June 9, 2020
Available in: e-Book
Second Chance Gift
Single mom Beth Carlson wasn’t thrilled with her new neighbor Clay Reynolds and his motorcycle. They only served to remind her of the past she wanted to forget. Her focus was on her teenage son and getting her teaching degree, so she didn’t have time for romance.
Clay wasn’t interested in putting down roots or living in a small town. He was only in Pinecrest for a few months to help out a friend, but a troubled teenage boy and his pretty mom made Clay question those choices.
But Beth can’t trust a temporary guy, and Clay can’t fall for a woman who didn’t share his faith. What will it take to bring them the gift of love?
The roar of a motorcycle shattered the quiet of the warm August afternoon. A Harley cruised to a stop behind the red SUV parked at the curb. Rider and machine appeared as one, black and silver power. Beth Carlson halted mid-step on the wooden porch that wrapped around the front and side of the white, two-story house—her new home. Her heart pounding, she clutched the large cardboard box in her arms.
Quiet returned as the rider cut the motor. Dismounting, he flipped back the visor of his silver helmet like a knight returning victorious from battle. While he strode up the walk, he took off the helmet and tucked it under one arm. His gray T-shirt, faded black jeans and long dark hair, pulled back in a ponytail, gave him a rugged rebellious look.
Beth’s mouth went dry. Her heart raced as she stared at the stranger. Meeting new people always made her nervous. Blinking, she tried to focus her attention somewhere else, but his approach captured her gaze like the fly caught in the spider web hanging in the corner of the porch. When he looked her way, a sense of déjà vu swept over her. Yet there was nothing familiar about his handsome face.
Hoping to push aside her anxiety, Beth opened the screen door and set the box down just over the threshold. Then she turned to Kim Petit, the friend who was helping her move. “Who’s that?”
“Clay Reynolds. I told you about him.”
“You mean the guy who moved into the upstairs apartment?” Beth willed her heart to quit hammering against her rib cage.
“Yeah. Come on. I’ll introduce you, but first you’ve got to close your mouth and quit drooling,” Kim kidded.
Clamping her mouth shut, Beth berated herself for giving Kim the wrong idea. Beth let the screen door bang shut and reluctantly followed Kim to the porch steps. Nothing about this man impressed Beth. Everything about him made her want to run the other way. Motorcycles and men who rode them only reminded her of a past she didn’t want to think about.
“Hey, Clay,” Kim called. “I want you to meet Beth Carlson.”
He took the two steps leading to the porch in one stride. His gaze exuded confidence. He smiled, and his gray eyes twinkled as he extended his hand. “Hi, Beth. I hear we’re going to be neighbors.”
“I guess so.” Beth pushed up her glasses and pasted on a smile. As his large hand firmly gripped hers, shivers raced down her spine. Not shivers of excitement but of unease. The smooth sound of his deep voice made her apprehensive. This man and his motorcycle dredged up memories of her troubled teenage years. Memories she had tried to bury.
“You’ve got great timing, Clay.” Kim took his arm.
“Is that right?” He gave Kim a curious glance before letting his gaze settle on Beth.
Kim nudged him with an elbow. “We need your help moving Beth’s stuff.”
“Let me head up to my apartment first. Then I’ll be right back to help.”
Beth watched him disappear around the corner of the porch. When she was sure he was out of earshot, she looked at Kim. “He works for Jillian Lawson? He doesn’t look like the corporate type.”
Kim nodded. “Yeah. Surprised me when Jillian introduced us at church. He’s a lawyer and works as a consultant, mostly with non-profit organizations. While she’s on maternity leave, he’s here to oversee her charitable foundation until the woman who used to run it returns from the mission field. Good looking guy, isn’t he?”
Beth shrugged. “If you like that type.”
What’s not to like?”
“He’s just not my type.” Beth shoved at her glasses again. “Besides, all the good-looking guys I’ve met go for tall, skinny, bleached blondes.” Beth flipped her hair with one hand. “Not dishwater blondes with a few extra pounds on the hips.”
Kim shook her head. “Beth, you underestimate yourself.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not interested.”
You could’ve fooled me. I saw the way you looked at him.”
Beth gazed across the yard at the motorcycle. Its chrome gleamed in the sunshine filtering through the trees that lined the street. She couldn’t go into the reasons she had no interest in her new neighbor. Bringing up the past would only create a gulf between her and Kim.
