Pinecrest #1
April 28, 2020

Second Chance Love

Eight years should have been long enough to overcome the hurt and humiliation of being left at the altar, but when Jillian Rodgers walks back into Sam Lawson’s life he has to grapple with those feelings again. Worse yet, he can’t stop thinking about her.

Jillian Rodgers has returned to her hometown to help care for her mother. Facing Sam again is hard, but Jillian wonders if her return could mean a second chance for Them.

In a small town their paths often cross, and despite Sam’s vow not to make the same mistake, he finds himself falling for her all over again. But Jillian hasn’t been completely honest about her life. When that comes to light, can he still forgive and forget? Can they have a second chance at love?

Chapter One

“Hey, guys, what’s up?” Sam Lawson jogged across the school parking lot toward the bleachers overlooking the football field. A half dozen teenage boys, dressed in blue and gold track uniforms, stood in the shadow of the stands while they laughed and talked. One of the boys glanced up and poked the boy next to him in the ribs. He also looked in Sam’s direction. In seconds the rest of the group stopped talking and gazed at Sam. “Is something going on here I should know about?”

The boys exchanged glances before turning their attention to Dylan Edwards. “Tell him, Dylan,” several of them chorused.

Staring at his shoes, Dylan shrugged, then finally looked at Sam. “My aunt Jillian’s moved back to town, and she’s coming to watch me compete.”

Jillian’s recent letter had told Sam she was moving back to town. But learning she would be at the track meet today made his stomach churn. Trying to remain unruffled, he took a deep breath. The smell of newly mowed grass wafted his way from across the football field on the other side of the bleachers. “That’s great. Glad she can be here to see you win your event.”

“You don’t mind?”

“No, should I?”

“We-ell, I just thought after what happened with you and her...” Dylan’s voice faded away.

Sam looked Dylan in the eye. “It’s okay. That was eight years ago. No point in dwelling on the past.”

“I’m glad you’re cool with her being here.”

While Sam pulled a folded paper from his back pocket, he wondered whether he was actually cool with the idea of Jillian sitting in the bleachers, running into him at the grocery store, or sitting in a nearby pew at church. Was he ready for her presence day in and day out where their paths would undoubtedly cross more often than he would like? Why would she move back to their little town in eastern Washington State? She had left eight years ago for a career in the big city. Nothing here could possibly draw her back permanently. Her letter never mentioned the reason for her return.

He believed that over the years he had forgiven her, but now he wasn’t so sure. Pushing the negative thoughts aside, he unfolded the piece of paper. “Hey, guys, let’s get started.”

“Okay, Coach,” Dylan replied as the others settled on the grass underneath the bleachers with him.

Before Sam spoke, he surveyed the group who voluntarily met before each track meet for a short devotion and prayer. Their rapt attention reminded him that not only what he said made a difference in their lives, but what he did, as well. Leading by example would go farther than any words he said today. That meant living in harmony with Jillian Rodgers no matter what she had done. He glanced at the notes he had scribbled on the paper in his hand. “I want to talk about goals. What is our goal today?” Several hands shot up. “Kyle?”

“Win the meet.”

Sam nodded. “Anything else?”

“Yeah, be good sports,” Kyle blurted.

“Both worthy goals, but how do you intend to reach those goals?” Sam’s question elicited no responses. He waited a few moments, but still no one reacted. Finally he asked another question. “If we don’t have a plan, how can we reach our goals?”

Dylan slowly raised his hand, and Sam nodded for him to answer. “We can win by doing our best, and we can rely on God to help us be good sports.”

“Now that’s a plan.” Sam smiled. “Would the rest of you agree?” A chorus of yeses greeted his question. “That’s one of the reasons we get together, so we can put God in our plans.”

Eric Grayson, the team’s best pole-vaulter, stood up. “But, Coach, just because we do our best and put God in our plans doesn’t mean we’ll win.”

Sam smiled wryly. “That’s true, but when we do our best, we win personally. Winning today is our goal, but I want you guys to think about spiritual goals. Goals that go beyond today. Goals that reach far into your future. Listen to Philippians 3:14. ‘I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ That’s our real goal. Let’s remember that today as we pray for God’s guidance.” Sam motioned for them to stand and gather in their usual circle as they placed their hands one on top of another in the center. They bowed their heads while Sam prayed. “Lord, thank you for your grace and the opportunity to give you the glory today as we compete for an earthly prize. Help us to remember the greater heavenly prize that awaits us. We pray for the safety of all those competing today. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.”

“Thanks, Coach,” Eric said as they broke the circle.

“You’re welcome. We’d better join the rest of the team.” Sam followed behind the young men while they made their way to the locker room in the gymnasium.

As they walked along the edge of the parking lot, Kyle elbowed Dylan. “Wow, look at that car.”

Sam followed their gaze toward a candy-apple red Porsche with a California license plate. The sun glinting off the windshield made it impossible to see the driver, but that license plate was a sure clue. While the top rose on the convertible, a white Ford sedan pulled up beside the Porsche and Jillian’s parents, Eileen and Frank Rodgers, Dylan’s mother, Liz Edwards, and her two daughters emerged from the sedan. At that moment, Sam knew without a doubt who owned the fancy sports car.

When the driver appeared, he couldn’t mistake the identity of the petite blonde, dressed in tan Capri pants and a multicolored knit top. The heels on her sandals made her look a little taller, but words from an old song, “five foot two, eyes of blue,” were a perfect description of Jillian. Trendy sunglasses covered her eyes, but he could still see them in his mind. Eyes, brighter than the cloudless blue sky above him, haunted his memory. Eight years ago her blond hair had been cut in one of those short unkempt styles. Now it hung past her shoulders and waved in the breeze like ripened wheat in fields of the Palouse country south of Spokane. He liked the new look. He had to admit the style looked good on her. Everything did.

“Okay, guys, let’s move on. We’ve all seen the car.” Sam tried to focus on something other than Jillian.

“And the driver. She’s hot.” Kyle let out a low wolf whistle as they entered the side door to the locker room.

“Hey, that’s my aunt!” Dylan narrowed his gaze as he stared at Kyle.

“So that’s who you were all talking about. Sorry, man.” Kyle grimaced. “You didn’t tell me what she looked like. I don’t have any aunts that look like her.”

“That’s okay,” Dylan replied. “She left before you moved here.”

Kyle turned his gaze on Sam. “You almost married her?”

“Yeah, almost.” Sam managed to smile. So this was what it was going to be like with Jillian back in town. A constant reminder of what had almost happened.

 

***

 

Jillian settled onto the bleachers beside her parents. She set the bag containing her binoculars next to her feet. Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm her nerves while she drank in all the familiar sights of her old high school. The campus included the middle school as well as the elementary school all in one big complex. She had been back in town numerous times over the years, but she had never ventured near the school for fear she would come face to face with her past.

With Sam.

She thought she had seen him as she drove into the parking lot, but she wasn’t sure. He had been in a crowd, and she hadn’t spoken to him in nearly eight years. Time changed people. She believed she had changed for the better. Would Sam see it that way? She hoped so. Her insides roiled at the thought. She was ready to face the past today because facing the past meant everything for her future. Her family needed her, and that need forced her to deal with Sam and her feelings for him. Since they were both still single, could they renew their old relationship? Or was that completely out of the question?

Jillian smiled and gazed at the nearly empty stands in an attempt to think of something besides Sam. “Did we get here early enough?”

“Well, we wanted to get a good seat.” Her dad removed his cap and smoothed back his pure white hair before donning the cap again.

Jillian glanced around, then back at her dad. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”

“You just wait, missy. The crowd gets bigger.” He wagged a finger at her.

“Okay, Dad. I’ll take your word for it.” Jillian chuckled before she turned her attention to her mom. “Are you doing okay? Are you comfortable?”

“Sure. Got my old stadium seat I used when we watched Sam play football.” Eileen Rodgers pushed a stray lock of golden hair, liberally sprinkled with gray, behind her ear. Then she patted her daughter’s arm. “You don’t care if I mention Sam, do you?”

Jillian gave her mother a wry smile. “No, Mom. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. I want to talk to him.”

“Good. It’s about time.”

“I know, but my insides are like jelly.”

Frank tapped his daughter’s arm. “Speaking of Sam. He’s walking into the stadium right over there with Dylan.”

Jillian turned to look, her heart in her throat. Seeing his handsome face, she regretted not making more of an effort to talk with him in the past eight years. Shame over her lack of courage to face him on their wedding day had kept her away. She had written him a letter of apology, but that wasn’t the same as talking with him in person.

