Listen to Your Heartñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“My cell phone number is on the card, so please feel free to call. Did your cousin have reason to think you might be in danger?”
Laurel forced a laugh. “Of course not. We’re perfectly safe.”
But considering the telephone call and the letter in her purse, Laurel hoped her optimistic words had disguised her inner turmoil from her daughter Debbie and from Michah.
“Cousin Kevin is a worrywart,” Debbie said. “We have nothing to fear from our neighbors, and travelers wouldn’t know there’s a house out here.”
“But you are isolated,” Michah insisted, “so please contact me if you need anything. I’ll be here almost every night.”
Michah’s eyes revealed a warm tenderness and concern that made Laurel’s heart beat faster. Knowing his strength and intelligence were at her beck and call gave her the assurance that she desperately needed.
Writing has been a lifelong interest of this author, who says that she started her first novel when she was eleven years old and hasn’t finished it yet. However, since 1984 she’s published thirty-two contemporary and historical novels and three nonfiction titles. She started writing professionally in 1977 after she completed her master’s degree in history at Marshall University. Irene taught in secondary public schools for twenty-three years, but retired in 1989 to devote herself to writing.
Consistent involvement in the activities of her local church has been a source of inspiration for Irene’s work. Traveling with her husband, Rod, to all fifty states, and to thirty-two foreign countries has also inspired her writing. Irene is grateful to the many readers who have written to say that her inspiring stories and compelling portrayals of characters with strong faith have made a positive impression on their lives. You can write to her at P.O. Box 2770, Southside, WV 25187 or visit her Web site at www.irenebrand.com.
Listen to Your Heart
But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.
–II Thessalonians 3:3
To Carlene Thompson, a fellow writer and former student, whose fiction books have earned her a noteworthy reputation in the world of mystery and suspense.
And to Keith Biggs, also a former student, who contributes to my writing career by keeping my computers in working condition.
Letter to Reader
Persistent rain drummed a staccato rhythm on the tin roof of the back porch as Laurel Cooper leaned a ladder against the outside wall of her Tennessee antebellum home.
“There would have to be another downpour before that lazy contractor got here,” Laurel fumed.
She tied her raincoat’s hood over her red hair and climbed the ladder. Laurel shook her fist at an offending eaves spout, which, rather than draining as it should, was spewing water into her favorite bed of hostas.
Laurel had learned to do a lot of things since she’d been the owner of Oaklawn, but this was the first time she’d tackled a leak in the middle of a thunderstorm. The raincoat provided some protection from the torrent as she took a hammer out of one of her pockets, stuck some nails in her mouth and leaned toward a metal strap that had broken and caused the gutter to separate. She scowled at several miniature ponds in her landscaping. With all of these delays, how could she possibly beautify Oaklawn in time for Debbie’s August wedding just three months from now?
Believing she was alone, Laurel almost fell off the ladder when a loud knock sounded at the nearby door. Recovering her balance, she peered through the screened back porch. Protected by a large umbrella, a man stood at the door.
“It’s high time you got here,” Laurel shouted above a roll of thunder. “I’ve been waiting two days for you to come and do what should have been done weeks ago.”
“I beg your pardon,” the man said.
“And so you should,” Laurel answered crossly. “My hostas are about ruined. Come and fix this leak.”
He left the doorstep and walked languidly toward her. She didn’t recognize him, but the contractor who’d renovated her home employed a lot of people. She’d seen many different workers during the renovation. As this man approached, Laurel backed down the ladder. She extended the hammer and nails to him, irritated that a workman would appear on her doorstep empty-handed.
A smile seemed to lurk at the corners of his mouth, but his vivid blue eyes were unfathomable. He laid aside the umbrella, took the hammer and nails and obediently climbed the ladder. “It isn’t funny!” Laurel said angrily. “I spent more money than I can afford on this project, and this is the fourth time I’ve had to have one of your workers redo something.”
The workman winced when a spurt of water splashed his face and drenched the front of his shirt.
Laurel bit her lips to stifle further comments, since her conscience hurt a little because the man was getting soaked. Maybe she should have delayed the repair until the rain was over, but she couldn’t afford to replace the plants. Besides, why would he come to work on a day like this dressed only in a cotton shirt and dress trousers? And without any tools? She knew reliable workers were hard to find, but this was ridiculous!
With a few deft movements, the man squeezed the guttering together, pounded three nails in the brace that held the guttering to the building, and the leak was fixed. Still atop the ladder, he turned and said, “Is the work satisfactory now, ma’am?”
