“Isn’t there anyone who makes your heart rev?”
Raquel swallowed hard. Her friend was only trying to help.
Three years since Dylan’s death and no one had made her pulse speed up since he’d been gone. She searched the familiar restaurant for something, anything, to change the subject to. But Caitlyn wouldn’t give up that easily. She might as well be honest.
“It’s been years since my heart revved over anyone other than a certain seven-year-old.”
“Uh-uh. This is your mom’s day out. No talking about Hunter.” Caitlyn wagged a finger at her and Raquel tried not to squirm on the booth seat. “And no changing the subject. You know Dylan wouldn’t want you to be alone.”
“He did make me promise to find someone else if anything ever happened to him.” Raquel shrugged.
“You’ve even got permission from the love of your life to move on. So what’s stopping you?”
“Right now—” Raquel traced the condensation on her tea glass with her fingers “—my focus is Hunter and baseball. I want him to have fun and be happy living in Aubrey. Even though I’ll admit I’m lonely and I know my son needs a father, if God has someone out there for me, I’ll trust Him to make it happen in His time.”
“You know I’m no good at waiting on God’s timing. I ask Him to forgive me daily for trying to rush things without Him.” Caitlyn’s stomach growled and she pressed a hand to her huge baby bump.
“Sounds like Juniorette is hungry.” Raquel glanced toward the door as it opened, letting in mid-February evening air. “Mitch should be here anytime and he wouldn’t want you to keep his baby girl waiting. We should order.”
“It might take a crane to unwedge me from this booth.” Caitlyn groaned.
Raquel winced. “Why did you pick a booth?”
“I wanted to prove I could still squeeze in here. May not get out. But I’m in.”
“Don’t get out. I’ll order.” Hopefully, by the time she returned, Caitlyn would have forgotten her line of questioning.
“Good idea, but only if you let me pay.” Caitlyn held out a twenty.
“You can buy next time.”
Raquel placed their orders, then moved to the register, dug her money from her wallet and waited for her change.
The man behind her in line ordered and she turned to see if he was anyone she knew. He looked familiar. Inky waves, sage-green eyes, chin cleft. Where did she know him from? Parent from school? Church?
And her brain kicked in. Slade Walker.
Her mouth went dry. Her wallet slipped from her fingers.
Coins danced and rolled; bills fanned around her feet; credit cards bounced, spun and slid across the hardwood floor.
In most places, people would dive in and steal as much as they could. But this was Aubrey, Texas.
Slade knelt at her feet along with the lady behind him in line and helped her pick everything up. A man she didn’t even know handed her one of her credit cards.
In minutes the contents of her overstuffed wallet were back in place as Slade gathered stray change.
“Don’t worry about the change.”
“Is that everything?” He stood.
“You’re Slade Walker.”
“Yeah. Got all your cards and money?”
She tugged her gaze away from his long enough to flip through the bills and cards, then nodded. “Yes, thanks.”
A slow smile tugged at his lips. “I’m sorry, but have we met? I usually remember beautiful women, but I’m drawing a blank.”
Her face heated. “You were my husband’s favorite baseball player.”
“Wow.” He blew out a soft whistle and rubbed his right shoulder. “That was a long time ago and my career was short-lived. I can’t say I’ve been recognized for baseball in a long time.”
“Well, you should be. You were great. If my son was here, he’d be beside himself. Could I get your autograph for him?”
His face turned red.
“I mean, I don’t want to bother you.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s just been a long time since anybody asked. Got any paper?”
She scurried to the booth where Caitlyn waited and grabbed her purse. “Caitlyn, this is Slade Walker. The Slade Walker.” She must have sounded like an idiot.
With a confused frown, Caitlyn offered her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Not a baseball fan, I take it? No worries. It’s been a few years.” Slade accepted the grocery receipt Raquel handed him as several people brought her quarters, nickels, even pennies. Small-town proof there were still good, honest people in the world.
“What’s your son’s name?”
“Hunter Marris. I mean, you can just make it Hunter.”
“Marris? I went to elementary school with a Dylan Marris.”
Raquel nodded like a bobblehead. “My husband.”
“No wonder you know who I am. We were best friends until fifth grade when I moved. How is Dylan?”
Her heart squeezed. He didn’t know.
“Raquel!” Caitlyn’s face contorted with pain. “I hate to interrupt, but I think I might be in labor.”
“Oh my goodness. Let’s get you to the hospital.”
“Should we wait on Mitch?” Panic dwelled in Caitlyn’s eyes. Everyone was looking at them.