Beth didn’t want that. When she moved to this little town in eastern Washington State a couple of years ago, Kim had befriended Beth. That friendship meant more to her than just about anything except her son Max. The fact that Kim didn’t pry was a wonderful bonus to her friendship.
Beth tried to smile. “My look had nothing to do with his looks. The noise startled me, and I don’t like motorcycles.”
“If you say so.” Kim hopped down from the porch and headed for the SUV. “Let’s carry in some more boxes.”
“Sure.” Beth started down the steps, too, but footfalls on the porch captured her attention. As Clay appeared from around the corner, her stomach lurched. Why did she react so much to this guy? Just because he was a handsome man? She hated her body’s betrayal.
Grinning, he gave her a salute. “Reporting for duty. What do you want me to do?”
Beth’s mind went blank. His presence had her completely discombobulated. And it wasn’t just the fact that he was good-looking. Ever since she could remember, meeting new people had made her uneasy. Although she had moved several times as a child, she had never overcome the inability to make friends with ease. And now even this simple move across town to less cramped quarters for her and her teenage son brought with it the uncomfortable task of meeting someone new.
“Help us bring in the boxes from the back of my SUV,” Kim answered before Beth could open her mouth.
“Where’s that husband of yours?” Clay asked Kim as Beth joined them on the front walk.
“Brian’s with Sam and Max. They’re using Sam’s truck to move Beth’s furniture. They’ll be here soon.”
“You mean Sam isn’t hovering over Jillian? I thought he wouldn’t let her out of his sight with the baby due so soon. Less than a month now, isn’t it?”
Nodding, Kim laughed and opened the back of the SUV. “Jillian’s spending the afternoon with her parents.” “That’s the only way my brother would leave her. Sam is driving everyone nuts, including his wife. I’ll be glad when my nephew is born.”
Beth watched Kim with envy as Clay picked up a box and handed it to her. Not because Beth wished for his attention, but because Kim had such a natural way with people. She could strike up a conversation with anyone about anything at any time. Beth wished for that ability.
Giving herself a mental shake, Beth told herself that the world needed all kinds of people. Quiet people counted, too. Not everyone could be the life of the party.
“Who’s Max?” Clay balanced two boxes in his arms.
“My son.” Beth joined the duo at the back of the SUV. “He’ll be a sophomore in high school this year.”
“You have a son in high school?” Clay’s brow wrinkled. “You look too young to have a son that age.”
“Well, I do.” Shrugging, Beth grabbed a box. She didn’t want to explain why, at thirty-one, she had a fifteen-year-old son.
Before anyone could say another word, a horn honked. Beth looked up. A shiny blue-and-silver pickup truck loaded with furniture pulled up beside Kim’s SUV.
Brian Petit, Kim’s husband, leaned out the passenger window. “Hey, Beth, where should we park?”
She moved to the curb and pointed. “In front of Kim’s SUV.” After they parked, he and Sam Lawson emerged from the truck. Beth stepped into the street. “Where’s Max?”
Brian shrugged. “Isn’t he here?”
“I thought he was meeting you to help you load the furniture after school. He’s had plenty of time to get there.” Beth pushed at her glasses again. “Do you suppose football practice ran long today?”
“That’s probably it. The coaches are pushing them hard. The first game’s only a couple of weeks away,” Brian said.
“You’re probably right.” Beth tried to convince herself of that scenario. Max was a good kid. She shouldn’t worry.
Clay soon joined Brian and Sam as they moved beds, chests, and a big oak table into the house while Beth and Kim finished bringing in the boxes. When Beth brought in the last carton, Brian stood in the doorway to her bedroom just off the living room to the right.
“Hey, Beth, come here and tell us if this is how you want your furniture arranged.” Brian stepped aside.
Perusing the room, Beth took in the battered oak chest and dresser. Her beloved stuff looked a bit dingy in the bright light shining through the window that looked out onto the front porch. But it was sturdy and serviceable, and she was grateful to have it. She glanced at Brian. “I’d like the chest in that corner by the window. Everything else can stay where it is.”
“How about Max’s room?” Sam poked his head around the doorframe.
“I’m going to let him do what he wants in there. It’s the first time he’s had a room that big. So put his stuff anywhere, and he can arrange it later,” Beth replied.
Clay picked up a framed picture from a half-opened box sitting on the floor. “Is this Max?”
Beth stepped closer to look. Clay handed her the photo. She set it on her dresser, as she gazed at the image of her son with his dark hair and eyes so different from her own light hair and blue eyes. She loved Max more than words could express. Despite the heartache of the past, she was glad to have Max. Her son, who now stood a couple of inches taller than six feet, was an attractive young man. Sometimes she worried that he was too handsome for his own good. Like his father. Like her new neighbor.
“Yeah, that’s Max, but he’s grown nearly a foot since that picture was taken. I could hardly keep him in clothes last year.”
“So he’s on the football team?” Clay asked as he helped Brian move the chest.
Beth grimaced. “Yeah. I’m not real excited about that. The game’s so rough. Makes me cringe when I think about it.”
Clay looked back at Beth. “What position does he play?”
“Wide receiver. Whatever that means.” Beth shrugged.
Clay chuckled. “Sounds like you need someone to fill you in on the finer points of the game.”
“Are you volunteering?” Kim came to stand next to Clay.
“Sure.” Clay grinned. “I played wide receiver myself when I was in high school.”
“Come on, guys.” Brian stepped into the room. “No time for football instructions now. We’ve got more furniture to deliver. One more trip, and that should be it.”
“Do you need help?” Clay called after Brian.
Stopping, Brian shook his head. “No, you can help when we get back. For now, you can give Beth a hand unpacking.” Brian turned to Beth. “Right, Beth?”
Swallowing hard, Beth looked from Brian to Clay and back to Brian. Why was Kim’s husband micro-managing this move? Maybe he was only trying to be helpful, but now she was trapped into spending time alone with a dangerously attractive stranger. She glanced at Clay. “I…Kim’s going to help me unpack. So you don’t have to.”
“Sorry, Beth.” Kim shook her head. “Sam asked me to pick up Jillian and some take-out fried chicken from the Pinecrest Café for everyone. We’ll eat here after they bring the second load of furniture. Okay?”
“Okay.” Beth forced herself to smile. Now everyone was micro-managing her move. Or maybe just maneuvering her into spending time alone with Clay. She gave herself a mental shake for being paranoid.
“Then everything’s settled.” Kim gave Beth a wink as she exited the room with her husband.
Beth stood there, surrounded by boxes, and watched everyone leave. Everyone except Clay. Maybe she wasn’t being paranoid after all.
After the others left, Clay followed Beth around, waiting to be useful. Her light hair swished around her shoulders as she picked up a box and carried it into her bedroom. She never looked his way. Without saying a word, she pushed at her brown horn-rimmed glasses before she knelt to open a box filled with books.
Finally she looked up at him with a tentative smile. “You don’t really have to help. You kinda got pushed into it.” She let her gaze fall to a book she lifted from the box. “I won’t be offended if you want to leave.”
In two strides Clay closed the distance between them. He hunkered down next to her. “I don’t mind helping. I can even give you those lessons about football. You should know what’s happening when you watch your son play. Besides, we’re going to be neighbors.”
“That’s very kind of you.” She raised her gaze to meet his.
The bluest eyes Clay had ever seen stared back at him. His heart did an odd little tap dance. How had he not noticed those eyes before? He had the insane urge to take off her glasses and get a better look at eyes bluer than the cloudless sky outside.
Shaking away the thought, he stood. “What do you want me to do?”
She gave him that little smile again as she dragged the box over to a bookcase sitting against one wall. “See if you can find the other box of books. I think it’s in the living room.”
As he went back into the living room, he had the distinct impression that pretty Beth Carlson felt uncomfortable in his presence. Maybe she was naturally shy, and being alone with a stranger made her nervous. With the image of her brilliant blue eyes fixed in his brain, he scanned the room for a box of books. His gaze landed on a carton with bold black lettering on one side. BOOKS. He picked it up and headed for the bedroom.
When he entered the room, she turned toward him. “Oh, good. You found them. Thanks.”
“Yep.” With a thud, he set the box on the floor next to the bookcase. “Now what do you want me to do?” Those big blue eyes looked back at him, and his heart did that strange little tap dance again.
“You can put the books on the shelves while I do this other stuff.”
“Sure.” He settled on the floor beside the bookshelf. What did these books say about their owner? The Poetry of Robert Frost, An Anthology of Children’s Literature, The Way Things Work, and a battered Bible were the first four books he pulled from the box. An interesting mix. Both poetic and child-friendly. “Do you want your Bible in the bookcase?”
She turned to look at him. “Yes, that’s fine. It’s not my Bible. It was my great-aunt’s. I just keep it for the sentimental value. I don’t actually read it.”
“I have a Bible like that, too. It belonged to my grandfather.” Clay put the books on a shelf. “Do you attend the same church the Petits and the Lawsons go to?”
“No, I don’t go to church.”
Clay didn’t know what to say. “Oh…I thought since you were good friends with Kim that you probably went to the same church.”
Beth gave him that shy little smile. “It’s not like she hasn’t tried to get me to attend.”
“And why hasn’t she succeeded?”
“Because I don’t see the need for church. My dad’s a preacher, so I’ve heard enough sermons to last me a lifetime.” As if to signal an end to that topic, Beth turned away and busied herself emptying boxes on the other side of the room.
Stunned by her pronouncement, Clay grabbed a few more books and put them away. Wow! A preacher’s kid who had no use for church. Usually he didn’t have trouble finding something to talk about, but he was at a loss for words. Rather than saying the wrong thing, he put the books away in silence.
When he finished, he looked up to find Beth taking bubble wrap from a ballerina figurine. She tossed the bubble wrap into the empty box near her feet. Tinkling musical notes danced through the air as she gently placed the figurine on her dresser.
He stood. “A music box?”
Turning, she nodded. The look on her face made him think she had almost forgotten he was there. She gave the ballerina a gentle twist. While a lilting tune filled the room, the porcelain ballerina spun gracefully on her stand. “It was my great-aunt’s. In fact, almost everything in this room once belonged to her.”
Glancing around, Clay took in the crocheted doilies that graced the nightstand and dresser. They reminded him of his grandmother’s house. Décor from a bygone era. “Did your great-aunt make the doilies?”
“Yes, she loved to crochet. She tried to teach me how, but I was all thumbs.” Beth smiled again, but this time her eyes lit up, and the smile spread to her whole face. Just as quickly, the smile disappeared. “I miss her. She died two years ago after a long illness.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Clay replied, feeling his response to be strangely inadequate.
“Thanks. I have lots of good memories of Aunt Violet.”
“Did she live here in Pinecrest?”
“No, but she had a friend who used to. After my aunt died, that friend got me in touch with her daughter, who still lives here. She’s the principal of the elementary school. She helped me get my job. That’s what brought me to Pinecrest.”
“So you’re a teacher?”
“No, a teacher’s aide. Kindergarten.” Beth dropped her gaze. “I want to be a teacher. I take night and weekend classes in Spokane. The teacher I’m an aide for is retiring next year, so I’m hoping to get that job.”
“Your job and classes must keep you busy.”
“They do, but I have a few days to get settled here before teachers and aides report next week.”
“Do you like living in Pinecrest?”
Smiling, she nodded. “I do. It’s home to me now.”
“Small-town life isn’t for me. I prefer the big city. Thankfully I’m only here for a few months to look after Jillian’s foundation while she’s out on leave.”
“And how do you know Jillian?” Beth picked up a couple of empty boxes to fold and discard.
“I did all the legal work when she set up her foundation. Non-profit organizations are my specialty.”
Beth headed for the door. “Then you must know a lot about it.”
“I do, and I’m also glad to help out a friend whose foundation helps a lot of worthy causes, like the assisted living center she plans to build here in Pinecrest.” Clay grabbed the empty box sitting near his feet and followed Beth.
“And the children’s home that Sam has started,” Beth added.
As they stepped into the living room, Kim dashed in through the front door. “Jillian’s gone into labor!” Kim blurted and paused to catch her breath. “When I stopped to pick her up, she had already called Sam. They’re headed to the hospital. Brian will be here in a minute with Sam’s truck and your furniture. Then we’re headed that way. Sorry about not finishing here, but maybe Clay and Max can do that.”
“No problem.” Clay glanced out the front door as Brian emerged from Sam’s truck and headed for the SUV.
Dropping the boxes, Beth rushed to Kim’s side and gave her a hug. “Don’t worry about me and my stuff. Tell Jillian and Sam I’m thinking of them. Call me about the baby as soon as you can. Okay?”
“Sure,” Kim replied.
Beth stepped onto the front porch and called after Kim as she sprinted down the front walk. “Did Max ever show up?”
“No,” Kim yelled. “We never saw him.”
Beth grabbed hold of one of the porch supports and held it so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Leaning her head against the support, she let out a shaky breath.
“Are you okay?” Clay joined her on the front porch.
Turning, she looked at him. Even her horn-rimmed glasses didn’t hide the tears welling in her eyes. “I…I’m not sure.” She pushed at her glasses and glanced at her watch. “I’m worried. Max knew we were moving today. Even if practice ran long, he should’ve been here by now.”
“Can you reach him on a cell phone?”
Beth shook her head. “No, he doesn’t have one.”
“Do you need to look for him?”
She nodded. “Yes, though I can’t imagine where he would be.”
“You go. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on Sam’s truck and unload some of your stuff.”
She glanced at her watch again. “Thanks. I’ll check the high school. It isn’t far. I shouldn’t be long.”
Clay followed her into the kitchen. “Take your time. While you’re gone, I can empty the boxes in here and set the stuff on the counters for you to put away later.”
“That would be great. Thanks.” She grabbed her purse from the kitchen counter and raced out the door.
Through the window Clay watched her run down the walk toward the freestanding garage by the alley. His heart did that funny little skip. What was happening to him? There was something about this shy, pretty woman with the sparkling blue eyes that created strange sensations in his chest. He shook his head, trying to erase the image of those eyes filled with tears. He reminded himself that she wasn’t his type, especially because she didn’t seem to care about church or, likely, God.
When she was out of sight, he opened a box and removed its contents. As he set a stack of plates on the counter, he wondered how he was going to deal with his new neighbor. Could he be a witness for the Lord without making her angry? Maybe the easiest thing to do was just help her out when she needed it. Like now. But his unexpected attraction to her sent up warning signals in his mind. As he emptied the first box, the back door slammed. He spun around.
Beth stomped across the room and slapped her purse on the round oak table in the middle of the kitchen. Her eyes flashed bright blue fury. “My car just died. Now what do I do?”
“Hey, I know a little about cars. Maybe it’s something simple. You want me to take a look?”
She shrugged. “It couldn’t hurt.”
Clay followed her out through the backyard. As they turned into the alley, he saw an old gray sedan with a rusted fender stalled halfway between the driveway and the street at the other end of the alley.
When they reached the car, he glanced at her. “Pop the hood.”
She opened the car door, tossed her purse in and slid behind the wheel.
When Clay heard the click that released the hood, he opened it. “Okay, give it a try.”
Nothing happened. She poked her head out the window. “It doesn’t start. Do I have a dead battery?”
“Probably, but I think your real problem is your alternator. When it goes bad, it drains the battery, too.”
“Now what?” She pushed at her glasses.
“Well, first we need to get your car out of the alley.”
“And how do you propose to do that when it won’t start?”
“Yeah, put it in neutral and I’ll push. Leave the door open and come back here with me. Once it’s moving, you can steer. I should be able to push it out to the street. You pull it next to the curb.”
“This will work?” She stared at him with a frown.
He couldn’t help smiling. “Sure. You’ve never had to do this with a car before?”
She shook her head. “Never.”
“Well, you get to experience something new today,” he said, thinking he’d experienced something new himself. Being attracted to a woman he shouldn’t be attracted to. How was he going to avoid her when she lived right downstairs? How could he ignore her when she needed his help?
“Okay, I hope this works.” She joined him behind the car. “What exactly do I do?”
Clay placed his hands on the car. “I’ll count to three, then push.”
“Here we go. One, two, three.” He pushed.
The clunky car didn’t budge.
“Now what?” Beth’s eyebrows knit together.
“I’ll give it another try.” Clay glanced at her. “Ready?”
“One, two, three!”
The car started moving.
“All right!” Beth cried with a big grin covering her face.
“Don’t sit there grinning. Steer.”
The car moved with ease down the alley and into the street.
“Turn the wheel!” Clay yelled. He breathed a sigh of relief when she managed to get the car reasonably close to the curb. “Okay, stop. We’ve got it.”
After she braked, the car came to a halt. Beth hopped out and looked at Clay. “We managed to get the car out of the alley, but that still doesn’t solve my transportation problem.”
“What about Sam’s truck?”
“Besides the fact that it’s filled with furniture. I don’t have the key.”
Clay rubbed the back of his neck as he kicked at a pebble lying in the street. “That leaves one option. I can give you a ride on my bike.”
Her big blue eyes stared at him from behind those glasses. The expression on her face suggested that she thought he had just asked her to take a ride with the devil.
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