His long, thick black hair, dusted with gray, was plastered to his head. Compelling blue eyes gleamed from his square, tanned face. He wasn’t a particularly handsome man, but his clinging wet clothes revealed a tall, rugged, perfectly proportioned body. Why did she have the feeling he was laughing at her?
Laurel realized she’d been staring at the man when he prodded, “If the work suits you, I’d like to find a drier place. I’m reminded of my dad’s expression about people who didn’t know enough to come in out of the rain.”
Annoyed because of his suspected levity, Laurel answered tartly, “As long as the water is going down the gutter, it’s okay. I’m sorry you got wet, but you should know better than to come to work on a day like this without a raincoat. Come inside, there’s something else I want you to do.”
Micah Davidson stepped down and handed the hammer to Laurel. He shouldered the ladder and set it on the porch, then picked up his umbrella and joined her. His humor at the situation was tempered by the fact that he was drenched.
“Ma’am,” he said, “let me introduce myself—”
“This way,” Laurel said, and motioned imperiously. He followed her into the broad entryway of the palatial mansion. She untied the hood, shrugged out of her raincoat and hung it on the rack by the door.
Micah’s eyes widened appreciably. The woman’s red hair, with tints of reddish gold, clung to her head in short curls. She had alabaster skin and a petite body, giving her an appearance of fragile beauty. Judging by the way she’d been bossing him around, she certainly wasn’t frail. Her green eyes flashed like neon lights when she was angry, and he thought humorously that, with her red hair and green eyes, her head would make a good Christmas tree ornament. He still had no idea who she was.
Laurel placed her right foot on the bottom step of the curved, hanging stairway in the central hall. The board wiggled back and forth beneath her sturdy white shoes.
“That board hasn’t been nailed down, and it’s an accident waiting to happen. My daughter tripped on it last week.”
Micah’s lips twitched as he said, “I’ll have to borrow your hammer again. And maybe a nail or two.”
“Just a minute!” Laurel said, suspicion dawning in her mind. “Why’d you come to work without any tools? Aren’t you from Bowman’s Contractors?”
Because of a sudden flash of embarrassment, Laurel’s temper flared again, and she said, “Why didn’t you say so?”
“I tried to, ma’am.”
“Oh, stop calling me ma’am. My name is Laurel Cooper. Who are you anyway?”
“What’s your business here?”
He reached into his damp pants pocket, pulled out a leather case and handed her a business card.
“Micah Davidson—Photojournalist,” she read in a subdued voice. Laurel turned away from him and covered her face with both hands. He sensed she was close to tears.
“My miserable temper is always getting me into trouble,” she confessed in a muffled voice. “I’m so humiliated. Please go away, Mr. Davidson, and save me further embarrassment.” She turned toward him with downcast eyes peeking out over her hands. “Although I suppose I should be polite enough to ask what brought you to Oaklawn.”
“I noticed a sign along the highway indicating you have apartments for rent. I have an assignment in this area and I need a place to live for a few weeks.”
Still refusing to meet his eyes, she stared at the floor. “Would you like to come back later when you have dry clothing? I’m sure you must be miserable.”
“My luggage is in the car. If I can rent one of your apartments, I’ll have a place to change my clothes. Do you have anything available?”
“I have a vacant upstairs apartment. The central part of the house was built in 1830, but a two-story ell was added around 1900. I had that wing converted into four apartments when I inherited this house two years ago. They’re modern and quite comfortable. Come with me, and I’ll let you see the rooms. Most of my renters are students at nearby Walden College and are on summer break now. I hold their rooms for them through the summer at a reduced rate.”
Laurel motioned him to follow her through the rear door into a large flower garden, bordered by a white wooden fence. The thunderstorm had passed, leaving a moist, fragrant scent to the newly mowed grass. Drops of moisture decorated dozens of rosebushes, enhancing the sweet aroma of the flowering buds. An industrious robin pulled a fat worm from the damp ground and hopped across the wet grass to feed her fledgling off-spring. Micah surveyed his surroundings with pleasure. For years he’d rambled around the world with no place to call home. Why did he now experience the comfortable peace of belonging?
“I’m on assignment to photograph and write an article on antebellum homes in Tennessee and Kentucky,” Micah explained, “and Oaklawn is one of the houses on my list. I hope you’ll let me feature your home in my article.”
Laurel slanted a glance his way. His deep voice contained a pleasant hint of huskiness. “That would be wonderful! This house has been in my husband’s family for generations. I’m often overwhelmed by its vastness, but it’s my daughter’s heritage, and I’m trying to maintain it for her.”
Micah discreetly glanced at Laurel’s hands. Seeing no wedding band, he decided she must be a widow, or she wouldn’t have been the one to inherit the home.
Laurel opened the door into a two-room apartment with a small kitchenette. “It’s warm in here now, but there’s a window air conditioner,” she explained. “A senior at the college moved out of the apartment when she graduated last week. It’s been thoroughly cleaned since then, so it’s ready for occupancy if it suits you.”
Micah had noted the rent rate posted on the door, and he said, “Exactly what I need. I’ve already finished my research on Kentucky’s houses and I want to make my headquarters at one location in Tennessee while I travel to the various homes I’m researching. I’ll move in now, if that’s all right.”
“Yes, that’s fine with me.” She turned on the air conditioner and showed him where extra towels and linens could be found. With her hand on the doorknob, Laurel looked directly into his eyes, the first time she’d had the courage to do so since she’d learned what a terrible mistake she’d made.
“I apologize for my behavior. I’ve always had a quick temper, and just when I think I have it under control, I act like a shrew. Oaklawn is more than I can handle physically and financially, but my daughter, Debbie, wants to be married here in August. I thought the place should be renovated for that, but the expense has been more than I’d expected. When I worry about my finances, I get irritable. I’m sorry.”
Realizing that she was boring this man with her personal problems, she turned away. He’d come to rent an apartment, and she’d not only bawled him out for something that wasn’t his fault, but now she was complaining about her financial affairs. She closed the door and left without another word.
Micah had seen the quick rush of tears that glazed Laurel’s emerald eyes, and his heart reacted strangely. At first he’d been amused at her caustic comments, but now he felt sorry for her. While he’d been researching other homes, he had met numerous widows who lived in houses that were burdensome, but homes they felt obliged to retain for their children.
While Micah carried his luggage into the apartment, he looked more closely at the large redbrick house, understanding Laurel’s frustration. Judging from other homes of this period, he figured the main structure contained eight rooms or more. If he was responsible for a house like Oaklawn, he’d be short-tempered, too.
Debbie had been away for ten days visiting her fianc?’s family in Colorado, but Laurel expected her home for dinner. Conscious of the fact that she’d only have her daughter for a few more months, Laurel prepared some of Debbie’s favorite foods for a homecoming dinner.
Laurel had just shaped a pan of rolls and set them aside to rise, when she heard Debbie’s voice on the back porch. “Hey, Mom. I’m home. Where are you?”
“In the kitchen.”
It had been this way since Debbie had started kindergarten—she always called for her mother as soon as she entered the house. Debbie swept into the kitchen and hugged Laurel. She picked up a carrot from the tray of vegetables Laurel was preparing.
Tears formed in Laurel’s eyes, and she looked away to keep Debbie from seeing. She liked Debbie’s boyfriend, Dereck, and she wanted them to get married, but it would have been so much easier if he’d gotten a job closer to Oaklawn.
“Missed you, Mom,” Debbie said, giving her mother a hug.
“Me, too. How was your trip?” Laurel asked around the knot in her throat.
“Great! Dereck’s grandparents live on a ranch, and we spent one day with them. I’d met his parents before, but it was neat to get better acquainted with them. Their home is a lot smaller than ours, and not nearly as old. Dereck and I looked around for apartments and found one we liked. It’s occupied now, but will be free by September. We paid a month’s rent for deposit. I took some pictures to show you where I’ll be living.”
Debbie perched on a high stool and nibbled on the carrot. While she elaborated on the good points of the town that would be her home, Laurel smothered a sigh, already missing her daughter. Debbie’s narrow, candid brown eyes mirrored her excitement, and Laurel wondered how she’d ever given birth to a child who was so different from herself.
Debbie had none of Laurel’s physical characteristics, and while she didn’t look like her father, she bore a marked resemblance to her paternal grandmother, whose youthful portrait hung over the mantel in the parlor. Debbie had a heart-shaped face, with a little nose, uptilted at the end. She wore her light brown hair in a layered bob with a sideswept bang. At five feet nine inches tall, she was a half foot taller than her petite mother. Debbie was even-tempered, a trait she hadn’t inherited from either of her parents, for Jason’s temper had matched Laurel’s own. Perhaps that was one reason they couldn’t get along.
“Anything new happening?” Debbie asked, halting Laurel’s musings.
