Brenda Minton.

The Cowboy's Homecoming






Please, Jeremy, dont do this.
Dont tear this church down.

Why? Would you open it back up, sing songs on Sundays, serve potluck once a month? Its an old building, Beth.

It was my mothers church. She bit down on her bottom lip and shrugged. Dont you feel it, Jeremy? After all these years, dont you feel it?

Man, she was able to set him on his heels the way no other woman ever had. Because, yeah, he felt it. He felt the past. He felt God. He felt faith. It hit him every single time he walked in this building. He felt hundreds of prayers that had been said, probably most of them for him, his little sister and his mother.

But all of those good memories got lost, tied up with the bad.

Sorry, Beth.

He turned and walked away, knowing there would be tears streaking down her cheeks, knowing shed nearly collapse with sadness and frustration over his stubbornness.

And he also knew that shed understand why he was doing this.

BRENDA MINTON

started creating stories to entertain herself during hour-long rides on the school bus. In high school she wrote romance novels to entertain her friends. The dream grew and so did her aspirations to become an author. She started with notebooks, handwritten manuscripts and characters that refused to go away until their stories were told. Eventually she put away the pen and paper and got down to business with the computer. The journey took a few years, with some encouragement and rejection along the wayas well as a lot of stubbornness on her part. In 2006 her dream to write for Love Inspired came true. Brenda lives in the rural Ozarks with her husband, three kids and an abundance of cats and dogs. She enjoys a chaotic life that she wouldnt trade for anythingexcept, on occasion, a beach house in Texas. You can stop by and visit at her website, www.brendaminton.net.

The Cowboys Homecoming
Brenda Minton


www.millsandboon.co.uk

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most

High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in Him will I trust.

Psalm 91

This book is dedicated to all of the strong women

out there, and to the women wanting to be strong, that they find their strength.

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Epilogue

Letter to Reader

Questions for Discussion

Chapter One

People were never who or what you thought.

Thats a lesson Beth Bradshaw knew from experience and she had the scars to prove it.

She had even learned things about herself that took her by surprise. Like the fact that she could be strong. She didnt always have to do what pleased others. Sometimes she did what pleased her.

The fact that she was the person sitting on a horse in front of Back Street Church, determined to talk Jeremy Hightree out of his plans for the building was a big moment for her. It was a mountain climbed. It was a fear tackled.

Someone had to do it. So, shaking in her boots, remembering the last time she was here, she sat and contemplated the confrontation.

The horse beneath her shifted, restless from standing. She waved at flies buzzing the animals neck and ears but her gaze remained on the run-down church in front of her. Things changed, that was part of life. Shed obviously changed since the years spent attending this little church with her mother.

Jeremy Hightree had changed. She knew hed changed because only huge changes could bring him back to Dawson, Oklahoma, with the plans he had for this building.

The church had been untouched and neglected for too many years. The lawn had grown into a field of weeds. The exterior had faded from white to gray and the paint was chipped and flaking off. After one hundred years of service, the tiny church with the tall steeple had become a forgotten piece of the past.

So why should she care what Jeremy planned on doing to a forgotten piece of Dawson history? The question rolled through her mind as she dropped to the ground and led the chestnut gelding up the sidewalk, metal hooves clip-clopping on concrete. She looped the leather reins around the handrail and walked up the crumbling concrete steps to the porch. The door stood wide open but she didnt go in. She glanced around, looking for Jeremy, her heart hammering a chaotic rhythm, afraid shed see him. Afraid she wouldnt.

But this wasnt about seeing Jeremy. Her heart did a funny skip forward, asking her to rethink that last thought. But she wouldnt. She couldnt. This had to be about the church, not schoolgirl emotions.

She took a hesitant step inside the church. It took her eyes a minute to adjust to the dim interior. Filtered light from the dirty stained-glass windows caught dust particles that floated in the air. A bird glided through the building and landed on the pulpit. Her great-grandfather had made that pulpit. The wood was hickory and the stain was natural and light. A cross had been carved into the front.

Her history in this town was tied to this church. And she had ignored it. She took a deep breath, breathing in dust and aging wood. For a minute she was eight years old again and unscarred, still smiling, still believing in fairy tales and happy endings.

Jeremy was still the little boy who pulled at the ribbons on her new dress and teased her about the freckles on her nose.

But she wasnt eight. She was twenty-eight. Her mother had been dead for eighteen years. And Jeremy wasnt a little boy. He was the man who planned on destroying this church.

Eighteen years of pain tangled inside, keeping her feet planted in the vestibule. The little room where theyd once hung their coats was now draped in spiders webs, and mice ran from corner to corner. The old guestbook still rested on the shelf where it had been placed years ago. She flipped through the pages and stopped when she got to her name written in a childs penmanship. She remembered her mom standing behind her, smiling as Beth scrawled her name, proud that shed learned to sign it in cursive.

Too many memories. She didnt need all of them, she just needed to know the truth. If it was true, she would find a way to stop him. She walked down the aisle of the church, her booted feet echoing in the tall ceilinged building. She stopped and waited for everything to settle, for the memories to stop tugging at her. In this memory, her mom was next to her, singing. The piano rocked to a Southern gospel hymn. And behind her

Bethlehem Bradshaw, Ill tell on you.

His voice was soft in the quiet sanctuary. She turned, amazed that he could still unsettle her. He stood in the doorway, sunlight behind him, his face in shadows. She didnt need to see his face to know him. She knew that he had short, light brown hair and eyes the color of caramel toffee. She knew his smile, that it turned the left side of his mouth more than the right and always flashed white teeth. He walked with a swagger, his jeans hanging low on his hips and his T-shirt stretched tight across the shoulders of a man.

He was no longer a boy. He was lethal and dangerous. He had plans to destroy something that she wanted to protect.

Why would you do this? She hated that her voice shook. She despised that she wanted to run out the back door. The closer he got, the harder it was to breathe, to stand her ground.

She wanted to pound her fists against him and beg him to stop, to leave town and forget this church and whatever he had against the people of Dawson. Instead she stood, frozen, unable to do any of those things. Weak. She hated being weak. And afraid.

Why would I do what? Tease you? Jeremy Hightree stopped at the second pew from the front of the church, the one where shed sat with her mother so many years ago. He leaned against it, hip against the side of the wooden bench.

He had always teased her, she wanted to remind him. He would sit behind her and pull ribbons from her hair. Hed once dropped a plastic spider in her lap during Sunday school.

And he had picked a ragged bouquet of wildflowers the day of her mothers funeral and pushed them into Beths hands as she walked out the doors of the church with her brother Jason and her father. His brown eyes had been rimmed with red from crying and she had wanted to hug him because her mother had always hugged him.

Her mother had defended him. He was the son of her best friend from grade school. Other people had called him a dirty mess. Her mom had called him a little prince.

Beths feelings had fallen somewhere in between.

She stepped down off the stage, closer to him. One thing was for certain, he wasnt the dirty little boy anymore. He was a man who had traveled. He had won two world championships; one in bull riding and another in team roping. Little girls had posters of him in their bedrooms and little boys wanted to be him when they grew up.

Hed built a business from nothing.

So why this? Why now? It took a few minutes to gather her thoughts, to know how to respond to him. She needed the right words, the right emotions.

Why the church, Jeremy? You could buy any piece of land you wanted. You could leave the church and never think about it.

One shoulder lifted in indifference. Instead his gaze shot away from her and his jaw clenched. He was anything but indifferent.

Lets talk about something other than this church. Funny how people have neglected it for years and now everyone wants to talk about it. It was a public auction, Beth. Anyone could have bought it. I was the only one who showed up to bid.

I know. I guess we all thought someone else would take care of it. She hated admitting that to him and then begging him to let go of his plans.

He moved a few steps closer and Beth stood her ground. She didnt back away. She wouldnt let him get to her. And he could. She shivered and remembered. The memory was soft, sweet, jagged with emotion.

It was the briefest moment, the briefest memory. Yet shed never forgotten. They had as much history as this church. Theyd grown up together. Theyd shared a childhood.

Im sorry how things turned out with Chance. His voice changed, got a little rougher, a little less velvet than before.

You couldnt have known. No one would have guessed the abuse Chance was capable of. But it was over. The divorce had been finalized fifteen months ago.

Jeremy must have known something. He had tried to warn her what Chance was like. The day she left town, hed seen her waiting at the park and hed tried to tell her. But she had been desperate to escape.

Beth? His voice pulled her from the memories, from the darkness, back to the present and the problem at hand.

I dont want to talk about Chance.