She swallowed the lump in her throat and resisted the urge to grab her binoculars and get a closer view. Instead, she took in his tall, lean, yet muscular physique dressed in blue-and-gold sweatpants and a blue knit polo shirt. With a jacket slung over his shoulder, he appeared confident and at ease while he talked with Dylan and the other boys around him. Sam said something, and the kids laughed. One of them gave him a high five. All the easy times she had shared with Sam came flooding back. She had thrown it all away. Could she get any of it back? She prayed to God that she could.

The steady thud of her heart gained momentum as she watched him stride across the football field to the opposite side of the track. From a distance, he appeared the same as he had eight years ago except his dark brown hair was shorter, not quite a buzz, but definitely not the hair she used to run her hands through. She wasn’t prepared for the memories that rushed through her brain like runners headed for the finish line.

“Did you get a good look at him?” Her father’s question brought her thoughts to an abrupt halt.

She laughed halfheartedly. “No. I didn’t realize how much I missed him until I saw him. Will he talk to me, Dad? How does he feel about me?”

Frank put an arm around her shoulders. “The subject’s never come up, but he’s a good man, missy. He’ll let you have your say.”

“Then walk away?” Jillian wondered whether he’d ignore her now as he had ignored her letter eight years ago. “He didn’t respond to the letter I sent him a couple weeks ago telling him I was moving back.”

Frank dropped his arm from her shoulders as he shrugged. “I can’t tell you what he’s been thinking. That’s something you’ll have to find out for yourself.”

“Did anyone ever talk about it?”

“I think you can answer that. You didn’t even talk about it when you came back.”

“I just didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.”

“Other people or you?” Frank asked with a wink.

“Dad, you’re too perceptive.”

“I’m glad you recognize your old man has some brains.”

“I knew that the day you didn’t try to talk me into marrying Sam even though you’d already forked over a lot of money for a big wedding.”

“You paid your debt.”

“Not to Sam. I’m not sure there’s any paying that debt.”

“Don’t worry about that now. Let’s enjoy the day and the track meet.” Frank stood and stretched his hands high over his head, then turned to look at his family. “And speaking of enjoyment, I’m headed for the concession stand to support the boosters. Anyone want something?”

Amy and Lauren, Jillian’s nieces, jumped up. “Me, me, Grandpa.”

“Okay, girls, let’s take orders, and you can help me bring everything back.” Frank listened while everyone put in an order. Then, followed by his granddaughters, he made his way toward the aisle.

Jillian watched her father leave. Even though their conversation was about Sam, it had diverted her attention from his presence on the field. But it didn’t take long to find him again. He led a group of young men in some stretches. Could she sit here through the whole track meet without going crazy? All the things she wanted to say to him gathered in her mind like a herd of runners at the beginning of a long-distance race. The end of the track meet couldn’t come soon enough.

Finally the meet began, and Jillian settled in with her parents and the rest of the crowd to cheer on the home team. She tried her best to keep her attention on the events and not on Sam. But when he stood at the side of the track during Dylan’s long-distance race and yelled out the time for each lap, she couldn’t ignore Sam’s presence. When Dylan won his race, Sam was there to give her nephew a congratulatory hug. She closed her eyes and imagined Sam’s arms around her. The memories of many embraces shared with him came flooding back, but when she opened her eyes, reality jolted her like the starting gun for the next race. The hurdles between her and Sam loomed larger than any on the track. She could only pray that God would help her clear them all.

 

***

 

After the meet, Jillian leaned against her car while she waited for Sam to appear. Her stomach churned in anticipation. What was taking him so long? Every coach and kid that had anything to do with the track team had already left. Sam’s dented gray pickup truck, the one from his college days, still sat at the far end of the parking lot. He couldn’t get to that truck without walking past her. She began to wonder whether he knew she was waiting here and had hitched a ride home with someone else. Glancing at her watch, she decided to give him ten more minutes. Then she would leave. Their conversation could take place another day because she was here to stay.

To pass the time, she lowered the top on her convertible, then cleaned out her glove compartment. Ten minutes came and went. Still there was no sign of Sam. Letting out a harsh breath, she released the parking break and was about to turn the key in the ignition when she saw him. With a gym bag slung over his shoulder, he had his gaze trained on a piece of paper he carried in one hand. He seemed oblivious to her presence, or maybe he intended to ignore her and walk by without speaking.