“I rented our vacant apartment this afternoon, so that will help pay the bills. I didn’t expect to rent it until the fall classes started at the college.”
When she recalled her meeting with Micah, Laurel felt her face flushing, and she was aware that Debbie watched her intently. Her embarrassment was still too keen to talk about her blunder, and Laurel was relieved when Debbie assumed the wrong reason for her mother’s heated cheeks.
“Mom, we’re spending too much money on the wedding. I can cut back on several things.”
“No. You’ve always dreamed of a big wedding, and you should have what you want. I want the house to look nice for the wedding. Dereck’s parents are paying for the rehearsal dinner, and our church family is helping out with food for the reception. We’ve already paid for your dress, so there shouldn’t be a lot more expense. We’ll manage.”
“What’s the new renter like?”
“He has an interesting profession. He’s a photojournalist, and he’s doing a magazine article on antebellum homes in the area. He wants to feature Oaklawn.”
“Awesome! Maybe it’s a good thing you fixed up the old place. What’s his name?”
“Oh, I’ve heard of him! He’s world-renowned. His work has been featured on the Discovery Channel and in the National Geographic.”
A world-renowned journalist and she’d treated him like an errant child! Remembering her faux pas, Laurel wondered what Micah must think of her.
“Will I have time to take my bags upstairs and unpack before supper?” Debbie asked.
“It will be almost an hour before the rolls are ready, so take your time.”
While she did a load of laundry and finished supper preparations, Laurel was aware of Micah’s movements as he unloaded his car. He left for a short time and came back with two bags from the grocery store. She supposed it would have been a neighborly gesture to invite him to eat with them, although Laurel didn’t normally socialize with her renters. But she hadn’t had a tenant so near her own age before.
After dinner Debbie went to a party, and since a wispy rainbow indicated a fair evening, Laurel sat on the gallery. The house faced west, and the favorite part of Laurel’s day was to sit in a large rocking chair, listening to the birds settling for the night and inhaling the fragrance of the flower gardens, while watching the sun set beyond the distant hills. The scent of roses was especially strong tonight.
Most times when she enjoyed the beauty of her surroundings, Laurel’s thoughts were pleasant, but not this evening. It was always this way when she lost her temper. She couldn’t remember how many times she’d sat here and asked God’s forgiveness for her anger. Every time she thought she’d conquered this weakness, she’d stumble again. She’d lost her temper so many times, it was amazing that she had any left.
God, she silently prayed, I know Your word teaches to be “slow to become angry,” but I did it again today. I don’t know why You don’t lose patience with me, because I’m disobedient so often. But, God, I don’t know what the future holds, and I’m afraid. Debbie will be leaving in a few months to live in another state, and I’ll be rattling around this old house alone. I have so much to be thankful for, so please forgive me for feeling sorry for myself. Since Jason’s parents left the property to me to maintain for Debbie, I feel obligated to stay here. I do love this old place. But sometimes it seems like an albatross around my neck.
As Debbie’s wedding date loomed closer, Laurel often experienced her rising fear of being alone. Her daughter had been her whole life for twenty-two years. She didn’t want Debbie to suspect her feelings because it would make her sad. But she was determined that Debbie wouldn’t realize what a void she was leaving. She would have to develop a new life. She needed to find a job to pay for the renovations, although she knew it would be difficult to venture out on her own after living a sheltered life.
After her husband, Jason, had disappeared in a boating accident, Laurel had dated a few times, but his parents were so opposed to it that she’d given up male companionship rather than live with conflict. Since Jason’s body had never been recovered, his parents wouldn’t admit that he was really dead, but Laurel had never doubted his death. Jason had been an irresponsible husband, but Laurel didn’t believe that he would have deliberately abandoned his family for twenty years. She had never considered remarrying when Debbie was growing up, but now that her daughter was leaving home, perhaps it was time for her to find a companion, someone to date and possibly marry down the line.
Gently, Laurel rocked back and forth, considering her options for a new lifestyle. Micah Davidson walked around the corner of the house with a check in his hand. He came briskly up the steps.
“Good evening, Mrs. Cooper. I’m pleased with the apartment. Here’s a month’s rent.”
Since the man didn’t seem to resent her crabby behavior, his presence didn’t embarrass Laurel now. She wondered momentarily how old he was. He must be in his late forties, for deep, calipered lines had formed around his generous mouth and streaks of gray frosted his dark hair.
“Won’t you sit down?” she invited. “There’s going to be a brilliant sunset soon.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî