Authors: Victoria Bylin
Tags: #Caregivers—Fiction., #Dating—Fiction
© 2014 by Victoria Bylin
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook edition created 2014
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Paul Higdon with Andrea Gjeldum
Author is represented by The Steele-Perkins Literary Agency
To Sara Mitchell
Lover of adjectives
Dear sister in Christ
Play the tape!
Loose yourself from the chains
around your neck,
O captive daughter of Zion.
he august sky radiated a perfect blue
as Leona Darby carried her morning coffee out to the deck surrounding her log home in Meadows, a small community in the Southern California mountains. The blue jays wanted their daily peanuts, and she needed her moment of quiet. Never mind a nagging headache and the stiffness of old age. For the past twenty-two years, most of them with her husband, Alex, she had started the day by lifting her eyes to Mount Abel, the balding peak behind the house they had built together.
Alex was gone now, but Leona still ran the
, the newspaper they started when Alex sold his photography business. Their only son, Peter, had died long before her husband had, and Peter’s wife died of cancer several years later. Only Leona’s granddaughter was left to carry on the Darby family traditions.
Leona curled her gnarled fingers around the steaming cup, closed her eyes, and prayed the prayer she had murmured
every day since Kate was born twenty-nine years ago. “Protect her, Lord. Be with her . . .” Tears welled in her faded eyes, because Kate was lost—seeking without finding, knocking on doors that led to empty rooms, and asking for things she didn’t need.
“I’d do anything for her, Lord,” Leona prayed.
The dull ache in her head expanded like a balloon, pressing and pushing until the pain exploded in a burst of light. Her coffee cup crashed to the deck, but she barely heard the thud. Neither did she feel the hot liquid on her open-toed slippers or the thump of her body hitting the redwood planks. Her mind shattered into silvery shards, each one a picture of the past—Alex aiming his Nikon at a condor landing in a stream bed. Peter playing fetch with the family dog. She saw her parents, her deceased brothers, cousins, friends, family pets.
Oh, what a glorious time!
It became more glorious still, when Alex lowered his old Nikon F, smiled and winked in that special way, then reached for her hand. Heaven was a pulse away, a last breath. She yearned to go home, but a shadow cast by giant wings blocked the light. The mirrors dulled to pewter, and she understood her glimpse of heaven was only that—a glimpse, a gift to sustain her, because her work on earth wasn’t finished.
Twelve hours later she woke up in the ICU with a needle in her arm, a tube in her nose, and a clip on her finger.
She dragged her eyelids upward and saw Kate at her bedside, grown-up Kate with her father’s blue-green eyes, eyes now damp with tears. Wanting to comfort her, Leona opened her mouth to say she’d be all right. “Buh-buh-buh—”
She tried again. “Buh—” Gibberish.
Dear Lord, what’s wrong?
With her heart pounding, she mentally recited her name and age, address, birth date, and even her Medicare number. Next she tested her arms. She could move the left one but not the right. Her legs were in the same state of confusion.
“Buh-buh-buh!” She lay trapped in her body, paralyzed, and unable to speak.
Tears blurred her vision, but Kate’s steady voice calmed her. “Nonnie, you had a stroke. We’ll face it together. I promise.”
“It’s going to take time, but the doctor says you can recover.” Even as a child, Kate had been optimistic to the point of pain. “You’re going to need help when you go home. If you’d like, I could move in with you for a while.”
No! I’d rather go to a nursing
home than be a burden.
Leona shook her head as hard as she could.
“I know you’ve always been independent.” A smile tipped on Kate’s lips. “I am, too.”
Yes, you are.
“But right now my life’s . . . confusing.”
Leona hoped her eyes asked the question.
me, honey. What’s wrong?
“You know Joel left.”
“Work isn’t going well, either. Remember the Eve’s Garden account?”
Eve Landon was Leona’s favorite actress of all time. She also owned a famous spa, and Kate had designed the advertising. Leona would never forget the birthday when her granddaughter surprised her with Eve’s autograph.
Kate squared her shoulders. “Eve put off going national until sometime next year. Without that account, there’s a chance I’ll be laid off. Taking a leave right now is a good idea.”
Oh, honey. I
“So,” Kate said with her typical brightness. “Moving in with you would be good for both of us.”
With utter clarity, Leona recalled her glimpse of heaven and the claim she’d do anything—
—for her granddaughter. God, it seemed, had taken her at her word. Before Leona went home to heaven, she had one last mission. Kate still needed her, and Leona knew exactly what she had to do. Even with her knotted tongue and limp right hand, she had to tell Kate about the condors.
ate darby clutched the steering wheel
of her BMW with both hands. According to the state of California, San Miguel Highway was only the twenty-sixth most dangerous road in the state. That’s why the county refused to pay for guardrails to protect motorists from the cliffs looming on the outer edge of the slick asphalt. October drizzle collected on the windshield, blurring the steep drops until the wipers brought the view back with startling clarity. The mountains plummeted three hundred feet to the valley floor, and the highway twisted so tightly she could see four sharp turns ahead of her.
She couldn’t imagine driving this road more than occasionally, but that’s what she’d be doing for the next two months, or until Leona recovered enough to live alone and go back to overseeing the
. The stroke had occurred six long weeks ago. After a two-week stint in the hospital, Leona was transferred to Sierra Rehab for four weeks of therapy of all kinds—physical, occupational, and speech. She could feed herself now, bathe, and get around with a walker, but she still couldn’t talk. The prognosis was uncertain. The doctors
and therapists all said the same thing. Only time would tell if she fully regained her speech, a process that could take up to a year.
In spite of the damp air, Kate lowered the side window. The hiss of rubber on the wet pavement assured her the car had good traction, though she wished she had replaced the worn tires. There simply hadn’t been time. Between arranging with her boss for a leave of absence, packing her things, and visiting Leona at the rehab hospital, Kate’s days were a blur. Three days from now she’d pick up Leona, but tomorrow belonged to Kate alone. She needed to unpack and buy groceries, but then she could curl up on the couch and lick the wounds left by Joel and cope with the lingering sadness of being away from Sutton Advertising. The boutique ad agency fit Kate and her talents perfectly. She was good at her job, and she loved the people, but she loved Leona more.
Sighing, she pressed the accelerator to climb a steep hill. When the tires spun helplessly on a patch of sand, adrenaline shot through her body. Local residents called the next curve the hanging hairpin. It was the highest drop on the road and had taken nine lives in ten years.
Her grandfather had taught her to drive, and now his calm instructions echoed in her memory
. “Brake going into a
turn. Accelerate coming out of it.”
Nervous, she steered into the hairpin with her foot on the brake. Centrifugal force pulled the car toward the cliff, but the tires held, and she confidently pressed the accelerator and rounded the bend.
A black bird standing three feet tall—a California condor—stood eating roadkill directly in front of the BMW.
The condor flapped twice, took flight, and grazed the windshield with its massive wing. A large yellow tag marked 53 in bold print slapped across Kate’s field of vision, blinding her as she stomped on the brake. When the BMW fishtailed, she
knew what to do—steer into a skid. But she had nowhere to go. The car was aimed toward the cliff. Frantic, she cranked the steering wheel downhill and to the left—a mistake because the right front wheel ran off the road. The car lurched to the side, throwing her off balance as the chassis sank into the shoulder, a strip of dirt about a foot wide but soft with rain.
Slowly, afraid to breathe, she eased the gearshift into Park and turned off the ignition. Silence engulfed her with the force of a dive into a swimming pool, but then the car tilted and she screamed. The new angle tugged her body forward—a death sentence if she moved. Beyond her vision, rocks careened down the slope in a rhythm as erratic and unstoppable as a heart attack.
“No,” she whimpered
Tentatively she dropped her gaze to the canyon below. Pine trees pointed upward like spikes, their tops a mile way. No way could she open the car door. The BMW would plummet down the slope. Neither could she reach the cell phone tucked safely in her purse, out of reach on the backseat, where she wouldn’t be tempted to use it while driving. The notes of a high-pitched scream gathered in her throat—terror, hysteria, the irony of cautious Kate, a woman who didn’t take chances, dangling over a cliff without her cell phone. Her ribs squeezed her lungs, and somehow she hurdled back in time to the day of her father’s funeral . . . to her childhood home . . . to Leona and a flat of blue and yellow pansies.
all right, Katie girl,”
Leona had said.
plant these together.”
The day before a car accident took his life, Peter Darby and his seven-year-old daughter had purchased flowers at the Green Thumb Nursery. She picked out the prettiest pansies, and he promised to plant them with her on Saturday. Instead, he died on a Friday afternoon in a twenty-car pile-up
that made headlines on CNN. After the funeral, little Kate found the pansies wilting in the sun. She cried for a while, then put the flowers in her wagon and hauled them to the front yard to plant along the walk. Dirt was everywhere when her grandmother crouched next to her. In the first of many rescues to come, Leona helped Kate plant the flowers and clean up the mess Kate’s mother didn’t see at all through a haze of sedatives.
Without Leona, Kate wouldn’t have survived those years. Staring into the canyon—an abyss, it seemed—Kate wished she had her grandmother’s faith.
But she didn’t.
Kate lived in the moment. She savored beauty where she found it, reveled in experience, and rolled with the punches.
Her friends changed with the seasons of her life—college, her first job, the big break at Sutton Advertising.
Men came and went. Joel was boyfriend number three.
Her addresses improved with her income—the latest being a tiny condo with a massive mortgage.
She took life as it came, good and bad. Why fight a string of random events? Accidents happened. Fathers died in fires, and grandmothers had strokes, also known as CVAs or cerebral vascular accidents. Sometimes condors landed in the middle of mountain roads, and cars skidded over cliffs. But why today? Leona needed her, and Kate didn’t want to die. With the car teetering on the cliff, she thought of the stubborn faith that made her grandmother so strong. If Leona were in the car, she’d ask God for help. Kate didn’t have that faith, but sometimes she wished she did.
Staring down at certain mayhem—injury, maybe death—she closed her eyes. “Are you real?” she whispered to Leona’s God. “Because if you are, I need help.”
There was no answer at all, only silence. But the BMW
stayed wedged in the mud. Was it wiser to stay still and wait for help, or to risk opening the door and jumping to safety? A shudder and a tilt made the question moot as the BMW plunged down the mountainside.
If he’d been a cautious man, Nick Sheridan would have spent the night in Valencia, a suburb on the northern edge of Los Angeles. His brother Sam had offered him the couch in the small tract home Sam shared with his wife and two young sons, but Nick resisted Sam’s offer. Instead he raced his Harley up I-5 in an attempt to beat the storm. The sky opened up ten miles from the Meadows exit and he got soaked, but the adrenaline rush was worth both the chill sinking into his bones and the speeding ticket tucked in his leather jacket.
Considering Nick’s former bad habits, an occasional traffic violation didn’t seem so terrible. He considered it a business expense, not that he’d report it to
, the travel magazine that paid him to write about everything from hiking trails to art festivals. Nick loved his work, but he hadn’t always written for such a dignified publication. He was also—to his embarrassment—the author of
California for Real Men,
, a bestselling travel guide that had sold over a million copies to date and generated a popular app. Between the blockbuster sales, good investments, and his free-lance work, Nick’s career made him financially comfortable. It had also made him a veteran of life in the fast lane.
A retired veteran, he reminded himself.
God was good.
God was merciful.
God had a sense of humor, because He’d taken one of the biggest sinners in California and turned him into a monk.
Nick hoped it was a temporary calling, because he hadn’t
taken to celibacy like the apostle Paul. Sam, the preacher—his older brother who headed up international missions at a megachurch—was right. Nick needed a wife. But Sam had been blunt in the rest of his advice.
“I’m telling you what I tell
everyone undergoing a big change. Don’t make any major
decisions for at least a year. You need time to
Sam had a point and Nick knew it. On his own he had taken the advice a step further and made a personal pledge—no dating for one year. A social sabbatical made sense for a man who did everything too fast.
Six months down. Six months to go.
But what then? He couldn’t see himself among the singles at Sam’s church. The women he met there were lovely, talented, and dedicated Christians, but Nick didn’t fit in with all that niceness—nice barbecues, nice houses, nice everything. He’d been washed clean by the blood of Jesus, but six months ago he’d emerged from a very dark place. Sometimes the past pulled at him like gravity, and he had to fight to keep from sliding back into old habits. Those habits died hard, and some died harder than others.
He didn’t drink anymore, but sometimes a cold beer sounded really good.
If he cursed, it was because he hit his thumb with a hammer.
He had always played it safe on the Internet, and he still did. No temptation there, because the porn industry disgusted him.
On the other hand, a man couldn’t help but notice an attractive woman. Nick no longer viewed dating as a sport, and he was sorry he ever did, but he very much wanted to finish his sabbatical, fall in love, and settle down with the right woman.
Cold and wet, he veered on to San Miguel Highway, cranked the throttle but immediately eased off. Rain and speed didn’t
mix, especially on a road littered with rocks and decomposed granite. He didn’t mind slowing down. He had lived in Meadows for six months now, and the drive through San Miguel Canyon still worked the same magic. His pulse slowed and his lungs filled with piney air. A deep breath scrubbed away the past, and he silently thanked God for that night on Mount Abel when he had grieved his mistakes and burned a copy of
a page at a time. When the fire died to embers, Nick saw his life in the ash and called Sam.
Sam had paused.
“You better explain, because ‘
everything’ is a big word.”
Leave it to Sam to be dramatic, a side effect of taking the gospel to cannibals in New Guinea. Nick admired him for it. In a way, for a period of time Nick had been a cannibal of another kind—a man who fed off other people. He’d been a user back then, a taker. That night, his voice had cracked when he finally replied to his brother.
“Pray for me.”
Nick still smiled at Sam’s reaction.
“You idiot. I pray
for you all the time.”
“Pray for yourself,
Nick. I’ll listen.”
More silence. Darkness. Then a breeze stirred the ash and a charred log glowed from the inside out. The orange sparks lit up a single moment of the endless night, but that moment changed him. With Sam on the phone, Nick cracked like an egg and spilled his guts, cursed like a sailor and cried like a little girl all at once. What a mess he’d been—and still was. Sam said Christ had died for his sins. It was that simple. Nick had believed and prayed, but Sam’s next words made no sense.
“God forgives us, little brother. Now you have to
Nice words, but his straight-arrow brother had no idea how it felt to get slapped with a paternity suit for a dead child—a baby girl who had endured open-heart surgery, infections, and two weeks in the NICU; a child who should not have been conceived. Nick barely remembered the Santa Cruz waitress who gave birth to the baby, but the genetic tests were a perfect match. He helped with the medical bills, then dealt with his guilt that night on Mount Abel. Those few hours changed him forever. The next morning he had ridden into Meadows, bought a half-finished log cabin, and officially become a monk.