As he drew closer, Jillian’s heart raced. She had looked forward to this encounter all day long. Now that it was here, she suddenly wanted to drive away. She took a deep breath and tried to summon the courage to speak. She opened the car door and stepped out. Standing behind the open door as if it were a shield, she licked her lips, trying to get rid of their dryness. Finally his name tumbled out. “Sam.”

Looking up, he stopped just feet away. His brown eyes, the color of maple syrup, stared at her. Without speaking, he continued to stare and carefully folded the paper and shoved it in a back pocket of his well-worn jeans. He took a couple of steps closer to her car and stopped again. “Hello, Jillian. Nice car.”

“Thanks.” Eight years ago he would have called her Jilly. Now it was Jillian. Was it an impossible dream to think she could recapture what they had once shared? Her pulse pounded in her head while the pessimistic thoughts swirled through her brain. She wouldn’t let doubts win. She hadn’t gotten to where she was today by letting negativity rule her mind. “Do you have time to talk?”

“About what?”

“About my moving back.”

He gave her a lopsided smile. “You warned me in your recent letter. Besides, the grapevine is well greased. People were stumbling all over themselves to let me know. No point in going over old news.”

She gripped the car door and realized she’d been holding her breath. At least he wasn’t frowning as he dismissed her efforts to talk. She took another deep breath and squared her shoulders as she continued to look him in the eye. “That might be old news, but we need to say some things about what happened eight years ago.”

“We do? I thought you said it all in that letter you sent me after you left town without saying goodbye.”

“Please don’t make this difficult, Sam.”

“Am I?”

“You know you are.” She wasn’t going to let him get out of this.

That lopsided grin returned. “Okay. I’ll make a deal. I’ll talk if you let me take you for a ride in that car.”

Relief washed over her while the thought of having Sam sitting in close proximity made her knees weak. Her grip tightened, but she forced herself to ease her fingers from the car door as she gazed up into his face. She hurriedly got in the driver’s seat. “Sure. I’ll adjust the seat.”

“While you do that, I’ll toss this in my truck.” He held up his gym bag.

“Okay.” After she moved the seat back, she slowly exited and stood aside with her hand held out toward the car when he returned. “It’s ready.”

“Thanks.” He entered the car and settled his six-foot frame into the driver’s seat as she rushed around to the passenger side and got in. After he buckled his seat belt, he pulled a pair of sunglasses from his shirt pocket and put them on. Then he turned to her. “How about Spokane?”

“Spokane? Isn’t that a little far?” She hated the fact that the sunglasses made it impossible to read the expression in his eyes. Was he wearing them on purpose?

“A fifty-mile round trip to downtown Spokane should give you plenty of time to talk. That’s about six miles per year.” Without waiting for her reply, he started the engine and put the car in gear. “We could grab a bite to eat if you want.”

Jillian wanted to spend time with Sam, but his unquestioning cooperation made her wary. This was too easy. What was he up to? While he drove out of the parking lot, she pushed her suspicions aside as she buckled her seat belt and made herself comfortable. “You have time to make a trip to Spokane?”

“Sure.” He turned to her with a grin. “It’s Friday night, and I don’t have anyone to answer to except myself. Dinner’s on me if you want to go.”

“Dinner should be on me, since I’m the one who wants to talk.”

“Will paying for dinner help assuage your conscience? That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?”

Ever since they were kids, Sam had made a habit of getting to the point. His eagerness to put the truth on the line reminded her that she’d been afraid to do the same eight years ago. Would he believe her if she denied his accusation? Maybe he would when he learned the whole reason for her return, but she couldn’t tell him everything tonight. Leaning back in the seat, she let the feel of the wind ruffling her hair take away some of the sting in his question. He had good reason to think this was about her guilty conscience. She had hurt him and both their families by what most people considered her selfish behavior. She had wanted to talk, but now she didn’t know how to start, how to defend herself.

She closed her eyes. Please, God, give me the right words to bridge the gap between me and Sam. She opened her eyes again and gazed at the spruce, cedar, and hemlock trees that whizzed by in a green blur as they sped down the highway toward Spokane.

Finally, after they had driven several miles in silence, she turned to Sam. “I’m not sorry about what I did, but I’m sorry I hurt you. I still believe I did the right thing.”

“Waiting until moments before you were supposed to walk down the aisle to call off the wedding was the right thing?” he asked as he kept his gaze trained straight ahead.

“I’ll admit the timing could’ve been better.”

He made a sound that was half laugh and half snort. “That’s an understatement. Why did you wait till then?”

“Pressure from my mother, my sisters, and your sister.” She put her fingers to her temples as she relived the feeling of helplessness. “When I expressed doubts, everyone kept telling me it was ‘just pre-wedding jitters.’ They said I’d get over it. And I couldn’t forget about the money my parents had spent for the wedding and reception. But when the time came to walk down that aisle, I just couldn’t go through with it.” Not daring to look at Sam, Jillian twisted her hands in her lap. “Can you understand?”

Summoning her courage, she looked his way and wondered whether he was angry. His expression gave nothing away.

He didn’t reply immediately, but finally glanced her way. “The better question is why didn’t you think I’d understand back then?”

Jillian cringed at the anger in his voice. She had no doubts about his feelings now. She hated the sound, but she couldn’t blame him. “I was afraid.”

“Of me?”

“No. I was afraid I couldn’t be the kind of wife you needed.”

“And what kind of wife did you think I needed?”

“Someone who wanted the same things you did.”

“I thought you did. What did I want that you didn’t?” Sam asked with his eyes trained straight ahead. “I loved you. Wasn’t that what you wanted?”

She couldn’t ignore his use of the past tense. Loved. Pressing her lips together, she refused to cry. Sorrow strangled the words that would never be adequate. Her voice cracked. “I’m sorry, so very sorry. I loved you, too, whether you believe it or not. I did.” Her apology wasn’t enough. Not to convince him, and she had to convince him. She took a deep breath. “I know saying I’m sorry doesn’t make up for anything, but we were too young to get married. At least I was. I was only nineteen and immature. Not ready for marriage. Wasn’t it better to realize before we got married?”

“You turned twenty a couple of months later,” he said without looking her way.

“And being twenty was going to make me ready for marriage?”

He slowed the car when they came to the first traffic light on the northern outskirts of Spokane. When the car came to a complete stop, he looked at her. “No, just pointing out you were almost twenty. You still haven’t told me what I wanted that you didn’t.”

Returning his gaze, she contemplated her answer. “You wanted to stay here because you had a teaching job that started in the fall. The good jobs in my field were in the big cities, not a little town like Pinecrest.”

A car horn sounded behind them. The light had turned green. Sam put the car in gear and proceeded through the intersection. While he shifted gears, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Thankful that his voice held no acrimony this time, Jillian watched the surrounding landscape change from forestland to strip malls and fast-food restaurants. All this was new since she’d left. Soon their little town of Pinecrest would connect with the suburban sprawl that ringed Spokane. All these changes emphasized the changes she sensed in Sam. Changes she sensed in her own feelings for him. She could still relive the torment involved in her decision to leave Sam, the love of her life, at the altar. How could she explain it to him when she couldn’t explain it to herself? Or maybe she didn’t want to explain it to herself or anyone because the explanation sounded selfish, but she owed him that much. “Because...because I...I wanted that job.”

“The job you took in California?”

“Yes, I’ll admit I was selfish.”

“Did your job get you everything you wanted?” He made no attempt to contradict her statement.

“Almost,” she replied, knowing it had cost her the love and admiration of the only man she had ever loved.

He gave her a sideways glance. “Why didn’t you tell me about it? Maybe we could’ve worked something out.”

“The Silicon Valley and Spokane aren’t exactly within commuting distance.”

“Don’t kid, Jillian. I was being serious.”

“So was I.” She wished he wouldn’t use her full name. She wanted to be his “Jilly” again. “All you talked about was your great job. How lucky we were to be close to family. When I got that call two weeks before the wedding, I didn’t see how my job offer, nearly a thousand miles away, would make you happy. I wanted to tell you, but every time I started to bring it up, you launched into some plans you had for our future in Pinecrest.” She shrugged and released a harsh breath. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell you.”

“So you just didn’t.” He shook his head as he let out a scornful laugh. “You thought it easier to leave me standing in front of a crowded church while I waited for a bride who didn’t show.”

They continued down Division Street past more strip malls, motels, restaurants, and businesses of every description. That much about Spokane hadn’t changed. And despite his earlier conciliatory tone, Sam’s feelings hadn’t changed, either. The bitter edge in his voice had returned. The sound brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them away. What madness made her think he could overlook the past and love her again? Maybe that verse in the Bible that said, “love always hopes.”

That wasn’t madness.

“I know it was the coward’s way out. Can you forgive me?”

 

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