“Why in the world did I agree to do this?”
Mara Keegan’s vision blurred as she stared at the old photo she’d picked from the box for the first block on Cadence’s memory quilt. David's arm curled tightly around her pregnant waist, his other balanced a precocious three-year-old Cadence, and one-year-old Toby grinned up into his mommy's eyes. Louie, the new family border collie/lab pup sat at their feet ready to catch Toby’s graham cracker.
A smile stole across Mara’s lips. Louie nabbed that cracker and Toby wailed, right after the shutter clicked. But the picture captured the split second happy moment forever. The perfect family with so much promise. A promise broken off prematurely by a whimsical God.
Mara’s smile faded. She glanced over at her sleeping fourteen-year old dog curled up on one of his favorite oversized mutt mats. He’d been with their family since the early days. His black muzzle sported more white around his nose now. Louie seemed like the bridge from past to present as she looked back at the first picture. When would she be ready to try love again? Did she even need it? She broke out in a sweat in spite of the cold wind blowing the last of December past her windows. Not until she could trust God again. How could it have all gone so wrong? The wind gust whooshed against her office door and rattled the inset glass.
A burning sensation started in the center of Mara’s chest. She wrapped her ankles around the wooden stool legs and anchored her feet as she rubbed her midsection. This gift took more out of her than she thought. With less than five months to Cadence's graduation, she had to design and create a quilt full of memories. Memories Cadence needed as she left for college. Memories to wrap around her when she felt far from home and family. Memories Mara promised Cadence, and Mara never broke a promise.
Mara dug in her purse for a chewable antacid tablet. They’d become her favorite candy the last few months. Especially today, since the official documents for the new contract were lost when her computer network crashed after the big windstorm tore down power lines last night. No one had power for the last twelve hours on this side of Bozeman. This government contract could change the future of her business and the community. But her business mentor, Rich, jumped in to help. He’d kept the emails. By the time the computers blinked on this afternoon, she’d have his advised changes and be able to print out another set, postmark a hard copy, and fax the acceptance before the close of business back East. Okay, maybe she should eat a little better. She popped one in her mouth, scowled at the mini bottle, and threw it back in her purse.
The box of photos held too many memories. To choose the right ones for Cadence, Mara needed to sort through them one by one. “Why didn’t I just buy Cadence a car, huh, Louie?” Something easy that didn’t rip her heart out every minute of the planning. The dog opened his eyes and cocked an ear at her. The burn radiated out further. She pressed hard against her stomach to ease the pain. The antacid should help soon.
She should have eaten more than a skim latte for lunch. She needed an early start on all the photos for the t-shirt transfers. Once the photos finished printing out on transfer paper, she could leave them with Tina at the t-shirt shop overnight and pick up the photos pressed onto the poplin tomorrow. Nausea built until it reached the middle of Mara’s chest and wallowed there, squeezing the little bits of heart she had left. It figured she’d have the beginnings of an ulcer. Her neck muscles tensed and sent a shooting pain into her jaw. She opened and closed her jaw joint and wiggled the bones of her chin, but the motion didn't soothe the tension.
How long could she go on living with the way things turned out? The stress from carrying the entire business load left her with this constant tension and now the heartburn. Mara rolled her head from shoulder to chest to opposite shoulder. David’s snowmobiling accident left her in charge of twenty-five employees, business loans, and a dream built for two. But now there was one. Three years from the moment the snow buried him in the avalanche. Three years since David breathed his last. And she hadn’t stopped to breathe since. She hated the week after Christmas since the accident. Sacrilegious or not, she hated it.
Mara shook her head to clear the pity party. So a little more lost sleep, what’s new? The sooner she plowed into this promise, the sooner she’d get the sleep she needed. This present would be done on time if it was the last thing she did. Breaking the family tradition, a quilt for graduation, was not an option. It meant too much to Cadence. Maybe she should switch out the lavender candle for a citrus scent and wake up her brain. She looked up at it. Maybe later. Mara inhaled the calm fragrance.
Her head pounded. The caffeine seemed to create more jitters than normal. She pushed away the remaining drink. It’d gone cold anyway. She pulled the hair band out of her high ponytail to loosen the tension on her scalp. Mara massaged tender spots under the thick mane with one hand while she spread out several photo choices on the white workspace. Maybe she should consider cutting off several inches. The weight alone might cause these headaches. But David had always loved her hair. She hadn’t cut it more than to shape it in longer than she could remember. Had she even done that this year? Always in an updo for business, no one saw the condition her hair was in. She swept up the ends of her hip-length burnished brown locks and grimaced at them. Maybe a little change would do her good. Yeah, right. When was that going to happen? She picked up the family photo again unable to let it go. Change wasn’t always good.
Mara’s heart twisted, radiating out searing pain. She slapped a hand out for balance and instead flipped the box of photos over as she tumbled off the work stool onto the cold floor. The wooden chair clanged to the rustic clay tiles with her legs tangled in the chair rungs. The box rained down life moment scenes as if a movie reel unwound in front of her eyes. Her son, Toby, at T-ball, Marisa’s Disney Princess birthday party, and Cadence with her younger siblings tackling their daddy. Was she having a heart attack?
Louie barked in surprise and jumped up from his massive plaid dog pillow.
Pictures fluttered and scattered across the floor.
Mara’s hand held fast to her family forever frozen in a joyful pose—before God pulled his whimsical trick.
Louie barked again and bounded across the room, sliding on slick paper, to stick his nose into the back of Mara’s neck. He lay down with his muzzle across her right shoulder buried in her long brown hair.
Mara blinked. What just happened? Oh, there. She focused on David. His strong face, his tanned muscular arms that held her close, and those sparkling brown eyes grinning with little crinkles she used to trace with her fingers. David, David, I miss you. She closed her eyes.
Mara Keegan. Joel sighed as he tucked the file under his arm. Would she remember? Would she throw him out? As he rang the doorbell, Joel heard a dog barking inside. Then a pretty teen with unusual golden coloring flung the front door wide.
“Louie, knock it off!” She yelled toward the back of the house. “Sorry, he’s kind of protective. Can I help you?”
“Hi, I’m Joel Ryan,” he stuck out his hand. “Here to consult with Mara Keegan on the government contract. Is she here?”
“Sure. I’m Cadence, her daughter.” She invited him in and shivered as she flicked the ornate door closed. “Cold out there, huh?”
“Well, it’s sure not as warm at my last consulting visit in California.” Joel smiled. “But I’m used to it. I’m from Colorado.”
She had a slight Native American look, but her hair was a reddish brown and dark freckles dotted her golden cheeks. Her eyes were almost rust and rimmed with long black lashes. She wore very little make up.
Joel wondered about her mother, the woman he had yet to meet in person. Only a phone call five years ago, but now he hoped Mara didn’t remember him. He swallowed. That wasn’t one of his finer moments. Better to get it out of the way if she did put two and two together. By God’s grace, he was a different person now. Would Mara have the grace to forgive?
Louie barked several more times. “Louie, that’s enough!” Cadence yelled again. “I don’t know what’s up with him. He quits as soon as the doorbell does, but he’s usually here all up in your face and checking you out, too.” She looked around for the dog. “Weird.”
“Nice Christmas tree.” Joel nodded at the decorated fake evergreen to be polite. It was a nicer tree than his miniature on the coffee table, all designer perfect. The red and green plaid ribbons looked like someone tied each one exactly the same. His tree barely had lights.
Cadence gave the tree a small glance. “Yeah, thanks.”
He checked his triple time zone watch. His favorite tool never disappointed. