Read Lakeside Sweetheart Online
Authors: Lenora Worth
An Unexpected Homecoming
Returning to her hometown to clear out her late mother's house, Vanessa Donovan's goal is to do the job quickly and escape. She refuses to get involved with Rory Sanderson, her handsome neighbor. And she can't let herself be dazzled by his smile and caring ways. Because if there's one thing Vanessa won't do, it's fall for a minister. While the pastor in Rory wants to mend Vanessa's wounds, the man in him can't resist the beautiful woman. But while he's helping her, Vanessa is doing the unthinkableâhealing his own deep scars and opening his heart...if he can convince her that love is worth the risk.
“You don't have to be alone.”
“I don't need help.” She panicked as she imagined him being at the house with her every day, watching her.
As he walked away, he said over his shoulder, “I hope one day you stop seeing me as the enemy and let me be your friend.”
“I can't,” she said, tears burning her eyes. He was a minister. “I can't be your friend, Rory.”
“Or you can't let
be your friend?” Before she could answer, he turned back. “I came here today because I saw someone in need. Not as a minister but as a person.”
And then he was gone.
Vanessa wanted to run after him. But she had to be strong and fight the temptation. She'd taken care of herself for a long time now. Why should she believe a sweet-talking preacher who made her feel safe?
Her confusing thoughts about Rory had to stop. Because growing close to him would be a bad idea.
So why did she want to believe him?
With sixty books published and millions in print,
writes award-winning romance and romantic suspense. Three of her books finaled in the ACFW Carol Awards, and her Love Inspired Suspense novel
Body of Evidence
New York Times
bestseller. Her novella in
made her a
bestselling author. Lenora goes on adventures with her retired husband, Don, and enjoys reading, baking and shoppingâ¦especially shoe shopping.
Books by Lenora Worth
Men of Millbrook Lake
Love Inspired Supense
Men of Millbrook Lake
Her Holiday Protector
Secret Agent Minister
Deadly Texas Rose
A Face in the Shadows
Heart of the Night
Code of Honor
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Jesus said to her, Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
To my cousin Nancy Anderson.
So glad you are back in our lives!
e always noticed new faces at church.
As minister of the Millbrook Lake Church, Rory Sanderson had a bird's-eye view of the entire congregation, including everyone from Mrs. Fanny Fitzpatrick in her fake-fruit-covered straw hat to Alec Caldwell's aunt Hattie in her pearls and baby-blue pillbox.
But one person stood out today more than all the others.
Maybe because her discomfort could have shattered the rows of stained glass windows lining each side of the tiny chapel. The doubtful expression made her look a little lost, but her light brown hair shimmered with a luster that reminded him of sea oats at sunrise. He couldn't tell much about her eyes. She wore dark shades.
But he felt pretty sure those hidden eyes were staring straight at him. She must be one of those. Someone had obviously invited her to the service today. And she so did not want to be here.
Rory took that as a challenge. He accepted the woman's distrust with a smile and a prayer. That was his job, after all. To turn that frown upside down. To bring the lost home. To make the backsliders and unbelievers faithful. Especially on such a beautiful spring day. A day full of rebirth and renewal. The best kind of day.
The whole flock, maybe the whole town, had turned out in their Easter finery. And they all had smiles on their faces.
Except for that one, of course. The one in the pretty yellow dress that reminded him of picnics and wildflowers, wearing those dark Wayfarers and that shell-shocked expression. And Rory had to wonder. What had made this woman so reluctant to be here today?
* * *
“You could try smiling,” Marla Caldwell said into Vanessa Donovan's ear. “It won't break your face.”
“I told you I don't do church,” Vanessa replied, uneasiness making her fidget. Tugging her turquoise floral wrap over her bare arms, she glanced around. “I only came because you invited me. And because I want some of that good food your mother and Aunt Hattie bribed us withâI meanâpromised to usâfor Sunday dinner.”
“They are not above bribery,” Marla said with a grin, her red-gold ponytail bouncing. “But church will do you good, you'll see. It sure can't hurt you.”
Marla could afford to tease. She was still a newlywed. Happy and settled and very much in love with a former marine who lived in a big Victorian house not far from Vanessa's smaller Craftsman-style cottage. After a Christmas wedding, Marla and her cute preschooler, Gabby, now lived in that rambling house with handsome Alec Caldwell and his adorable aunt Hattie and two dogs. One big, happy family.
Something Vanessa would never have. But she didn't care about all of that anyway, she reminded herself.
Glad for her friend, Vanessa remembered she didn't believe in that sort of thing. She was a realist who'd decided long ago that marriage and family weren't for her. Marla teased her about being too pessimistic and cynical, but Vanessa was practical and resolved. Resolved to a life that didn't include a long-term relationship or attending church or bouncing a baby on her lap.
