her feet. “It’s time for you to go with your Auntie Cindy.”

She kissed her little sister’s cheek. “Have fun.” 

Grace returned the kiss and then skipped to hold Auntie Cindy’s outstretched hand.

“It was nice to meet you,” Cindy murmured shyly.

“You too,” Stephanie echoed.

The door closed, Stephanie turned to Holly, who was straightening up the room. “Who’s Auntie Cindy?” 

“She is Grace’s biological mom. Come on. We better get going. We’re going to be late for dinner.”


The seat belt dug into Stephanie's neck, and she shifted to find a more comfortable position. “Hey, about the other day, running out of the coffee shop. I uh ....”

She didn't finish her apology.

“Forget it.” Holly checked her rear-view mirror. “I know how frustrating things can get when it feels like your friends are against you.”

“Yeah, try the world,” Stephanie snickered under her breath, then said louder, “Calvin got a promotion the other day.”

“Good.” Holly nodded as she changed lanes.

“You know he’s really amazing. He’s committed and great at his job. He’s always saying how amazing and beautiful I am. He’s so good, I don’t know why people don’t see the man I see. Why is everyone, always, in other people's business?”

“Everyone and always … strong words,” Holly said. “I don't think I can speak for everyone, but in this case, maybe the people who don’t know Calvin know you, and what they see does not look good for your future.”

“It’s because he’s a lawyer, right? Why would a lawyer be serious about me? That’s it, isn’t—”

“No, and you know it! All I was saying was maybe you’re not ready for the right guy.”

“But that’s my decision.”

“And you've made it. But the wise seek out wisdom.”

Stephanie fiddled with her seat belt as they drove in silence, until she asked hesitantly, “So what’s Cindy’s story?”

Holly breathed deeply. “The short version would be a young girl who made a mistake. She thought she was in love, got pregnant, and was disowned by her wealthy parents because she didn’t take care of the problem.”

“Oh ...” Stephanie glanced out the window.

Holly shook her head sadly. “They'd rather hide her mistake than encourage her to make it right.”

“Well, to each his own.” Stephanie shrugged.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I'm not going to fret about it. They made their choice, and she made hers.”

Holly looked puzzled for a minute, then jerked the wheel to the left.

“What are you doing?” Stephanie braced herself as they crossed the double yellow line to pass a slow vehicle. “You don't have to jerk the wheel. Uh ... Holly. There's a truck. There's a truck!”

A horn blared as they sped straight toward the semi-truck. “Holly!” she screamed.

Holly swerved to the left and slammed on her brakes as the truck flashed by on the right.

Stephanie gasped. “What the hell was that? You could have gotten us killed!”

Holly shrugged. “My choice.”

She stared at her friend dumbfounded. “No, that's ... you can't ....”

“Are you saying I don't have the right to choose?”

“Not when it affects me!”

“Ah ...” Holly looked as though she heard a new idea. “So personal choice doesn't trump everything?”

Stephanie's mouth gaped.

Holly didn't say more as she drove back to the right side of the road. They continued on, but Stephanie was still shaky when her friend announced, “Here we are.”

They pulled in the driveway, and as Stephanie unbuckled her seat belt, she observed the little white house with dark-green trim. A huge tree shaded the property.

“It’s beautiful.

“My mom's dream house,” Holly told her as they climbed out. “My dad had it built for her. I wish I could have seen her face. Dad says he would’ve died for that look.” She smiled. “Fortunately, he didn’t have to go that far.”

“He sounds like a romantic,” Stephanie said as they walked toward the front door.

“You know, I’d say he’s a silent romantic. He’s definitely made changes through the years. He’s not an open man, but he loves his family. If he and my mom have taught me anything, it’s that love grows stronger with those who have fought for it. My brothers and I called it, ‘stubbornness put to good use.’”

The door flew open, and a short, round woman greeted them. “Hello, welcome! Come in! Come in!” Mrs. Primmix kissed her daughter and hustled the girls inside.

They passed the office where a slim man with glasses and graying hair sat leaning over his desk.

“Stephanie,” Mrs. Primmix said, “I’d like you to meet my husband Jack.”

The man nodded politely, but before Stephanie could say a word, Mrs. Primmix continued on. “The food’s getting cold, so come! Jack, it’s time to eat now!” she called out behind her as she led the way down the hall.

Seated at the table, they said a prayer, and Stephanie found herself rigidly passing dishes. She wished she felt comfortable. She wanted to be at home with Holly’s family, but she couldn't help wanting Mrs. Primmix to stop talking and her husband to start talking. Why wouldn’t he speak? This wasn’t the man she had expected.

“Mom, why don't you share how you and Dad fell in love?” Holly suggested.

“Oh, she wouldn’t want to hear that!” Nancy Primmix swatted the air as though discussing ancient history.

“Actually, I would like to hear more.” Stephanie brightened, taking her first bite. “Holly told me about the house.”

“Well,” Mrs. Primmix beamed. “Jack was my brother’s best friend and as teenagers, we used to get together for fun.

“One day, my brother was late, and Jack decided to climb this enormous tree while we waited. I had never climbed a tree, but I figured if he could do it, I could do it.” She laughed merrily before adding, “It didn’t cross my mind that he might have had the practice that I didn’t.

“Just when I thought how easy this was,” she slammed her hand on the table, making Stephanie jump. “I slipped and fell. I hit a couple of branches on the way down before landing flat on my back. Jack came scurrying down the tree. You should have seen his face. He was scared! Yes he was, scared out of his wits!” Her eyes sparkled as she laughed at her own story. “Then, of course, he carried me home, and I noticed how handsome he was.”

Mrs. Primmix beamed at her husband as he continued to focus on his dinner. “He spent the entire summer helping me. That's when we realized how much we cared about each other.”

She squeezed her husband’s unresponsive hand. The interaction, or rather the lack of interaction on his part, aggravated Stephanie. How could he ignore his wife like that? On top of everything, his wife didn’t seem to notice, or mind! Thoughts of an insensitive, ungrateful, and undeserving man burdened Stephanie as she watched the couple. She would not put up with his coldness if she were his wife.

Mrs. Primmix concluded by saying, “We’ve made a tradition every year to have a picnic under the tree that brought us together.” She added with a tender smile as she rubbed her husband’s arm, “But he’s never let me climb it again.”

“My brothers and I spent our childhood climbing the tree,” Holly joined in.

That's when Stephanie made the connection that the huge tree outside was the same tree from the story. Because of that tree, Mr. Primmix had chosen this property to build his wife’s dream house. The realization caused Stephanie to soften slightly toward the silent man, but she could not honestly say she liked him.

“Where are your brothers?” Stephanie asked.

“The oldest is married and lives about twenty minutes from here. The other is studying abroad.” She smiled at her parents. “It’s a good way to keep him in school.”

“He should have married Cindy.”

“Mom, you know they didn’t love each other.”

“Such a pity.” Mrs. Primmix shook her head, standing to clear the table. “We could use more women like her.”

The mouse-like image of Cindy replayed in Stephanie’s mind. What did they see in her?

For the first time, Mr. Primmix spoke in a smooth, low voice. “Acting in the interest of others, especially when it’s inconvenient or painful for you, is the truest form of love.”

He had been quiet so long his voice startled Stephanie, but her apprehensions vanished in an instant. In one sentence, he swept her dislike away, and for the first time, her mind was clear. Now she began to see the subtle way he looked at his wife, and how much he cared about her. He was very reserved, but the love was there the whole time.

How could she have missed it?

Dinner was over, and Stephanie stepped outside for a night stroll as mother and daughter talked in the kitchen. She needed some air, but mostly, she needed to think.

She slipped around to the side yard and walked toward the tree from the story. All the events that occurred under its branches ran through her head. Her fingertips lightly brushed the bark of the tree that had brought about this family.

Suddenly, she was back. It had been over ten years, but she was in the room with nothing. Nothing on the walls. Nothing to use as furniture, and nothing to help her escape. Shoved in a corner, the soiled mattress under her seemed as grimy as she felt inside. No sheets, no pillows, no covers. Only a scratchy wool blanket.

A thin layer of dirt covered the cement floor, and dust particles floated overhead in the narrow beam of light. The light came from the barred-slit-of-a-window above her, causing the room to be dim instead of dark. Gazing up at the light seemed to make her feel worse, for it was a reminder of what she couldn’t have—her freedom. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t escape.

Suddenly, an unexplained fury rushed over her as her fists pounded the tree. Right, left, right. Her knuckles punched the bark as she thought of Holly's family. With a gasp, she tottered forward, leaning against the tree. Her balled fists hit the bark once more.

Blood covered her hands, but it didn’t hurt. She slipped to the ground, and her chest swelled. Three words wrapped around her heart, nestling deep within her. 

It’s not fair!

After a few minutes, Stephanie’s mind shuttered as the memories receded. Her vision cleared as her anger subsided in the stillness, and she stood to her feet, dizzy and shaken.

Taking a few deep breaths, she headed toward the faucet and quietly turned on the water. She washed the blood from her hands as though nothing happened.


Stephanie peered through the cemetery gate from outside. The rain poured down all around her, and she held her umbrella steady.

Hi, Mom.

She gripped the umbrella handle tightly. Seven years ago today, they laid her mother in the ground. She remembered hearing children playing in the park that day, next to the cemetery. Their joyous sounds didn't seem right. How could they be so happy, while the ache inside her dug deeper?

I miss you so much.

Stephanie slowly turned away as the rain poured down harder. She walked to the curb and looked both ways before crossing. Reaching the other side, a honk sounded down the road.

She peered toward the car that had signaled to her. As it pulled up, she didn’t recognize the driver or the person in the front seat. The door opened, and Kevin popped up out of the backseat, dressed in his church clothes.

“What are you doing out in the rain?” he called out.

“I should ask you the same question.”

He smiled. “Where are you headed? We could give you a ride.”

“No thanks. I’d rather walk.”

From inside the car, his friends protested that they were getting wet, so he stepped out and closed the door. “How long were you out there?” He walked toward her.

“Excuse me?” She asked with a tilt of her head. “Where’s your umbrella?”

“Don’t have one.” He stopped in front of her. “How long were you standing there?”

“Were you watching me?”

He chuckled. “It’s not every day you see a pretty girl staring into a cemetery.”

“You’re getting soaked.”

“And you’re avoiding my question.”

“I went to visit my mom.”

“In the rain?”

She didn’t answer.

“Why didn’t you go inside?” he asked.

“Why so curious?”

“I’m not.”

“You sound like you are.”

“Well, when someone’s acting curiously, people get curious.”

“Then you are curious.”

His friends honked the horn, and he gestured for them to go without him. “Who are they?” she asked as they drove away.

His eyes twinkled. “Why so curious?”

She glanced away, but she couldn’t hide her smile. “Let’s get you out of the rain.”

They hurried along the street, keeping under any shelter they could, but the storm was getting worse.

“Do you want to wait for it to let up?” Stephanie gestured toward the line of shops.

“Sure.” He reached for the door and held it open for her.

She stepped inside, and he followed.

“Wow,” she teased him, “what’s with the formality?”

“It’s how I was taught to show respect.”

“Did you grow up a hundred years ago?”

He chuckled. “It seems like it sometimes.” A puddle of water formed on the floor below him, but the sleeping attendant behind the counter didn’t move.

Stephanie began exploring the trinkets on the shelf.

“Have you ever been here before?” Kevin asked.

“No, have you?”

He nodded. “My mom loves this place. She says sometimes what other people see as junk can become the best treasure.”

Stephanie scrunched her nose. “I’m seeing a lot of junk. Is that bad?”

Kevin grinned. “Maybe if you keep looking, you might find something ... like this.” He grabbed a foam sword and swung it toward her. “On guard.”

“Really?” She tried to pass him, but he held his stance.

She pointed to the swords behind him. “You’re blocking them.”

“Exactly.” He smiled mischievously.

Her expression changed. She whipped around and grabbed a nearby cane. “Ready.” She took a dueling stance.

He looked at her sturdy cane, then his flimsy sword, and back at her look of victory.

“Oh snap!” He dashed toward the back of the store, and she charged after him. Snatching up a large beanbag off the floor, he held it up as a shield. His arm reached around the bag, trying to get a hold of her cane.

“No! You can’t have it.” She laughed as she fended off his advance to steal her weapon. Using the beanbag, he pinned her against the wall. Grabbing the cane from her, he tossed it a few feet from them.

She pushed to get away, but he was too strong for her.
“Surrender?” he asked.

“Never.” She tried again, but he held her firmly.

As she stopped to catch her breath, he relaxed his hold. “Are you always this stubborn?” he asked with a peculiar smile.

“Worse.” She dropped to the ground, knocking him off balance. In her haste to clamber to her feet first, her hand hit a framed picture, sending it crashing down on him. The glass shattered, cutting Kevin's hand and startling the sleeping attendant, who jumped to his feet.

“I’m so sorry.” Stephanie reached down to help Kevin up.

“It’s nothing. Just a scratch.”

“Let me see.” She examined the cut. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“I know. It’s fine. Really. Don’t worry about it.”

“What happened?” the attendant demanded as he surveyed the glass.

“It’s my fault.” Kevin jumped in before Stephanie could explain. “I accidentally knocked over the picture and cut myself.”

The man’s face turned ashen. “You got cut?”

“A little. No big deal.”

“Please, don’t sue us!” the man said with wide eyes.

Kevin assured him that he wouldn’t sue and insisted on buying the broken picture. With the purchase in hand, Kevin opened the door for Stephanie.

The rain had stopped, and he walked her home.

“This is it.” Stephanie stopped outside her apartment. “Thanks. I had a good time.”

“Me too.” He held out the picture. “I want you to have this.”

“I couldn’t. You bought it.”

“Please, I’d like you to take it.”

“Is it supposed to be something?” she asked, taking the picture.

“It’s a stereogram.”

“A what?”

“A 3D picture. When you first look at it, all you see are random specks of color, but if you look at it in just the right way, you can see something deeper. And that’s a pretty cool moment.”

“What do you see?”

“I think you should discover that for yourself.”

Stephanie looked again, but all she could see was the work of a bad artist.

“I don’t see anything.” She handed the picture back to him, but he didn't take it.

“Maybe someday you will.”

“At least let me buy it.”

“No,” he shook his head, “it’s a gift, I want you to have.”

Stephanie wasn't convinced.

“Okay, I’ll make a trade with you. You can have the picture, if you come have dinner with me tomorrow.”

“Deal.” She smiled. “Where?”

“That’s a surprise. I’ll pick you up at the bookstore.”

“But I won’t have a chance to change.”

He grinned. “You won’t have to.”

As Stephanie went inside, she stole a curious glance through the window. What kind of man was this, who took the blame when she hurt him? And gave her a gift. 


Inside her apartment, Stephanie removed the stereogram from its old frame and replaced it with a new one. Hanging the new frame on the wall, she stared at the picture. There was no logic, no order, no pattern, and no design—but he said that he saw something.

She stared harder. Did she believe him? 

Dalton placed a loaf of bread in his cart and looked up as the news gave the latest reports on the missing girl. The clip flashed to the girl's rap-star father.

The woman beside Dalton pointed at the girl's father. “He built his entire fortune, glorifying pimping.” She shook her head sadly. “Now he lost his only daughter to a pimp. Ironic, huh?”

She continued her shopping, but Sergeant Conner's warning rang in Dalton's ears. Keep a close eye on all your kids here. I don’t want any more missing children, especially in my reports.

He knew how bad things were getting, even here at home. They lured innocent lives into lifestyles that they didn’t understand, convincing them that they offered love and value, or sometimes simply, easy money.

His jaw tightened. If only they knew the truth.

A few more items, then he’d head back to the center. He glanced at the shopping list his sister had given him. Tonight, he was in charge of dinner, so Angie could spend time with her husband before his deployment.

Dalton needed to hurry.

In a few minutes, the door opened, and a girl slipped inside.

Dalton wouldn’t have noticed her if the young man hadn’t followed closely behind her. She was thin and not wearing much for the cool evening outside. He whispered something to her and jerked his head in one direction. She silently obeyed, going down the aisle without him as he walked around the store like a circling hawk. Every now and then, she would timidly glance around to see if he was still there.

He always was.

Dalton gathered the last items on his list, but he kept an eye on both of them. The girl headed to the checkout and rocked nervously as the clerk scanned her items. She slipped another wary glance at the young man, who stood by the exit. Dalton came to stand behind her in line. She paid and headed for the door, lowering her head as she left with him.

“Have you seen her before?” Dalton asked the clerk.

The man nodded sadly. “She comes here to do her shopping, and he’s always with her.”

“Does he always treat her like that?”

He nodded. “But don’t let your imagination run away with you.”

“Ring these up when I come back,” Dalton told him.

The clerk looked as if he wanted to warn Dalton not to do anything stupid, but Dalton didn’t wait. He pushed through the door and scanned which way they went.

Spotting them several blocks down the street, he hurried after them. He didn’t know what he was expecting to find, or what he planned to do. He didn’t even know if there was a problem, but something in his spirit wasn't right.

As they hurried through the streets and into a rough neighborhood, the young man never let go of the girl’s arm, even as they disappeared inside one of the narrow, two-story houses.

Dalton took note of the address.

He began to creep closer but stopped. What was he doing? They went home. There wasn’t anything illegal going on here. Maybe her boyfriend was mad at her. It happens. Besides, Angie was going to be mad enough that he was so late. He needed to mind his own business and go home. He made his way back to the store, bought the groceries, and hurried back to the center.


The musty smell of a confined building made Stephanie want to open a window for a breeze.

“This way,” Kevin told her as he navigated through the floral decorated halls. As they entered the dining area, she realized where she was. He brought me to a retirement home? she thought, slightly annoyed.

A few teenagers were scattered about the room, talking or playing games with the residents. Kevin circled the room shaking hands and greeting people like old friends. Stephanie pretended to smile as Kevin introduced her, but she didn't remember their names.

One group crowded around a piano where a dark set of wrinkled hands played a tune with all the life and vigor of youth. The rickety bench creaked under the weight, but the man appeared jolly as his jowls jiggled with the lively music.

“Sam!” Kevin called out. “Stop playing that racket. I’ve got someone for you to meet.”

The music halted with an abrupt thud.

The man swung around. “Kevin, my boy!” His teeth shone pure white in contrast to his complexion, and his smile surged through the room as he stood. His arms gripped Kevin’s frame like a nutcracker clenching an unsuspecting shell. “It’s about time you came back to keep us old folks company.”

“Too bad I’m only here as an introduction. You haven’t met the main attraction yet.”

“So you didn’t come because you missed an old fella like me?”

“I know this’ll be hard for you, but today you’ll have to settle with my divided attention.”

The old man caught sight of Stephanie. “No wonder you’re distracted. I wouldn’t share my attention either.” He elbowed the young man, and Kevin’s face flushed.

The old man laughed as he addressed Stephanie. “It’s not every day I get to embarrass him.”

She grinned. “I’m Stephanie.”

“Sam, but this kid here,” he gestured toward Kevin, “calls me Uncle Jolly.”

“Uncle Jolly?” She nodded. “I like it.”

“Stick around and by the end of night he’ll have a nickname for you too.” The man gave Kevin a teasing pat.

“So,” Stephanie looked from one to the other. “You two know each other …?”

“Since forever,” Kevin told her. “I come to visit with some kids from my church.”

“Oh fiddle sticks! We met at a grocery store when he was about five.” Sam leaned in closer and whispered, “He gets embarrassed when I tell this story.”

“Really?” Her eyebrows lifted with intrigue.

“I was having one of those days where everything was going wrong, and I wasn’t afraid to show it. So when they overcharged me at the store, I let them have it. My poor wife! Anyway, this kid comes running up and puts something in my hand. He looks up at me and says, ‘Bubble gum always makes me happy,' and he runs off to his mom. That was it! Since then, he's become the nephew I never had.

“When I came here, he started bringing kids from his church to visit. He said it wasn’t healthy for me to be in a secluded place where everyone I know is dead or dying. I have to admit, it’s been good to be around young people again. We talk and play games and—”

“Speaking of games,” Kevin cut in and held up a deck with a challenger's grin. A glint shone in Sam’s eye, and he drew up a chair at the table with anticipation. Both competitors leaned in and Sam declared, “Let the games begin.” 


Strolling down the street that night, Stephanie said, “I like Uncle Jolly. He’s … surprising.”

Kevin laughed. “He is that. Full of spunk!”

“You both were pretty evenly matched.”

“Hey! He might be old, but he’s fast!” Kevin defended his multiple losses in their game of speed.

“And the commitment was inspiring,” Stephanie teased as she recalled the tension. She found more enjoyment watching them, than trying herself to win.

Kevin nodded. “It was fun. Thanks for coming.”

“Thanks for inviting me.”

They walked a few yards and Stephanie gently kicked a pebble. “So what’s my nickname?”

“You want one?”

She shrugged. “Sure.”


She made a face. “I’m not short.”

“But when I met you, you were reading, curled up in a little ball. You looked like a little munchkin.” He quickly changed the subject. “Do you want to get some dinner before we head back?”

“You’re still hungry?”

“Hey, they eat early there and the portions are tiny.” He lowered his voice persuasively. “Come on. I need food!”

“Okay,” Stephanie agreed, and they headed for the nearest open taco stand. When their orders were ready, they sat down to eat.

“It’s your turn,” Stephanie told him. “You know my favorite book. What’s yours?”

“How about favorite story?” he asked.

“Sure. Whichever.”

“I've always liked 'the Gift of the Magi'.”

“Never read it. What is it?” Stephanie took a bite.

“You haven't?” He looked surprised. “You should. It comes highly recommended—by me,” he emphasized.

She grinned. “Well, how can I say no?”


All the customers were gone, and Stephanie picked up the book to find her place.

She could see the whole situation.

Della's long hair was her pride and joy, but she sold her hair to buy a chain for Jim's pocket-watch for a Christmas present. It was his grandfather’s watch, and Jim’s most prized possession. The chain would be perfect. She couldn’t wait to see his reaction when he saw his gift!

Jim stood dumbfounded, looking at his wife’s short hair. She tried to explain that she had to get him a present for Christmas, but all he could say was, “You’ve cut your hair?”

“I'm sorry.” He pulled out a package from his overcoat and threw it on the table to explain his reaction.

Eagerly, she opened her gift and squealed with delight when she found the hair combs she had drooled over for months, never thinking she would own them. They were expensive combs, and as newlyweds, they didn't have money to spare.

She hugged them to her bosom. “My hair grows so fast Jim!”

Beaming, she held out the chain for his grandfather’s watch. “Isn’t it dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Jim toppled down onto the couch and put his hands behind his head.

“Dell,” he said, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

Stephanie slowly closed the book and thought about The Gift of the Magi. How appropriate that Christmas was almost here.

She had an idea.


Her anxious knuckles rapped on Calvin’s door. Stephanie took a deep breath. She couldn’t wait to see the look on Calvin’s face when he opened his gift.

Last night, he had invited her to stay the night with him and have an early Christmas morning together, but she declined, saying she had something special she wanted to bring with her. She could see the disappointment on his face. If she wasn’t careful, she would have no more excuses of why she wouldn’t spend the night.

Calvin opened the door, and he dangled a piece of mistletoe over his head. She laughed and went to him, giving him a long kiss.

“Good morning,” she said. He inhaled as though breathing her in and kissed her again as he lifted her off the ground with one arm.

He gave the door a shove and shuffled inside.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, setting her down.

“You act like you haven’t seen me in forever.” She snuggled against his chest, enjoying the smell of his cologne.

He smiled. “Breakfast is ready. Have you eaten?” He headed for the kitchen.

She slipped off her jacket. “It smells good. You really went all out.” She noticed the Christmas decorations on the tree, and two stockings hanging over the fireplace.

“Only the best for my girl.”

He scooped the omelet onto a plate, and together, they sat down to eat.

When they finished, a sparkle shone in her eye. “Are you ready for your gift?” she asked.

“Ready.” He pushed away from the table.

She jumped up and fished a package out of her jacket pocket. She motioned for him to sit on the couch, and he did.

“This is something I hope you’ll like. It’s something that’s very special to me.” She sat down, facing him. “Calvin, I’ve been through a lot in my life, and when I met you, I was so done with …” The lump rose in her throat, and she tried to gulp it down.

He put his finger to her lips. “You’ve been hurt. So I waited. I knew it would take time to let me in here.” His finger tapped the flesh covering her heart. She caught his hand and pressed it against her skin. Their breathing synchronized, and she searched his eyes. Her heart beat faster.

Did he really think she was worth the wait? “I need to know you’re different. I’ve hoped that you are, but I need to know that you are.”

“Is there any reason that you doubt me?”

She swallowed hard. “There are people who’ve been warning me—”

“Wait, what?” He sat up a little straighter. “Who?”

“It doesn’t matter. You don’t know them.”

“If I don’t know them, they can’t possibly know me. How are they warning you against me?”

“That’s what I’ve been saying!”

“Okay, okay. Let’s dissect this?” Calvin grabbed her hand, calming her down. “They don’t know me ... you do. So there’s nothing to worry about.”

“I’m not worried.”

“Then how did we get on this?”

She shrugged. “Well, it does bother me. I want my friends to like you.”

“That’s normal, but you can’t be responsible for their biases.”

“I want them to know the man I know. Calvin? Why haven’t you tried to get to know them?”

He groaned. “Where’s this coming from?”

“I just want to know. Do you care about me?”

He gently touched her cheek, but she wasn’t finished.

“If you care about me, why haven’t you gotten to know them? Holly’s the closest thing I have to family, and she’s barely seen you.”

“You’re the one I want. Why should I waste my time with them? You said yourself that they don’t like me anyway.”

“Maybe they don’t like you because you’ve shown them you don’t care.”

“I don’t. Why should I?”

“Because I do.”

“Then you be with them.”

Stephanie opened her mouth to retort, but nothing came out.

“Anyway,” he said, “I thought today was supposed to be about us.”

“It was ... I guess I got scared.”

“Of me?” He took her hand.

“Of what I wanted to share with you.”

He leaned in a little closer, and she felt her pulse rise. She handed him the package and held her breath. He curiously tilted his head to one side before ripping the gift open. A Congressional Medal of Honor fell into his palm, and he stared at it.

“It was my granddad’s,” she explained as she gazed on the heirloom fondly. “For his service in the war. He gave it to my mom, and it’s been a family treasure. I wanted you to have it because I thought you deserve an award for being so wonderful to me. No one’s ever treated me like you do, and I really hope you like it.”

He stared at the medal without any readable expression and set it on the end table.

“It’s nice,” he said, then stood up. “Now for your gift.” He took her by the hand and drew her off the couch. With a sly expression, he led her across the room.

“It’s in here.” He tilted his head toward the bedroom. Letting go of her hand, he opened the door and went inside. He picked up a gift bag.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, holding it out to her.

She came near. Reaching out, she took the bag. He wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her against him. “I hope you like it,” he whispered in her ear.

Her hand slipped inside and pulled out black lace. Holding up the lingerie, she stared at it.

“I knew you’d like it,” he said. “Why don’t you try it on?”

She pulled out of his embrace, staring at his startled face.

“What's wrong?” he asked.

“You want to have sex,” she said with new understanding.

Recovering from his surprise, he stepped toward her. “You’re acting like this is a shock. It’s a natural thing to want. That’s what people do when they love each other. That’s why it’s called making love.” He took hold of her upper arms

She pulled away.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Why is this so evil to you? There’s nothing wrong with getting closer!”

“What kind of closer do you want?” She shook her head, leaving the bedroom with him close behind.

“You’re scared. Admit it. There’s that little girl, who wants so badly to be loved, but is afraid of being loved by a real man.”

“Stop it.”

“Not until you admit it.”

She picked up her jacket.

“Why won’t you make love with me?”

“Because ...”

“Because what?” He grabbed her arm.

“Because...” she pulled away. She paused before saying, “Because I know too well that there’s an awful lot of sex going on in this world that is hurtful, and destructive, and often used to make us feel better about ourselves because we don't like the way we feel inside. And if that is all love is …” her tone changed to steel. “I want nothing to do with it.”

She wrenched open the door and stopped briefly. “I thought you wanted more.”


Stephanie charged home. Her hair flew behind her as she punched the numbers in her cell phone. Thrusting the device against her ear, she waited for him to pick up.

“Hello?” Kevin answered.

“It’s the dumbest thing in the world!” She snapped her head in both directions to ensure there were no cars before crossing the road.

“What? Hello, who is this?”

“The Gift of the Magi—it’s fantasy, not real. It gets a person to hope and believe in something that doesn’t exist.”

“Stephanie, is that you? What happened?” he asked. “Are you okay?”

“It’s a lie! How did you ever think it was true?”

“Which part? That they loved each other?”

“That there’s more!”

“More than what?” Kevin sounded more lost than ever. “Stephanie, you’re not making any sense. Where are you? I’m coming.”

“It didn’t work! Never give up what you love because they won’t appreciate it anyway.”

“What did you do?” The alarm sounded in his voice.

“I gave it to him! My mother’s treasure—and he didn’t even look at it twice!”

“You mean Calvin? Stephanie, please tell me where you are.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m done talking.”

“No, you need to work this out. Now please—”

She hung up.

Dashing up the steps, she hurried to her apartment and closed herself inside. She leaned against the door to catch her breath, but the room seemed to rock. Pressing her temples, she hoped to calm the storm, but she had no authority. The room continued to swell, making her nauseous. Stupid girl, what were you thinking?

You weren’t. That’s the problem. Did you really think you could believe in something and watch it happen? You think you can magically create your happily ever after with a simple gift. Wake up! You’ve lived in the real world. Get back to it! This is the way it is, and no amount of wishing is going to change it.

Suddenly, Stephanie felt tired; tired of feeling like there was more but not finding what she wanted. Tired of the weariness that draped around her and weighed her down every morning. Tired of being afraid to sleep at night. Tired of the men in her life, letting her down. Tired of this never-ending ache inside.

Tired of never being enough.

Done with thinking, she stumbled toward the kitchen. Her fingers rummaged through the drawers. This would do. Her fingers gripped her sharpest blade. She clenched her jaw as she dragged the blade across her arm. Again, and again, she sliced before moving up her arm. It hurt, but the pain was a welcome relief.

Physical pain only lasted so long. But this … this inside … she didn’t know how to end this.

Over the years, she had learned how to survive, but as the blood dripped down her arm, Stephanie knew the truth. Expressing her anguish was just that. An expression.

It didn't change anything.

Before going to bed, she wrapped her arm in an ace bandage and carefully stowed her new friend under the mattress. She found a strange comfort in knowing the knife was there if she needed. 

Whenever she needed, it would always be there.


Nine o'clock and late! Stephanie rushed through the streets toward the bookstore. What was wrong with her? How could she be late again?

Breathing heavily, Stephanie pushed through the doors and braced herself for more gloating about her tardiness. To her surprise, Stephanie found Julia too busy to notice. Full of giggles, Julia gazed up at Kevin, who freely talked with her seemingly unaware of the adoring eyes staring back at him.

But Stephanie saw, and she didn’t like what she saw.

Kevin turned at the sound of the bell. “Hey, I tried calling you, but you didn’t pick up.” He came towards her.

“I don’t want to talk about it, Kevin.” Stephanie walked around the counter and bent down to stuff her bag in the cupboard.

Julia retreated to the back room.

“Okay … but it sounded like you really needed help.”

“I don’t.” She stood and turned on the cash register.

“Munchkin, I don’t think Calvin’s—”

“What?” Stephanie whirled around to face him. “You don’t think he’s what?”

“I don’t think he’s what you really want.”

She shook her head in amazement. “You think you have all the answers, don’t you? If only I’d listen to you, you could fix all my problems. Well, guess what Kevin? Sometimes people don’t want to be fixed.”

“I’m not trying to fix you.”

“Yes, you are! You feel sorry for me, and you want to help.”

“I do want to help. If there is something wrong, why not let someone help make it better?”

“I don’t want you to fix me! Sometimes, it’s nice to believe that there’s not something wrong. It lets you hope and believe that someday someone will find you good enough.”


“Go away, Kevin. Just go away.”

He nodded. “I will, but I want you to know I want good things for you. I hope someday, you'll believe me.”

After he left, Stephanie slowly lifted her sleeve. She looked at the cuts on her arm and quickly covered them again before anyone could see.

Later that afternoon, a sharp ring from the bell, announced another arrival, and a little man darted into the store.

“Hello, Professor.” Stephanie tried to hide the mock in her tone. “What can I do for you today?”

“Ah-ha! You finally called me Professor. Well done! Maybe there’s hope for this generation yet.”

Stephanie stifled her retort.

“Is my order here yet?” he asked.

“Yes, Mr. Jerry. Your order came in a few weeks ago. You came by and got it already.”

“Professor! Clearly, I spoke too soon.” His eyes beady, he lifted his glasses to squint at her. “And no, I didn’t pick it up yet.”

“It says here that the order came in Wednesday, December second, and you picked it up at one o’clock Thursday, December third.”

“I did not!”

“I’m sorry sir, but that’s what the computer says. Would you like me to check in the back to make sure it’s not there?”

“Yes, I would.” He wiggled his nose, making his rodent features more evident than ever. “And it’d better be back there. I know I didn’t pick up that order.”

“Alright. Give me one moment.” Stephanie walked toward the back room with a roll of her eyes. She had been in the back a hundred times. If the order was there, she would know.

Stephanie searched, but as she had anticipated, she found nothing. Her sour mood increased at an alarming rate. When she accidentally dropped another order on her foot, she cursed and threw the box to the side.

Composing herself, she returned to her place behind the counter. “I’m sorry sir, but it’s not there. Are you sure you didn’t get it already?”

“Listen here. I’ve waited a long time for those books. This store is going to lose my business if I don’t get some better customer service, and I mean now!”

Stephanie exploded. “Maybe if we had some better customers, we’d give better customer service!”

Mr. Jerry stood speechless.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Jerry. I didn’t mean to …. Would you like me to check with Julia? Maybe she knows what happened to your order?”

His eyes bulged.

Stephanie broke the awkward silence by disappearing into the break room where Julia was eating her lunch. “I need your help. The 'gopher' is here, and I can’t find his order.”

“Jerry already got his order.”

“That’s what I said, but he insists that he didn’t. I wasn’t here, so I don’t know what to tell him.”

Julia swallowed. “His son got it. Jerry called me himself.”

“Apparently, he doesn’t remember.”

Julia placed her sandwich on its plastic wrap and wiped her hands with her napkin. “That man’s memory.” She shook her head and left the room.

Stephanie plopped down in the vacant seat. She’d taken pride in her customer service, especially with impossible customers, and she had lost her composure. She could really use a long, bubble bath. Unfortunately, the hours continued to crawl by like a bug stuck in the mud. The harder she wished for time to speed up, the thicker the mud grew.

Stephanie pulled out her apartment key. When she couldn’t get it to align correctly, she dropped to her knees, struggling to force the key into the lock.

Come on—open! You stupid lock!

She banged the door with her fist and leaned her forehead against the door frame. All the day’s frustrations washed over her like dirty water that could never clean or refresh.

Suddenly, she heard a click from the inside, and the door swung open. She stared up at the hunched Mrs. Averad, who glared at her uninvited visitor.

How did I get the wrong door? Dumbfounded, Stephanie waited for the inevitable scolding.

“Stop wincing and come inside!” Mrs. Averad growled over her shoulder as she hobbled away. Stephanie hesitated. Maybe she could slip away, for she had no desire to go into the lair.

“I’m not going to tell you again!” the woman barked.

Stephanie obeyed, hoping for a chance to come out alive.

The old woman disappeared into the kitchen, and Stephanie rocked from one foot to the other. The room was cluttered with stuff and felt as foreboding as its occupant.

“Sit down,” Mrs. Averad ordered from the other room. Following the instructions, Stephanie’s eyes scanned the shelves, cluttered with books, dolls, pictures, and plaques.

“Tea’s on.” The old woman hobbled in and headed for her chair.

Stephanie’s stomach churned.

“So are you going to tell me what’s wrong?” Mrs. Averad sat down. “Or do I have to guess?”

“It’s nothing. A hard day at work.”

“Poppycock! My eyesight might be fading, but I’m not blind.”

“It’s a long story.”

“Then we’d better get started. I go to bed early.”

Stephanie sighed. There was no way out, so she might as well tell the old woman.

“I’m tired of feeling not good enough. I’m not good enough to be dating a lawyer. I’m not good enough to get a better life. I’m tired of people being against what I want. I’m tired of being told what I should be, who I should be with, and how things should be in my life. It’s like he pities me and needs to fix the poor helpless, little girl. Maybe I don’t want to be the poor helpless little girl!”

“Who are we talking about?”

“My friend Kevin. Actually, Julia wants me to stop dating Calvin—”

“The lawyer?”

Stephanie nodded. “Holly doesn’t say anything, but I know she thinks my life is totally messed up.”

“Stop, stop, stop.” Mrs. Averad waved her hands. She peered at her as though looking straight into Stephanie’s heart. “So the problem is … you have bad friends.”

The old woman’s statement jolted her. “That’s not what I was saying,” Stephanie said.

“That might not be what you meant, but that’s what you’re communicating. Your friends are out to get you. They’re not looking out for your best interest, and they don’t really care about you. So because they don’t really care, it makes sense that you don’t value their opinion.”

“I do value their opinion. Well, not Julia’s.”

“Either you’re a contradictory person, or I'm missing something.” Mrs. Averad held up her hand to silence Stephanie’s protest. “But I want you to stop telling me what they think. What do you think? How are things?”

“I think things are great. I’m happy with Calvin. He’s exactly what I want, and—”

“I didn’t ask what you wanted.”

“Then what are you asking?” Stephanie felt a wall of frustration rising in her heart.

“Are you good enough?” Mrs. Averad asked.

“For what?”

“You said that you’re tired of not feeling good enough. Why don’t you feel good enough?”

“I am good enough. I’m just tired of proving it.”

“Why do you have to prove it?”

“Because they don’t think I am, and I want them to know I'm good enough!”

“You’re back to them again. I want to know, how things are in you.”

“I’m happy! As happy as I can be—considering.”


“I am happy. How many more times do I need to say it? Happy! Why do I have to prove that too?”

Mrs. Averad gave her a peculiar look. “I never asked you to prove anything.” 


Stephanie slammed the receiver down harder than she intended. She glanced around to make sure Julia wasn't around. Calvin hadn’t answered her calls for months. She knew he wanted her to come to him, but she also knew what would happen if she did. She had been careful all this time, what would happen if she broke her plan now? Would he turn out the same as her other boyfriends? Would he abandon her? Would he find her not worth it?

Last night, her nightmares woke her again, and she had more cuts on her arms. She wore a long-sleeve shirt to work today, but at least things were back to normal between her and Kevin. He had apologized for communicating that he wanted to fix her, and she often found herself calling him when Calvin didn’t pick up. They’d go for lunch, talk, or visit Sam.

Stephanie moved over as Julia joined her behind the counter. Julia crouched down to retrieve her purse and rifle through the contents.

The bell dinged, and two customers walked inside. Stephanie watched as the young man strutted alongside the girl he obviously liked. But his pants hung so low that his boxers could no longer be called underwear.

The young woman headed straight for the bookshelf, perusing the titles as he chatted aloud with his chest puffed out.

“This is going to kill me,” she interrupted with a groan, running her finger down her list. “I hate literature classes. Will you help me find these books?” She handed him a list.

“Some good books.” He nodded his approval as he swaggered toward the shelf to look.

“I didn't know you read books.”

“Yup, my favorite's Pride ... and Persuasion.”

“That's Pride and Prejudice.”

“No, it ain't.” He pointed to her list of books. “I ain't the one who called Moby a Hick.”

“No, Moby Dick.”

“That guy ...” he gestured as though impressed, “is eunuch. You want to know what's eunuch about that guy?” he asked, thrilled to have her full attention.

“His Great Exploration.” He laughed. “That was a good story, how the kid couldn't get the girl because her old lady made her mean, and in the end, he got her. That was eunuch.”

“Unique. The word is unique,” the agitation in her voice rose. “And Dickens wrote Great Expectations.”

“You know what else is eunuch?” He smiled at her. “Being with you.”

Sharply, she pointed to the end of the row. “You might find some of them down there. Go look.”

He started in the direction and looked back.

“All the way,” she told him. “Yep, as far as you can go. That's great. I'm sure you'll find most of the books there.”

She went back to looking, but soon, he pulled out a book. “I found one! Scar...let Pimper...nel. Dumb Scar! Don't let 'em pimper Nell ...” He shook his head. “Poor Nell.”

The girl looked ready to face the guillotine as Stephanie desperately held back her laugh. Julia stood up from ransacking her purse, and Stephanie motioned for her to be quiet.

He held out the book as he came toward the girl, but he tripped on his pants. The pants fell off, completely exposing his boxers, and he let go of the book as he flew through the air. He landed on the floor just as the book hit the girl's forehead.

“Ow!” she cried as she pressed her hand to her forehead. He stared up at her in a stupor. She glared down at him and charged out of the store. He jumped up, pulling his pants all the way over his boxers.

“Wait! I'm sorry,” he called as he ran after her. “Sugarplum! Candy corn!”

The girls burst out laughing.

Stephanie braced herself, laughing so hard she couldn't talk. She dropped to the ground, and Julia plopped down next to her.

“I haven't laughed this hard in forever!” Julia's shoulders bounced as she gasped for air.

Stephanie leaned her head back against the wall. “I don't think I've ever laughed like this.”

“Really?” Julia asked, calming down. “It feels good, doesn't it?”

Stephanie nodded. “It does.”

Julia's tone turned serious. “That whole thing reminded me of my dad. He was so into impressing people. I don't think he realized how often he pretended, but everyone else could see his boxers.

“He thought I liked to laugh too much. 'Julia, you need to act like a lady,' he used to tell me. But I loved pranks and jokes, and showing him that things didn't always have to be pretended.”

She stopped laughing. “He never honestly laughed. I watched him pretend to be happy. Pretend that he had everything under control. Anything I tried, he'd just get angry at me. What's the point of life if you don't enjoy it? He was really big on duty.”

Stephanie watched Julia's profile. She had never understood Julia, but now she realized they hadn’t really shared openly before.

“He was impossible to please. He never understood me, but he didn't really try. All I wanted was to share a laugh with him. An honest laugh. I sometimes wonder if there are dads out there who study their children. Who pay attention to how their children think, get motivated ... feel loved. Do you think they're out there?”

“I don't know.” Stephanie hoped Julia would move on, but she continued.

“I hope so. And I hope their kids know how lucky they are.”

Stephanie stood up abruptly. “I can’t talk about this anymore.”

“Uh ... okay.” Julia got to her feet. Her expression changed. The hint of an understanding smile formed, mixed with a deep sadness.

Stephanie turned away. She didn’t want to see more, and she didn’t want to share.


After work, Stephanie hurried to Calvin’s apartment. He wasn’t expecting her, but she needed him. As soon as he saw her, he smiled. “It took you long enough.”

She brushed passed him, and he closed the door. 


Dalton flipped onto his side, and the bed bounced beneath him. Hours had passed, and he was wide-awake. He sighed, threw his covers back, and climbed out of bed. Maybe he needed a glass of water.

He stumbled through the dark toward the kitchen. Stepping on a round object, it honked and he jumped straight up in the air. Reaching down, he picked up the toy and tossed it out of the way.

In the kitchen, he filled his glass when suddenly the light turned on and his sister stood in the doorway. “I heard a noise and thought you were one of the kids, coming to steal the last piece of cake.”

“There was some left?” He turned toward the refrigerator, but she swatted him before he could take a step.

“Not for you.”

He smiled mischievously. “When are you heading back to bed?”

She swatted him again. “You rat. What am I going to do with you?” she asked, shaking her head helplessly.

“You know you love me.”

“Yes, but why, is the question.”

He chuckled and then asked seriously, “How's Daniel?”

“Doing his duty.” Her smile left. “It’s hard when he's away for so long. The kids should be a good distraction. I’m glad you suggested it.”

“You’re always welcome. This place has missed you.”

“You’ve done a good job, running it. She’d be proud.”

“Yeah,” he muttered quietly.

“Were you thinking about her?”

“No, something happened at the grocery store.” He told what happened and how he had followed the young man and girl home. “Something wasn’t right.”

“You think it's something to do with the missing girl?”

“I don't know, but ...” He took a deep breath. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen strange activity in that neighborhood.”

“How strange?”

“Illegal prostitution strange.”

She gave a slow nod. “And you want to investigate because they might be underage.”

“No, that girl was definitely underage.”

“What are you thinking of doing?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You know ... what I hate about your hunches is that most of the time you turn out to be right. Please, promise me you'll be careful.”

He grinned. “When am I not?”

Making the sign of the cross, she said, “I should start praying now.”


A few weeks passed, and every time Stephanie called Calvin, he was busy with work. He had never been so busy before. What if her friends were right? What if he didn’t care? What if she had dreamed and hoped he would, but he never really did? What if all he wanted was to “make love” and now that she had given in, she was useless? Again.

Stephanie tried calling Holly and then Kevin. Neither answered their phone. There was one more person she could try. Stephanie hurried into the kitchen and found a glass measuring cup. Opening the door, she went down the hall and almost knocked ... when doubt flickered.

No. She was doing this!

Knock-knock, she held her breath.

No answer. So much the better, she started to leave.

The door creaked open, and a pair of eyes glared at the intruder like a watchdog. Mrs. Averad softened, but only slightly, when she recognized the disturber of her solitude. “What do you want?”

“I’m out of sugar.” Stephanie pathetically held up the glass cup.

The old woman’s eyes scanned Stephanie from top to bottom. She nodded as though her visitor passed the security check, and she receded into her apartment, leaving the door open. She didn’t say a word as an invitation to follow, but Stephanie guessed the open door was a hint. Timidly, she followed and closed the door behind her.

Mrs. Averad passed her kitchen and hobbled into the living room. With a grueling effort, she lowered herself into her recliner. “So what do you want?”

Stephanie started to explain again about the sugar, but the old woman said, “You didn’t come to borrow sugar, so out with it!”

“I didn’t want to be alone.” Stephanie shrugged.

The old woman snickered. “You’ll get used to it.”

Stephanie sat for a moment. “I'm not sure I want to get used to it,” she said quietly.

“Then go make things right with him.”

“Calvin’s not answering.”

“I’m not taking about your lawyer boyfriend. He’s not the one who makes your eyes spark when you talk about him.”

“Kevin?” Stephanie shifted in her seat. “That’s an angry spark, for being so …”

“Threatening?” Mrs. Averad finished for her. “Are you sure he’s the one you want to give up? I think you’re impressed with him, but you don’t truly believe you could live up to his standard. You’re afraid someday he’ll look at you and wonder how he ever thought you were worth it.”

Stephanie didn’t speak.

“When I was young,” the old woman told her, “I had problems with my mother. I used to watch her stomp over my father, and I hated her for it. She threw away every attempt he made to show her that he cared, and every time I could see his pain.”

Mrs. Averad gazed out the window. “There used to be a man who loved me. He was dedicated, hard-working, caring, thoughtful, but I couldn’t ...” she struggled to speak. “I vowed I would never be like my mother, and my heart was closed. I did everything I could to keep his friendship without committing to him. I couldn’t see that I was hurting him worse than my mother ever hurt my father. I was deaf to warnings. Now I live with “if only” thoughts. ‘If I had listened’… ‘if only’….

“The more I despised my mother, the more I hurt myself, and trapped myself into becoming worse than her.” The old woman stared into space. “I put the man I cared about through hell—and he loved me still.”

A familiar shiver ran through Stephanie.

“When I met you,” the woman continued. “I thought I could redeem myself. Somehow, my life would be worth it if I could keep someone from making my mistake. But I’ve learned people have to choose it for themselves. You can’t make them.”

Stephanie glanced down at her clenched hands. “Did you ever find a solution?”

“Nope.” The old woman shook her head miserably. “It took years to recognize the problem. I’m too old to look for a solution.”

“But there’s hope, right?”

“I’m not prone to positive thinking.”

What little strength Stephanie had left was gone.

Mrs. Averad added, “Then again, the hopeless commit suicide, and I’m still here.”


The next day at work, Stephanie brooded over what Mrs. Averad had said. On her way home, she pulled out her cell phone to call Calvin. His answering machine beeped.

“Hi Calvin, it’s me. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and we need to talk. Let me know when you get this.”

A crowd of people waited to get inside the elite club down the street, but Stephanie didn’t notice until something caught her attention. Quickening her pace, she tried to get a closer look at the man. His arms were around two long-legged, hardly-dressed women, and before he could disappear inside, Stephanie caught a glimpse of his face.


He saw her too. For an instant, their eyes locked before he turned away and went inside. She clamored through the group, but the bouncer stopped her. She tried to explain, but he refused to let her inside.

She turned away, fuming. Who did Calvin think he was? He was looking for a toy! He was no better than those other jerks. How did she ever think he was different? Yes, he had whispered in her ear and had given her magical moments overlooking the ocean, but did they mean anything? She had dared to believe, and now look where she was. Betrayed and back at the beginning.

She should have learned her lesson. All men were the same.

Her hand pressed against her forehead as she stopped walking. What was she going to do? Deep down, she had feared being in this position again, but she had chosen to hope that this time it would be different. And she picked the same unfaithful man. Only he didn’t look like the others had.

A wolf in sheep's clothing! If you’re going to be a wolf, at least man up and be a wolf!

Filtering through the what-to-do options, she realized she didn’t know. She had made all the decisions that led her here. She had chosen Calvin. There was no one else to blame. What could she do now? She had tried so hard, but her decisions had made things worse, not better.

She could hear Holly’s voice, saying, kindness in return can be like heaping hot coals on someone’s head.

At the time, Stephanie didn’t think about it. Her first instinct was the logical solution to get even with the one who hurt her, but now a new mental picture projected itself. Maybe she should try a new approach and see what happens.

Stephanie changed her direction. She stopped by her apartment to get what she needed and hurried to the store. She had shopping to do.

Leaving with her groceries, she caught a bus and went to Calvin’s apartment. She let herself in with the hide-a-key and dropped the heavy bags on the kitchen counter.

Time to get to work.


Calvin swayed slightly as he came down the hallway. He grinned as he replayed the night in his mind. His escorts knew how to get a man excited, and he would pay to spend more evenings in their company, especially now.

He knew things were over between him and Stephanie, but they had a good run. It was time to move on and see what would come next, although he dreaded and prepared himself for the inevitable explosion. She would cry, or yell at him, try to make him feel small and dirty, but he was ready. No matter how hard she tried, she wouldn’t make him feel guilty.

A man had his needs.

He unlocked the door and tripped as he came into the dark room. With a curse, he reached for the light switch and stopped. Staring at the lit candles set out on the table, he drew near. The finest dishes decorated the table, and he picked up the bottle of champagne. Soft music played, and he turned around to see who was there.

Stephanie emerged, dressed in a shimmering, ruby-red gown and holding a lit candle.

“Welcome home.” She smiled and set the light on the table.

He swallowed in surprise. The dress accentuated her figure beautifully.

Taking the bottle from his hand, she set it on the table. “Dinner’s all ready. It’s your favorite,” she said in a smooth tone, making him slowly melt like the dripping candle. “Juicy prime rib for you, and stuffed chicken with a special mushroom sauce for me.”

She drew near and slipped off his jacket. He sat down with her and waited for the inevitable mood shift.

With a soft smile, she began to eat. He looked down at his food and wondered if poison had a distinct odor and taste, or if he would die clueless.

He cut a small piece to nibble, still watching her closely.

They ate in silence as the music played. He tried to act normal. Maybe he was wrong, and she hadn’t seen him. But she had to have seen. He was right there!

Besides, he knew better. The claws would come out eventually. He needed to be alert when they did.

Before they had finished eating, Stephanie stood and took hold of his hand, pulling him out of his seat.

She stopped in the middle of the room, and with her hand in his, she placed his other hand on her waist.

They swayed to the music.

She had never looked so beautiful, and he didn’t know whether he should stare, or not look at all. She took a step closer to him, and he could feel the warmth of her body. He didn’t speak, but his heart raced.

After a few minutes, she looked him in the eye and said, “I saw you tonight.”

Here, it came. This was what he had guarded himself against all evening. He knew it would come eventually, and here it was.

They kept dancing. “Calvin, I know now you never really saw me the way I hoped you did. You weren’t anything like the men I’ve been with, and when I looked at you, I saw perfection. You were exactly what I wanted—handsome, successful, fun, and not abusive. Pretty perfect ….

“But you looked at me and enjoyed this.” She took his hand from her waist and ran it down the curves of her body. “Maybe I’m a scared little girl who doesn’t want to face reality …” she said with the same hungry look he’d always seen before, but suddenly, something in her eyes changed. He saw a depth and maturity in her he had never seen. A small glimmer of an underlying confidence captured his attention.

“But I want more.” She let go of him.

“So thank you for being different, and thank you for giving me hope when I needed to believe.” She kissed him quickly, and deep down, he knew this was goodbye.

She stood in the doorway and the light from the hallway shone behind her. “There was never much hope between us,” she said and left him, standing in the dark, too stunned to speak.


Stephanie spent the night with her head over the toilet. She had never felt so sick. All the fear and anger she had felt with Calvin seemed to pour out of her body. Her head pounded as her body shivered, unable to get warm.

Morning came, and she knew she had to go to work. Rent was due, and she had no more sick days.

Dragging herself up from the floor, she looked in the mirror and began her routine. If she did a good enough job, Julia wouldn’t even notice.


She was right. That morning, Julia saw Stephanie but didn’t show any signs that she suspected anything had happened.

Another regular day had begun, but nothing felt regular to Stephanie. She tried to get back into the rhythm of work, but how could she when everything she had dared to push for was crumbling around her?

She never should have believed in possibility.

Stephanie placed a book on the shelf and looked over at Julia. A new yearning stirred to share what had happened with someone. But she knew what Julia would say, and
I told you so, was not what she needed to hear.

Julia looked up, and Stephanie’s head snapped back to what she was doing. Julia came near. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“Fine,” Stephanie nodded.

Julia knelt down next to her. “Calvin’s called a couple of times for you. He sounded kind of desperate.”

Stephanie thought of her cell phone she had forgotten to charge last night.

“What’s going on?” Julia asked. “I’ve never heard him sound like that.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Stephanie focused on her work.

The bell rang, and Stephanie felt Julia’s hand touch her back. She turned and saw Calvin coming toward her. Julia stood and gave them distance, but she stayed close enough to see and hear everything.

“What are you doing here?” Stephanie asked as she stood.

Calvin didn’t answer. He reached out and enveloped her lips with his. His hands wrapped around her lower back, holding her tightly against him. She pulled away. “You can’t do that.” Her hands pressed against her burning forehead as she headed down the aisle.

“Do what?” he asked, blocking her escape route.

“Come in here and expect that one kiss is going to make everything okay.”

“I don’t expect it to,” he said as he cupped her face with his hand. “But last night, something happened.”

“Yeah, I ended it.”

“No, you changed. I don’t know if I can explain, but you became a woman. You’re right about me seeing you as a scared little girl who wanted protection. I knew I could give that to you, but last night …” he shook his head with a dazed look.

“You lost, and you don’t like losing.”

“Give me one chance to prove that I love you.” His eyes bore into hers, and she felt herself growing weak under his desire.

“Calvin, I’m so tired of getting hurt.”

“Please,” he said softly as his hand slid down her arm.

She took a deep breath. “Okay …” she whispered.

He drew her into his embrace and kissed her again. Her arms slithered up around his neck and locked into place. Pulling away, his forehead touched hers. “It’s going to be different this time,” he said. “I promise.”

“And what good is your promise?” Stephanie heard a voice behind her. She turned and saw Julia.

“Stay out of this, Jules.” Calvin’s voice warned with a familiarity that startled Stephanie.

“You can’t tell me what to do anymore. I don’t listen, remember?”

Calvin took Stephanie’s hand. “Let’s go.”

But Stephanie didn’t move.

“Why don’t you tell her the truth, Calvin?” Julia mocked with a look that Stephanie had never seen in her before.

“Please, Stephanie, let’s go,” he insisted.

“Still afraid of people knowing the truth about you?” Julia shook her head, pitifully. “You can’t run forever.”

“What is she talking about?” Stephanie looked at Calvin.

“I’m talking about a man who uses people to win,” Julia said bitterly as she came forward. “That’s all he cares about. Being on top. He’s always been too afraid to care about other people. That’s why I’ve never told you, Stephanie.”

“Shut up, Jules,” he warned again, even more threatening.

“Never told me what?” Stephanie demanded.

“What he’s really like. I warned you, but I didn’t tell you because it wouldn’t matter. If you found out, he’d dump you and go to the next girl who saw him as her perfect man. He never cared about you, just like he never cared about me.”

Stephanie glanced between Calvin and Julia.

“I met Calvin at a bar after my first day at court,” Julia glared at Calvin, then went back to Stephanie. “I had started working here at the store when someone scammed me. Calvin found out who I was, and he pursued me in a way that swept me off my feet. I was such an idiot for not seeing the connection.”

“It could have been any man,” Calvin cut in. “You were so hungry for love, it was pathetic.”

Soon Stephanie couldn’t even make out what they were saying as Julia yelled at him, and he yelled back.

“That’s enough!” Stephanie silenced them.

“It was his brother who scammed me!” Julia shouted. “I didn’t even know Calvin was a lawyer until after he got me to drop the charges. I almost got fired, and none of it was true! He didn’t care! So I sent you to him when we needed a lawyer.”

Stephanie stared at her. “You sent me? Why?”

“You hated men, and I wanted him to want something he couldn’t have. I needed to laugh, and you weren’t supposed to fall for him.”

Her words cut Stephanie.

“No matter what I did,” Julia added, “you would’ve gotten hurt anyway. You were in the same place I was. You believed what you wanted to believe.”

“She’s sick.” Calvin shook his head in disgust. “Come on. Let’s go.”

Stephanie looked at him. “But it’s true, isn’t it?”

She could see the answer was yes, and she started to walk away, but Calvin stepped in front of her.

“Yes, it’s true. What happened between her and I—it’s all true, but that was different. I love you, and she knows it. That’s the only reason she’s telling you now because she knows I love you, and she wants to take you from me. She’s sick! But we don’t need to live our lives—”

Stephanie waved her hand for him to stop. “Calvin, I’m pregnant. Are you ready for that?”

He stared at her.

She waited. “I didn’t think so.”


Kevin was on his way as soon as Holly told him what happened. Get in, get out. That’s what he needed to do before he lost all self-control.

He knocked, fairly certain he had the right address.

When Calvin opened the door, he looked startled to see his visitor. “What do you want?” he asked.

“Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

Kevin pushed past him. “Don’t make this more difficult than it needs to be. Where’s the medal?”

Calvin gave a satisfied nod. “I see. Her knight in shining armor has finally come to do battle.”

Kevin grabbed his shirt and jerked him. “Where is it?”

“Ooh, kind of rough for a Jesus man, don’t you think?” Calvin’s mocking grin caused Kevin to shove him against the wall.

“You never saw Him in the temple!” He threw him to the ground. “Now get it, and don’t make me ask again!”

Calvin scooted back as he glared up at the man watching him. His jaw clenched, and Calvin slowly got to his feet. Holding himself proudly, he strolled around the couch and reached down to pick up something from the end table. He looked at the metal in his hand. “This is what you’ve wanted from the beginning, isn’t it? Doesn’t it just kill you, she gave it to me instead of you?”

“Hand it over.”

“You think you can demand it? You come here, hoping to win her heart because you forced me to give you this? She’ll see right through it.”

“It’s not mine to keep, any more than it’s yours to have.”

“How noble. Do you even know where she is?”

When Kevin didn’t answer, Calvin gave a devilish smile, savoring that he knew something Kevin didn’t. Calvin came toward him. “Women are tricky, aren’t they? The minute you care is the minute you lose them.”

He dangled the medal in the air, and Kevin snatched it from him. Kevin charged for the door, but Calvin called out behind him. “If you’re so desperate to save her, you can find her at the abortion clinic.”

Kevin stopped abruptly and a rewarding smile came to Calvin’s face. “Welcome to hell. You can’t save her any more than I can win her back.”

Kevin looked at him. “It’s never been my job to save her.”

Stephanie released a breath of disgust when she saw them on the sidewalk outside the abortion clinic. A prayer station was set up, and Stephanie knew what they were praying. They were praying that she wouldn’t go through with her decision. They had papers and pamphlets for anyone interested.

She knew what she had to do. If this wasn’t what God wanted, He shouldn’t have allowed her to get pregnant. It wasn’t as if she had another choice. She couldn’t stay here, and she couldn’t raise a baby on her own.

Holly had arranged for Stephanie to spend some time at her grandparents’ ranch. Stephanie couldn’t work with Julia, and she needed to get away from Calvin. Painful memories held her back and made life so unbearable. She couldn’t let them surround her anymore. She needed a clean start. This baby would be a reminder of everything she needed to forget.

As she walked by, Stephanie saw a woman crying as she read one of the papers. She picked up another copy. “You should read it,” she said, handing it to Stephanie.

She took the paper as the woman went back to reading hers. She didn't want to take the pamphlet, but the woman seemed so moved, she couldn’t turn her down. Instead, she quietly slipped it into her bag and went inside.

“Stephanie Kenthal,” a health-care provider summoned her. Stephanie followed and sat down to hear her options.

“How far along are you?” the woman asked.

“Five weeks.” Stephanie gnawed her lower lip.

“That means you can choose between the abortion pill or an in-clinic abortion.”

“I'd like to know more about the pill.”

“The abortion pill you will take here. It'll block the hormone progesterone, and without that, the lining of the uterus will break down and the pregnancy won't be able to continue. At home, you'll take misoprostol, which will cause the uterus to empty. You'll experience bleeding and cramping, and it usually lasts a few hours. Don't be surprised if you see large blood clots or tissue at the time of the abortion.

“More than half of the women abort within four or five hours, but some take longer. Most women abort within a few days. Don't be surprised if there's bleeding or spotting up to four weeks after the abortion. That's normal. After that, you'll need to follow up within two weeks.”

“Why do I need a follow up?”

“We need to be sure that the medication worked, and if it didn't, we'll need to do an aspiration abortion.”

“I won't be here in two weeks. I'm moving,” Stephanie told her. “I guess … what happens with an in-clinic abortion?”

“You're at an early place in your pregnancy, so we'd give you a vacuum aspiration. You can choose the strength of the medication to help you relax and to help with the pain, but you'll need to have someone drive you home. These medicines can affect your concentration, and it'd be unsafe for you to drive.”

“I'm by myself. I'd have to call someone.”

The woman nodded. “Once you're sedated, a speculum will be inserted, and the cervix, which is the opening to the uterus, will be numbed. When the cervix is open, a hand-held suction device or a suction machine will empty out your uterus. It takes about five to ten minutes. Later procedures may need a shot through your abdomen to make sure there is fetal demise before the procedure begins, so it's best to do it now.”

Stephanie took a deep breath. “Okay.”

After they discussed her medical history, the woman said, “Now we'll need to do some laboratory test and give you a physical exam, which may include an ultrasound. Then after that we'll read and sign papers. You ready?”

“I'd like to use the bathroom first.”

“Of course. Down the hall to the left. It’s normal to be nervous, but women get abortions all the time.”

“Thank you.” Stephanie picked up her bag and followed the directions.

Going inside, she closed the stall door and leaned against the wall. Who would she call to drive her home? Maybe she could call Holly after the procedure, but she'd rather not let Holly know. She reached into her bag for her phone.

Unable to find the device with the pamphlet in the way, she yanked the paper out of her bag and stopped.

The words jumped out at her.


It’s dark, and I can’t see anything. All I feel is something warm in front, below, all around me.

It feels safe.

I wonder what it’ll be like outside. Won’t that be exciting? I’ll stretch my limbs and breathe the fresh air, run around the yard, laughing with other kids. Will the neighbors like me? Maybe we’ll play Cowboys and Indians and have a sleepover. Sometimes I can almost feel the thrill of jumping on a trampoline or playing in the sand on the beach. Then there’s being with them, getting tossed into the air by him or caressed by her? I’ll walk to school every day, and they’ll talk about how big I’m getting. Before you know it, I’ll meet someone, and Mom will cry on our special day. We’ll buy a house and a car. I’m going to be a court judge or a musician, a reporter, a doctor—I don’t know. The possibilities are endless! But my life will be great no matter what I do.

What’s that? I think it’s her voice, but who is she talking to? What won’t hurt, and what’s a blastocyst? Why does he want to get rid of it? Wait, Me! I’m just a lump of cells? Wait—no, no, no this can’t be happening, I’m more than what you see. Whatever you call me, it doesn’t change who I am. Stop it! Don’t listen to him. I have a future! I know it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to run and play, but my legs will develop, my arms too. My head may not look like what you’re expecting, but give me time. I’ll be able to think, observe, and learn. You call me a lump of cells, and therefore, I am not human? But sir, leave me alone, and with time, I’ll look, think, feel, and move just like you!

Mom, I know you’re scared. I am too, but give me a chance. Maybe our lives won’t be perfect. I’ll have difficult days, and I’ll make you cry. But we’ll make sugar cookies together at Christmas and hang lights on our tree. I know you feel like you’re out of options. You feel deserted, unwanted, alone, and scared. I understand; I feel the same way. You may think you can’t provide a decent life for me, but a life with little is better than no life at all. Shouldn’t I, at least, be given that choice?

If you can’t have me and you’re truly unable to take care of me with no way out, please consider the last option there is. I know; I want to be with you too. I want to know you as my mother, I want you to hold me and clean the scrape on my knee. At night, you would sing me to sleep, stroking my hair and giving me a gentle kiss on my forehead. This is what I want. But if you can’t and I have to choose a life with other parents or no life at all, which do you think I should choose? If you were me, what would you choose?

Mom, we could still see each other. Maybe you’ll come and visit at Thanksgiving or another holiday. We’ll eat pumpkin pie, and I’ll tell you everything that’s been happening at school. You’ll glow, listening to me chatter, knowing that even in your fear and in this dark moment, you gave me the best gift you could. You gave me life!

I love you, Mom, and I don’t care if I’m a cook, a lawyer, a janitor, or a government official. I just want to live. Please, I beg you. If you can’t give me anything in this life, at least let me have this one gift. Oh, how I wish you could hear me. You’re not alone. I’m here!

Mommy, please … I need you. 

The paper fluttered to the floor, and unexpected tears rolled down Stephanie's face. Coming out of the stall, she stood before the mirror and braced her trembling body over the sink.

She couldn't do it now. She couldn't go out there with her baby's future voice whispering in her heart like this. Maybe she could go to the ranch and forget everything. She could find a clinic out there when she was ready. Maybe she'd even meet someone who would go with her.

Stephanie stood up straight. She swallowed and blinked her eyes dry. Quietly, she slipped out of the clinic and left without a word.


A few hours later, Kevin came bursting in the office, but she was already gone.  


The echo of travel reverberated through the airport as Stephanie and Holly walked toward the security line. “Thanks for everything.” Stephanie stopped with her ticket in hand.

“You’re welcome.” Holly gave her a hug. “Give grandma and grandpa my love.”

“I will.”

Holly paused before asking, “Why don’t you at least call him when you get there?”

Stephanie shook her head. “I don’t know what I’d say.”

“Tell him what you’re doing and where you are.”

“I can’t. If he asks, you can tell him, but I need to do this.”

Holly gently touched Stephanie’s arm. “You never know, Calvin may have loved you.”

“Or he needed to win. Either way, it wasn’t enough.” Stephanie grabbed her bag and got in line for the security check.

Holly called out to her. “Kevin doesn’t deserve this!”

Stephanie looked back with pain in her eyes. “Neither did I.”

She continued alone through security. After boarding the plane and finding her seat, she closed her eyes and slept through the flight.
No one was around. Dalton walked toward the old, cream-colored house, casually but alertly. Avoiding the streetlight overhead, he leaned against the car as though waiting for his ride. He promised Angie he’d call if anything looked suspicious. She knew he used to work with an overseas rescue organization for girls in prostitution, but she worried about him.

“Psst ...” someone signaled in the dark.

He glanced behind him and saw an old woman against her fence. She beckoned to him.

With a quick look around him, he came near. “You waitin' for the girls?” She motioned toward the house across the street.

“Should I be?”

“You ain’t a customer, is you?” She peered at him closely. “Most johns go in there. Figured you might be having second thoughts.”

“No, I was hoping to see … a friend of mine.”

“She the new girl?”

He stopped from saying no. “Uh yeah … the new girl, have you seen her?”

“Not since they brought her in late last night. Didn’t count on anybody being up. I wouldn’t a been, ‘cept I got the runs. Saw ‘em bring her in from my bathroom window. Might be too late, she prob’ly gone now. Some stay. Some they take other places.”

“Where would they take her?”

The old woman shrugged. “Wherever they need her.”

“Did she look like this?” He pulled out the picture of the runaway girl.

She squinted at the photo. “I don't know. Pretty much saw the back 'a her anyhow.”

“Did you call for help?”

The old woman looked at him as if he was crazy. “You don’t live around here.”

“No, not in this neighborhood. Is it a gang that scares you?

“Hon’y, go home while you still can. Tha’s all I’m saying.” She threw her hands up in the air and retreated into her house.

Dalton pulled out his cell phone and called Angie. He gave her the address and told her what he knew.

As he drew near the house, a sound like someone crying came from behind the fence. “I’ll call you back.” He hung up the phone, and slowly crept to the peeling white fence.

As he peeked over, the sound grew louder. Then he saw her. The girl from the store was crying, curled up in a ball, and inside a large doghouse.

She saw him and sat up on her elbows, startled. “Who are you?” She wiped away the wet streaks down her cheeks. “What do you want?”

“I heard you crying, and I … why are you in a doghouse?”

Slowly she tilted her head. “I remember you. You’re the guy from the store. This is your fault!”

“My fault?”

“You followed us.”

“And so he put you in a doghouse?”

“You shouldn’t be here.” She lowered her voice and looked around nervously.

“Neither should you.”

“Go! I’m in enough trouble because of you.”

“Is he your pimp?”

Fear came in her eyes. “Are you a cop?”


She studied him for a moment. “You could ’a talked to him if you were looking for—”

“I wasn’t,” he answered quickly.

“Then what do you want?”

“I want to know why a pretty girl like you is working for him.”

“He's my boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend shares you with other men?”

“It's a job. I’m paid.”

“You’re sleeping in a doghouse.”

“I broke the rules okay.” She cursed at him. “He doesn’t usually do this. I deserved it.”

“You deserved it?” He paused. “It’s illegal you know.”

She glared at him. “Why is it illegal? I got the right to do what I want.”

“It's illegal because it hurts people and breaks down society.”

“If I’m a problem, why are you here?”

“I was talking about the practice, not you.”

“What’s the difference?”

“The difference is you can get out.”

“Go to hell!”

Suddenly Dalton was grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground. He gasped as someone kicked him in the stomach and another in the back. He tried to look at his attackers but again and again, they beat him until he couldn't move.

They dragged him inside and thrust him to the ground.

Dalton hit the old wood floor with a groan. Someone shoved him over and fastened his hands behind his back. He couldn't move but he could hear a voice in the distance curse. “I thought you said we were good to go. You know what kind of sh—t we're in? These guys don't mess around.”

“I know!” the voice above Dalton gruffly snapped. 

Dalton barely opened his eyes to see a pair of Converse, with white socks pulled up the legs, walk away. He closed his eyes again, hoping no one noticed he was conscious.

“Yo, what if he's a cop?” a third voice joined in. “We can't jus pop him. They're gonna be lookin' for him.”

“You don't know he's a cop,” the second man said.

“You don't know he ain't. He followed Shandra and me the other day.”

“What!” Dalton couldn't distinguish the curses growled as someone delivered a blow.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar female voice snapped, “Beatin' Terrell don't change nothin'. Let me persuade him.”

There was a pause before the voice muttered, “You got five minutes.” Dalton listened as the footsteps left the room.

He felt a gentle touch on his shoulder, and with help, he climbed into the rickety chair next to him. The young woman grabbed a tissue, and getting on her knees, she dabbed the blood from his forehead. Her flawless complexion was dark with the beauty of a cool, moonless night. 

“They don't got to be so rough,” she said with a sultry voice. 
“They's jus' boys. Don't know how to deal with a man.”

“I'm sure you've had your practice.” Dalton winced as she touched his cut.

“Hon'y, I got to. 'Course if you really want to know ….” She rose with a strong desire in her dark eyes as she slowly lowered herself onto his lap.

The chair creaked as Dalton pulled back as far as he could. “Ah, what's wrong?” she cooed, leaning toward his face. “I know what to do. I promise you'll enjoy it. First time's on me,” she said with a smile.

He turned his face from her. “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of hell.”

She pulled back, her smile gone. “Your wife must be special.”

“I'm not married.”

She stared at him. “Then why not have fun?”

His eyes filled with deep concern. “My responsibility before God.”

After a few moments, she climbed off his lap and picked up a roll of duct tape. She carefully fastened his legs to the chair and placed one last strip across his mouth.

She looked down at him perplexed. “Not many say no.” 

Stephanie made her way through the chaotic airport and spotted her name on a sign an elderly man was holding. “Mr. McCall?” She reached out her hand to the remarkably sturdy looking, old man. A bright and endearing smile broke out on his face, causing Stephanie to like him immediately.

“You made it. Welcome!” He gave her a grandfatherly hug. “How was your trip?”

“Good.” She gave a relaxed smile as he took her bags and led her to the pickup truck outside. He loaded up, and on the ride home, he did most of the talking. She listened and answered a few questions as she observed the beautiful Colorado plains.

They pulled up to a pale yellow farmhouse. The landscape had been meticulously tended around the house with open pastureland in the back and along the barn. The animals were outside, and Stephanie strained to see what an alpaca looked like, but from this distance, the herd looked like llamas.

She climbed out of the truck as a leather-skinned man jogged over from the barn.

He took Stephanie’s bag from the old man’s hands.

“Ah, thank you, Gus.” The old man straightened his back. “Stephanie, I’d like you to meet Gus, our ranch hand. He keeps this place going, and I don’t know what we’d do without him.”

“Tend the animals yaself?” Gus suggested dryly, reminding Stephanie of Mrs. Averad.

“We’d have to do that for sure.” Mr. McCall nodded with a smile. “He lives in the barn. We’ve tried convincing him to stay in the guest room for years, but nothing ever came of it. He’s a stubborn man. That’s for sure!”

“A house is too stuffy a place to bunk.” Gus turned to Stephanie. “These folks jes' don’t understand that.”

Stephanie tucked away her amusement, for the house looked comfortable but not extraordinary. She followed the men onto the porch, and the screen door squeaked as they went inside.

Gus set Stephanie’s bag down and hurried back out the front door.

“We’re here!” Mr. McCall called out. 
A silver-haired woman came around the corner, brushing the smudges of baking flour from her flowery blouse and black slacks. Though she hadn’t quite succeeded in removing the flour, she gave Stephanie a gentle but warm hug.

“Welcome. I’m so glad you could stay with us.”

“Thank you, Mrs. McCall.”

“Oh, call me Grandma Helen. Everybody does. And he’s Grandpa Earl.”

“Well, I’m still working on supper.” Grandma Helen turned to her husband. “Why don’t you take her to get settled in and then come help me finish up?”

“Okay, follow me.” He led the way, down the stairs to the basement, which looked like a family game room. He walked to a side room and opened the door. “This'll be your room. I hope you like it.”

The room was unique with a high window as the only source of natural lighting. The bed was full-sized and pushed into the far corner below the window. In the corner was a carpeted, built-in ledge, which looked like a large carpet box, perfect to sit on.

Grandpa Earl left, and Stephanie made herself at home. After showering, she headed upstairs to rejoin the couple in the kitchen.

“Ah! You look refreshed,” Grandpa Earl pulled a stack of dishes from the cupboard.

“I feel much better. Thank you.”

“Food’s almost ready. Would you mind putting these around the table?” Grandpa Earl handed her a stack of dishes.

Stephanie circled the table, setting each place, but she watched the couple as she did. Grandpa Earl cooked alongside his wife, and his sly comments about the good-looking woman next to him made her playfully bump him with her hip. She was glowing.

Refocusing on what she was doing, Stephanie realized she had five plates, instead of four. Grandpa Earl must have seen her confusion. “It’s for our grandson. He’s in town for supplies. You’ll like him. He’s a good kid.”

Stephanie’s heart sank. She wanted time away from men. How old was he? She secretly hoped he was either really young, or old and married.

Ugly would work too.

Gus joined them for the meal, and Grandpa Earl said the blessing. Usually, Stephanie felt uncomfortable with strangers, but Grandpa Earl had a gift for making people feel at ease. He carried the conversation while the rest laughed with him. As the meal drew near a close, Grandma Helen stood, picked up the extra plate of food, and headed for the kitchen. She wrapped the plate in saran wrap, and Stephanie asked, “So your grandson …?”

“Troy.” Grandpa Earl helped her.
“How’s Troy related to Holly?”

“They’re cousins. Troy is the son of our oldest, Mark, while Holly’s mother is our middle child.”

“How many children did you have?”

“Seven, but only six are still with us.”

“That’s a big family.”

“That’s nothing.” Grandma Helen waved her hand. “Our oldest daughter had ten.”

“Ten?” Stephanie almost choked. “Were they all hers?”

“Every one of them.” The elderly woman nodded.

Stephanie had always considered so many children as irresponsible, but she kept her mouth shut when Grandma Helen sighed contently. “Many blessings.” She picked up the empty lasagna dish and carried it to the kitchen sink. Stephanie and the others followed suit.

“You know, Earl,” Grandma Helen turned to her husband, “I’m getting worried about Troy. He should be home by now.”

“He’s fine.” Grandpa Earl set the salad bowl on the counter. “Don’t worry. He’ll be home soon.”

“Is this his first time to town by himself?” Stephanie deposited the silverware into the sink.

“No.” Grandpa Earl grinned. “But you’d think so with Helen’s fretting.”

“Nonsense.” She swatted at him. “It’s perfectly natural to be concerned when he should have been back hours ago.”

Earl winked at Stephanie.

Stephanie grinned in return. When they finished clearing, Stephanie announced, “I think I’ll go to bed.” Before she had time to move, the rumble of an engine sounded, and Gus darted out the back door.

“He’s here,” Grandma Helen declared.

“You won’t see him for a couple more hours,” Grandpa Earl warned his wife. “He’ll be busy unloading.”

“Fiddlesticks! Of course, he’ll be in soon. He knows that—”

“You’d be worried.” Grandpa Earl finished for her with a gleam in his eye.

“Oh!” Her eyes threatened that if he were close enough, he’d get another swat, and Grandpa Earl laughed.

Just then, Stephanie looked up as a figure appeared in the doorway. “Sorry I’m late. I had a few problems at the feed store.”

Stephanie felt her small hope vanish. Not only was their grandson neither too young nor too old, but he was ruggedly handsome with a well-toned, ranch hand figure. Of course, he was not model-breath-taking like Calvin, nor thoughtfully-charming like Kevin, but Stephanie’s concerns were justified at his handsome features, somehow enhanced by the dirt of a hard day’s work.

“I saved you some dinner. Give me a second. I’ll heat it up,” Grandma Helen headed for the refrigerator.

“Thanks.” He smiled, then caught sight of Stephanie.

“This is Stephanie Kenthal,” Grandpa Earl gestured. “She is Holly’s friend who’ll be staying with us for a while.”

“Hi, I’m Troy.”

“Stephanie.” She held out her hand, being careful not to let her tremble become visible.

He glanced down at his hands. “I’d shake your hand but mine's so dirty.”

She hesitated for a moment. “I’m not afraid of a little dirt.”

Troy grinned and delivered a hearty handshake.

“Stephanie was just heading to bed when you showed up,” Grandpa Earl lowered himself into his plush arm chair. “She’s had a long day, and I’m sure she’s exhausted.”

“Yes, thank you … uh … goodnight.”

“Goodnight.” Grandma Helen gave her a hug.

“Sleep well,” Grandpa Earl smiled.

“It was nice meeting you.” Troy waved briefly.

“Nice meeting you too.” Stephanie lingered awkwardly for a moment, then disappeared down the stairs.

Perfect! She couldn’t even escape when she wanted to.


Stephanie was up earlier than usual as she strolled along the fence next to the feed shed. Three of the younger alpacas trotted to where she stood. They took turns lowering their necks and sniffing her fingers through the fence, but the sudden movement of her hand startled them, and they scampered away. She smiled when curiosity drew the fawn-colored alpaca back.

Stephanie crouched down. The animal’s dark eyes stared at her and the upper lip parted to reveal its upper palate, which had no teeth. The only row of teeth was on the bottom.

Through the fence, the alpaca brushed her face.

“Hey girl.” Stephanie laughed when the animal blew puffs of air against her cheek. She returned the greeting by blowing a soft stream of air back.

“Her name’s Buttercup.”

She jumped up and spun around.

“Didn’t mean to scare you,” Troy said as he joined her alongside the fence. Buttercup had retreated to the group that stood watching Troy and Stephanie.

“Buttercup?” Stephanie leaned forward against the fence.

“Grandma insisted. It’s her favorite flower. Do you want to go in?”

Stephanie shrugged. “Why not.”

Troy lifted the metal latch and swung the gate open. They stepped inside and several alpacas approached. Buttercup was the first.

“She’s certainly curious.” Stephanie reached out to pet her, but the alpaca jerked its head away.

“They’re a little head shy. Try petting her at the base of the neck.”

Stephanie tried, but Buttercup darted away again.

“You're too fast.” Troy crouched down to the same level as the animals. “You have to be patient and let them come to you. Alpacas can be skittish.”

“It’s smart—” Stephanie squatted down next to him, “to be cautious.” She slowly held out her hand, and Buttercup timidly returned. Some of Buttercup’s friends trailed behind her.

“Sometimes.” Troy gently sunk his hand into an animal’s plush, white fleece. “This is Snowflake.”

“Buttercup and Snowflake?” Stephanie gave him a peculiar look.

“Hey, I didn’t pick the names.”

Stephanie followed his example and gently touched the fleece. She marveled at how soft the crimpy fiber felt. Troy watched her progress with approval.

“You see, they don’t know if you’re a friend or not. You’ve got to show them you can be trusted.”

“Some don’t even bother.” Stephanie indicated the animals grazing in the distance.

“They’re not willing to risk it. Others are closer but still distant, and ones like Buttercup …” Troy crinkled his nose as the fuzzy lips tickled his temple, “are in your face.”

“I’d say there are benefits and disadvantages for each.” Stephanie watched them closely. “The ones back there don’t get anything from us. There’s no connection, no bonding. They’re safe, but they're on their own. The ones in the middle are closer, but they’re still too far. And the ones like Buttercup get all the love and attention.”

“But she’s close enough to be at our mercy,” Troy said. “How does she know we’re not here to trap her?”

“Trust. She is at our mercy.”

“And if we’re not trustworthy?”

Then she’s in trouble.

Stephanie stared ahead, and Troy watched her profile, waiting for her answer. In a small distant pen, a single alpaca stood isolated from the rest. Stephanie searched to see if there was an opening for the animal to join the others. There wasn’t.

Stephanie stood. “Why is that one all alone?”

As soon as she approached, the alpaca retreated to the opposite side of the pen.

“That’s Bella.” Troy came and stood beside her. “We took her in a few months ago. She was being abused by her previous owners, and Grandpa couldn’t bear leaving her with them, so he bought her.”

“Why is she by herself?”

“She keeps fighting with other animals, so we had to separate them. She’s so tied up inside. Even though we want to help her, we haven’t been able to do more. Maybe someday she’ll trust we’re not going to hurt her. But so far, we haven’t had much progress. Take my advice, and keep away from her for a while. She’s not ready.”

Troy glanced toward the barn. “Do you want to feed the alpacas?”

Stephanie nodded and trailed behind him, but her mind was on Bella. She glanced over her shoulder.

I’ll be back.

“Here, hold out your hand.” Troy came out of the barn with a handful of grain, which he put in her cupped hands.

She spun around.

“Whoa wait.” He stopped her. “You’ll scare them. Remember?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Here.” He stood next to her for a while until they had an alpaca’s attention. “Come down a little bit, and lower your hand to show her what you have. She’ll come if you’re patient.”

Soon, a gray alpaca came to sniff the food in her hand. As soon as she began to eat, others crowded around Stephanie’s crouched position.

“Ah!” she cried out with delight as they surrounded her.

Troy laughed with amusement. “You want to help me give them their hay?”

“Okay.” She got to her feet, and Troy disappeared around the side of the shed, pulling up in his truck.

“What’s this for?” She crinkled her brow.

“We put the hay in the back and take it to the other pens.” He climbed out and grabbed large metal hooks from the barn wall. Thrusting each hook into the sides, he lifted the heavy weight and tossed the bale into the bed of the truck.

“How much do those weigh?”

“A hundred pounds.”

She hesitated as she watched how easily he tossed the heavy weight. “What am I supposed to do?”

He smiled at her worried expression and hooked the second bale. “This is the last one. Then we’ll drive out to each bin, and you can help me toss in the flakes of hay.”

She nodded in relief.

“I wasn’t expecting you to lift this.” He chuckled lightheartedly.

“I could do it!”

“I’m sure.” Troy heaved the second bale into the back. “With your determination alone, you would get it done, but I’d rather not make a lady do manual labor.”

Stephanie considered adding proudly that she was not a lady, but he seemed to admire that she was a woman rather than look down on her as “the weaker sex.”

He opened the passenger door. “Hop in.”

Stephanie climbed in, remembering the first time Kevin opened the door for her. She shook her head, bringing her back to the present.

Troy climbed in the driver’s seat.

“Why do you feed them hay if they have grass to eat?”

“We’re giving this to the pregnant females to help them maintain a healthy weight during their pregnancy.” He started the engine. “During this season, we mostly let the males graze, but we give the females a little extra since they’re eating for two.”

Stephanie thought about making a joke that he was not treating them as equals by discriminating between the males and females, but she changed her mind.

Putting the truck in reverse, Troy looked back and spun the wheel to the right.

“How many alpacas do you have?”

“Around sixty.” He shifted gears and slowly drove through the pen to the feeders. “We own about forty of them, and the rest are boarded or here from other ranches for breeding.”

“What do you mean by boarded?”

“Their owners pay us a monthly board to keep them here, and we take care of them.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Some are getting fencing up and preparing their property. Others live in a city or a place where they can’t have animals, so they come out here for them.”

“Why do they own alpacas if they keep their animals here?”

“They want a pet, or it’s an investment. They pay for the breeding and sell the cria.”


“A baby alpaca is called a cria.” He shut off the engine and climbed out. Troy showed Stephanie how to unload the hay into the feeding bins, and soon they were busy working. He stood in the truck bed while Stephanie unloaded from the ground.

When they were nearly done, Troy tossed a flake of hay into the trough below, and Stephanie cried out, “Hey!”

He looked down at the ground where she stood, covered with hay. She wiped her arms and shook her head to clean the debris from her hair.

He laughed. “Did I get you?”

She looked up at him with her hands on her hip. “What do you think?”

Troy shrugged. “I think it suits you.”

Her mouth dropped open. “Oh, you’d better watch yourself now.”

“What? It looks good on you.”

“Big trouble!”

“What are you gonna do?”

“Just watch yourself.” She slowly backed up.

“I’m watching. I don’t—”

Suddenly, Stephanie reached down, picking up the bucket of water and doused him. The cold water hit him, and his mouth dropped open. He turned to her with an I-can’t-believe-you-just-did-that look on his face. She squealed and took off running, knowing he’d be close behind.

She ran for the gate, swinging it open and slamming it closed behind her. It wouldn’t take him long to get out of the pen, so she darted for the house. As she did, she glanced back in time to see him hop the fence.

She leapt up the back steps and rushed in through the door. He came charging in behind her, but they came to an abrupt stop when they saw grandma, grandpa, and Gus sitting quietly at the breakfast table.

“You’re late. Breakfast is getting cold,” Grandpa Carl spoke first. His brow furrowed. “Troy, why are you wet?”

The two young people glanced slyly at each other. Troy stepped forward, and Stephanie tried to suppress the laughter that bubbled up inside her. “I’m sorry. I was showing her how to feed the animals. We’ll go get washed up.”

“Hurry up before Gus and I finish all the food,” Grandpa Carl told him.

The young people obeyed.

Grandma Ellen shot a look at her husband when they were gone. A silent agreement passed between them. 


Like a child, Stephanie trailed after Gus as he worked. “So why do you have llamas, not just alpacas?”

“Llamas are guard animals.” Unlatching the gate, he went in and held it open. Stephanie followed and he closed it behind her. “Between them and the dogs, they keep the alpacas safe from predators. Alpacas are the business, raised for their fiber. Once a year, we shear them like you do sheep.” He continued along the fence.

“How do you tell the difference? They look the same to me.”

“Llamas are larger and have coarser fleece. See this one here.” He pointed to the animal closest to them. “She’s a llama. She’s larger than the others and her back doesn’t curve down toward her neck as much as alpacas do.” Reaching down for the water bucket, he dumped out the dirty water and immediately the automatic device began to refill with fresh water.

She watched the llama as the animal sniffed the stream of dirty water. “Why do you say alpacas are nicer than llamas?”

Gus stood and shook the water from his hand. The llama’s ears laid back against her head. Without any warning, the llama spit in Gus’ face. He spun away with a disgusted cough. “That’s why!”

Stephanie burst out laughing as the llama strutted away.

He tried to wipe the green gunk from his cheek. “I’ve gotten in the way when alpacas spit at each other, but they’ve never purposely done that to me. Uh … I’m gonna wash up.” Gus staggered away in search of a water hose.

Left alone, Stephanie caught sight of Bella and walked over to her pen. “Hey, girl.” She clicked her tongue. “You want some grain?” Lifting the lid to the steel can, she got a handful of grain and closed the container. “Here you go.” She held out her hand. “It's good. I promise.”

Bella refused to come.

But Stephanie didn't give up. Over the months, she came in Bella’s pen every morning offering grain, and every morning Bella kept her distance.

Someday … someday, she would break through.

Meanwhile, a blur of new activities filled her days. She helped Grandma Helen cook, clean, and harvest vegetables from the garden. She watched and attempted to sew, to can fruits and vegetables, and other domestic activities she didn’t think people did anymore.

She took a satisfied breath as she worked next to Grandma Helen in the kitchen. She liked this ranch. For the first time in a long time, her nightmares were gone, her troubles were forgotten. The drama had subsided, and yes, the work was grueling. But the alpacas were peaceful, the open countryside was beautiful, and she was happy.

Stephanie stirred the turkey sausage cooking on the stove. “Grandma Helen, I’ve been wanting to ask you. Who is that?” She pointed to a black and white photo on the refrigerator.

Grandma Helen looked up. “That’s Corrie Ten Boom.”

“Is she a relative?”

“No.” The old woman laughed. “I keep her picture there to remind myself that God’s love can penetrate any great evil. See underneath the photo it says, ‘There is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still.’ Her sister Betsie said that.”

Stephanie looked away. “Yeah well, tell that to the people who endure great evil.”

Grandma Helen hesitated a moment. “Corrie and her sister were sent to a Nazi concentration camp because she was hiding Jews. Do you know what they did in the concentration camps?”

Stephanie shrugged. “Something about making them work.”

Grandma Helen turned off the stove. “Come here.”

She took Stephanie’s hand and led her into the living room. After pulling out a book, she sat down and placed it in the young woman’s lap. “Here.” She flipped to the right page.

Stephanie saw pictures of men, women, and children in rags and so thin that they looked like living skeletons. Grandma Helen turned the page to show piles of dead bodies thrown on top of each other in mass graves.

“Human beings are capable of unthinkable things.” Grandma Helen continued showing her page after page of grotesque photos. “God warned us that the hearts of men are easily deceived. He gave us instructions on how to live, but we have refused to teach them or live by them. Instead, we hurt and devour each other. And are often unaware of the full depth of the wrong what we
re doing.”

Stephanie closed the book. “What if God’s love is the deception?” She asked bitterly as she slid the evidence on the coffee table away from her.

“Why?” Grandma Helen placed her wrinkled hand over Stephanie’s clasped fists. “Why do you feel betrayed?”


Stephanie lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling. Her thoughts tumbled around like a pair of shoes in the dryer. There was something different stirring within her, but she didn’t know what. It was a vague pull, and she couldn’t shake the feeling. She tried to process all the possibilities, but the list caused fear to rise. What was she afraid of? Change? Being wrong? Being right? Being hopeless or discovered? She didn’t know.

She rolled onto her side, not caring that the covers were still beneath her. She had no strength to do anything about it, so she laid vulnerably exposed to the night’s control as she slept.

An unexpected and uninvited visitor came upon her as the night wore on. She began to moan, then to toss and turn. She was in an unfamiliar place. She couldn’t tell who she was or what she was doing. She had no identity, and everywhere, fingers were pointing at her. There were no bodies or faces, but she could hear the laughter, the voices mocking her pathetic life. She spun in this direction, then that, searching for an escape. A sympathetic hand. One finger that did not accuse. Anyone? She searched, but the nausea grew worse the more she spun. A release? Please? She needed a breath of fresh air, not this musty heat of condemnation. When would this censure end? The circle of fingers compressed, shrinking its diameter like a choke chain on a dog.

She woke in a sweat, her body shuddering. Her lungs inflated and deflated with a tremendous effort and a whimper escaped her lips. She thought she was free! She made this trip to get away. Her heart sunk as the morning light shone through the window. This was supposed to be her new beginning.

Her hand touched her belly. She still hadn’t made up her mind about what to do, but it was time to tell them.

After breakfast.

That morning, Stephanie watched herself in the mirror. She was stalling and she knew it. This was her third time brushing her hair. Still she could not bring herself to walk out the door. Her stomach grumbled at the thought of breakfast, but she focused on her task.

Soon she heard a door open and shut. Someone came down the stairs to the basement, and she glanced toward the door, anticipating the knock.

“Yes?” Stephanie squeaked. Facing the mirror, she cleared her throat and tried again. “Who is it?”

“It’s Earl. Is everything all right?”

“Uh-huh …” she stammered, knowing her response sounded like a question.

“Well, it’s time for breakfast. The food’s getting cold.”

Stephanie set her brush on the dresser. “Be right there.”

Fixing her eyes on her reflection, she took a deep breath. “Here goes.”


All too soon breakfast was over, and Grandpa Earl and Grandma Helen were sitting on the couch, waiting to hear what Stephanie had to tell them.

“I need a ride to town,” she began. “I was hoping one of you would take me.”

“Of course.” Grandma Helen gave a hesitant glance toward her husband before asking, “Is that all you wanted to tell us?”

“No, not exactly.” Stephanie licked her lips nervously. “I was hoping one of you would go with me to…I’m…” She knew they were religious people, and suddenly she could hear all the Bible-pounding preachers screaming the word “sinner” in her head. For a moment, she considered making something up, but the longer she waited, the more expensive the abortion would be. “I’m pregnant, and I was hoping one of you would go with me to a clinic.”

“Are you sure that’s what you want?” Grandma Helen asked.

“I don’t have another choice.”

“If this is what you choose,” Grandpa Earl looked earnestly at her, “then you’ve made your decision. But don’t feed yourself a lie that you don’t have a choice. You may not like your options, but there’s always a choice. Too many people excuse their hurtful actions.”

Instantly Julia’s face flashed in front of Stephanie. She remembered her coworker’s need for revenge, and how she didn’t care who else might get hurt in the process so long as her desire succeeded.

“You don’t know what my life’s been like.” She shook her head. “I need a new start.”

“Killing your baby isn’t going to give you a new start.” Grandma Helen shifted to the edge of the couch. “Passing on pain to someone else doesn’t stop your pain.”

“Stephanie,” Grandpa Earl looked at her as though he could feel the heavy burden she carried, “what is it you’re not telling us? Who hurt you?”

Stephanie froze.
She knew he wasn’t asking about Calvin, Julia, her abusive boyfriends, or even Kevin wanting to fix her. He was asking about the root. She felt her protective walls melting as fire stirred in her heart. She couldn’t hold the pain in any longer, and she collapsed to her knees, weeping. Grandma Helen swooped over and spread her arms around the young woman, wrapping her tightly. Stephanie shook as years of hidden secrets cascaded down her face.

The time had come.


She was the perfect target. Eleven years old, thick brown hair, and trusting hazel eyes. A beautiful girl who didn't know she was beautiful. Little Stephanie sat by herself on the swing as the other children played in the distance. That's what she was … distant. Her eyes were hungry to join the others. She wanted to be included, to be in the midst of them, but she didn't think they would want her.

But he saw her. He could see the weight of worthlessness that hung about her like a heavy blanket—thick and scratchy with the appearance of comfort.

She stopped watching and attempted to swing. If she couldn't have what she wanted, she was going to force herself to have fun regardless. She pumped her little legs and strained to get enough momentum. She wanted to soar, to lift her spirit, and to fill her heart with something other than the empty ache that refused to leave. She didn't get very high, but she kept trying. He had to admire her for that. So many others didn't even try. They just watched, wishing someone would invite them. Wishing someone would come along, see them, and want them to join.

He was that one.

He knew what their heart longed for, and he knew he could convince them that they were wanted. For a brief moment, all their wishes would come true. He would lure them into thinking that he had something special to offer them, and before they realized the truth, they were trapped.

But she was special.

He knew that from the start. He could see strength in her spirit that kept her trying—kept her fighting—despite the lonely heart that weighed her down. She was no ordinary girl, even if she saw herself as less than ordinary. What he saw made him want her all the more. He had plenty of girls working for him, but he wanted this one, if not for the business, then for himself. She would be his prize that he'd only share for top dollar. He'd been watching for several months now. He knew what grade she was in; he knew where she lived. He knew who her father was and what he did for a living. He learned what he could about her mother. He discovered that they had just moved from a big house in a gated community to a run-down apartment in the middle of the inner city. They were in his turf now, and the best part was when he learned that they needed money.

They didn't stand a chance.

The bell rang, and young Stephanie went inside. He watched until she disappeared from sight.

He turned the key in the ignition. No one knew he had been watching, and no one knew as he drove away.

Stephanie was relieved to be walking home. She didn't like her new school. None of the kids seemed to like her. No one gave her a smile. They all had their friends, and she didn't grow up on these streets. If she wanted to survive, she would have to toughen up or they knew she'd be a goner. She was too soft, too sheltered. Most of them, only in junior high, had lived through or had friends experience every kind of abuse: verbal, sexual, and physical. Some of them had older siblings and friends, who had been killed in the gang wars or by drugs, either by using or selling. It was a different life. A life she didn't know.

She didn't understand why they moved, and her parents wouldn't tell her anything except that they had to. But why? Why leave their beautiful home and familiar life? She could have understood if the change was better, but why this? She was a foreigner in a place she was supposed to call home. This was not home. Home should be warm and safe. Home should be a place of love and security. A place of trust and joined hearts.

Ever since they moved, Mom and Dad were fighting more and more. They didn't used to fight like this, at least not this openly, so what changed? What weren't they telling her? She could see they were falling apart, and her heart ached to watch it.

Was it her? Was she the wedge that was driving them apart? She knew money had a lot to do with the fighting. Maybe they regretted having a child because it cost too much. Maybe things would have been better if she hadn't been born. She wouldn't have been such a strain on them, and then they could be happy.

She looked up at the sky. God, why did you make me if I'm the problem?

In that moment, she couldn't help asking her heart's deepest fear. What if God messed up? They say that God is good. If so, and things aren't good, does that mean something went wrong?

The possibility was too frightening to entertain, and she shoved it down deep in her heart. Maybe she could forget that the question was there. Maybe she could pretend she wasn't afraid and that would make everything better. Her parents believed in God, but what if they were wrong. What if He didn't really exist, or worse … what if He didn't care?

Frightened, but wanting to be brave, young Stephanie tried to think about something else. She didn't like the way things were going, but she didn't know what else to do. Maybe if she avoided her doubts and fears, they would go away. She could stop thinking about them, and then everything would be good.

It had been a long time since she felt wanted, safe, and protected. Ever since the tension in the family first started, Stephanie noticed that she had become more and more invisible. Mom saw her sometimes, but Dad rarely. It was like he could look directly into her eyes, but he wasn't seeing her. Either there was too much on his mind or worse … he didn't want to see her.

She climbed the outside stairs to the apartment door and searched her backpack for the key. Dad had a meeting today, but Mom was usually doing some household chores. Well, that or looking through the paper for a job without dad knowing it. That was one of the fights Stephanie had figured out. Mom wanted to get a job to get them through this difficult time, but Dad refused. “I don't want you working.”

“Benjamin, we don't have another choice.”

“I promise I'll get the money. You have to trust me, Carolyn.”

Stephanie didn't understand why dad didn't want mom to work, but they never explained when she asked. Apparently, it was a grown-up issue, and they didn't discuss those with children. She didn't like feeling left out. Did they think she was stupid? She wasn't a baby anymore.

Inserting the key, young Stephanie opened and went inside. She closed the door behind her and put the key in her backpack. She looked up. But it was too late.

She almost screamed, but a hand clasped over her mouth. Her mom was tied up on the ground with tears streaming down her face and a gag in her mouth. Dad sat strapped to the chair with a knife to his throat. Stephanie cried as she struggled to get away, but the man was built like a mountain. He shook her like a rag-doll.

She was helpless. She wanted to be strong enough to protect her parents and throw these men out of the apartment. But what could an eleven-year old girl do? She didn't have the power, and she had never longed for power before. She wanted it now.

The second man had his back to her. His knife pressed hard enough to draw blood from her dad’s neck, but he stopped when he heard the commotion. He turned and looked her up and down. His eyes were dark, so dark. She didn't know what it was about him that made her cringe. It was like the emptiness inside him that wanted to swallow her.

“It’s a dangerous thing, Benjamin,” he jeered, “not paying your debt. Cause the collectors come calling.”

“I promised I’d pay you back, and I will. I need more time.”

The man came closer and crouched down in front of Stephanie. Slowly his fingers ran down her temple. He didn’t turn around. “You have a beautiful girl.”

“Leave her out of this!”

The man glanced up at his companion behind her and gave a nod. Then he touched Stephanie’s face once again. “Don’t be afraid. Your dad’s lucky to have you.”

The giant man behind her took away his hand, and immediately, a wet handkerchief covered her mouth and nose. She reeled back into his chest, but it was no use. The smell was strong, and his hold was firm. In moments, she blacked out.


When she woke, she was lying on a bed in what looked like a dingy bedroom. She blinked her eyes a couple times to get them to focus. Where was she? The blinds were closed, and she couldn't tell the time of day. The light was on, but it was dim. Someone moved in the corner and Stephanie jumped.

A Chinese girl about nineteen rose from the floor. She bowed low.

“Who are you?”

“My name Chunhua. I watch you 'til he come back.”

“Until who comes back?”

“To us …” Chunhua gestured to Stephanie and herself, “he daddy.”

The young girl scanned the room, half expecting someone to show up. “I have a dad.”

“No, no more. He daddy now.” Chunhua came to the edge of the bed. “Work hard, make happy, you do alright.”


“He take you far from here. You be with him. Be grateful, he give you best job. Many girls packed. No room, hard to move.”

“Where am I going?”

“You come with us and work. Home too close. We go far from here.”

“What do you mean? I can't go anywhere. Where's Mom and Dad?”

Chunhua lowered her eyes and shook her head. “You stay with him, family live. You leave, they die. I stay for family.”

“Where's your family?” Stephanie looked at her with fear in her eyes.

“Home. China. I come here for work. Family not know I work like this. I not know ‘til they bring me here. Come United States to model.”

Stephanie's heart pounded so hard, it hurt. “How long have you been here?”

Chunhua shook her head.

Stephanie tried to grasp what was going on, why she was here, and how long she was expected to stay. She had school in the morning, and Mrs. Howard didn't like kids to be late.

“When I come, no English. I learn, slow. Someday go home. See family.”

“I need to go home now.” Stephanie scrambled off the bed and headed for the door, but Chunhua blocked her path.

“No, no. Mountain out there. You try leave, he beat you.”

Stephanie remembered the strength of the man at her apartment. He could kill her without trying if he wanted. She spun around, spied the closed blinds, and headed for the window.

“No, they barred.”

Stephanie ignored her and yanked the cord. As the blinds lifted, only moonlight shone on the iron bars outside. Fear rose in her throat and she couldn’t swallow. She was trapped and the panic in her heart could not be tamed.

“It's alright, Chunhua. You can leave now.” The sound of a man's voice caused Stephanie to spin around. She froze when she saw his face. It was him! She had seen him in a car outside her school once before. She didn't like the way he had looked at her, but he didn't look that way now. He looked caring.

Chunhua slipped out, quietly closing the door behind her.

He gestured to the room. “I hope you are comfortable.”

Stephanie didn't know how to respond, so she shrugged. He wasn't what she was expecting.

“You look hungry.” His eyes shone with kindness. “Can I get you something to eat?”

Stephanie didn't answer.

“Or something to drink?

The young girl barely shook her head.

“I'm sorry about what happened earlier. Those men had no right to threaten you and your family like that, and I've dealt with them. You're not to worry about it.”

“Where are they?”

“Your parents are fine. They're at home.”

She hesitated a moment. “Can I go home?”

“If you like, but are you sure you want to leave right now? You just got here. You look tired. Why don't you stay the night, and I'll take you home in the morning if that's what you want?”

“You'll take me home tomorrow?”

“Of course.” He smiled with a tenderness that put Stephanie at ease.

“Chunhua said that I have to work like she does.”

“Chunhua says a lot of things.”

“Will I get home in time for school? Mrs. Howard is already upset at me for not doing my homework yesterday.”

“We'll send her a note. It'll be fine. Come have a seat.” He motioned for her to sit on the edge of the bed, and she timidly obeyed. He opened the door and muttered something to Mountain standing outside.

The large man grunted and closed the door.

Stephanie watched him as he took a seat on the trunk against the wall. His head tilted as he returned her gaze. His steady attention caused her to glance away. Why was he looking at her like that? She wasn't used to very much attention, and he seemed eager and willing to give his. She didn't know what to do, but she secretly liked having his attention.

“Do you know how pretty you are?”

Startled, she looked back at him and waited for him to say something else. When he didn't, she dared to ask, “Am I pretty?”

“You don't know?” He sounded as though he would have told her everyday how beautiful she was.

She shook her head, and he came to sit next to her. “You are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.”

Stephanie's face flushed and her whole body grew warm. No one had ever said such nice things to her before. Her hand trembled, and he saw it. Taking her hand in his, he interlaced his fingers with hers and held it up in the air.

“You make me want to be this close to you.”

She didn't know what that meant, but his eyes were locked onto hers. She couldn't think or react. She only knew that she felt wanted, and it was powerful!

Slowly, his head lowered, and she felt his lips on hers. His touch was gentle. He moved her hair back as his fingers caressed her neck. He eased her back against the bed, but it wasn't until his hands began touching her, did she sense something wasn't right.

“Relax, just relax,” he coaxed in her ear.

Then a still voice echoed in her head. You got to fight it. Don't give in. Promise me you'll fight it. Never give in. Something was wrong. She didn’t know what it was or why, but she pushed the man's unsuspecting body over. She scrambled off the bed and raced to the door.

It was locked.

She turned around slowly.

He stood, shaking his head, “It didn't have to be this way. You could have had it all. I would have given you everything.”

She took a deep breath. “There are some things only God can give.”

He sneered. “Then I'll take what I want, and we'll see if your God can stop me.”

Mountain laid her beaten body down on the backseat of the tinted car. She couldn't move, and her head rested in Chunhua's lap. The car shook as he dropped into the driver’s seat. Stephanie could feel the rumble as they pulled out of the garage. She didn't know where they were headed, but they drove for a of couple days and nights. They stopped only at secluded rest stops for Stephanie to use the bathroom, but most of the time, they just kept driving.

Chunhua tried to entertain her and keep her mind off the pain, but Stephanie mostly wanted to sleep. The pain wouldn't go away, and the trip seemed to take an eternity.

Eventually, Mountain stopped the car, and she heard the car door open. He lifted her out and carried her through the damp night air. She heard the crunch of leaves as he stepped toward the silhouette of an old abandoned warehouse.

Chunhua opened the door and their footsteps echoed down the center hall. They passed doors on either side and on different levels. Each numbered door representing a different cell. Chunhua unlocked one of the end doors on the first level.

They went inside and the room smelled like damp cement. A chill went right through Stephanie. There was nothing in the small room except a mattress on the floor, shoved in the corner. No pillow, no sheets, only a blanket.

They laid her on the mattress. Chunhua slipped something under the mattress as she kissed the child goodnight, but young Stephanie passed out before she could see what it was.

In the morning, she woke to the same empty room. She hadn't been dreaming. She gingerly sat up, leaning against the wall. This was her punishment. She had refused, and for that, she would learn the hard way until she was willing to give him want he wanted. But could she do that? He asked for something special from her, but if he demanded it regardless, could that be called asking?

She hugged her knees to her chest. Tears filled her eyes as she looked up at the tiny ray of light shining in the dismal cell. The window was too high and too small, even if she could reach it.

Slipping her hand under the mattress, she pulled out the book that had been in her backpack when they took her. Chunhua must have found it and kept the book secretly for her. She hugged Uncle Tom's Cabin against her chest as she relived what had happened.

Dried blood covered her clothes. Blood that came from a beating she didn't deserve, but also more. He had taken something from her that could not be replaced. Something he used to fill the missing part of himself, and the blood was on his hands.

What he had done stirred an anger and hatred in her that went deep. She would use these feelings to heal her brokenness. She would use it to survive. If only to punish the guilty, she would survive.


“I had to work off my father’s debts.” Stephanie sat on the floor with Grandma Ellen's comforting hand on her shoulder. “No one should have to experience what I went through. I was only a child! They were his decisions, but I paid the consequence.”

Her sight became clouded as the anger steamed inside her. “Do you know what it’s like to feel like an animal, to be treated like property? To have your basic human rights ignored? All for the sake of someone else’s pleasure. I was innocent! I did nothing to deserve what they did to me.”

“How did you escape?” Grandma Helen asked quietly.

“There was an undercover cop, who had lost his daughter. I must have looked like her because he blew his cover to get me out. They sent me home, and I had to go to recovery classes, where they told me that I wasn’t worthless. In church they told me that God loved me ….”

Stephanie’s eyes flashed through her tears as she looked at Grandma Helen. “You asked why I felt betrayed. I prayed every day that God would send my parents to save me … and they never came.”


“I want to know why. Why did that happen? Why didn’t anyone care about me? I just want to know—can’t I just know why! I came home, and my parents didn't say anything. They went to church and praised Jesus like nothing happened!”

Stephanie glanced at the couple before turning away. The last thing she wanted was their pity. She stood up and looked down at them. “My dreams have haunted me ever since. I know I’ll never be free. What’s done is done.”


Stephanie was up before everyone. She had done the research she needed, so with directions and keys in her hand, she slipped out of the house and headed for the truck.

She opened the truck door.

“You’re up kind of early, aren’t you?”

With a jump, she looked back at Troy leaning on his shovel handle. “I have an errand. I’ll be back.” She started to climb inside.

“Before dawn? So they won’t know you’re gone, or so they can’t stop you?”

She glared at him. “What’s your problem? I can leave if I need to.”

“That depends on the errand.”

“It’s my business.”

“It's my truck.”

“That’s ridiculous!” She climbed inside and inserted the key. But before she could start the engine, Troy had jumped in the passenger’s seat.

“What are you doing?” She eyed him suspiciously.

“What’s going on?”


He gave her warning look as though he knew she was lying.

“It’s personal. Okay?”

“Stephanie, they told me. Grandma and grandpa thought I should know in case you decided to do something like this.”

“This is none of your business. Get out!”

He didn’t move.

“I said, get out!” Stephanie thrust open the door and bolted out in a rage. Troy scrambled out as she rounded the front of the vehicle. She flew at him, pushing him repeatedly. “How dare you! You can’t keep me here. This is my decision, my life!”

Troy backed up, putting his hands up as a shield. “Hold it. Wait, wait!”

She gave him one last shove, knocking him to the ground. “It’s my body! Not yours, mine!” 

Troy jumped to his feet as she headed back to the driver’s side. He rounded the bed of the truck and arrived first. Bracing himself against the door, he firmly grabbed her shoulders to calm her down.

“Stephanie, stop! Listen to me! I know. You’re right. It is your body, but there’s another body in you, a completely separate person, who is relying on you for life. Your dad screwed up, but don’t punish your child—or you’ll be exactly like him!”

His words punched her in her chest, and she stumbled backward. “I am nothing like him.”

“I didn’t say you were. I said, if you do this, what difference will there be? Your dad robbed you of your life for three years. Don’t rob your child of his entire existence!”

They stared at each other, each wanting the other to give in.

She took a step backward, and he didn’t dare to breathe. Without a word, Stephanie went inside, leaving Troy paralyzed against the truck door.

Nothing went well the rest of the day for Stephanie. She burned the muffins Grandma Helen asked her to watch. She forgot to give Grandpa Earl the message that Gus had already gotten the part Troy needed to fix a broken latch for the gate. Thus, Grandpa Earl made an unnecessary trip to town, and they ended up with two new latches. She didn’t hear Grandma Helen ask her to vacuum the living room, and when she did, she almost vacuumed up the cat’s tail.

When evening came, Stephanie looked out the window and saw Troy kneeling on the ground to replace the broken latch. She grabbed a nearby shawl that Grandma Helen had made her and hurried out the door. She walked up to where he was working and stood there without saying anything.

Troy glanced up at her. “What’s up?”

Stephanie folded her arms. “What you said earlier was wrong. You might not agree with me, but that doesn’t give you the right to insult me.”

Troy stopped what he was doing. “I didn’t insult you.”

“I have a right to do what I want to do. That’s my freedom.”

Troy got to his feet, brushing off his pants.

“I’m not a bad person.” Stephanie hugged her shawl tighter as the wind blew.

“I never said you were a bad person.”

“You implied it.”

“I didn’t mean to.” Troy caught her wandering eyes with his. “I was just trying to help.”

Stephanie searched his face and found what she wanted. “I’m scared,” she whispered.

Troy dropped the tool and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, drawing her into his embrace. She pressed her cheek against his chest. This was what she came for, and she savored how securely he held her.

Snowflake's head turned as Stephanie passed. The alpaca moaned softly, but Stephanie kept walking toward another pen. She saw Bella lying on the ground as many of the alpacas enjoy doing, and she expected her to roll over on her back any minute.

She didn’t.

“Good morning, Bella.” Stephanie unlatched the gate and closed it behind her.

Bella didn’t move, even as Stephanie came close. This wasn’t like Bella. She was breathing, but she didn’t lift her head. Stephanie stood over the alpaca. Should she wake up Grandpa Earl? No, Troy would be better, but maybe Gus would know more. She glanced between the house and the barn. She had to choose someone.

Stephanie rushed out of the pen and darted for the house. Leaping onto the porch, she threw open the door and ran to Troy’s room. With a conscious effort not to pound, she knocked firmly. Within moments, the door creaked open, and a sleepy-eyed Troy peered through the crack at her. 
“Stephanie? What’s wrong?”

“It’s Bella. You have to come quickly.”

He blinked a couple times. “I’ll be right there.”

Stephanie nodded and hurried outside to wait.

Every moment seemed like an hour. She looked down at Bella.  

Hurry Troy! She hated feeling helpless.

Seeing Troy in the distance, Stephanie waved for him to hurry, and he sprinted to her side. What’s wrong?” He opened the gate.

“I don’t know. She won’t get up, and I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s okay.” Troy knelt beside Bella, and for the first time, Bella lifted her head. He put a hand on her neck to soothe her, but her eyes looked as if she would spit at him if she could.

Her body moved. “What’s she doing?”

“She’s pushing.” Troy lifted her tail to see if anything was coming out.

“Pushing? Like pregnant pushing?”

“That’s what it looks like.”

“I didn’t know she was pregnant.” Stephanie crept closer.

“Neither did we.” There was concern in his eyes that put a knot in Stephanie’s stomach.

“What’s wrong?”

Troy didn’t respond immediately. He felt the alpaca’s belly as though trying to find the answer. “I don’t know how long she’s been in labor, but I should see the front feet and nose by now. I hope the baby’s not turned.”

Stephanie tried to calm her nerves, but they didn’t seem to be listening. “And if it is?”

“Stephanie, I need you to run to the barn and grab a couple of towels, the bottle of iodine, and the cria kit.” Stephanie almost ran to accomplish her task but realized he hadn’t told her where to find the items, and she had no idea what iodine looked like…or what a cria kit was.

“In the barn on your right, next to all the halters and lead ropes, there’s a shelf with some towels on it. Next to that are some bottles. One of them is labeled iodine, and on the ground below the shelf, there should be an orange box that looks like a toolbox. It says cria kit on it. Bring that too.”

Stephanie nodded and dashed toward the barn.

Towels, iodine, cria kit. Towels, iodine, cria kit.

She threw open the barn door and ran toward the shelf. Immediately, she spied the orange box and picked it up from the floor. Reaching up, she pulled down two towels and quickly scanned each bottle until she found the one marked iodine. She rushed back to Troy.

He had already rolled up both of his sleeves, and he took the orange box from her first. Opening the lid, he took out a zip-lock bag with a clear plastic glove inside, which he put on his right hand. The glove went all the way to his elbow. Picking up a tube, he squeezed out a jelly substance and covered the glove with it.

“What’s that?”

“A lubricant.”

Stephanie was about to ask what he was going to do, but he answered by sliding the gloved hand inside of the mother.

Stephanie’s lip curled. “What are you trying to do?”

Troy’s hand moved inside. “I’m checking to see what’s wrong with the baby’s position. I think … yeah, there it is. The baby’s leg is wrapped over its head. I just have to …” Troy grunted as he struggled to fix the problem.

“There. Here we go.” He smiled as his hand reemerged with two wet legs and the beginning of a gray face being pushed out. Suddenly, Bella leapt to her feet, and Stephanie gasped in dismay.

“It’s okay.” Troy calmly readjusted his position to better supervise the progress. “They usually deliver standing up. The gravity helps with the delivery. You just needed a little break, didn’t you, Bella?”

The baby was on the ground now, and Troy picked up one of the towels. Stephanie stepped closer to see. The long-legged and long-necked cria trembled, and Troy worked diligently to dry its coat.

In a few minutes, a moan came from the baby as it moved with uncoordinated ability.

“What’s it doing?”

Troy stopped rubbing and took a step back. “She’s trying to stand.” Together, they watched the cria struggle and fall, then try again with the same result. The first time the baby fell, Stephanie leaned down to help her up, but Troy stopped her.

“She has to learn to do it herself.”

After several more determined tries, the little alpaca finally succeeded, and Troy completed his last task by dipping the umbilical cord in iodine for ten seconds.

“What does that do?” Stephanie scrunched her eyebrows.

“It's so she doesn’t get infected. The iodine helps the umbilical cord dry up and fall off.”

“Oh.” Stephanie watched the shaky-legged cria start toward where Bella was eating.

“What’s she doing now?”

“She’s looking for milk. The first feedings are critical and determine the animal’s future health.”

The baby arrived at her mother’s back legs, and its little face nuzzled her leg looking for milk. Bella stepped away, still focused on her food. The cria tried again, but this time, Bella kicked her baby in the face.

Stephanie gasped in horror, and Troy ran to pick up the cria in his arms. Bella scurried away while Troy examined the baby’s face.

“Is she okay?” Stephanie hurried to his side.

Troy didn’t answer and headed toward the barn. Stephanie dashed after him.

“She’s doesn’t look good.” Troy went inside the barn and laid the baby down on the ground.

“But she’ll be alright?” Stephanie knelt down next to the baby. “Why isn’t she moving?”

Troy ran his fingers through his hair. “She needs her mother. Without her mom’s milk, she’s not going to make it.”

“There must be something we can do.”

Troy sighed, reaching up he lifted his gun off the wall. “It’s at least humane.”

Stephanie jumped to her feet. “Are you serious?”

He held out the gun to her.

She shook her head. “There’s got to be another way.” she said, but he spun her around, forcing her to point the gun at the cria.

“Bella doesn’t want her anyway.”

Stephanie stared at the helpless life on the ground. “I can’t.” She shook her head, still holding the gun.

“Do it. Do it now! Come on, Stephanie, she won’t survive without help. Just shoot her. You can do it!”

Stephanie trembled as Troy shouted at her, but she couldn’t take her eyes from the cria. She threw the gun away and knelt beside the new life.

“I want it.” She touched the damp fleece as the baby breathed.

Troy slowly knelt down beside her. “Would it make a difference if I put it back in the womb?”

Stephanie’s head snapped up.

He touched her face gently. “Bella lost her ability to love a long time ago.”

He gave her a compassionate smile and stood. “I think we have some colostrum in the freezer. I’ll go get it for her.”

Stephanie sat in stunned silence. Then she gasped and placed her hand on her belly. Her baby's first kick. 


Marcus overheard the rejection, so when Katrina came into the bedroom, the teenage boy stood quietly in the corner, playing with his putty.

“What you doin' in here?” Demont asked. “I thought you were persuadin' him.”

“He ain't gonna do it.” Katrina leaned against the closed door.

“You hardly tried,” Jeran protested.

“You wanna try?” Katrina snapped at him.

Logan cut in. “We know you're good. So what's up, Kat? It's not like you to leave the mouse.”

She shrugged. “He's different.”

Logan leaned down and took the putty from his brother’s hand. The boy didn’t dare protest but watched his brother walk slowly toward her. “In the right hands, a mouse—” he lifted his hand in the air. His fingers tightened into a fist, causing the putty to ooze out the sides, “—is a mouse.”

“Not this one.” She shook her head. “Somethin' about him. He ain't no cop.”

“Of all the nights for him to show up …” Jeran shook his head with fear in his voice. He looked over at Demont.

“What?” Demont challenged. “You sayin' I snitched.”

“I'm sayin' you saw him before. How do we know you didn't go soft?”

Demont charged forward, but Logan grabbed Jeran's shirt, thrusting him against the wall.

“Don't ever say that,” Logan warned. “We're family. Demont does anything for us, just like we do anything for Demont. That's what makes us strong. A house divided won't stand. We got nobody but us. They ain't never gonna take that from us. You get that?”

Every head nodded.

Logan released Jeran and turned to the rest of the group. “Now we gotta do this clean. Demont, Jeran, Shandra, and Kat—go out. Find a place to dump the body. Marcus ...” He pulled out a pistol. “You gotta watch him. He moves, you pull the trigger.”

The boy nodded and took the gun.

“What about the girl?” Katrina asked.

“I'll make the call,” Logan told her. “When they get here, they'll take the girl with 'em. Then we dump his body ... nobody knows she was here.”

Demont, Jeran, Shandra, and Katrina left to complete their assignments, but Marcus stalled.

“Logan?” The boy came toward his brother when they were alone. He lowered his eyes. “I don't gotta shoot him, do I?”

Logan placed his hand on the teenager's shoulder. “What do I always say?”

The boy looked up. “Protect the family.”

“You and I ain't never had nobody, but us. I always looked out for you, didn't I?”

Marcus nodded.

You trust me, don't you? You don't wanna see him live and me die.”

Marcus shook his head.

“Then if the time comes, are you gonna pull that trigger, for the family?”

Marcus nodded.

“I knew you could.” Logan gave Marcus a brotherly punch to his arm, and the boy beamed up at his older brother. Then he scurried out of the room with the gun in his hand and a new confidence that he would make his brother proud. No matter the cost. 

The cria followed Stephanie as she sat down on the porch. She lifted the bottle for the alpaca to eat. “Here you go. You’re hungry, aren’t you, girl?”

Grandpa Earl walked toward them. “She looks good.” He sat down on the edge of the porch.

“Yeah,” Stephanie rubbed the cria’s back. “She’s been following me around the yard. She acts more like a dog than an alpaca.”

Grandpa Earl smiled. “I think she likes you.”

“I think she likes to eat.”

“And how does she get to eat?” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

Stephanie continued petting the baby’s soft fiber. “Troy wouldn’t have killed her, would he?” she asked cautiously.

“He told me about that.” Grandpa Earl looked out at the horizon. “I don’t think that was the point.”

Turning back to her, he said, “He already knew he valued life.”

Stephanie was quiet as the baby continued drinking the bottle of milk. She took a deep breath. “I’ve decided to have the baby.”

Grandpa Earl scrutinized her to see if she was sure. Then he smiled. “You won’t be alone. We’ll help support you any way we can.”

“I'm still afraid I’m not ready.”

“You’re not …” he bluntly told her. Then with a soft smile he continued, “but if you're willing to learn, you can be.”

Stephanie shook her head. “You’re all the same. You think having God will solve all my problems, but I don’t need Him, and I don’t like you forcing Him on me.”

Grandpa Earl thought for a moment and got to his feet. “Let’s take a walk.”

Reluctantly she followed him to the garden. 

“I’ve seen you sit out here, as though you’re soaking up peace. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Grandpa Earl smiled, “But what made our garden beautiful?”

“Hard work,” Stephanie shrugged.

He nodded. “And a gardener.” He took a few steps and beckoned to her. “I want to show you something else.”

She followed the old man as he hiked off the ranch. They came to a barbwire fence, where Grandpa Earl stopped.

“Do you like it?” He gestured to the abandoned house on the other side. A thick bed of dry thistles covered the hard soil, warning away any visitors, and the rickety house completed the barren picture. A sense of loneliness settled in Stephanie as she took in the scene.

“Would you call this land, productive or beautiful?” He kicked the crusty soil. “Our hearts are meant to be like land. The more I see what God does in people’s hearts, who truly believe what He says, the more I want Him to garden mine. For He causes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to grow. But He only works in land that is given to Him. Now do you see the difference?”

Stephanie didn’t answer. Her eyes roamed the sight before her, and her heart pounded.

As she looked around, Stephanie spotted something that made her hurry along the fence. She stopped when she found a rabbit wrapped in the loose barbwire, breathing heavily as it struggled to get free. The rabbit stopped, then struggled, then stopped again.

Finally, it lay still, giving up.

Grandpa Earl put his hand on Stephanie’s back, and she moved for him to kneel down next to the creature. As soon as he touched the barbwire, the rabbit fought even more fiercely, getting more and more tangled. Grandpa Earl let go to keep the rabbit from strangling itself.

As the animal continued to struggle, Grandpa Earl took a step back.

“What are you doing?” Stephanie protested. “You can’t leave it.”

“I’m not leaving,” he answered simply. “I’m waiting.”

They waited until the rabbit was too tired to fight, before Grandpa Earl began to set the animal free. Carefully, he removed the barbs that cut into the rabbit.

“I know this hurts him,” Grandpa Earl told Stephanie, “but once he’s free, then he can start to heal.”

When he removed the last barb, Grandpa Earl cradled the exhausted rabbit in his arm. “We’ll take him home, and let Helen take care of him.”

They trekked back to the ranch, and Troy came to meet them. Grandpa Earl took the rabbit inside to show Grandma Helen, and Stephanie waited for Troy to speak.

“What's wrong?” he asked.

“I don't know what you mean.” She crossed her arms as the wind kicked up.

“You've been avoiding me ever since the cria was born, so talk to me. What's wrong?”

Stephanie stared across the plain.

“You can't shut me out any time I say something you don't like. We can work it out, but you have to tell me what offended you.” Troy took hold of her arms and turned her to face him. “I was never going to kill her.”

“I know.” Her arms dropped to her sides.

“Then tell me what's bothering you.”

She hesitated. “You shouldn't care so much about me.”

“But I do.”

Looking in his eyes helplessly, she shrugged. “I'm the rabbit.”


Grandma Helen held out the cordless phone to Stephanie. “It's Holly.”

Stephanie eagerly took the phone and disappeared down the stairs to her room. “Hi Holly! No more phone tag ... I know it's good to hear from you too. I'm doing fine ... I like it. Your grandparents are great. How are you?” She stopped in the middle of the room. “Really? You met someone?”

Stephanie made her way to the bed and lowered herself down. “How did you meet him?” She listened as Holly explained that she met the guy at Kevin's surprise birthday party. They talked the entire night, and at the end of the night, he asked her out. Holly told him that she chose not to date, but if he would like to get to know her better, he could come to a Sunday afternoon barbeque at her parents' house.

Stephanie could hear the excitement in Holly’s voice as she shared how she and her parents really liked this man. But Stephanie’s heart sank lower. Not Holly—did she have to bear losing Holly too? As she listened, she could imagine how Holly must be glowing.

“What's his name? David. A good name ... so he's a friend of Kevin? How is he?”

“No, uh ... I meant how's Kevin doing?”

Stephanie nodded gravely.

“I wouldn't know what to write. Video chat? I didn't think about that ...”

Stephanie listened. Grabbing a paper and pen, she wrote down the username Holly recited.

“Maybe I'll try to chat if I see him online .... What?” She waited as Holly repeated what she said.

Stephanie snickered. “Julia's really after him, huh? Well, Kevin’s smarter than that. I don't think it'll work.”

She hesitated before asking, “Have you seen Calvin?”

She gave a disgusted look. “I'm sure he's enjoying their company. What's that? Oh, I don't think he'd ever admit to feeling bitter. That's why he needs the escorts to make him feel better, so he doesn't have to see it.”

“Me? I'm ... doing the best I can. I got to go, but I'll talk to you later, okay? Okay, bye.”

Stephanie sat on her bed without moving, slowly slipping back into her depression. She had come here for a new start, but now she wondered if there was any hope.

She remembered her mom saying, there's always hope to fall back on. There was a time Stephanie had clung to those words. She had placed her faith and trust in hope, but what good is trust in hope? She had trusted Julia wasn't out to harm her. She had placed her hope for love in Calvin ... what good did her faith in them produce? The only object of hope that hadn't let her down danced in her mind once again.

She slipped upstairs unnoticed and found what she wanted.

Concealing the kitchen knife, she hurried back to her room and tucked it under her clothes in her dresser, just in case.

Someone knocked. “It's time to go.” Grandma Helen's voice came through the door. “Are you ready?”

“Almost.” Stephanie jumped to her feet. Out of all the nights, she didn't feel like going anywhere tonight.

The room was crowded with families—talking, eating, and dancing. Grandpa Earl led the way to their table. “You were right,” Stephanie yelled above the commotion. “It's different. This is your church group? I didn't know they danced.”

Grandma Helen smiled. “David danced before the Lord. This is our version.”

Stephanie pulled her seat out an extra distance to fit her round belly as she sat down. She scanned the room filled with all ages of people. Some stood in line at the potluck table, some were at the tables, and others were on the dance floor. Children weaved through the tables as though on a great adventure.

“I'm going for the food if anyone wants to join me,” Grandpa Earl announced. His wife and Gus followed, but Troy held out his hand to Stephanie. “Would you like to dance?”

“Actually, I think I'm going to sit here. Thanks.”

His disappointed look only lasted a moment. “Okay, have fun,” he told her and headed across the room.

Stephanie watched as he asked a red-haired woman to dance. The young woman nodded and followed him onto the dance floor. Stephanie shifted uncomfortably in her seat as he lead the skinny redhead in complicated swing steps. She didn't know he could dance like that!

He asked me first.

Still her stomach knotted as she observed the laughter and fun they were having together.

Gus was the first to return with his food. He sat down and began to eat as a new song began.

“Did ya want somethin'?” he asked, his mouth full.

“I'm not hungry.”

Glancing over, he saw where she was looking and swallowed. “They've known each other a long time.”

“I can tell,” she said flatly.

Gus pushed his food around his plate. As the song ended, he stood. “Dance with me?”

Stephanie looked up at the nervous man in surprise. She knew he wasn't one who liked dancing, but she could tell he wanted to give her something to enjoy instead of dwelling on what she didn't have.

She took his hand with a sweet smile.

Gus didn't have the experienced skill some of the other dancers had, and Stephanie wasn't as light on her feet as many of the women. Her belly bulged between them, and their steps were far from perfect, but they had more laughs than anyone on the dance floor.

As the song ended, Stephanie came and plopped down in her seat.

“I'm going to get some air.” Gus gasped with a flushed face.

Grandma Helen beamed at Stephanie's ruddy cheeks. “Did you have fun?”

Laughing, Stephanie nodded and tried to catch her breath.

“Good.” Grandpa Earl stood. “Now it's your turn, missy,” he said to his wife.

“Only if we take it slow,” she said getting to her feet. “I'm not as young as I used to be.”

“Slow ... sure.” He winked at Stephanie as though his wife was dreaming.

Stephanie relaxed as they left her at the table. Looking around, she noted the light and smiles, the energy and fellowship. Children spun in circles on the dance floor. A family leaving caught Stephanie's attention. As a man held the door open for his wife, his young boy pushed open the other side of the double door and held it open for his sister. He looked up at his dad to see if his father saw him, and his dad smiled. A pain shot through Stephanie's heart as she watched the little boy charge out the door with a grin, knowing that he had pleased his father.

She turned back in her seat, but her mind left the building and found an old memory. She and her parents were at a Christmas party, and after a few drinks, her dad was more brave than usual. Leaping up on stage in his tuxedo, he grabbed the mike and made a toast to his beautiful wife and daughter. Finishing the last of the Champagne in his glass, he publicly asked if his wife would celebrate a hard year gone by with a dance. “We've made it to Christmas, baby!” He cheered.

The room thundered with applause from romantic hearts beating, and as a little girl, Stephanie watched her parents dance. Never had she felt safer than resting in their love.

It was the only good memory she had of them.


The back door swung open and clattered shut. Troy was back. The last few weeks he had spent visiting a certain redhead. Stephanie looked around the living room. Should she stay or should she leave? She seesawed on the edge of her chair.

Grandpa Earl's voice drifted in as she tip-toed toward the stairs. The conversation sounded heated, and she paused with her hand on the banister.

“Troy, you can’t do this!” the voice commanded.

“Can’t?” Troy sounded indignant. “Are you telling me who I can and can’t see?”

“I’m warning you this is going to end badly. You need to stop right now!”

“You can’t tell me what to do!”

“For Pete’s sake, Troy! This isn’t about you and me. This is about what you’re doing to that poor girl!”

“So I’m not allowed to be interested in dating anyone?”

“I don’t give a rip about that! I care about how you’re doing it. It’s not right!”

“I like her, and you can’t stop me!”

“Troy, you’ll never develop a healthy relationship if you begin this out of spite. You’ll end up hurting her!”

“You think this is out of spite?” Troy snickered in disbelief. “There's nothing to be spiteful about.”

“Come on, Troy! Everyone knows how you feel about Stephanie. Running to this girl won’t fix what’s gone wrong.”

“Nothing’s gone wrong.”

The pause made Stephanie uneasy. She could imagine Grandpa Earl shaking his head. “I’ve tried to teach you that, as a leader, you're to leave a young woman’s life in better shape than when you met her. If you like this girl, you should have given yourself time to repair what went wrong between you and Stephanie. God is shaping your character into the godly man He wants you to be, and you need to be careful. When a woman gives you her affection that is a precious gift, a responsibility God has given you to guard His daughter. That shouldn’t be taken lightly!”

“I am being careful! And would you please stop telling me what to do!” Troy yelled as he stormed away.

He slammed the door, making Stephanie jump. She wavered on the stairs, grateful she wasn’t discovered. Pressing her hand against her belly, she closed her eyes to calm her nerves.

Suddenly, her gut tightened.

The intensity grew, until she sat down, grunting and gritting her teeth. Her pregnancy was only six months along.

This was too soon.


Stephanie clenched the hand of the person beside her. Her muscles crunched, and her lips puckered as she blew out a steady stream of air. Sweat framed her face. Grandma Helen watched the monitor, coaching her through the contractions.

The doctor had given her corticosteroids when they arrived to delay the delivery for as long as possible, but that was nearly forty-three hours ago.

“The baby’s coming.” Grandma Helen gripped Stephanie's hand in excitement.

“I'll go get the doctor,” the nurse announced.

She returned with the doctor, and he checked Stephanie’s progress. She squeezed her eyes shut as she released another long breath. The intensity of the contractions had increased and the duration overlapped. She wasn't sure when one contraction ended and the other began.

“We can't delay any longer. Stephanie, I'm going to coach you through this, okay. Just relax and do what I say. Okay, now gently push. That's good. Keep breathing. Now push hard. Hard, hard. Good, breathe. Let's go again.”

Stephanie tried to keep her mind on two things, pushing when the doctor said and breathing. Grandma Helen squeezed her hand to remind her that she was there, but Stephanie focused all her energy on controlling the pain. She panted as one contraction rose sharply.

“You're doing great. Keep breathing it out. I see a little head coming.”

As soon as the baby's head emerged and rotated face-up, the doctor checked to make sure the umbilical cord wasn't wrapped around the baby's neck and then began cleaning out the baby's airway. He encouraged Stephanie to push again and the rest of the body appeared.

Stephanie gave the final push, and the doctor smiled. “It's a boy.”

He placed clamps on the umbilical cord and snipped the cord. Laying the baby on his mother's chest, he put his hand on Stephanie’s shoulder. “He’s beautiful.”

The doctor briefly spoke to the nurse before leaving.

Stephanie knew she only had a few moments before the nurse would put the baby in the incubator until he was more developed. She looked down at her son. He was so small she didn't dare move him, but his tiny hand reached out to touch her pinky.

I did it!

She took a deep breath and watched him lying peacefully against her chest.

Suddenly, he began to move and grunt, as though having difficulty breathing. The nurse turned as his rattled breathing grew louder. She snatched him up and rushed out of the room. Stephanie turned and saw Grandma Helen's worried face.

Minutes ticked by like hours.

“Do you want me to go ask?” Grandma Helen glanced warily at the door.

Stephanie hesitated. The idea of not knowing what was happening was horrifying, but the idea of being clueless and alone might be worse. Maybe she should pray.

What's the point? God wouldn't care anyway.

But an unexpected desire to be wrong filled her. What if He did answer her prayers? She wanted her parents to save her, and although they didn't come, someone else did. It wasn't the way she wanted, but it had happened.

If there is a God, she closed her eyes. I could use some help. Not for me…but for my son.

The roller-coaster ride over the next several months could not be described as Stephanie watched little Matthew through plastic. Every time he improved, something went wrong, creating a constant battle for his life. Her fingers ran down the plastic separating them. She was so close, yet so distant.

“It's amazing he's alive,” a nurse commented.

Stephanie nodded solemnly.

“He's a fighter.” Grandma Helen sat knitting in a chair against the wall.

“Like his mom,” Troy added coming from behind them.

The nurse smiled and went back to work.

He stood beside Stephanie and sneaked a glance at her. “Stop it, or you won't have a lip to gnaw.” He tried to chuckle, but she didn't move.

“It's amazing how much we can learn to love when we're afraid to lose.” Grandma Helen stopped her work.

“This isn't love.” Stephanie shook her head. “It's guilt and terror and ...”

“A million other emotions,” Troy finished for her with a nodd. “But I see more compassion in your eyes, than I've ever seen. More than taking care of the cria.”

“This guilt and terror you feel,” Grandma Helen said, “is because you're afraid of how much you care, isn't it? And how much it'll hurt if you lose.”

Looking at Stephanie told her she was right, and Grandma Helen went back to her knitting. “Deep down,” she sighed, “I think we're all scared to care.”

Stephanie stared at her son. “Or what it might cost.”

The phone in Dalton's jacket pocket vibrated again, and his heart pounded. He looked toward the bedroom door, where he could hear muffled voices. As the phone stopped, he closed his eyes.

Hours had gone by since he had told Angie the address. How many times would she call him before calling the police?

He knew by the panic in the gang that he had stumbled onto something bigger than prostitution or local drugs, and as long as they thought he was alone, he was dispensable.

At the sound of the door opening, Dalton opened his eyes and watched as four of them went out the front door. The boy came out and sat down on the couch in front of him.

Dalton eyed the pistol in the boy's hands. He tried to speak, but the tape made his words a murmur. The boy glanced behind him, but no one was there. Hesitantly, the boy came and pulled the tape from Dalton's mouth.

“Thank you,” Dalton told him as the boy sat back down. “Where did they go?”

The boy just kept watching him.

“That's probably not good for me.” He gave a weak smile. “What's your name?”


“How old are you, Marcus?”


Dalton glanced down at the gun. “You know how to handle that?”

The boy racked the slide and held the gun level to Dalton's head. “My brother taught me.”

Dalton didn't move. “Family's important. Is that why you're here?”

“I'm here because I want to be.”

“Where are your parents?”

Marcus shrugged. “My mom doesn't know who my dad is, but as long as she does nothing, the checks keep coming in to take care of her.”

“You don't live with her anymore?”

He shook his head. “Logan got me out. She can't use us anymore to get money for herself.”

Marcus glanced behind him when his brother came in the room with a bottle of rum in his hand.

Logan took a drink.

“You sound like you go to school, Marcus,” Dalton continued. “Aren't you going to be late?”

Logan lowered the bottle. “He goes when he wants to go. I'm teachin' him to be his own master.” He looked at his brother. “Don't talk to him.”

The boy nodded.

“That's convenient.
” Dalton looked to Logan. Answerable only to yourself. No one to check or balance you.”

Logan set the rum on the table.

Suddenly, Dalton's cellphone vibrated, and Logan hurried toward the sound. He searched Dalton's jacket until he found the device.

“They didn't search him!” he shouted.

The vibrations stopped, and he flipped open the phone. “Twelve times—that's a lot for this early in the morning.”

He hurriedly pushed buttons.

“What are you doing?” Marcus asked.

“Checkin' to see the last time he called this Angie,” he told his younger brother. With a shout, he threw the phone against the wall. “He called her right before they found him!”

“What does that mean?” Marcus asked cautiously.

“It means we don't know what he told her!”

The sound of a car door shutting outside sent Logan rushing to the window. He peeked out of the curtain.

“What is it?” Marcus asked.

His brother cursed. “Cops. They must be lookin' for him.” He grabbed a roll of duct tape and tossed it to Marcus. “Cover his mouth and take him upstairs. They're coming to get her, and if they see cops outside—” He glanced toward the closet. “Get him upstairs, now!”

Marcus jumped to his feet, and Logan tossed him a pocket knife. The boy hurriedly cut through the duct tape around Dalton's legs and pulled the man out of the chair with his gun at Dalton's back. He hustled him up the stairs to the attic room.

The rumpled bed against the wall took up most of the room, but Dalton spotted the closed window behind him, which overlooked the front of the house, exactly above where the police would be coming to the door.

Dalton glanced around the bare room for ideas. There was nothing.

In one swift motion, Dalton's bound hands grabbed the gun poking in his back as he swung out of Marcus' grasp. Pointing the gun at the window, he shot three rounds before Marcus recovered from his surprise and knocked him to the ground. He took the gun from Dalton's hands, but he could hear a commotion of policemen yelling commands as the door slammed.

Logan shouted up to his brother.

“I'm okay!” Marcus called out.

Logan rushed upstairs with his gun raised, ready for action. He kicked Dalton in the stomach several times so hard that Dalton gasped for air.

“Do I have to do everything?” Logan cried, yanking Dalton to his feet and thrusting him toward the stairs. “I'm a dead man because of you. I've no problem with pullin' this trigger, you get me?” The cold steel in his voice told Dalton he wasn't bluffing. “Now get downstairs where I can watch you.”

Dalton trudged down the stairs with Logan a few feet behind him. As he stepped from the last stair, he spotted the bottle of rum. He waited until he was close before pretending to trip. Falling to the floor, he knocked over the rum, and the bottle crashed with him to the old wood floor.

He winced as he rolled over, subtly picking up a sharp piece of the broken bottle in his hand.

“Get up!” Logan roughly grabbed his arm, as Dalton carefully concealed the glass in his hand.

Logan thrust him towards his chair, and Dalton sat down.

By now, they both knew that backup had been called, and Dalton was no longer waiting for his execution. He had become the hostage.

Stephanie stepped out of the car, carrying Matthew in a bundle as everyone flew to assist her. The family got her water, offered her food, guided her to the couch, adjusted the room temperature, and whatever else crossed their minds for her and the baby’s comfort. She found flowers in her room, a baby crib set up along the wall, and a Bible on her bed with a note in Troy’s handwriting that read: Dare to care.

She picked up the book and saw a bookmark inside. Opening to the gospel of Matthew, the bookmark read, “A good place to start.”

She closed the book softly.

As the months passed, Stephanie learned more about childcare than she ever dreamed of knowing. Grandma Ellen was a dedicated researcher, looking into nutrition for the best development for Matthew. The old woman was a patient teacher, but the past three nights, Matthew hadn't let Stephanie sleep.

She rocked the crying baby for hours, and he still cried.

“Go to sleep, pleeeease!” she whimpered, patting him on the back. She bounced him, until she thought she would drop.

“I can't do this anymore.” She set him down in his crib, and he cried louder. “I know you're tired, so am I! I can't give you anything more, Matthew. I'm trying. I really am, but I have nothing left to give you!”

She burst into tears. Her head pounded, and she searched for her pain pills. Opening the bottle, she looked inside and threw the empty container to the floor as her tears turned into sobs. She picked up Troy's note from the dresser and tore the paper to shreds.

“I'm tired of caring!”

Matthew fussed louder, but she put her hands over her ears. “Shut up!” she cried. “Just shut up!”

She spun around, throwing open her dresser drawer and rummaging through until she grasped the handle of the knife. Pulling out the blade with a trembling hand, she held it out.

She wanted everything to end—the noise, the pain, the trying, the failing, the hopelessness.

What's the point? You've done your best. It simply wasn't good enough. Give up. You're bound to lose anyway, and nobody can say you didn't try.

Her heart pounded so hard, she felt the pulse in her ear. Lowering the blade to her flesh, she didn't stop to think.

All she could do was feel, and it hurt.

Slash! Her mouth dropped open. Quickly she slit her other wrist and pressed her back against the dresser, sliding to the floor. Her head leaned against the wood, and her mouth gaped open. She breathed heavily as the life drained onto her legs and floor. The room began to spin, and everything grew distorted.

She could hear Matthew screaming, but like the dying woman she was, her head drooped and everything went dark.


Her eyelids bobbed open and shut as her surroundings hazily came back.

“Here she comes,” the nurse smiled.

“Honey, are you alright?” Grandma Helen’s voice sounded distressed, meanwhile Grandpa Earl leaned over the hospital bed to examine her.

“I … I’m not sure.” She blinked to focus her eyes.

“That’s natural.” The nurse touched Stephanie's arm. “Don’t exert yourself. Relax. I’ll be back to check on you in a little while.” Grandpa Earl followed her out, asking her when they could take her home.

Grandma Helen stroked Stephanie’s hand. “You gave us quite a scare.”

Stephanie glanced around the room. “Where’s Troy?”

“He’s outside. Can I get you anything? Do you need water?”

“That'd be nice.”

Grandma Helen hurried out of the room, leaving Stephanie alone. She looked up at the ceiling as the full weight of what she had done dawned on her. She thought about the emotional fog she had been in last night, and suddenly, Bella flashed in her mind.

What if she had succeeded in killing herself, and there was a God who had purchased her from the abuse of sin? She would be facing Him right now. Memories of how she spent every morning waiting for Bella to let her get close flooded her mind. She had wanted to win Bella's trust and see her heal. She had wanted to be good to her. What if He was waiting for the same thing? What would she have said to Him? What defense could she possibly have given? The reality of what she could have been facing right now shook her.

Grandma Helen came back in. “Here you are.” She helped Stephanie sip the cool liquid.

Over the next hour, people from the hospital questioned Stephanie to determine if she could go home. When they found her mind to be sound, they released her into the elderly couples' care, and they wheeled Stephanie through the hospital doors to the waiting vehicles.

Gus sat anxiously waiting in Troy's truck, and Troy stood outside, holding Matthew. He charged up to Stephanie. “How could you do this?”

“Troy!” Grandma Helen stared at him.

“How could you be so thoughtless?”

“That’s enough,” Grandpa Earl said sternly.

“Matthew needs his mother. Don’t you care about anyone?”

“Troy!” Grandpa Earl shot a dark look at his grandson.

Grandma Helen took Matthew from Troy, and he jumped in his truck, slamming the door. Grandpa Earl helped Stephanie into the car.

“Here I can take Matthew,” she told him.

“Let Helen.” Grandpa Earl winked at her. “She likes to hold him, and you need some rest.” He closed the door, but Stephanie squirmed in her seat.

“You’ll have to forgive Troy.” Grandma Helen held Matthew against her shoulder and patted his back as Grandpa Earl started the engine. “That was out of line. You have to understand, it’s a sensitive issue for him.”

“I don’t …” she faltered.

“His little sister committed suicide, and he's never gotten over it. Their parents ... well, they had issues, and Troy and Katie used to rely on each other growing up. When Troy was eighteen, he came to live with us to become a rancher, and Katie was sent away to prep school. She hated it. She used to call him, crying about how mean the kids were to her because they didn't think she belonged. It was hard on him to be so far from her and not be able to help.”

“He wanted to sock the kids in the face, that's what he wanted,” Grandpa Earl joined in.

Grandma Helen ignored his truthful jest. “When Katie couldn’t take it anymore, she flew back home and begged her parents not to send her back.”

“They didn't let her?” Stephanie guessed.

“Her father, our son Mark, is very laid back.” The elderly woman shook her head sadly. “He lives with the philosophy that life's good if his wife is not nagging him, so he stays out of everything because Jane had her hand in everything. Her highest priority was her daughter's success. Troy was her husband's favorite, so Katie became a competition to Jane to see which child would turn out better.”

“This was partly my son’s fault,” Grandpa Earl added. “There was a cycle that kept happening between them. The more she felt unappreciated by her husband, the more she fought to prove her worth by taking control. The more she took control, the more he saw a nagging, difficult, unreasonable woman. So he ignored her, and it destroyed their marriage. Bottom line, Mark showed more love to Troy than to his wife, and out of her pain, Jane tried to copy that relationship with Katie.”

“She was begging for his attention,” Grandma Helen sighed, “and he was begging for peace. Neither gave what the other needed. She used to push Katie so hard. Nothing was good enough, and there was always another level to achieve.”

“What happened when Katie came home?” Stephanie asked.

“Jane said she would disown Katie if she did not go back and finish her schooling at the top of her class. She went back, but she over-dosed in her dorm. If she had felt support, love, and protection from her parents, I’m sure Katie would have gotten through those difficult years, but the combination of the torment at school, her dad’s apathy, and her mother’s callousness—it sent her over the edge.” Grandma Helen looked back at Stephanie. “You’re the first girl Troy's truly cared about since that day.”

Arriving at the ranch, Grandpa Earl helped Stephanie out of the car. “It's okay I can walk,” she told him with a smile as he led her to the porch. He winked and led his wife inside as Stephanie waited for Troy's truck on the porch swing.

The truck pulled up to the house, and Gus scrambled out. He stopped on the porch. “Ya feelin’ better?” he asked gingerly.

“Yeah, I’ll be alright.”

“That’s good. Cause we’d miss ya ‘round here.”

She smiled, and Gus ducked inside. Troy trudged up the steps and stood in the middle of the porch.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “They told me about Katie. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

His jaw clenched. “You didn’t.”

“I didn’t mean to upset you then.”

“I’m fine.”

“Katie didn’t mean to hurt you either. From what I hear, she loved you a great deal.”

His fists clenched at his side. “The difference is I would’ve given my life for her, and she took her life from me.”

“She wasn’t thinking—”

“Exactly!” He turned to her for the first time. “She didn’t think! It was hard enough to be away from her when she needed me. Now I’m stuck with knowing that if I had gone to her—if I had been the brother I should have been—she’d still be here!”

“This is not your fault!” Stephanie’s eyes bore into him as she leaned closer.

“She was my best friend. Growing up, we were everything. We were a team! No matter how difficult things got, we had each other, and she bailed! I’ve asked myself so many times what I could have done better, or how I could have been a better brother.”

Stephanie felt her emotions rise. “You’re a good man. Forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive.” His face grew cold again.

“I hate it when people say that!” Stephanie fought to get him to look at her. “You’re brushing off my apology like there was no need to say it. I saw a need, and you’ve rejected what I've tried to give you.” She watched her words seep through his skin.

“You know what? Your sister did wrong. You’re right! She gave up, but tormenting yourself is wrong too. Isn’t God supposed to be your comfort? You haven’t forgiven her, and you haven’t forgiven yourself! I’ve seen amazing things through your family. Things I hardly dared to believe existed. It’s made me want to know the God you know, but I did what I did because I’m on my own. I don’t have the support and strength that you’ve been given. I don’t have someone to surrender my past to. I’m haunted at night and coated with guilt by day. I've tried so hard, but I couldn't do it anymore. You think I’m selfish, but you haven’t given in either!”

She held her hands out with her palms up. “So punish me all you want, but remember, I don’t have the forgiveness you have.”

Troy solemnly went inside, and the screen door clattered shut behind him. She closed her eyes to calm her nerves. She heard a small cough and saw Gus standing, nervously rubbing his hands.

Stephanie scooted to one side of the swing, and Gus awkwardly sat down.

“I didn’t mean to overhear jes’ now, but I thought ya should know. He’s been want'n to let go ‘a that for years. Jus’ needed someone to give him a li’le push. I think he felt, if he let go ‘a his guilt, he was somehow lettin’ go ‘a her.”

“He’s a good brother. She'll never know what she’s missed out on.”

“Yep,” he nodded. “It's funny how life’ll blind ya to what ya have. Then there are those rare moments when ya get a glimpse ‘a how blessed ya truly are. Some call it optimistic moments, tryin’ to look on the bright side, but that sounds to me like we’re dooming it not ta last.”

“Do you believe in being optimistic?”

Gus considered his response. “Naw … but comin' here, I’ve learn’d to see things in a new way.”

He patted her gently as he stood. “I better get to work. It's good to have you back.”

Alone again, Stephanie gazed up at the blue sky. Okay, Jesus, if you have the power, get me out of my barbwire.

Three years passed on the ranch as Stephanie learned how the Holy Bible teaches people to live. She spent many nights on the porch, asking Grandpa Earl questions or studying after putting Matthew to bed.

The more she learned, the more she realized she needed help to raise her son well, for Matthew had a stubbornness that filled him with an adventurous spirit. No—was his favorite word, even when he wanted something. He liked to play games and often thought Mommy coming towards him meant he was supposed to run in the opposite direction.

One day, Stephanie stood outside, watching her son toddle about the yard. He tossed a few pebbles before peeking over at his mom. He held up the rock and threw it in front of him.

“No, Matthew!” Stephanie called out as he headed down the slope to the creek. His grin cracked, and he began to run. Stephanie sprinted ahead of him, scooping him up in her arms.

“I said no. You can’t go down there.” She gave him a stern look with a light swat on his bottom. An adorable pout came to his face, and she tried to hide her smile.

“When Mommy says no, you need to listen.” She carried him back toward the house, and he squirmed to get away. “When you can swim, you can go down there, but not yet.”

She trudged up the porch steps as Troy came out the front door. “Trying to go for a swim again?”

“It’s like he wants to go there because I’ve said no.”

Troy laughed.

“Why can’t he just listen? It’s not like I’m enjoying keeping him from the creek. I hate it!”

“Give it time.” Troy leaned against the porch rail. “Keep building a relationship with him, and out of that love and discipline, he’ll learn that your 'no' is because you care about him.”

“I think I may have brought it on myself.”

“Now that you’re a parent, you see the importance of no,” he guessed.

Stephanie nodded.

Troy stuffed his hands in his pockets. “So tonight, everyone’s going to town. Do you want to see if Gus will watch Matt? We could go for a stroll?”

The past year Stephanie and Troy had kept a growing relationship hidden. Sometimes they met in town, or they wandered across the creek. They never discussed why their relationship was a secret, but both were certain Grandpa Earl and Grandma Helen wouldn't approve.

Gus never said anything as they left Matthew in his care.

Taking Stephanie's hand, Troy led her down the slope to their favorite spot. She shivered as the evening faded, and with a swing of his arms, he stripped off his jacket, draping it over her shoulders.

“Are you looking forward to Holly’s wedding?” he asked.

“It's a little strange. It seems like yesterday she told me about meeting David. I don't think I'd be ready if they hadn't come to visit last summer.”

Troy leaned back on his palms. “Yeah, I liked him. I think he'll take good care of her.”

“I think they’ll take good care of each other.” Stephanie pulled her knees up to her chest. I haven't made my flight arrangements yet. I should get out there early and help her prepare.

Troy’s head leaned back as he looked up at the stars. Stephanie watched him, wishing she knew what he was thinking. “Did you hear that Alice’s fiancé got arrested?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t hear.”

“They had a fight.” Stephanie hid a smirk and pulled the jacket tighter. “Apparently, she called the cops on him when he broke into her house.”

“He broke in?” He gave a doubtful look.

“Well, he entered through the window because she locked the door. Then she called the cops.” Stephanie couldn’t resist gloating, “Aren’t you glad you weren’t the fiancé to that skinny redhead? You might have been in jail tonight.”

“First of all,” Troy pulled himself up out of his relaxed position, “I don’t like you calling her ‘that skinny redhead.’ She’s a good girl, and secondly, I’d only want to be the fiancé to one person. And she’s the mother of a three-year-old.”

Troy seized his moment by leaning closer.

“A woman with a will of iron, but a heart of gold. Someone who has suffered and risen above the wrongs of this world.” He touched her face and spoke directly to her. “I love you. You are a courageous …” he chuckled, “stubborn woman, and I want to spend the rest of my life as your man—and Matthew’s father.”

Stephanie knew she was holding her breath, but she couldn’t release.

“Stephanie, will you marry me?”

A dumbfounded gaze was his only response. Slightly shaken, he asked, “Stephanie, are you alright?”

She blinked and slowly regained muscle control. “Are you sure? It’s just ... I thought we should take this kind of slow.”

His brow wrinkled. “It’s been over two years since the first time I told you I cared about you. How much time do you need?”

“You—” the shield went up, and the guns came out. “How dare—I won’t discuss this with you when you act like this!”

“Like what?”

“This!” She waved her hand up and down like a high-speed elevator. He jumped to his feet with a scowl, causing her to follow suit. He paced the bank, and she began to storm away. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this!” she cried.

“Don’t you leave!”

“Don’t tell me what to do!”

“We’re having a conversation. You can’t up and leave. It’s rude!”

“You’re the one being rude.”

“Stephanie, this is getting out of hand.”

“I agree. You shouldn’t have treated me that way.”

“I shouldn’t have …?” He threw up his hands in surrender. “Alright! Now, can we talk about the issue, calmly?”

“If you don’t get so nutty about it.”

“Nutty? Who’s nutty? I just asked you a question, and you flew off the handle.”

“I flew off the handle? You were the one wanting to argue. I was going back to the house.”

“We were in the middle of discussing something.”

“No, we were in the middle of arguing, and I couldn’t take it.”

“We were discussing—”

“Now we’re arguing about discussing!”

He almost retorted but caught himself, then shrugged. “I guess this is a rotten end to a proposal. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

He watched her intently for a moment. “It's that guy, isn't it?”

“This has nothing to do with Kevin.”

“What then? Your past?”

“My past has been forgiven.”

“But have you let it go?”


“I don’t think you have.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes and threw her arms out to the sides. “What do you want from me, Troy?”

“I want to marry you,” he stepped toward her, “and whatever it is that’s keeping you from me, I don’t want to ignore.”

“I am not ignoring anything. I’ve been forgiven.”

“For what?” His hands jumped to his hips.

“My sins.”

“No, I mean—ah! There’s something … I don’t know what it is. There’s something in your life that’s not … not right.”

“I’m sure you’re the expert!”

“Of course not! I just want to help.”

“How? You haven’t explained the problem. How am I supposed to guess what you think you’re seeing?”

“I’m not—” Troy’s jaw jutted out in frustration. “You know what? Forget it! If you don’t have the heart to find out what it is, I’m not going to pound you into the ground to find it.”

“You haven’t told me what the problem is!” Stephanie threw at his back.

He spun around. “You have to find it. But first, you have to want to know what it is, then ask God to reveal it.”

“I want to know. That’s why I’m asking you.”

“You haven’t asked me.”

“That’s why I’m still here!”

“Well, did you hear my answer?”

“You said I have to want to know, and God will reveal it.”

“I said you have to ask God to reveal it.”

“Same thing.” She shrugged.

“No, it’s not the same thing. It reflects your heart. God reveals to those who are seeking answers. Saying God will reveal it, isn’t true. If you don’t want to know, you won’t ever know. Asking God to reveal, on the other hand, shows that your heart wants to see. You have to want, what He wants.”

Stephanie stopped and processed his words. “I’ll think about what you’ve said.”

Troy walked towards her, his rough fingers slid down her cheek. “I’ll be here when you’re ready.”


Troy emerged from the barn and headed to where Stephanie waited. “Gus said Matthew's in the house,” he told her. They both looked to the house and noticed the lights shining through the kitchen window.

“Do you think they're waiting for us?” Stephanie asked.

“Probably.” Troy's jawline flexed. “Come on.”

He took her hand. Together, they slipped inside and found Grandpa Earl sitting on the bar stool while Grandma Helen cleaned the kitchen.

“Where have you been?” Grandpa Earl folded his arms across his chest.

Troy closed the door behind them. “We took a walk down to the creek.”

“Gus said Matthew's here.” Stephanie headed out of the room to find him.

“He's in bed. Stephanie, if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you’d stay.” Grandpa Earl glanced at his wife. “We need to talk to both of you.”

Stephanie quietly took a seat.

Troy crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “What is it?”

“We don’t like what’s going on between you two. Running away all the time, not telling us where you are going, and going off alone where no one can find you.”

“Grandpa,” Troy tried to explain, “it’s not like that.”

“I don’t like it.”

Troy’s chest swelled. “Well, maybe I make my own decisions!” He snapped harsher than he intended, and both his grandparents looked shocked.

Stephanie shrunk as though she wished she could disappear.

Grandma Helen lowered the dried plate in her hand to the counter. “That was very disrespectful.”

“It’s true though,” Troy muttered loud enough for them to hear.

Grandpa Earl spoke firmly. “The point, young man, is truth can be spoken in love and respect. Instead your tone hurt your grandma. What's gotten into you?”

Troy didn't answer.

“If you feel that we’ve wronged you,” Grandpa Earl continued, “we need to know what we’ve done.”

“Forget it! It’s not important.”

Grandpa Earl’s hawk-like eyes narrowed as though weighing whether his grandson was telling him the truth or not.

Stephanie took the moment to stand. “I really have to check on Matthew.” She hurried out of the room.

After a few moments, Troy broke the silence. “We had a fight.”

The old man gave a gentle nod.

“I asked her to marry me.”

Grandpa and grandma glanced at each other. “And her answer?” Grandpa Earl asked.

Troy shook his head. “She didn't give one. We fought instead.”

“Good,” Grandpa Earl nodded curtly.

“Good!” Troy exploded.

“I didn’t mean good about the fight. I meant good about not having an answer.”

“Stephanie’s not ready for marriage,” Grandma Helen cut in. “She clearly has something she’s carrying that she hasn’t dealt with. She’s running, and we’re concerned about what that would mean for you.”

“You have no right to judge.” Troy gazed at his grandparents as though they were strangers.

“Judge?” Grandpa Earl stood and his gnarled hands dropped to his sides. “We’re not condemning her. We love her. But when we see something that’s not right, does true love ignore it? No, we warn. We don’t force it down her throat! How can she make something right if she doesn’t know it’s there? We’re the closest thing she’s had to a family, and that’s what families do. We hold each other accountable.”

“Right now,” Grandma Helen came to stand next to her husband, “if she stays this way, she will bring added difficulties in your marriage. Marriage is hard enough without adding complications.”

With a roll of his head and his tone on the verge of a challenge, Troy asked, “So what happens now?”

“We’ve warned her,” Grandpa Earl looked grave. “Now we continue to love, support, and pray that God will open her heart. If we keep pushing, she’ll run again. We’re entrusting her to God. He’ll deal with her. In the meantime, it is unwise for you to marry her if she’s unwilling to take this step of growth.”

“You can’t marry potential,” Grandma Helen agreed. “She has to do this herself, and some people never do.”

“As a final word of caution,” Grandpa Earl stepped toward his grandson, “she may not realize it yet, but she’s using you to fill what’s missing in herself.”

“That’s the most presumptuous thing I’ve ever heard.” Troy took a step back. “You can’t know that!”

He turned to leave, but Grandpa Earl called out one final word of warning. “Be careful! Instead of joining this family, she’s taking you away from us.”

Troy shook his head in disgust. “I’ve never known you to be more wrong!”

That night, Stephanie tossed and turned under the covers. She pounded her pillow. Matthew slept soundly in his crib. This was her chance to sleep! She longed for an on and off switch to control her thoughts.

Throwing off her covers, she climbed out of bed, being careful not to disturb Matthew. She slipped upstairs and crouched down next to the wood burning stove. She rubbed her hands together and pondered the day’s events. The daunting proposal, her unknown reservations, and the unconcealed objection from grandma and grandpa. She cared about Troy, but when she closed her eyes, his face wasn't the one that came to her.

She looked across the room at the old computer. Kevin had written her when she first came, but she'd never written back. She had tried to write, but she always deleted everything she typed. Making a quick calculation of the time difference, she picked up the phone.

She gnawed her lip and quickly dialed the number. She needed resolution, and she held her breath while she waited.

“Hey, this is Kevin. I can't answer my phone right now, but if you sing me a message, you'll not only make my day, but I'll get back to you as soon as I can.”


“Hey Kevin, it's me, Stephanie. I know I'm not singing, but I was wondering if we could talk. Okay bye.”

Dropping the phone on its receiver, she ran her hands through her hair. He wouldn't call back, maybe she should forget about him. Troy was a good man, and she loved him. It was time to move on.

But in her heart, she wished she could speak to Kevin just one more time.

The house was quiet with Matthew down for a nap and the rest of the family in town or outside working. Stephanie sat at the computer doing some research for Grandma Ellen. She still hadn't given Troy an answer, although several days had passed since the proposal. She wasn’t sure what was she waiting for. She knew her answer.

Yes, she wanted to marry Troy.

Stephanie scanned the websites for the latest gardening tips when a request window popped up on her screen. Her heart pounded, and she stared at Kevin's video chat username.

She hovered the cursor over the chat invitation but didn't click.

Three years without speaking to him, what would she say? She had practiced her apology many times, never believing she'd get the chance to say it. She jumped up and checked herself in the mirror before sitting back down. She double clicked, and the window opened

There he was.

“Hey!” Kevin adjusted his computer so she could see him better.

“Hi.” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “It's been a long time.”

“Yeah. I got your message a couple of days ago. I didn't think I'd ever hear from you again. How are you?”

“I'm good.” She smiled faintly. “I've been busy. With my son.”

Kevin's warm smile took her back to the day she’d met him in the coffee shop.

“What's his name?”

“Matthew. He's three and full of energy. Keeps me on my toes. How've you been?”

“Uh ... good. Actually, about to ask my girlfriend to marry me. Funny, I was buying the ring when you called.”

In a moment, a strange sensation came over Stephanie as if the distance between her and her dear friend seemed to increase. She felt herself being pulled away as the years spent apart settled between them. The gap was no longer a gap but a canyon, which seemed impossible to cross. They lived in two different worlds now. Her decision had separated them. She imagined what his soon-to-be fiancé must look like, how happy she would be as his future wife.

She thought about the new life he would form, and the reality overtook her that he would be lost to her forever. Although they had parted, she had still pictured him as the person to fall back on when her life crumbled. His marriage would change that. He would have a new best friend.

“Congratulations,” she faltered.

“Thanks. It's good to hear from you, that you had the baby, and that you're okay.”

“Yeah,” she hesitated, wanting to tell him how sorry she was for leaving like she did. But the moment passed.

“I hope you're happy,” he told her.

The lump in her throat grew. “I hope you are too ... and thanks for everything. You were pretty great.”

“I don't know about that, but …” he glanced at the time. “I got to get going. I'm supposed to be somewhere in five minutes, and it takes a little longer than that to get there.”

“Oh okay. Take care.”

“You too.”


She signed out of the chat and took a deep breath. It was finally over. Getting to her feet, she went to search for Troy and found him in the barn. She watched him stack bales of hay.

“What's on your mind?” He kept working.

“I want to marry you, Troy.”

He stopped and wiped his hands on his pants. “I thought you hadn't given me an answer because you're still in love with that guy.”

She shook her head, came to him, and put her arms around his neck. Looking into his eyes, she said, “Being your wife would be an honor.”

He grinned and picked her up, swinging her around in the air. They both laughed as he set her down. His hand ran down her hair. “I'm going to make you so happy. Wait ‘til everyone hears we’re engaged!”

“Troy, I don’t know if we should tell them yet.”

“They’re going to find out sooner or later.”

“I know but …” Stephanie put her hands on his forearms. “Let’s elope.”

“Elope?” Troy laughed.

“Why not?” Stephanie swayed impatiently, and her hazel eyes pleaded. “I don’t want to hear all the fighting. Let’s be romantic and impulsive! We’ll tell them afterward.”

“I don’t know, Stephanie.” Troy rubbed the back of his neck.

“Oh,” she stepped back. “If you don’t want to marry me, that’s fine. I thought—”

“I do want to marry you. I just don’t want to hurt the two people we both love. We have to think this through and be sensitive as to how it’ll affect them.”

“What’s wrong with two people in love getting married? This is our life. Shouldn’t it be up to us?”

“It is our life,” Troy took her hand in his, “and if we want them to be a part of it, we have to consider their feelings. Rash decisions could destroy us and our future with them.”

“How could it destroy us?”

“One of us could eventually resent the other for rushing into a hasty decision. Marriage is a big deal. It’s a lifelong commitment.”

“You would resent me?”

“No, I’m talking hypothetically.”

“I thought you wanted to marry me.”

“I do!”

“Then let’s get married! Just take me away and love me forever.” She clung to him.

He held her close and sighed. “Okay.”

She snuggled closer. “You do love me.”

“We'll take the truck and get the license.”


“Tomorrow?” Troy gave her a puzzled look as though asking what was the hurry.

“I don’t want to spend another moment without you as my husband,” she told him.

He nodded and kissed her forehead. “Before they’re awake.”


Troy lifted Stephanie's bag into the bed of the truck. The early morning air nipped at his nose, and the ground crunched beneath his feet as he walked on thin patches of ice. Stephanie crept toward the truck, and they both slid inside. Troy winced as he started the engine. Flipping on the low lights, he spun the wheel and slithered down the road.

The couple relaxed as the ranch disappeared in the rear-view mirror. They would be back before anyone was up, but they would be married.

“I love you.” Stephanie slid into the middle seat.

“I love you too.” His arm stole around her waist.

As they cruised along the country road, the conversation turned to grandma and grandpa. “I don't understand why they're against us getting married,” Stephanie told him.

Troy watched the road. “Maybe they think they’re doing what’s best.”

“How can keeping us from getting married be in our best interest? We're not doing anything immoral, and we love each other.”

“They have their concerns, but what they don’t understand is that we’re willing to work things out. That’s the point.”

Stephanie rubbed his hand, which rested around her waist. “I don’t think their concerns are justified. If they really loved us, they’d let us get married because that's what we want. I think they’re scared of losing you. If you get married, they won’t have any more control in your life. You have to admit, they’ve had a lot of say in your life. You don’t live the way you want to. You always have to consult them about everything.”

“I don’t think they are controlling.”

“Troy, you live your life telling them what you're up to, where you're going, decisions coming up—everything! They involve themselves in every aspect of your life. I think they're scared you're moving on to live your own life.”

“I already live my own life.” Troy pulled his arm from around her, placing it on the wheel as he turned a corner.


“Stephanie, I live in their house. I work for them. They are my employers and my authority, so I show them respect. But they don’t run me!” Now Troy was animated, which convinced Stephanie that she was right.

“What do you call it then?” A challenging edge crept in her voice. Troy jerked the wheel and pulled over to the side of the road. Putting the vehicle in park, he turned to face the astounded girl beside him.

“I call it—family!”

Stephanie blinked in surprise.

“Let me explain something to you. In a family, you work together. You talk things through. You give and take. It is not all about my life. I can be independent of everyone, free to make my own decisions regardless of what anyone else thinks or wants, but I’d have to give up a great deal. I’d have to give up my family. I’d rather live with people I love and who love me, than to be unconnected and independent. I give things up for family, and I get so much in return, things that can’t be bought or attained.

“My family is not in control of my life. I have freely chosen to be where I am. The sacrifice for a loving family is worth it to me. Whatever my ambitions are, if they destroy my family, I am nothing!”

He turned, facing the windshield with his back resting against the seat, and an awkward silence filled the truck.

“This is what I find important. If you think life is better on your own, that’s your decision to make. But don’t tear me away from my family.”

Stephanie searched for something to say. “Maybe we’d better get back before they know we were gone.”

Troy turned the truck around without a word.


They didn't talk on the ride home. When they arrived, Stephanie closed the passenger door and hurried inside before Troy could see her tears. Matthew was still asleep. She grabbed her Bible from the nightstand and hurried into the bathroom. She shut the door, flipping on the light.

“Why?” she cried as she got on her knees. “Don't you want me to be happy?”

She cried harder as Troy's words echoed in her head. Don’t tear me away from my family! She didn't want to take him from his family. All she wanted was for him to love her and show her that she had value. That she was desirable—and enough!

Jesus, you said that you came so that we might have life more abundant. Either you're a liar or I'm missing something. This isn't more abundant, Lord, so what am I doing wrong?

She closed her eyes and pressed her trembling hands against her lips. As she rested in the stillness, truth came to her heart.

You’ve held bitterness against the men who took you away from your family. Now you’ve tried to take Troy from his family. Insecure men used you to fill the empty void in their lives, just as you tried to fill your insecurity of losing Kevin. Also you rejected the warnings of two people who've loved you and Troy.

Fresh tears slipped down her cheeks as she lifted her face toward the light. Lord, I've been blind. Take this pain from me, I want to heal. Let your words fall from my head to my heart.


A column of steam rose up as Stephanie poured herself coffee in the morning. All the chairs were filled except one. “Troy's not feeling well this morning.” Grandma Helen took hold of the hands on either side of her. They all bowed their heads, and she said the blessing.

After saying amen, Stephanie served eggs onto Matthew's plate and wondered when she should tell them. “I booked my flight this morning.” She scooped fruit from the bowl.

“Oh, the wedding!” Grandma Helen gasped. “I forgot to get our tickets. How early are you going out?”

“I'm going to spend a month with Holly. No Matthew! Don't throw that on the floor.” Stephanie picked up the apple piece and set it on the table.

“I'm sure Holly will appreciate the help.” Grandma Helen picked up her knife to cut her pancake.

Stephanie gnawed her lower lip. “I talked to her this morning. I'm moving back. You've all been so wonderful, but I need to take Matthew and go home.” Her eyes began to fill with tears at the thought of saying goodbye.

Grandpa Earl stopped chewing. “Are you sure about this?”



Grandpa Earl shut the trunk of the car. “All set.” Grandma Helen walked Matthew down the porch steps. Only grandma and grandpa were going to the airport with them, and Stephanie had already said goodbye to Gus.

She glanced around for Troy.

Since the ended elopement, she had only seen glimpses of him coming or going, never finding a good opportunity to speak with him. “It won't be the same without you.” Grandpa Earl joined her, looking around the ranch.

“I'm going to miss you all so much.” She hugged him.

He held her as his own child. “Don't forget. We'll see you in a month at the wedding.” They pulled apart. “Ready?”

She nodded, and he opened the car door.

Stephanie picked up Matthew and put him in his car seat. As she buckled him in, he asked, “Mommy, where are we going?”

“We're going home, sweetie.” She kissed his forehead and buckled her seat belt.

He looked out the window and exclaimed with a big smile, “We're here!”

She smiled faintly and tousled his hair as they pulled away from the best home she had ever known. Alone, she had arrived at the ranch to hide, but she left with a new underlying confidence.

She knew she couldn't run forever.

The glass cut into Dalton's hands as he subtly rubbed the sharp edge against the tape. Marcus silently watched his brother pace the room as he considered what to do. The boy's gun dipped loosely in his inattentive hands.

Furiously, Dalton cut through finally breaking his bonds. He waited for Logan to turn his back. Leaping toward the boy, he snatched the gun from his hands. Logan whirled around, but Dalton raised the gun with a trained hold.

“Drop it.” He distanced himself from the boy and held a firm stance.

Logan studied him without flinching.

“Put the gun on the ground!” Dalton ordered.

“I didn't think you could handle a gun.”

“My father taught me. He's always made sure I was prepared.”

Logan laughed and shook his head. “I don't think you have it in you.”

“Want to test me?” Resolution flexed in Dalton's jaw.

“See Marcus,” Logan gloated. “It's just as I've always said. You gotta get 'em before they get you.”

Dalton glanced toward the boy. He wavered as he saw seeds of fear and anger in the boy's eyes.

Logan grinned at his hesitancy. “I knew you were a fool.” Pointing his gun at Dalton, he shot two rounds, but Dalton dove into the kitchen. Grabbing a butcher knife, he threw the blade into the wall.

“Did your dad teach you to throw a knife too?” Logan taunted. “Because you missed.”

Dalton threw a second knife in perfect alignment with the first. Then he climbed up on the countertop.

Logan rounded the corner, ready to fire, but he stopped when he saw no one. Dalton kicked the gun from Logan's hand and jumped on him, knocking him to the ground. With heavy blows, Dalton pounded Logan's face until someone tackled Dalton from behind. Grabbing his assailant, he wrestled Marcus from his back as the boy continually struck him.

Logan slithered out from under the pile toward the gun.

Dalton tried to stop him, but Marcus kicked him in his side. Logan reached with all his might and grasped the gun. He flipped over on his back with the gun poised.

“Logan, don't—” Marcus cried out.

A shot rang as the backdoor broke open.

Police swarmed inside and swept through the house with their m4 carbines raised. Logan dropped his gun as officers surrounded him. They handcuffed Logan, and Marcus raised his hands above his head. An officer grabbed the boy's hands behind his back and snapped the cuffs on his wrists.

“I want every nook and cranny searched,” Sergeant Conner said as he came inside. With their carbines raised, officers left to clear the house room by room, searching for any accomplices and evidence.

Seeing Dalton, Conner hurried to his side. “Call Angie,” he told his officer. “Tell her that he's here.” The officer reached for his phone as Conner helped Dalton turn over.

Blood seeped from Dalton's abdomen, and Conner grabbed his radio. “50Paul17; shots fired! Shots fired! 11-41. Ambulance needed at 390 Hazyview Way for gunshot to abdomen. Suspect is in custody."

He turned to the officer. “Tell Angie to meet us at the hospital.”

Dalton grabbed Conner's uniform. “The girl ...” his hand shook, “she's here.”

“We'll find her.”


The metal hanger scraped along the rod as Stephanie slid another dress to the side. “Maybe I should just wear what the other bridesmaids are wearing,” she said with a sigh. “I'm not finding anything.”

Further down the aisle, Holly held up a dark-blue strapless gown. “This color's perfect.”

“Mommy ...” Matthew tugged Stephanie's hand. “Mommy, this one.”

“Hold on, Matthew. Yeah, but it's not very flattering.” She continued sorting through the dresses. “How are the rest of the plans coming? Did you find a photographer yet?”

“You know, I did. I asked Kevin if he'd take the pictures.” Holly searched a new section, but she watched her friend's reaction. “He did our engagement pictures, and he did a great job.”

Stephanie pretended not to notice. “That's nice of him. I didn't know he did photography. Did his fiancé get him into that?” The peculiar look on Holly's face told her that he hadn't proposed yet. “I meant his girlfriend.”

“She was a photographer ... so that's probably how he learned.”

Stephanie paused as she scrutinized another gown. “This one's cute ... not my size.”


“What sweetie? Mommy's listening.” Stephanie continued searching as he tugged on her again.

Holly came to stand beside her. “You haven't heard, have you?”

“Mommy ...” Matthew pulled on her pants, and she put her hand on his back without looking at him.

“Heard what?”

“He's not in a relationship. They broke up.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.” Holly shrugged and turned back to the dresses. “Maybe we should check another store.”

Stephanie wanted to ask more, but Matthew gave the hardest pull his little muscles could muster, bending her towards him. “Ow! Matthew, what—” she started to say, but his little hands clamped on either side of her head.

“Mommy, listen with your whole face!” His earnest eyes displayed the seriousness of the matter, and she melted in an instant.

“Okay, show me. What is it?”

He took her hand and pulled her down another aisle.

“This one.” He grabbed the hem of a satin navy-blue dress. Reaching up, she lifted the hanger from the rod and held the dress against her body.

She looked up and saw Holly nodding her approval. “Try it on.”

With a smile, Stephanie bent over and gave Matthew a kiss. “Thanks for helping Mommy.”

He grinned.

Stephanie went in the dressing room and closed the door. She closed her eyes.

Lord, he broke up. I don't know if Kevin cares about me anymore, so many people haven't, and it's hard to hope. But I want it. Lord, I really want him to care about me.

Now my question is, do you care about what I want? Because I'm terrified that you don't.

Stephanie took a deep breath as each bridesmaid slowly walked down the aisle. Her turn would be soon, and she knew somewhere in the room Kevin would be floating around taking pictures. He had to capture every moment, so he wouldn't miss her. What would he think when he saw her? How would she react when she saw him?

The wedding coordinator nodded. Carrying herself tall, she took her first step. Stephanie smiled as she proceeded down the aisle. She was halfway there when she saw movement to her far right. Her eyes darted to the side of the church, and her heart fluttered as she saw a camera pointed at her. She couldn't see the face behind the lens, but as the photographer rotated for a vertical shot, she saw him.

Suddenly, her heel caught the fabric on the ground. For a moment, all she could see was Kevin's face as his camera lowered in shock. She released the bouquet, and her hands flew out in front of her to break her fall. She hit the floor with a thud. Lying on the ground, she wished she could disappear as she felt the hands of nearby guests helping her up. Two men helped her to her feet and a woman handed her the bouquet.

As they sat back down, Stephanie continued on with less poise, wishing she could erase everything that happened.

The wedding continued without a flaw as Holly glided down the aisle. David took her hand in his with a mutual glow. Stephanie tried to focus on the ceremony, but she could feel her flushed face hadn't cooled.

She slipped glances at the circulating photographer.

“I pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride,” the pastor told David, who needed no encouragement. He took his bride into his arms and kissed her with the excitement of surrendered love.

“I now present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Henson.”

The bride and groom triumphantly charged up the aisle followed by their rejoicing wedding party to the reception hall.

Stephanie eagerly looked for Kevin. She longed to speak with him, although he would be busy as the photographer. Maybe she would find a moment somewhere. But as the couple's first dance, the father-daughter dance, and the cake cutting passed, she began to panic that an opportunity would not present itself.

When the best man gave his speech, Stephanie realized that she'd forgotten what she had planned to say for her speech. She had been so focused on Kevin that she hadn't noticed what was going on around her.

She took the microphone that was handed to her and looked out at the people. Most of the people she didn't know. Matthew was sitting with Grandpa Earl and Grandma Helen, but her heart pounded harder as she spotted Kevin crouched with the camera pointed at her.

“I forgot about my speech.” She laughed nervously and a few willing chuckles joined her. “But we're here today to celebrate something very special. Something Holly and David have found in each other. A union of two hearts that complete each other. That's something many of us hope and dream about.”

A faraway look came to her face. “Sometimes we don't realize what love and goodness look like until those dark moments come. Then we wish we could go back and change it all. Make different choices that would take us some place different than we are now.

“When your decision causes you to lose something really special, sometimes the best way to cope is pretending it didn't matter in the first place. But as time goes on, you realize that all you've done is deaden your own feelings in an attempt to move on … and that somehow you've gotten stuck. Nothing's changing or getting better, just existing.

“We tend not to talk about it. If we can't change it, what's the point? We don't like being helpless. And dependence on someone else is scary because they can let you down. After all, what if loving them destroys you?”

Her eyes fixed on Kevin as though he was the only person in the room. “What if loving you destroys me? Love and trust gives you power over me, so what happens to me if you don't truly care?”

She paused. “Because I do. I love you, Kevin.”

Her heart pounded as he rose from his crouched position. She didn't hear a sound in the room. All she could see was the man she loved was here, and she wanted him back. She watched his camera slowly lower, and he stared at her. Was he feeling the same way she was? Her heart thudded louder.

Kevin stared at her, then left the room.

For the first time, she noticed the discomfort that filled the room like unwanted smoke. She suddenly felt exposed. This was not the time or place she had imagined telling him her feelings, and his reaction was certainly not what she had wanted.

A deepening blush set her cheeks on fire when she saw Troy standing in the back of the room. She charged out of the room as someone took the microphone. In the hallway, she took a deep breath as she leaned against the wall to steady herself.

“What was that?” a voice asked down the hall.

Stephanie saw Kevin's stern face. She came towards him with her hand running along the wall for support. “You had to know. I didn't want to run from you anymore.”

His jaw muscles twitched as he considered what to do. With a jerk of his head, he beckoned her into one of the side rooms so their voices would not carry down the hall.

She followed.

“Have a seat.” He stood in the middle of the room with metal folding chairs lining the walls. She sat down.

“I’m lost,” he told her. “Why would you do that?”

“I don't understand why you're acting like it’s wrong. Why shouldn’t I tell you how I feel?”

“Because it's Holly's day!” He dragged his hand down his chin. “I don't know what to say.”

“I’m sorry. I just …” Stephanie fidgeted in her chair, “wanted you back.”

“We don’t always get what we want, munchkin.”

“We can try.”

“Try with wisdom!” Kevin shook his head.

“Don’t go. Please!” Stephanie bolted up from the hard metal seat. “I’m sorry. When I heard you were getting engaged, I couldn’t—I need you in my life. And it's taken me a long time to be okay with that, but I am. I need you.”

“Stephanie, I won't lie to you. I couldn’t ask her. After hearing from you again. I've never prayed for anything, or anyone, more than I've prayed for you. But I want one woman for the rest of my life, and the way you just treated Holly …. She's your best friend, and you didn't think twice about her. It was all what you wanted, when you wanted. I want more than that.”

He stopped in the doorway. “I need a foundation.”

Stephanie pulled her bedcovers over her head. She had lost Kevin for good, and she had humiliated herself on Holly's special day.

Kevin's words rang in her head. She's your best friend, but you didn't think twice about her. It was all what you wanted, when you wanted. I want more than that.

With a sob, she buried her face in her pillow.

“Mommy?” she heard Matthew's voice by her bed. She poked her head out of the covers. “Are you sad?”

“It's alright. Mommy just needs some time by herself now, okay? You go play with your truck.”

He nodded silently, and she disappeared under her covers again. She waited until she figured Matthew was gone before letting herself cry.

This hurts, Lord. Do you always want me to be alone?

The end of her bed moved, and she pulled the covers down again. Matthew crawled toward her and curled up beside her.

A new stream of tears came as she hugged him. “Why are you crying?” he asked as she held him close.

“Because I'm so glad you're here.” She kissed the top of his head.

She looked up at the ceiling.

Okay, Lord, what do you want? I've asked you that before, but I didn't really want to know because I was afraid of what you’d want from me. I was angry that you weren't answering the way I wanted, but I've tried things my way. I want to know, what are you trying to tell me?

Closing her eyes, she rested, and there was a soft pull in her chest.

You should talk to Julia.

Her eyes opened. What does Julia have to do with this? I don't want to talk to Julia.

You should talk to Julia.

Her pulse quickened as dread spread through her. Why? Tell me why first.

You should talk to Julia.

Stephanie stood outside the bookstore. Nothing seemed to have changed through the years except the varying colors of the fliers, which still covered the front window of the shop.

The same golden letters, Reaching the Horizon, arched over the door, and the old dread pricked Stephanie in the back. She really did not want to go inside.

After dancing back and forth, Stephanie strode forward and pushed open the door.

The same dull light filled the room, and same musty smell clogged her nostrils. Nothing had changed to any of her senses and deep within, she questioned why she was there.

As she looked around, a freckled-faced teenager greeted her with a nod. “Whatz up?”

The boy’s spiky, red hair made his height barely above average, and he was practically as thin as a flagpole. His braces glinted for a moment when he spoke, but soon they disappeared behind somewhat puckered lips. Everything about him showed he was trying to be impressive.

“I was …” Stephanie glanced around, “looking for Julia. Does she still—?”

“Yo Jewels! Someone here to see you.”

Within moments, a slim frame came into view, dressed in a striped blue and green sweater. Julia’s black hair was cut to her shoulder and styled to flip out at the bottom.

“I told you. My name’s not …” Julia halted when she saw Stephanie.

“Hey,” Stephanie didn’t know what else to say.

“Hi …” the awkwardness continued.

Just when Stephanie considered heading for the door, Julia addressed the young onlooker without looking at him. “Charlie, go check the backroom.”

“For what?” He sneered at the order.

“Just go.”

“What for?”


“Whatever!” He rolled his eyes as he drifted off to the backroom. By the time he was gone, Julia seemed to have collected her wits. She headed for the counter.

“It’s been a long time.”

“I know.” Stephanie glanced behind her as though suspecting an assassin to approach.

With the counter safely in front of her, Julia stood ready for the confrontation. “Why are you here?”

Good question … Stephanie ran her tongue along her inside molars as she considered her response.

“I’m here to say I’m sorry for everything that happened between us. You did warn me, and even if you had told me the truth, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.”

Stephanie strongly wanted to add more about Julia’s part in the conflict, but this was about Stephanie. Julia could deal with her own issues. “It was your word against his, so I’m here to say thank you for trying. That’s all.”

Before she could head for the door, Julia called out her name and darted from behind the counter. Both women stood staring at each other. Stephanie waited as Julia struggled to overcome her surprise.

“It’s been years.” Julia shrugged. “Why …?”

Stephanie was not comfortable sharing, but she knew she should. “Because God’s taught me that bitterness doesn’t die on its own. It stays, buries itself, and controls you.”

Julia lowered her eyes to the floor with a nervous flutter.

“Oh, I have something for you!” Her black hair bounced as she darted to the backroom. Soon she came back, carrying a cardboard box.

“The day you left, Professor Jerry brought this box in and asked me to get it to you. I planned on sending it to you, but I didn’t have your address anymore.”

Stephanie received the large package and turned once again for the door.

“Stephanie ...” Julia stopped her. “Thanks.”

Stephanie nodded before stepping outside. As the door closed, she took a deep breath.

Okay, Lord, what now? Why did I have to do that?

She waited as though the answer would be written in the gap of blue sky above. After a moment, she somberly walked away having received no response.


The paramedics carried Dalton in the stretcher across the yard to the waiting ambulance.

“Wait!” someone called out. The missing girl they had found locked in the closet came running toward the man who had set her free.

“Thank you.” She kissed his cheek.

Warmth filled his eyes as he gazed up at her. “My pleasure.” He smiled weakly. “Now forgive from your heart, or you'll stay locked up,” he gently touched her head, “in here.”

His breathing grew heavy. “Would you get Sergeant Conner? I need to ….”

When he saw Conner's concerned face looking down at him, he gasped. “I want Angie to have the boy serve at the center. Teach him … share with him … truth.”

“We'll do this later,” Conner told him.

“I want to talk to the boy.”

“We have to get you help.”

Dalton shook his head. “Now.”

Conner left with a frustrated sigh and Dalton faintly closed his eyes, then looked up at the sky. His lips moved but not a sound came from them.

“He's here, Mr. Dalton,” Conner said. Dalton turned to the boy and gestured for him to come close. Marcus crept closer, his hands still cuffed behind him. Dalton whispered something, and Marcus leaned down to hear him.

“This was my choice,” Dalton whispered.

He closed his eyes as though he had no more strength left, and the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance. The sirens blared as they drove off, and Sergeant Conner came to stand beside Marcus.

“I don't understand,” Marcus murmured. “Why didn't he take the shot?”

Sergeant Conner took a deep breath. “You know, I've never believed in a good God, but if there is one,” he looked in the direction of the ambulance, “he must have known Him.”


After leaving the bookstore, Stephanie took a walk to the park. She sat down on the bench and watched the children play. A little girl slid down the curving slide, and she called up to her brother to come down. Before he could, an older boy shoved past the brother.

“Hey!” the brother protested, but the older boy had already gone down.

The brother slid down to where his sister waited. “He's such a jerk to push you around like that,” the sister tried to encourage him.

“Nobody pushes me around,” the brother told his sister angrily and pushed past her.

“Hey!” she cried as she fell backwards to the ground. She yelled after him, “Jerk!”

Stephanie glanced toward the cemetery. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out her Bible and read a parable about a king forgiving his servant for a great debt. But that same servant threw someone who owed him money into debtor's prison.

She read aloud. “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.”

Her pulse increased as she read, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Stephanie quickly closed the word of God.

Jumping to her feet, she walked in the opposite direction.

As she meandered through the park, all the nightmares, depression, and torment she had been going through ran through her head. She knew this was the answer to her prayer the other night. She had asked what He wanted from her, and she had her answer.

She ran her fingers through her hair.

I can't. That's asking too much.

She remembered all the suffering she had gone through because of her father. That kind of wrong could never be forgiven. It was wrong! Her body trembled as her inward battle raged.

She relived the moment the brother shoved his sister to the ground after being pushed by the older boy, and Mrs. Averad's voice echoed, “The more I despised my mother, the more I hurt myself, and trapped myself into becoming worse than her. I put the man I cared about through hell—and he loved me still.”

Her eyes stung and her lips trembled as Troy's voice urged, “Your dad robbed you of your life for three years. Don’t rob your child of his entire existence!”

She stopped when she felt Matthew's hands on her face. “Mommy, listen with your whole face.” She saw his earnest face, pleading for her attention.


She scurried back to the bench to pick up the box she had left. Letting herself into the cemetery, she searched the names on tablets, until she found the one placed beside her mother.

The stone tablet read: Benjamin Kenthal.

She lingered a minute before speaking aloud. “It's hard for me to be here right now, but I need to say this.

“You were a bad father, and I live with the consequences every day. You were supposed to be my role model, but I don’t want to treat Matthew the way you treated me. So I forgive you.” Her eyes burned. “I forgive you for your gambling. I forgive you for your self-centered life. I forgive you for what I had to endure. And not being true to your word.

“You promised you would take care of me. You didn't do a good job! My life has been nothing but misery. I have more reasons to cry than be grateful. Why? I didn't do anything wrong! Why would you make choices that took life and the chance for happiness from me? Parents are supposed to give life, not take it. How did I deserve all this? They were your choices that hurt me—and I'm so tired of carrying it!

“Dad, you messed up, and I learned not to trust you. I believed I had to protect myself because no one else would if you didn't, and I learned to see God the same way. You didn't care; He didn't care. You couldn't see me; He didn't want to see me. You didn't protect me; He wouldn't protect me.

“But God's not you.” Her voice trembled. “And because of what He’s done for me on the cross, I leave you here. By the power of Jesus Christ, I renounce the poison you’ve been to me so that my life, and the people I love, won't be affected anymore. I choose to learn from my new Father and say goodbye to you!”

She left her earthly father in his grave.


 Stephanie kissed Matthew goodnight and silently closed the door to his room. As she headed toward the couch to relax, she tripped over something on the floor. With a grunt, she looked down and saw the box Julia had given her. She picked up the package and plopped down on the couch.

Using her fingernail, she sliced through the tape and lifted the folded edges. Styrofoam filled the inside and a letter lay across the top. Opening the letter, she scanned the contents. Her face froze as the paper fluttered to the floor.

Was this what Jerry wanted to share with me?

Slowly, her hand sank into the box, searching for an object. She pulled out a brown leather book and held it up like an ice sculpture.

This was her father’s journal!

Her emotions re-surged as she tried to regain her ability to think. Growing up, he wrote in these pages every night. The isolated feeling she used to get when he paid more attention to his dumb books than to his own child revisited her.

“Why?” Stephanie cried out. “I left him behind today. God, why are you doing this to me? Haven’t I been through enough?”

She couldn't stifle the returning sensation of abandonment as the memory came back like an old wound ripped open that had never fully healed. A memory that she had ignored and buried as an unsafe place to visit.

She was supposed to be in bed, but little Stephanie had slipped under the table. From her hiding place, she watched her father in his armchair. The room was small and crowded, but that corner was reserved for Dad. His books were stacked high all over the floor. He sat in his chair, reading. Some nights, he wrote in his journal, but tonight he was reading his favorite book. She had often hidden under the table after Mom went to bed. It was the only time she could be with her dad and be at peace. Even if he couldn't see her, she was as close as she could get.

Her foot kicked one of the chairs, and she held her breath. First because of the pain, then for the scolding that would come for not going to bed. Nothing happened. She looked at her father to see if he had heard. He had, but without a word, he went back to reading. Something in her heart sank.

It was true. All this time, she had wrestled with a daunting fear that refused to leave, and now it was confirmed. He really didn't care. Now she knew for certain, and she wished she could take it back. Could she undo what was done? The risk wasn't worth it, for the truth was too painful. She almost wished he'd cared enough to at least scold her for not being in bed. Something was better than nothing.

She was about to retreat to her room, cry into the night, and hold herself because nobody else wanted to, when she heard her name. She turned to look, and to her surprise, her dad had lowered his book again.

“What are you doing up?” He looked as uncomfortable as she felt, but there was something different in him. She couldn't answer, and there was an awkward pause.

“Come on out.”

Stephanie obeyed with a pounding heart. What was he going to do now? She felt as though she had held out her heart, and her dad had taken it from her. Instead of cherishing the gift as precious, he tossed it to the side having more important things to do. Who was this now? It was like someone else had temporarily stepped in and taken over.

She was about to return to her room and bury her heart with the truth confirmed and sealed in her mind. Never offer your heart to anyone because it won't mean anything to them, but it'll crush you. So who was this? For this wasn't like her dad. There was something behind his eyes, something she had never seen before.

“Did you want to stay up a little longer?”

She nodded.

He motioned for her to come, and she timidly approached. He allowed her to climb into his lap, and she snuggled against his chest. She never thought he would invite her to him. He always seemed so distant, so far away. That he wasn't interested in her, or her life.

“What are you reading?” she asked timidly.

He turned the book over for her to see the cover.

Uncle Tom's Cabin,” she read aloud. “What's it about?”

“It's the fight of freedom for slaves.”

“Why do you like it?”

He hesitated for a moment. “I guess I find hope when I read it. Tom dies, but the book changed history. It helped set people free.”

Two words jumped out at her—Tom dies.

Little Stephanie shivered. Nothing else mattered, just those two words. Tom dies. Tom dies. The story was about Tom, and he dies. How could anyone be safe? Death is something no one escapes. Her dad felt her tremble.

“What is it?”

“I'm scared.” She hugged his chest, but she could tell he didn't know how to comfort her.

“What are you scared of?”

“Bad things happening.”

His chest rose sharply.

“Is that all that happens—bad things?” she asked. “It seems like that's all there is.”

His body tensed even more. “That's fear speaking to you. Don't listen to that. It'll lead you exactly where you don't want to be. Promise me.”

“But it's strong, Daddy.”

“I know baby.” His jaw clenched and deep sadness shone in his eyes. “I know, but you got to fight it. Don't give in. Promise me, you'll fight it. Never give in.”

Stephanie nodded.

“You don't need to be afraid. I'm going to take care of you and your mother. Everything is going to be okay. No one’s going to hurt you. I won't let them, okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed and snuggled closer. He had relaxed somewhat. In fact, it was the closest thing he had ever been to being warm toward her.

Stephanie remembered wishing she could stay in his lap forever. There was something safe, inviting, and protecting about being in Daddy's lap. She stared at the journal. How could this be? She considered what she would have done immediately if she had a fireplace.

Maybe you should look inside.

“I don’t want to look inside. I don’t care what he wrote. I’m finally done with him!”

Have you given God control?

“Yes, but—”

Do you trust He knows what He’s doing?

“Of course, He knows. He’s God.”

Is He looking out for your best interest in ways you can't see?

Stephanie licked her lips nervously. “Yes.”

Then open the book.

Stephanie reluctantly opened the journal and slowly flipped through the pages. Despite the many years gone by, the scrupulous handwriting was almost as familiar to her as her own. Toward the end of the journal, Stephanie stopped and began to read.

Six o’clock, Wednesday

March 2nd

“I went to the doctor’s office last week. It made me think about the past. That’s been happening a lot lately. People used to say, “Live your life to the fullest, so you won’t have regrets on your deathbed.” I say, impossible.

Six thirty-seven, Thursday

March 3rd

I saw a little girl on my walk today ….Jerry asked if I wanted to get in touch with my family before it is too late. Family? My wife’s dead and my daughter—I am dead to her already. She’ll always hate me.

I wish I could tell her. I can’t even write it! Why can’t I say what I mean? The people I care about are the ones I can’t say anything to.

Five forty-one, Friday

March 4th

I reread yesterday’s entry. I’m not good at talking about certain things. I never have been, but maybe death changes things. Caroline used to tell me that I was losing our daughter too. She told me to open up, but I couldn’t. How could I? I pushed Caroline to have the abortion, and my son is dead because of me. Stephanie was my little miracle, but also the reminder of my decision. I still remember those beautiful hazel eyes, looking up to me as though I was her hero. I couldn't look at her. If she knew the truth, she would've hated me forever. But I guess that happened anyway.

What good would it have done to tell her that I was ashamed? She wouldn't understand the position I was in. How could I explain that her twin brother was dead, and it was a miracle of God that she was born? I used to thank God every day that He let me have her. I couldn't welcome her and her brother into this life, but He gave her to me as a blessing anyway. I know He said that He would forgive me. But could I forgive myself?

Five twenty-three, Saturday,

March 5th

The other night, I was thinking about the day I found out that Caroline had leukemia. She begged me not to tell Stephanie. We were determined to protect her. She probably should have known, but how do you tell a little girl that her mother is dying? The thought of losing Caroline made me panic. I couldn’t raise Stephanie by myself. I was doing well at work. Things were good, but Caroline's treatments changed that. I started looking for fast ways of getting money. It seemed like a smart idea at the time.

I remember waking up in the morning and not being able to look at myself in the mirror. Caroline tried to pull me away from the alcohol, but she could never understand. I had to do what I had to do! Then when they took her, my little girl—my little miracle—we searched everywhere, and I was sure God was punishing me. He didn't really want to offer me forgiveness. It was all just a cruel joke. He let me have something beautiful for a while before He ripped her away from me.

I’m not afraid of death. I’ve been through hell already. What kind of man am I? I almost took her life as a baby, and then I couldn’t protect her when I found out what a jewel my little girl was.

Eight forty-eight, Saturday

March 5th

Sometimes, I see Caroline at night. She’s so real I can almost touch her. We talk like we never used to talk. I tell her how much I miss her. I say that I am sorry for all the fights. I was only scared to lose her. Did she know that? I think she did. Did Stephanie know? How could she? When she came home, I had a second chance. My baby was back, but she was no longer my baby. I tried to imagine what she had gone through, but I couldn't do it. I was going insane, and poor Caroline. She didn't know how to help me. A good drink was the only thing that helped. At least for a little while. It was the only time I could forget that it was all my fault.

I wish I could have been the man Caroline deserved and the father Stephanie needed. I tried, but I couldn't hold this family together. My wife killed herself to take the strain off me. Her sickness was killing me, and she loved me too much to watch it happen. I wish I could hold her one more time!

It's impossible. I’ve tried—you never get what you want in life.


Stephanie couldn’t read anymore. She dropped to her knees, clutching the journal to her heart. Looking up, she saw the stereogram hanging on the wall. For the first time, she saw the design beneath the surface.

Tears streaked her face. “I see it, Lord,” she whispered. “I see it.”


The office door opened, and Stephanie stopped drumming her nails on the waiting chair. “They're almost ready,” the secretary told her as she returned to her desk.

Stephanie nodded and gnawed her lip as she looked around the church office. Holly had encouraged her to come and present her idea, but she didn't think they would agree to hear what she had to say. Now that they had, she felt sick to her stomach. What if they laughed? After all, who was she that they would support her idea?

“Miss Kenthal?”

Stephanie looked up.

“You can go in. They're ready for you.”

With a thundering heart, she went inside.

Every chair around the long table was filled, and when they looked at her as she entered, she felt very small. The man standing extended his hand. “I'm Pastor Johnson. We're looking forward to hearing your vision.”

“Did the people from the pregnancy care center get here?” she asked him.

“Yes, they're right over there. Good luck.” He smiled and sat down as she stood at the head of the table.

“Thank you all for this opportunity,” she began. “I know you are here because you are disturbed by the vast number of babies being killed every day by those whose job is to love and protect them. Many are fighting to change the laws of this nation, but what if the law of the land reflects the heart of the people? If we have hurting people, they will make laws out of that pain.”

She bowed her head slightly. “If anyone has ever been hurt, you might understand what I mean. When you're hurt deeply, you don't look to logic or debate. All you want is the pain to stop. Our laws try to keep us from harming one another, but merely changing the law is like stealing the crutches from the person with a broken leg, without offering anything in return.

“Our land—our people—our mothers need healing. It's time to reach the hearts.”

MARCUS SAT DOWN as Sergeant Conner took an overseeing step back. The visit deputy escorted Logan to his seat on the other side of the glass window.

“They're taking me from juvie to the center today,” Marcus told his brother. “I'm supposed to work there. I don't know when I can see you again.”

The glazed look on Logan's face didn't change as his brother addressed him.

Marcus quickly glanced at Sergeant Conner, then back at his brother. “Logan, why'd you do it? He could've killed you. He could've taken that shot. Don't you feel …?”

“No,” Logan said bluntly. “The fool thought I couldn't go through with it. His mistake.”

“But …” Marcus furrowed his brow.

“I knew they'd do this!” Logan growled. “They're turning you against me. Me—your own family! Don't you see? They've always had the power, and when you try to take it,” he ground his teeth. “We've lived in the gutter, while they feasted on what they've taken. I'm the only one who's ever looked out for you. We've had to take care of ourselves. Now they're trying to turn you against me. I did this for us. It's time they know that they can't keep taking whatever they want.”

“How did he try to take anything?”

“He was just like the rest of them, wanting to keep us in the gutter.”

“Like Mom?” Marcus leaned forward. “You always hated that she never tried to do anything. Have you ever thought that maybe she was scared? The more kids she had, the more money came, and the safer she felt. She used to tell me all the time that I was the only one who'd listen. She never felt safe with you because she was scared to take the step you knew she needed to take. And she didn't feel like she had your support.”

“She never wanted it,” Logan told his brother. “She wrecked our family because she was a coward. We should've had each other, but we didn't. So I made us a family! I did what she never could. I brought us together, and we've never broken. Now you're bailing.”

Marcus shook his head in amazement. “I don't see it that way. You've always talked about how unfair everything is. But how unfair is it to take someone else's life, especially when he didn't take yours? You want me to believe that I'm at fault, I'm deserting you, but I think this is the first time I've ever been free.”


Stephanie finished spreading the strawberry jelly over the layer of peanut butter. She closed the sandwich with a slice of soft potato bread, and Matthew eagerly snatched the food from the counter.

“Look a box!” He held up the sandwich.

“Yes, it's a square.”

He ran over to Mrs. Averad who sat at the small table, waiting to leave for the big day. Stephanie quickly wiped the counter clean. They were almost ready.

“Look! It's a box.” Stephanie heard her little boy exclaim.

“Oh, you're going to get that everywhere. Here,” the old woman took the food from his hands and tore the large sandwich in half. “There. That's easier to handle.”

He held up the halves in dismay. Setting the food down, he ran out of the kitchen and soon returned with something in hand, which he held up to Stephanie.

“Here, Mommy. Tape it.”

“Oh sweetie,” she knelt down next to him, “some things can't be undone. But you want a box?” She went over and picked up the knife. She cut the sandwich into quarters. “Now you have four squares, and you're not going to make a mess all over Mommy's clean kitchen. It's better.”

She tousled his hair as he excitedly shoved one of the quarters into his mouth. She stood and looked at the clock. “Time to go. You ready?” She glanced over at Mrs. Averad.

“I've been waiting for you.”

“Then let's go.”

Stephanie helped Mrs. Averad into the car on the passenger’s side, and Matthew hopped in the backseat. As Stephanie drove, she thought of the two years that had gone by since she presented her idea before the church. Together, they had worked to make her vision a reality, and today was the opening day. She took a deep breath. So much work had gone into this.

The car stopped along the curb. They climbed out and made their way toward the gathering on the lawn. Pastor Johnson greeted Stephanie along with many of the members who had worked so diligently on this center.

Stephanie's heart pounded. She had invited almost everyone she knew. Grandpa Earl and Grandma Helen had agreed to open up their ranch for this ministry, so they flew out for the center's grand opening. Holly and David said they would be there, and Kevin would try to get someone to cover his radio show.

As the announcement ended, Pastor Johnson touched her shoulder. “This is it. You ready?”

She gave a shaky smile. Getting to her feet, she walked toward the microphone.

“Thank you all for being here for the opening of our center. A couple years ago, I had a dream that I walked into a room and a woman handed me a little baby's shoe. She told me she was going to have an abortion when someone who had been touched by my story, crocheted the baby boot and gave it to her. She said that she held that tiny boot in her hands and imagined the life she was about to end. Then with tears in her eyes, she introduced me to her little girl, and I had the honor of meeting the child that human choice would have destroyed.

“For generations, we as a nation have attacked the weakest life in society. Throughout history people have always had excuses for why they acted immorally. Now we call it choice in the name of women's rights.

“Well, I am a woman,” Stephanie looked down at Matthew and beckoned him to come to her. When he did, she wrapped her arms around him and looked out at the crowd. “And I choose to give rather than take.

“It's time for our nation to repent, or God help us, we will destroy ourselves. This center is devoted to healing hearts, and I pray that people I may never meet will be changed for the better.

“Thank you for your support.”

The applause sounded as Pastor Johnson handed Stephanie the large scissors. She bent down so that Matthew could help her cut the ribbon, and the people cheered.

Stephanie set the scissors on the ground and looked into her son's blue eyes. “Matthew, if there's one thing I want you to always remember, it's that Jesus Christ changed my heart and I love you so much.”

Embracing her son, she whispered, “This is my choice.”

After a few moments, Mrs. Averad laid her hand on Stephanie's shoulder. “Nice to see someone’s not too old to find a solution.” She gave the young woman a pat before heading inside for a tour. Stephanie stood as Grandpa Earl and Grandma Helen approached.

“We're so proud of you.” Grandma Helen hugged her.

She smiled. “Thank you. I'm so glad you both made it. And thank you for letting us use your ranch. I hope others will find what I did while I was there.”

“Our pleasure.”

“How's Troy?”

Grandma Helen turned to search for her grandson, but Troy came up behind her, startling her. Grandpa Earl took her arm, leaving Stephanie and Troy alone.

“Hi, Stephanie.” Troy smiled.

“I can’t believe you’re here. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see you again. How have you been?”

“Good.” Troy nodded. “Working at the ranch. Same old stuff. It’s what I love doing.”

“You’ve always known what you enjoy doing. Troy, I'm sorry for what happened between us. I was taking you away from your family, and I shouldn’t have.”

“Yeah well, about that,” Troy shifted uncomfortably. “I’ve been meaning to write, but the words didn’t really come out right. I was wrong too. I loved you, but I also saw a lot of Katie in you. God showed me that part of me wanted to reverse time. Save you since I couldn’t save Katie.”

Stephanie smiled ironically. “Great couple we would’ve made, huh?”

“Not a good start.” Troy shook his head, slipping his hands in his pockets. “Probably would have crumbled a marriage.”

“I don’t regret the time though.”

“Neither do I.”

A few yards away, Stephanie saw a small group waiting to talk with her. A peculiar smile came to her face as a new idea formed. “So is there anyone in your life you want to tell me about?”

Troy rolled his eyes with a smile. “No.”

“No, there’s no one.” She raised her eyebrow. “Or there’s no one you want to tell me about?”

“Both,” Troy tried not to laugh.

She grinned. “Well in that case, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

“What?” The humor zapped from his face. “You’re serious?”

Stephanie beamed as she grabbed his hand and began to walk toward Holly, her friend’s husband, Grace, and Auntie Cindy.

He pulled his hand free.

“What’s the matter?” Stephanie asked.

“You’re going to introduce me to the girl with Holly, aren’t you?”

Stephanie nodded. “Her name is Cindy, and—”

Suddenly, disappointment overtook her. “You’ve already met her, haven’t you?”

“No.” He nervously glanced toward the attractive young woman. “And I’m not going to meet her with you dragging me like a four-year-old bringing home a pet.”

She laughed. “Okay, good call. Oh, and by the way,” she leaned towards him. She said in a cute but hushed voice, “this girl doesn’t need saving.” She winked, and Troy tried to hide his smile.

Stephanie greeted Holly, David, Grace, and Auntie Cindy with hugs and then turned to introduce Troy.

“Holly and David, you both know Troy. Cindy, this is Holly’s cousin Troy. Troy … Cindy.”

Troy extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

The young woman timidly slipped her hand into his with a nod. For an instant, Stephanie reconsidered her idea. Cindy looked too nervous to speak, but soon Troy put his grandfather’s skills to good use as his friendliness put the girl at ease.

Looking to Holly, Stephanie smiled at the progress. Holly shook her head, but her smile showed that she enjoyed what she saw. “You've come a long way from hiding in the corner of the coffee shop.” Holly squeezed her friend’s hand.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you since the wedding. I kept trying to think of ways to make it up to you, but nothing seemed right.” Stephanie’s mouth opened as though she was going to say more, but she hesitated as her nose and eyes turned red. Those darn tears came again! “I realized that our friendship has been mostly one way. You gave, I received, and I liked it that way. I’m so sorry.”

Holly drew the one who was like her younger sister into her arms, and she held her. As they released, Holly tenderly said, “Here’s to looking out for each other.”

Stephanie grinned in agreement. “Do you want a tour?”

“I'd love one.”

“Me too.” Kevin's voice came from behind her. Stephanie turned around in surprise, and Holly squeezed her hand.

“I'll get mine later,” she said, leaving the two alone.

“You made it!” Stephanie greeted him.

“Yeah, I'm glad I did. That was quite a different speech from your last one.”

“I had a lot to learn. Come on. I'll show you what we've been doing.”

Stephanie took Matthew's hand as she led Kevin inside the center. “We work alongside local pregnancy care centers, and the goal is to provide help for women, specifically young women, who need support in order to choose life for their children. We provide counseling, healing retreats, prayer partners, a daycare. Basically we're a non-profit church ministry, and we want to meet their needs.”

“Sounds like you've done a lot.” Kevin looked around as he stood in the middle of the daycare room.

Stephanie fondly watched Matthew overturn the bucket of toys on the ground. “But above everything I want to do, I never want to forget that I'm Matthew's mother. That's the most important job I have. How can I think of helping others if I lose my own child in the process?”

Kevin glanced at the clock above the door.

“I have something for you.” He reached into his pocket. “I believe this is yours.”

He held out her grandfather's Medal of Honor in the palm of his hand, and Stephanie came toward him, staring at the heirloom. Slowly she closed his fingers around the medal, tucking it safely in his hand.

“It's always belonged to you,” she told him.

He looked deeply into her eyes. “May I ask you something?”

Her heart pounded as she returned his gaze.

“Will you … turn on the radio for me?” He looked toward the shelving against the wall. Her heart sank, but she went to flip on the device. He followed behind her, quickly setting the tuner to the station he wanted.

As a song ended, Kevin's voice came through the radio, and Stephanie glanced over at him. “You prerecorded your session today?”

He nodded and gestured for her to listen.

“That's a great song. Earlier we were talking about how much people talk about love. Let's face it. It's everywhere. People want to feel loved and be loved, but how many of us have had someone define what love really is? We often hear how important love is and that we should love. Well, we decided to ask for your definitions. We had some pretty good ones shared, and I promised that if you kept listening, I'd share the definition that best summoned it up. So can I get a drum roll, please?”

The sound effect of a drum roll played.

“You ready?” He took a deep breath and the drum roll stopped. “Loving someone is saying, your benefit at my expense. It’s so simple, yet so difficult. Just think about how much better people’s relationships would be if we lived that out with each other. It begins with us. We're out of time, but this next song I'd like to dedicate to the woman I love.”

The song played, and Stephanie felt Kevin's hand touch her back. She looked up into his warm gaze, and he gently touched her chin.

“You've always been my Della.”

Stephanie never would have thought these words could touch her, but as she remembered Kevin’s favorite story, “The Gift of the Magi,” unexplained tears ran down her face. Tears that came from the depths of her heart.

“You’re my Jim.” She kissed him softly.

Marcus climbed out of the police car with his bag in hand. He looked up and saw the woman from the court room standing in front of the center. She folded her arms as Sergeant Conner escorted the boy up the steps toward her.

“Marcus, this is Mr. Dalton's sister, Angie.”

She gave him a cold look and finally motioned for him to follow her inside. Marcus turned to the sergeant. “Do I have to work here? She hates me.”

“She’s lost someone she loved. It might take her a while to warm up. Don't worry. I'll be around to check on you, just like the court decided. Besides, I think you'll like it here.”

Marcus slowly stepped inside, and Sergeant Conner called out, “See you later, Angie!” He gave the boy a smile and returned to his duty.

Marcus closed the door and turned to face Angie.

“This is the front desk. That's the office.” She pointed to a door. “The rooms are back there. The daycare's over here. Pretty much what we do is come along side women who would have chosen to abort their children but have chosen keep to them. We help support and encourage them,” she gnawed her lip, “in that new decision. We value life and like to share that gift with others.”

Her eyes grew red as her voice grew shaky.

“I'm sorry. I ….” With a sniff, she composed herself. “I don't know why my brother wanted you to come here, and out of respect for him, I agreed. But since you're going to be here, I need to start by getting something out between us. Your brother murdered someone very special …” her hand covered her mouth as she looked away.

Marcus looked at the ground. “I'm sorry,” he muttered.

She whipped her head around, and he could see in her eyes that sorry wasn't enough. Her pain ran deep.

“No one's been able to tell me why,” he said softly. “Before he left, he told me—”

“He said something to you?” She stepped towards him, her eyes filled with yearning. “What? What did he say?”

“He … he told me, ‘This was my choice.’”

New tears trickled down her cheek. She closed her eyes and squeezed them shut for a few moments. When she opened them again, a new light shone in her eyes.

“I need to show you something.” She walked toward the office door and went inside. Marcus followed as Angie opened the desk drawer and searched through the files.

Only one picture hung on the wall behind the desk, and Marcus stared at it curiously. “It's a pearl,” he said as she pulled a photograph from the file.

“What?” Angie looked up startled.

He pointed to the picture.

“You see it?”

He nodded. “It's two hands. One reaching down from heaven and giving a pearl to the open hand reaching up.”

She stared at him.

Flipping the photograph in her hand for him to see, she said, “This is the woman who founded this place, and that was her favorite picture.” She pointed to the stereogram.

She beckoned him to take a look. “This drawer is filled with names, photos, and letters of people who told her, they wouldn't be alive if God hadn't used her.”

Marcus came and saw the packed drawer. “She must have been a special lady.”

She nodded.

“Like her son … Matthew Dalton.” She looked over at Marcus. “Someday, would you like to hear my mom's journey?”

Marcus nodded.

Angie held up her mother's photograph. “In our responses, we all have a choice.”


Thanks be to Jesus Christ!

He has changed my reasons for living,
and I’m so in love with Him.

Copyright © 2012 Rachael Nicole

ASAP (preferably today) 

And feel free to leave any comments on the blog as an encouragement for others to read and share the site! Maybe the Holy Spirit will use the story to heal hearts. Blessings!


Adema, Marcia. Personal interview. Pregnancy Care Center. Fall 2005.

Anonymous personal testimonies.
Carlton, HR. “Two Views on Relationship” Section 200: Signing Up to Do Battle. Equipped for War. TEAM Christian Ministries. 2011. Pg.15
Eldredge, John, and Stasi. Captivating. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005.
McDowell, Josh. The Father Connection. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1996.
Methods of Abortion. The Abortion Pill (Medication Abortion), and In-Clinic Abortion Procedures. Planned Parenthood, n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2012 <>

Copyright © 2012 Rachael Nicole

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