Calm down, Raquel. She was a nurse. But this was her friend and treating anyone she loved in medical distress rattled her. Ever since Dylan.
“I’ll call Mitch.” Deep breaths. She could do this. “He can meet us there. Everything will be fine. Remember, I’m a nurse.”
“Let me help you up.” Slade offered his arm to Caitlyn.
She managed to unwedge herself from the booth, but as she stood, she quickly doubled over as another contraction rocked her.
More deep breaths.
“Maybe I should drive you.” Slade’s voice was calm. “That way you can sit in the back with her and keep an eye on things.”
“Good idea. Don’t worry, Caitlyn. I’ll be right there with you to monitor the baby’s progress.” Oh, Lord, please let everything be all right.
“No.” Caitlyn clenched her teeth against obvious pain. “I appreciate your help, Mr. Walker, but I don’t even know you.”
“I’ve never had a speeding ticket or been in an accident.” Slade pressed his free hand to his heart. “I promise.”
“And he’s a Christian. He led Dylan to Christ. I know who he is.” At the moment Raquel didn’t care if he was an ax murderer. She was much too shaky to drive.
“Okay.” Caitlyn moaned.
Slade helped Caitlyn with her jacket, then supported her as she hobbled to the exit. “Where’s the hospital?”
“In Denton.” Raquel held the door open.
“Do you need me to carry you, ma’am?”
“No.” Caitlyn wailed. “I’d break your back for sure. Ooooh!”
Another contraction already? Denton was only fifteen minutes away, but this was happening too fast. Would they make it?
“Caitlyn?” Raquel used her most soothing nurse voice. “Have you been having contractions for a while?”
“I thought it was false labor like last week.”
Please, Lord, let me keep it together and help Caitlyn through this.
The hospital was chilly. Slade zipped his jacket. Why was it always so cold in hospitals?
Doctors and nurses scurried past the waiting room. Families and friends dotted the chairs surrounding him. Probably some of them were here for Caitlyn. He kept expecting to see Dylan, but no sign of him yet. Caitlyn’s husband had met them en route and given them a police escort. It obviously came in handy to have a Texas Ranger husband.
Slade was out of place. Probably should leave. But since he’d been a part of this drama, he couldn’t bring himself to go.
Besides, maybe his sister would show up. What would he do if she did? He pulled the two clippings from his pocket.
First their father’s obituary. He ran his fingers over the grainy publicity image from years gone by. Back from his father’s heyday before the boozing had sabotaged his career, before the numerous comebacks, concert tours and rehab stints.
Raised by his grandparents, Slade had never known who his father was. His mother had been an inconsistent menace in his life until she finally gave his grandparents guardianship when he was seven. After that she’d just been inconsistent. Over the years, he’d often asked about his father. His grandparents had claimed not to know who he was. When his mother came around, and he asked, she never answered.
Then a lawyer called his grandparents claiming Slade’s father had died and left him a sizable inheritance. He’d thought it was a scam, but the lawyer wouldn’t leave him alone until he finally agreed to a meeting. That day he learned his father was famous, a jerk who’d paid Slade’s mother to keep silent about his paternity. But he’d left Slade a fortune. A man of contradictions.
He folded the first clipping and slipped it back in his wallet. Through the obituary, he’d learned he had a sister. Though his grandparents were awesome, he’d always yearned for a real family. His throat constricted. A sibling. A younger sister. But an older sister might do in a pinch.
Months had passed before he’d gotten the nerve to search for her on Google, which had led him to her wedding announcement—and the second clipping.
Fair coloring, nothing like him. She looked happy. The dark-haired man at her side smiled at her as if she made his world go round. Slade hoped so. Hoped she was still as happy as when that picture was taken. What was she like? Would she be glad to learn she had a brother? Or angry that her father had cheated on her mother?
There was no way to know. Other than to track her down. Which he’d done. Which had brought him to Aubrey.
“Mother and daughter are both fine.” Raquel stood in the doorway, looking tired but smiling. “The baby’s in the nursery, if anyone wants to come see.”
Cheers and amens went up and the waiting room cleared out. Clearly Caitlyn had lots of friends and family. Slade folded the clipping and put his wallet away.
“You’re still here?” Raquel sank into the seat beside him.
“I wanted to make sure your friend was okay.”
“Thanks for driving us.” She shivered. “I’m really not sure I could have.”
“Why is it always so cold in hospitals?” He shrugged out of his jacket and offered it to her, even though the cool threatened to raise goose bumps over his flesh.
“So the doctors and nurses are comfortable. You can’t imagine how hot it gets in the OR rooms with all the lights. Keep your jacket—I’m fine. Just wound up.”
“I thought nurses had nerves of steel.”
“Not since…” She swallowed hard. “Let’s just say my days as an ER nurse are over.”
“You’re not a nurse anymore?”
“A school nurse now.” She shrugged. “It suits me better and I have the same hours as Hunter, including summers off.”
“I thought I’d see Dylan here.”
“How’s Caitlyn?” A dark-haired woman hurried into the room.
“Fine. The ultrasound was right. The baby’s a girl. They’re both fine.” Raquel stood. “I can take you back to see the baby.”
“Is that where the crowd rushed off to down the hall?” At Raquel’s nod, the woman settled into a chair. “Since everything’s fine, I’ll wait till things clear out a bit.”
“Thanks again for driving us, Slade. I really appreciate it, and Caitlyn did, too. She was just a bit panicked. I’m going to check on her.”
Dismissed. He should have left already. “Maybe I’ll see ya around.”
But she was already gone. Should have gotten her and Dylan’s number. He’d love to catch up with Dylan. At least he knew where they were now.
And his sister, too.
“Star Marshall.” The dark-haired woman handed him a business card. “You a friend of Raquel’s?”
“Not really.” He glanced at the card. Real estate agent. “I just ran into her in Aubrey and her friend went into labor, so I offered to drive.”
“New to the area?”
“Just visiting. But Aubrey’s a nice town.”
“Well, if you ever think of relocating, just give me a call.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He stood. “Nice meeting you.”
His old friend Dylan Marris lived in Aubrey. His sister lived in Aubrey. And a real estate agent had landed right in front of him. Was God trying to tell him something?
Maybe none of the cowboys could tell how distracted Slade was during his sermon this morning. Except Frank—his mentor.
With his Bible tucked under his arm, Slade stood at the outdoor arena exit shaking hands, smiling, making small talk as the well-wishers and preacher-duckers emptied from the arena. The sun was working overtime at warming the morning air, but they’d still had a good crowd.
A few volunteers lingered to make sure there were no coffee cups left behind, freeing his mind to stray to his visit to Aubrey earlier in the week.
After the fifth grade, he’d seen Dylan only a handful of times. But they’d always taken up right where they’d left off as if no time had passed. The last time they’d seen each other was after high school graduation.
“Good sermon.” Frank clapped him on the back.
“Not my best, but I’m glad you came. I hope my lack of focus didn’t show.”
“Not at all. Surely I don’t make you nervous.” The older man’s knowing gaze appraised him. “What’s got you so distracted?”
A couple left the arena—the cowboy’s arm around his wife’s shoulder, nestling her against his side. Their laughter blended as they shared a private joke.
A painful knot lodged in Slade’s throat. He wanted that. Someone to share life and laughter with. Someone to settle down and start a family with. For months now, the road had been wearing on him.
“The road getting long and lonely?”
“How did you know that?”
“God knew it wasn’t good for man to be alone, so He created woman to keep us out of trouble. Somehow Eve didn’t get the memo.”
“Traveling the circuit is a surefire way not to have a family or a place to call home, since most of the women hanging around are attached to the cowboys.” Frank propped his booted foot on the fence rail. “Unless you go for the buckle bunnies.”
“Trust me.” Slade chuckled. “They’re not interested in the chaplain or anything I have to say.”
“You need an Irene. She was as happy as I was traveling the circuit with me while I was a rodeo chaplain. The kids were grown and gone and we found a fulfilling way to spend our twilight years.”
Over two years had passed since Irene lost her fight with cancer, and Frank had recently remarried, but the pain of losing his first wife was stamped in every wrinkle lining his face, every silver streak in his hair.
“Keeping me happy. Don’t change the subject. Tell me what’s really bothering you.”
“Let’s not keep Meredith waiting. We’re still on for lunch, right?”
“One of the many things I love about Meredith is her patience.”
There was no sense trying to hide anything from Frank. He’d even told Frank about his inheritance and discovering who his father was. Slade’s shoulders slumped. “I found out I have a sister.”
Frank blew out a big breath. “Kind of knocked you for a loop?”
“I can’t stop thinking about her, and I don’t know what to do.” Slade leaned his elbows over the fence’s top rail. “It’s driving me nuts. Yesterday I went to Aubrey, where she lives.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“I didn’t even see her. I guess I just kind of wanted to feel it out. See if I just happened to run into her, but I didn’t.”
“Maybe you should call her.”
“And say what? I’m your younger brother from an affair your father had on your mother.”
“Hmm.” Frank stroked his silver beard. “That complicates things.”
“I did run into a friend’s wife there. Dylan and I were best friends until the fifth grade, when I moved to my grandparents’ house, and we kept in touch for a long while. He called weekly after my baseball injury and was a big encouragement until I went on the circuit and eventually lost touch with him. Seeing his wife got me thinking about him again.”
“So Dylan grew up with you in Garland. Where’s your sister from?”
“From what I’ve found on the internet, Ponder originally, and Fort Worth for a while.”
“Kind of odd that your sister and your friend ended up in the same tiny town.”
“I even met a local real estate agent.” A lump formed in Slade’s throat. “It’s like God’s trying to lead me there or something.”
“Ever thought of giving up the circuit?” Frank shielded his eyes from the sun with one hand. “You could preach at a church.”
“I’ve thought about it.” Slade shrugged. “But I don’t want to let these guys down. I mean, let’s face it—some of these guys will never darken the door of a church, but they’ll come hear a sermon at a rodeo arena.”
“Find somebody to replace you, like I did.”
“But you didn’t quit. You retired and you probably wouldn’t have if Irene hadn’t been sick.” He couldn’t turn his back on his rodeo ministry. Or on the cowboys.
“The circuit’s a worthy ministry.” Frank scratched his chin. “But if your heart’s not in it anymore, are you fulfilling God’s call?”
“Good question.” Yet just this morning, three cowboys had come forward to accept Christ. “But my work here is still bearing fruit.”
“True. But someone else with a fresh fire for it might bear more fruit. Maybe you need a sabbatical.”
Sabbatical? That might help. Visit Aubrey. Slow down. Think. Regroup. Refuel. Decide whether to contact his sister. Or not. Maybe settling down would wear thin after a while and he’d come back with a fresh fire in his belly for his ministry.
The breeze stirred the manure scent. He wouldn’t miss that.
“You might be onto something.” But who could take over the ministry? “Know any preachers dying to take on the circuit?”
“Boy howdy, sometimes seeing God work makes my head spin.” Frank clapped him on the back. “Meredith and I aren’t here by accident. We’re testing out the motor home we bought recently. Planning to do some traveling and even talked about taking up chaplaining again.”
God had known he needed a break—even before Slade had. His chest tightened. Was it just a break or could God be nudging him to make a change?
“Why the third degree if you want back in?”
“I wanted to see where you stood on the subject. Under no circumstances would I want you feeling like I moved you out. It’s your decision.” Frank put an arm around Slade’s shoulders and they walked toward Meredith. “Take three months off, then see how you feel. If you want to come back, Meredith and I can work another area. Texas is a big state with plenty of rodeos and cowboy souls for the both of us.”
Just like that—Slade was free.
He could rent a house in Aubrey. Catch up with Dylan. Decide what to do about his sister. See what it felt like to settle somewhere. See what came next.
In the first weeks after Dylan’s death, the photo album had become a daily ritual for Raquel. As Hunter had gotten older, they’d pored over the family pictures at least once a week. Slowly, it had become a monthly thing. And slowly, she was losing Dylan.
Hunter leaned against her on the couch, fresh from his bath, the scent of lime shampoo clinging to him. Warm and cuddly in his pajamas with logs crackling in the fireplace.
“I can’t really remember him anymore.” Hunter peered at a picture of Dylan holding him when he was an infant.
“I know, sweetie. You were so young when we lost him—only four.” Her eyes misted.
She’d thought following their dream of living in Aubrey would make her feel closer to Dylan. But Dylan had never lived in this house with them. He had sat on this couch with them and his woodsy cologne had once been captured in the cushions. But not anymore.
“Tell me about the picture.”
It had always been Hunter’s favorite picture and he had a copy in his room. Though she’d told him the story countless times before, it was their way of holding on to Dylan. “You were only a few weeks old. We still lived in Garland then and I woke up to a quiet house.”
“And that was weird, cuz I usually woke you up crying.” Hunter snuggled closer.
“I found y’all on the back deck of our apartment. Daddy was sitting crisscross-style with you cradled in his arms.” His brown eyes focused solely on their son.
“And he was so focused on me he didn’t even see you.”
“I hurried to get my camera—” she kissed the top of his head “—snapped the picture through the glass patio door and watched y’all for several minutes before Daddy realized I was there.”
“He finally looked up, you opened the door, and he said he wanted you to get some extra sleep cuz you deserved it for giving him such a perfect son.”
“That’s right.” Her eyes singed. She glanced at the clock. Getting late. Hating to interrupt such precious memories, she gave him a good squeeze. “It’s bedtime.”
“Aw, Mom. I like sitting here with you and we’re not done with the album.”
“I like sitting here with you, too. But you have school tomorrow. Tell you what—tomorrow night we’ll do it again.”
“Promise.” She kissed his cheek, thankful he was still young enough he didn’t shrug off her affection just yet.
What would she do when he got older and didn’t want to cuddle? When he grew up? When he got married and left her alone?
The whirring furnace knocked the chill off in the rental house. Second day of March and Slade had three months to figure out what came next.
“You’re sure the landlord is okay with a dog as large as Blizzard in the house?” Slade gestured to the huge white fluff-ball inspecting every nook and cranny.
“He okayed pets.” Star, Aubrey’s Realtor, grinned. “And didn’t mention size restrictions.”
“Blizzard will be either outside or in the laundry room when I’m gone.”
“So does that mean you like it?”
He scanned the house. Sheetrock walls painted taupe with hardwood floors and simple furnishings. No bells or whistles. Perfect for him.
“When can I move in?”
“I’ll take it.”
“Great.” Star went over the deposit, how much he needed to pay up front, when the rent was due and the exit policy.
“I plan to stay through May. Can I just pay it all in advance?”
“Sure, if that’s how you want to handle it.” She tapped numbers on her tablet and gave him the grand total. “So my husband recognized your name. He said you were a major-league pitcher for the Rangers and you were really good. “
“I wasn’t bad.” He rubbed his shoulder. “Until I tore my rotator cuff in the first season. My first surgery was a success, but against my doctor’s orders, I rushed my recovery and tore it again during off-season practice.”
He’d sacrificed everything to follow his grandfather’s footsteps into baseball. His laser focus had gotten him a baseball scholarship to college and then a ticket to the major leagues. But he’d been so focused he’d never even had a girlfriend in high school.
So ten years later, here he was with just Blizzard to keep him company. No wife, no family except his grandparents and a sister who didn’t even know about him.
He signed the check and handed it to Star in exchange for the keys. “I hope my neighbors won’t have any problem with Blizzard.”
“I don’t think you’ll have any problem with the neighbors.” Her phone rang. “I need to get this. Let me know if you need anything.” She waved and backed out the front door.
Hmm. Did the neighbors have a bigger, noisier dog than Blizzard? Or maybe fifteen dogs?
“Woof.” Blizzard’s bark echoed through the sparsely furnished house.
“Want outside, boy?”
The dog’s ears perked up and his bushy tail thumped.
“How about a walk?”
“Woof.” The huge dog quivered with anticipation.
And people thought dogs didn’t understand. He clipped the leash onto Blizzard’s collar and headed for the front door.
“Mom.” Hunter got two syllables out of the word. “Throw it right.”
“I’m trying, sweetie.” Raquel concentrated on the spot where the seven-year-old’s bat would swing and threw the baseball with all her strength. Her shoulder protested. She’d probably thrown it out of socket.
The pitch looked good. Right height, but it sailed two feet out of Hunter’s reach.
“Mom.” Two syllables again.
“I’m doing the best I can.” She massaged her shoulder. “I never pitched. Maybe Uncle Brant can help.”
“He’s on tour, and besides, he never pitched either.” Hunter poked at the piece of two-by-four—their makeshift home plate—with his bat. His shoulders slumped. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t do it anyway.”
“Don’t say that.” His defeat squeezed her heart. “You can do anything you set your mind to.” With Hunter’s first baseball practice next week, she’d wanted to encourage him. Instead she’d discouraged him with her lousy pitching skills.
Why, why, why did Dylan have to die? Hunter needed his father. If Dylan had been here, Hunter would already have been hitting home runs. But Dylan wasn’t here. And Raquel had to do this alone.
“I wish my dad was here.”
Her vision blurred. “Me too, sweetie.” But all Raquel had left of Dylan was his seven-year-old spitting image waiting for a decent pitch. And Hunter would never really know his father, no matter how hard she tried.
“Surely there’s somebody in this town who can pitch a baseball. We’ll find somebody.”
Like Slade Walker. He’d pitched for a short time in the major leagues. What were the odds of running into him a few weeks ago? But he’d probably been only passing through.
“Who’s that man?” Hunter looked past her.
A man and a large white dog stepped through the line of dormant crepe myrtle trees lining her property.
She stiffened, ready to protect her cub, but recognized the familiar smile.
“Did I hear something about needing a pitcher?”
“Mr. Walker?” As if she’d wished him into existence.