HAVENWOOD COWBOYS CHRISTIAN ROMANCE
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Inheriting the Farmhouse
Chapter One Sneak Peek
Going back to Bridgewater was going to kill me.
I was devastated to hear about Grandpa’s death. Anyone who knew him—related or un—would have felt his departure as poignantly as a square of fabric torn from a perfectly patterned quilt and would have shivered from the resulting chill that seeped in because of the loss.
But that wasn’t why I hadn’t been able to sleep, eat, or even breathe at a normal rate for days.
No, the real reason for my drumming heart and fractured mind was the prospect of returning to my hometown. I told Aunt Sarah I’d come for the funeral—I mean, of course, I would. But that meant—
I closed my eyes, blocking out the passing farmland on both sides of Bex’s minivan, and reached for the side of the torn leather seat. I needed something I could hold onto.
“Something wrong?” Bex asked. Her steady hands guided the wheel, and though my eyes were closed, I knew she slipped a quick glance in my direction.
The last time I’d seen my high school best friend, Bex had had a rounded belly and a toddler on her hip. Now we were making for town to pick up that toddler from flag football practice, the baby was jabbering from the backseat about preschool and what she’d played during rug time, and a new baby whose cheeks I couldn’t wait to squish babbled nonsense in return.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I told her, exhaling slowly through a small opening in my lips, praying the constant, controlled breaths would do their part and tell my heart to get a grip.
“Funerals are tough,” Bex said, passing the green road sign announcing the exit toward Bridgewater was in one mile.
One mile. What was I doing? The sight flared the flame already imposing on my lungs. Though I’d been in a car thousands of times before, no matter whose it was, the frame had never closed on me like this before. And yet the framework supporting the windshield and keeping it a reasonable distance from where I sat seemed to bend closer, encroaching on my personal space and my sanity.
I braced a hand against the van’s upper structure as Bex signaled, slowed, and took the unwanted exit.
“Belle?” Bex said.
The stop sign was nearing. Beats pounded in my throat. Road sounds crashed, filling my ears with uproarious sound, and I couldn’t breathe. “Stop the car,” I pleaded, as calmly as I could manage, though it still didn’t mask the struggle in my tone. “Bex, please. Stop the car.”
She pulled off onto the safety zone within the roadside’s white line, and I bolted out, swallowing the cool fall air, and willing it to clear the cotton suffocating my brain and my airways. The familiar Idaho countryside swept before me. Sunflowers danced wild and carefree, bowing to the warm October breeze. Sunlight blazed orange, and I reached for that light, for the comfort it promised, even as I bent to rest my hands on my knees.
“What’s wrong with Auntie Belle?” Bex’s three-year-old daughter asked from her seat. I closed my eyes. In my panic attack, I hadn’t thought to close the car door behind me. “Why did we stop, Mommy?”
“I’ll be right back,” Bex replied circumspectly. Clicking sounds followed, and as the van was still running, the driver car door made several repetitive binging sounds before her feet crunched the gravel beside me. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her. I stared at the sun, wishing it could burn me up, wishing whatever outside source was pressing against my skull would ease up already.
“Is this the first time you’ve been back since—?” She didn’t finish, and I was glad. If I could barely handle returning to Bridgewater, period, I sure as the blue sky couldn’t handle talking about why.
All I could do was nod.
Bex chewed her bottom lip. “I’m so sorry,” she said, sounding genuine and just a little bit lost. “I’m no expert on PTSD, but some time has passed since it happened. Maybe this is good for you. I’ve heard facing your fears helps to ease them. Making yourself face this could be the best thing for you."
I knew she meant well, but that couldn’t be right. According to my body, confronting pain was only making that pain worse. My heart was a dull ache. Anxiety had taken place of my bloodstream, shooting my veins with stalwart fear and stubbornness and the certainty that walls were closing in even though there were none.
“I can’t do this,” I said.
Bex took another step toward me. “You know you don’t have to. What do you want me to do?” she asked, sounding as though she wanted to help but didn’t know how. “If you want, we’ll turn this car around and head straight back to Twin.”
“I’m serious. I’ll get my brother to take Kody home from flag football. Kody’s already waiting at his office anyway, and it’ll be closing time soon.”
I finally brought myself to meet her earnest expression. Bex was pretty and petite, with her blonde hair dyed fuchsia on the under layers. She was tanned and determined and didn’t take her gaze from mine for a second. I read everything I needed in her blue eyes. Steadiness. Compassion. Friendship.
“I can’t ask that of you,” I said, breathing the tiniest bit easier. She’d already taken time out of her day to pick me up from the airport in Twin Falls about an hour away. I didn’t deserve such reliability, not when I hadn’t been in touch with her like I should have in the time that had passed. Yet, that didn’t seem to matter to her.
“Yes, you can.” Her hand found mine and squeezed. Her sincerity struck me to the core. How could it be that three years had passed and still she acted as though I was still important enough to cancel plans for?
She released my hand, folded her arms, and took on a battle stance. “Listen. Tell me why you’re here.”
“On the roadside?” My poor attempt at humor won me an eye roll.
“Why are you in Bridgewater?” she clarified, gesturing to the road sign indicating the town was just a right turn away.
I expelled a breath, and with it, some more of the tension that had seized me during the drive loosened its hold. “Grandpa Toby died.”
I closed my eyes, shutting out the swaying sunflowers. The email Aunt Sarah sent had outlined every detail. “And he left me Havenwood Farm and all its land.” Over three hundred acres. I couldn’t manage anything like that, not when I was situated in Oregon state with my job. I had a good life there, a life free from panic attacks and traumatic memories. I’d had hours of therapy to help me deal with the accident, and didn’t need everything recurring now. Not when I’d worked so hard to make it stop, dang it.
I sent a prayer heavenward. Dear God, help me get myself back again.
I was here to pay respects to Grandpa, take care of appraising the property, and get it listed. A week tops. I could handle a week here. That was what I kept telling myself, anyway.
Obviously, the self part of me wasn’t listening.
“One step at a time,” Bex said, placing her hand on my shoulder. “Huh?” She waited until I brought my gaze to hers and continued. “You’ve already made it this far—that’s huge. Now, we move on from here. We’re just going into town, that’s all. Then to my house, before I get you to Aunt Sarah’s. That’s all you need to worry about for now. That’s your goal.”
“Aunt Sarah’s,” I repeated.
“Atta girl. What do you say? Main Street’s first.”
“Main Street.” I nodded, disbelieving just how much I needed her encouragement and reassurance and glad for it all the same.
“There you go! You ready?” She was falsely bright, but I wouldn’t fault her that. I tried to match her smile.
“Thanks, Bex,” I said while repeating Just to Main Street, in my head over and over. Surprisingly, more tension loosened. My airways cleared. The sunflowers arched to me this time, nodding their approval. Bex climbed into her van, and I found that I could too. She shifted into gear but paused before pulling back onto the offramp.
“Tell you what,” she said. “Tonight, we make a night of it. Tyra’s working at The Elkhorn. She’s dying to see you. She’s the new bartender there. Drinks. Cake. Girl talk. Maybe some karaoke. How does that sound?”
I was encouraged. “I could handle that,” I said. She talked some more about her kids, about how hard it was sending Paisley to preschool and chatting about the impossibility of finding a decent nail salon since whatshername closed her shop, and I knew she was rambling to keep me distracted as we rounded the bend, the road curving in its familiar way past several businesses to reveal Bridgewater in all its tiny-town glory.
It was like coming back in time—or better still, it was as though, while the rest of the world was moving on, changing and advancing, Bridgewater was frozen somewhere in the 1900s. A line of buildings to the left introduced The Elkhorn Café and Pete’s Malt Shoppe in conjoined buildings whose exterior resembled the Wild West, with dark slats of wood and squared-off boxy false fronts above railed porches that provided a walkway between the two establishments. An old church that no one went to. A little way down, past a few more buildings, a closed-off building that used to be a gas station when I was a kid but had its doors and windows shuttered for years.
Venturing farther into the town, the buildings looked the same as though I’d left yesterday rather than three years ago. The only distinguishing difference was that the corners of structures like the insurance agency and the dress shop now had crumbling stucco and signs of peeling paint. Everywhere I looked, every shop window, the streetlamps, even the sign of the old movie theater-turned dentist office, was drenched with memory.
Bex stared at me, and I realized not only had she pulled up in front of the insurance agency where her brother worked, but she’d also asked me a question.
“Hmm? Sorry,” I said, fumbling for the handle. “I need to step out again.”
“Sure,” she said, shifting into park. “Kody will come out when he sees us here. Take all the time you need.”
My shoes crunched the leaves that had collected in the gutter. I basked in the warm air, breathed in the slight scent of burning chimney smoke and fallen leaves, while memories slammed into me on every side. I closed my eyes and attempted to bring my mantra back up again. We’d made it to Main Street. What was next?
Bex’s house. Bex’s house. I can make it to Bex’s.
I pivoted, turning my face to the sun, allowing the warm air to clear the emotions contaminating my insides when I collided hard with a firm torso and the scent of something earthy and woody, with the faintest hint of sky.
“Whoa there,” the man said, gripping my arms to keep me upright.
My eyes flashed open. For a moment, I was met with blue eyes, freckles, and a handsome, heart-thudding smile that both infiltrated and haunted every thought I had. It was a face I thought I’d never see again, and disbelief dominated while my thoughts attempted to keep up. A blink later, the vision vanished, and the man’s eyes settled from blue to warmest brown; the freckles darkened into smooth tan skin with a few light scars and shaded by soft stubble. The smile though. That smile was shaped by a different pair of lips yet somehow it still made my heart knock into my ribs.
“I’d say I didn’t see you there, but I think it was the other way around,” he said.
The voice was all wrong too. Friendly. Joking, even, but at a lower timbre than the voice my ears were trained to hope to hear. Embarrassment flooded my cheeks. I hurriedly backed away, tucking my hair behind my ears, and wishing I wasn’t a basket case right now.
“Sorry about that,” I said, not sure what explanation I could give.
“Not a problem.” He jutted his fingers into his pocket and examined me. “You must be new in town. Haven’t seen your face here before.”
“Oh—I—” I hadn’t planned on anyone here not knowing who I was. I supposed after a three-year absence, others would have moved in. With how unchanged the town appeared to be, I assumed the people in it would be that way too.
Before I could answer, the door to the insurance agency jangled open, and a boy about seven years old came skipping out. I peered over to find Bex waving him to her, and the pieces connected.
“Whoa, Kody’s gotten so big,” I said on a breath. Bex and I kept in touch online, so I’d seen pictures, but still, it was different equating a face with their image in person.
“Hey, there, Kody,” the man said, stopping the boy on his path to the van. “Maybe you can help me out.”
“How can I do that?” Kody asked.
The man tucked his thumbs into his belt loops. “This lady seems to know you. Mind telling me her name?”
Kody inspected me for a few moments and then wrinkled his nose into a grimace or a squint to block out the sun, I wasn’t sure which. “I don’t know her,” he said in puerile innocence, skipping toward his mom’s waiting van.
More heat flooded my cheeks, though I wasn’t sure why. While this man was good-looking, with an attractive set of shoulders, his slightly husky scent of cedarwood drifting to me with the breeze, and I liked the look of his hands as they crossed his chest to rest on his biceps, I wasn’t here to meet anyone. No better time to make that fact clear.
“There you have it,” I said, turning to follow the boy’s direction. The van door was already sliding to a close behind him.
The man took a step and intercepted me with a hand. “Wait up. You’re not going to tell me either?”
“His mom’s in a hurry, and she’s my ride,” I said. “Sorry,” I added.
He placed a hand behind his neck and didn’t take his eyes from mine. “She knocks into me, won’t tell me her name, and she’s sorry.”
“I’ll be here for about a week.” I cursed myself the minute the words left my mouth. What was I doing? This was no time for sympathy chatting—and I’d just sounded like the conclusion of a bad comedic act. Ba-dum-dum crash. Thanks, folks, I’ll be here all week.
“Maybe I’ll see you around,” I added as an attempt to cover my faux pas, only to hear the hopeful implication in my voice. It sounded like I wanted to meet up with him later, which was so not the case.
“Oh, I’m counting on it.” He winked, and my stomach did a flip. I climbed into the van, and hard as I tried to act unaffected, my traitorous eyes drifted in his direction anyway. He remained where he was, one hand on his side. He watched Bex back up, giving a motionless wave as we drove away.
“What was that?” Bex said with a cheeky grin.
“That,” I said, clicking in the seatbelt, “was nothing.”
“If you say so.” Bex was momentarily distracted backing out onto the street, but I folded my arms, cursing the whole situation, my stupidity included. He could count on seeing me around, I supposed, but that didn’t mean anything would come of it. I couldn’t handle any distractions while I was here. I was going to get Grandpa Toby’s property taken care of, and then I was gone.