“I'm not quite ready to dive right in,” Vanessa said, her eyes on the cute guy up front greeting everyone as if he owned the place. “What's the story with Surfer Dude?”
Marla giggled. “You mean Preacher? His name is Rory Sanderson. He does look like a surfer with that dark-blond hair, and he's pretty good at surfing and a lot of other things, now that I think about it. But his real passion is right here inside this church. He's our minister and he's good at his job. Amazing, considering he's all alone. No wife or children. Every matron in this congregation has tried to fix him up, but I think he's holding out for someone special.”
Vanessa shook her head, shocked that someone so young and, well, hip, could be a preacher. “Right. Or he's so caught up in himself that he doesn't really see the audience.”
“Not an audience. A congregation,” Marla replied. “And you're wrong about Rory. He doesn't have an ego.” She waved to a couple who sat down behind them and then pointed them out to Vanessa. “That's Alec's best friend, Blain Kentâhe's also a former marine and is now a detective with the Millbrook Policeâand his fiancÃ©e, Rikki Alvanetti. She's an interior designer. They're getting married in a few weeks.”
Vanessa nodded and smiled at the couple. They'd make pretty babies since they both had dark hair and expressive eyesâhers almost black and his deep blueâand looked exotic and buff. And happy.
Everyone in this place seemed happy.
Chiding herself for being in such a snarky mood, she turned back to the front again. That minister seemed to be watching her. This hour couldn't get over with fast enough.
Then because she did feel guilty even thinking that, Vanessa lifted her eyes to one of the beautiful stained glass windows and asked God to give her a better perspective.
When she lowered her gaze, the cute preacher with the boyish grin and the dark-blond wind-tossed hair looked right at her and smiled. And then he did something even more daring. He came down from the front of the church and headed straight to the pew where Vanessa sat.
“Is he going toâ”
“Yes, he is,” Marla said with a grin. When he stopped near them, she said, “Preacher Rory, this is my friend Vanessa Donovan. She moved back to town a couple of weeks ago.”
“Not moved back,” Vanessa corrected. “I came back to take care of some things.”
The preacher took Vanessa's hand, shaking it lightly before he stood back and smiled, his baby blue eyes centered on Vanessa as if she were the only person in this place. “It's nice to meet you, Vanessa. Welcome to Millbrook Lake Church.”
“Uh...thanks,” Vanessa said, a white heat of embarrassment moving up her spine. “It's nice to meet you, too.”
He spoke to a few more people and then turned back to Vanessa. “Happy Easter.”
She watched as he headed toward the back and greeted almost everyone else who entered the open double doors. “He's so friendly,” she whispered to Marla. “I'm not sure how to take that.”
Marla glanced back and then turned to Vanessa. “You know, you need to let go of that cynical attitude. Preacher is solid. He's a good man. He was a chaplain in the army.”
“What?” Vanessa looked over her shoulder. “That sunny, happy, goofy man served in the military?”
“He sure did,” Marla replied. “And...he wasn't always so sunny and happy and goofy.”
Faith is the substance of things hoped for
Vanessa thought about that verse of scripture on the short ride back to Alec and Marla's house. Why did that particular verse seem to move through her like the blue waters of the big oval lake centered in the middle of town?
Maybe it wasn't the verse so much as the preacher who'd read it. Rory Sanderson didn't preach. He talked. In a quiet, friendly tone that made you think he really was talking to you and only you. Which irritated Vanessa. She didn't want to like the man, but some of what he'd said made sense.
She had listened, too. He'd pointed out how Jesus liked to hang out with the misfits and the outsiders. How a lot of those kinds of people were there during His Crucifixion.
But she had to wonder if the misfits and losers had been allowed in the church today. Everyone at the service had seemed so fresh faced and full of joy. Were they all that happy, or had they been hiding their pain behind a pretty facade?
Vanessa didn't know and it really didn't matter. She probably wouldn't go back to Millbrook Lake Church. She hadn't been to church in a long, long time. And she didn't plan on staying in Millbrook for too long either.
Clean out the house. Sell the house. Pocket the cash. Get on with her life. Whatever that life might be. Right now, she had a solid team looking out for her interests, and she had a boutique and online business waiting for her back in New Orleans. So she took a deep breath and decided she'd try to be grateful for being invited to share a nice meal with Marla's family. She could deal with other people's families, but she did not need one of her own.
Pulling her small car up to the side drive next to Caldwell House, Vanessa got out and took in the scents of jasmine and wisteria, thankful that she didn't have to spend this gorgeous day alone.
But when she looked up and saw a man strolling up the sidewalk, she silently groaned.
The preacher headed toward her. And she had the sinking feeling he would be at Sunday dinner, too.
* * *
Rory waved to the woman who emerged from the cute little blue vintage roadster. Vanessa Donovan, still wearing those shades. She'd taken them off during the service, but he had yet to see her eyes up close. He'd been too busy preaching it to a full house. Now he might be able to have some one-on-one time with the interesting woman who stood staring at him as if she wanted to get back in the car and haul herself far away from here.
“How are you?” he asked, determined to make her take off those ridiculously big shades. He was pretty sure they were missing from the 1960s, too. And maybe even the dress.
But she made all of these old-fashioned things fresh and new.
“I'm good.” She held a straw purse embellished with a big white daisy that Mrs. Fitzpatrick would surely love and met him at the intricate gate to the back garden. “I...I enjoyed your sermon.”
Polite but cool
. “Thank you. I'm glad you made it to the service today. How do you know Marla?”
She looked relieved to move away from the topic of church. “We were friends in high school briefly and then we ran into each other in Tallahassee before I moved to New Orleans. I'm so glad she's found someone. She deserves to be happy.” Then she winced. “Oh, wow. That sounded so clichÃ©.”
Rory laughed and walked with her up the steps onto the back porch. Aunt Hattie and Marla had the porch decorated with white lace tablecloths and all kinds of fresh flowers. “But it's true. Marla and Alec are meant for each other. They had their wedding reception right here in the garden, in December.”
“So I heard. Sounds beautiful.”
“And romantic,” he said with a grin. “One of the many perks of my job. I presided over their vows. Chilly weather but warm atmosphere.”
She finally took off her shades and gave him a doubting stare with big hazel eyes that went from brown to green in a beautiful flash. But before Rory could counter her skeptical expression with something positive, the back door opened and little Gabby came running out, followed by two dogs.
“Hello, Uncle Rory,” Gabby said, squealing in delight as both animals ran circles around Rory and Vanessa. “Angus, stop. Roxie, quit being so silly.”
Rory squatted down and smiled at Gabby, careful not to get too close. The four-year-old had the little poodle Roxie for a reason, and Roxie sometimes wore a service vest for a reason. The tiny dog was trained to keep Gabby calm whenever she felt threatened or afraid. Which happened less and less these days, thankfully. The little girl had gone through a lot of trauma after being involved in a robbery that took her daddy's life.
“Hello, Gabby,” he said. “This is my new friend, Vanessa. Don't you love her pretty dress?”
Gabby grabbed Roxie and stood back to stare up at Vanessa with big brown eyes. Bobbing her head in agreement with Rory's question, she asked, “Are you eating dinner with us?”
“I am,” Vanessa said, clearly uncomfortable with the whole Sunday-dinner thing. Or maybe the child made her uncomfortable. “Is that okay?”
Gabby showed a snaggletoothed grin. “Yes, ma'am. Are you hungry? We have ham and mashed potatoes and asp-per-gus. I don't like that, though.”
“I don't either,” Rory said, grinning. “But I love me some mashed potatoes.”
“And I like ham and asparagus,” Vanessa said. “I hear your mother made cupcakes and pies, too.”
Gabby did a little back and forth sway, her print dress swishing. “Uh-huh. She made Easter cupcakes with bunnies and flowers and grass. I'm gonna eat two.”
“And I'll eat three at least,” Rory said, glad that Vanessa was warming up to the little girl. Gabby would sense it if Vanessa wasn't comfortable.
“Hello there.” Aunt Hattie came strolling out, her arms wide open and her cheeky smile warm. “Welcome, welcome. I'm so glad you're both here and that you found each other out there.”
“We did,” Rory said, shooting Vanessa an encouraging glance. “Ran into each other by the gate.”
“Did that hurt?” Gabby asked, her eyes wide again.
Aunt Hattie hooted with laughter. “Out of the mouths of babes.”
“I don't know yet,” Rory said, his gaze still on Vanessa. “It wasn't too painful to me. How about you, Vanessa?”
She smiled and shook her head. “We're fine, Gabby.”
Then she walked with Aunt Hattie into the house, leaving Rory to wonder if
ever be fine again.
Of all the people he'd seen in church this morning, why did this woman have to be the one who'd come to dinner at the Caldwells'? And why did she have to be the one who'd left him wondering and wanting to help her when he didn't even know what she needed?
God always put people in certain places for a reason. Vanessa was here for a reason. Rory should know better than anyone that humans didn't make their own paths.
Sometimes God put a woman in a bright yellow dress right smack-dab in the middle of the road so she could be found.
And sometimes He stopped a hopeful preacher cold in his tracks just to keep him on his toes. For a brief moment guilt gnawed at his conscience, but Rory took in the scent of flowers all around him and nodded. No matter what happened, this spring was glorious.