I understand. And I dont want to talk about the church. It isnt personal, you know. Its a business decision.

Is it really? It seems personal to me.

He crossed his arms over a muscular chest. Maybe it is a little personal. Im tired of this memory and Im tired of this church standing like a beacon on this hill.

Thats a little drastic, dont you think? This church hasnt been a beacon in a dozen years.

One shoulder lifted again. I dont know, maybe. But its my story, not yours.

This church meant so much to She wasnt going to beg him. She breathed deep, willing herself not to cry.

It meant a lot to your mother.

His tone had changed again. The rough edges were gone. She looked up as he stood straight again and took a few steps in her direction. His steps were slow, calculated.

Had she really thought she could talk him out of this? A shared moment gave her no claim over him. Memories didnt give her a right to assume he would listen. His story in this church mattered to him, not the memory of a kiss they shared a dozen years ago.

Yes, it did mean a lot to her. But Beth had only been inside the building a handful of times since her mothers funeral. Eighteen years. After her mothers death her father had caught her here once and dragged her home.

Jeremy watched her. His smile faded a little. His eyes narrowed as he stared hard. His Native American heritage was evident in the smooth planes of his face, tanned a deep brown from working outside. But almost everyone in Dawson shared that heritage, that ancestry. Redheads, blonds, brunettes; hair color and eye color didnt dictate a lack of Native American ancestry. The people of Dawson were proud of that heritage, proud of their strength and resilience.

They were known for bouncing back, for not letting the past get them down.

The past was tied to everything, though. It was the shadow of pain in Jeremy Hightrees eyes. It held her own heart captive. It was the fear that clawed at her chest and woke her up in the middle of the night.

Im not sure what to tell you, Beth. Your mom meant a lot to me. But this church is

What? Tell me what this church ever did to you? She pinned him with a stare, hoping to make him squirm. Instead his expression softened, as if he understood her pain, and was hiding his own behind anger.

She remembered the boy with the bouquet, the one shed wanted to hug. She couldnt allow herself to compare him to that boy. Tell me, Jeremy, what will revenge do for you?

Well, now, the kitten had grown some claws. She stood in front of him, pint-size with dark eyes that flashed fear and fire simultaneously. Her dark brown hair hung in pigtails. She picked that moment to lick lips that trembled. He smiled and for a few minutes he didnt quite know what to say to her, because he was picturing her as a cornered kitten, shaking in her boots but ready to swipe at him. He had a lot of questions for her. He had questions about her life, about Chance Martin, about Dawson.

Instead of asking questions he shook his head and considered walking away. Shed mentioned revenge. He really didnt like that word.

And when shed said it, his decision didnt feel as good as it had even an hour earlier when hed stood outside picturing this hill without this church, without the memories that had been chasing him down, biting at his heels.

It isnt just about revenge. He shrugged and smiled at Bethlehem Bradshaw. Hed always been a fan of her full name, not the shortened version. The full name had meant something to her mother. And her mother had meant a lot to him. Shed done more for him than people would ever know.

That loyalty struck a raw nerve with him right now. Because Bethlehems mamma was gone and here was her daughter begging for something that woman would have wanted. She would have wanted this church to remain standing.

But he thought she would have cried at its condition now, because it hadnt been used in years and no one had cared to keep it maintained. She wouldnt have wanted that either.

Of course she would have told him to forgive.

Forgive his mother for being the town drunk. Forgive Tim Cooper for a tiny indiscretion more than thirty years ago and not owning up to it. As far as Jeremy was concerned, Tim Cooper didnt need his forgiveness. That was between Tim and Mrs. Cooper.

Jeremy had a truckload of bad memories. Hed learned early to fight for himself and his little sister. At eight he could make a mean box of mac and cheese. By the time he was ten he could sign his mothers signature on school permission slips. He learned to braid his little sisters hair and wash her clothes.

His sister, Elise, was married now. She and her husband owned a convenience store in Grove. They sold bait to fishermen and coffee mugs to tourists. Elise was big on forgiveness, too.

It looks a lot like revenge. Bethlehems soft voice intruded into his memories, shaking him up more than a green Oklahoma sky on a stormy afternoon.

Bethlehem, Im not sure what you want me to say.

Say you wont do this.

I cant say that. For the first time since hed bought the church, he had the biggest urge to forget his plans. Because of Beth.

Why not?

Jeremy shook his head to clear the thoughts. I have plans for this piece of property.

He needed a bigger shop for the custom bikes hed turned from a hobby into a business, an extension of the chain of motorcycle dealerships he owned.

Do you have plans or are you just angry?

He leaned in and then he regretted the move that put him a little too close to Bethlehem, close enough to see the flecks of gold in her brown eyes, close enough to get tangled in the soft scent of her perfume.

Man, she was summer sunshine. She was sweet, the way shed been sweet at sixteen. A guy couldnt forget a kiss stolen along a creek bank on a summer night.

Time to think fast and get the kid hed been back under the control of the man he now was. And she wasnt making that an easy thing to do.

Let me ask you a question. How many times have you been to church in the last dozen years or so?

She turned pink and glanced away from him. Were not talking about me. And I do go to church.

He smiled at that. Yeah, we werent talking about you. But now we are.

Because there was a scar across her brow. It ran into her hairline. A matching scar ran jagged down her arm. She shifted, uneasy, and crossed her arms in front of herself. This church wasnt the only thing hed like to tear down. If he ever got hold of Chance Martin, hed probably do the same to him.

But he doubted Chance would ever show his face in Dawson, not if he wanted to live. Because Jeremy figured he probably wasnt the only man in town that wanted to get hold of that coward.

Beths arms dropped to her sides and she took a few steps toward the door, her eyes shifting from him to the exit. He got that she needed to breathe, and he let her have the space.

At the door she turned to face him again.

Dont do this. Please. A tear streaked down her cheek.

He let out a sigh and shook his head. Bethlehem, Im sorry. I know why this church means something to you. It means something different to me.

I know and Im sorry.

Right.

Ill buy it from you. She spoke with renewed determination, her dark eyes flashing. You dont need this land. Do you even plan on staying here?

No, Im not staying here, not full time. I have a home in Tulsa.

Then dont do it. What will it accomplish? Who do you want to hurt?

He brushed a hand over the top of his head, over hair cut short, and moved it down to rub the back of his neck.

Im done with this conversation, Bethlehem.

Its a building. It didnt do anything to you.

He looked around, remembering. She was wrong about that. This building tied into a lot of anger. That anger had pushed him to battle it out on the backs of bulls. It had put him on a motorcycle, racing through the desert at speeds that would make most guys wet themselves like little girls.

When he looked at this building, there wasnt a good memory to hang on to. He glanced away from her, away from the second pew where her mother had sat, and he called himself a liar.

Good memories included potluck dinners when he got to sit with Bethlehem and her mother. He had other good memories, like the smile she gave him when she was fifteen and hed just won a local bull-riding event. Shed smiled and then hurried away with her friends, giggling and shooting glances back at him. Hers had lingered longest and when hed winked, shed turned pink and nearly tripped.

Bethlehem, I am going to tear this church down.

I feel sorry for you.

Yeah, lots of people do. But he didnt want her to be one of them.

Ill do what I can to stop you. I wont let you tear it down.

What would you do with it, Beth? Open it back up, sing songs on Sundays, serve potluck once a month? Its an old building. It should probably be condemned.

She shrugged and smiled a soft smile. He knew he was in serious trouble then. He got a feeling she was about to pull a one-two punch on him.

She stepped close, her smile pulling him closer.

Dont you feel it, Jeremy? After all these years, dont you feel it?

Yeah, hed seen it coming. No other woman had ever set him on his heels the way she could. Because he knew exactly what she meant and, yeah, he felt it. He felt the past. He felt God. He felt faith. All the things hed been ignoring and it hit him every single time he walked into this building. He felt hundreds of prayers that had been said, probably most of them for him, his little sister, and his mother.

He remembered Sunday school teachers who had brought him cookies. The pastor back then, Pastor Adkins, and his wife had bought Jeremy and his sister school clothes and Christmas presents.

But all of those good memories got lost, tied up with the bad, when he remembered Tim Cooper on the front pew with his family. Each Sunday theyd showed up in their van, wearing new clothes and happy smiles. When hed been about six years old there were only a few Cooper kids. As the years went by, the clan grew. The Coopers had about a half dozen kids of their own. They added about a half dozen adopted children.

Jeremy had sat two pews back across the aisle, without a family to have Sunday lunch with, without a dad.





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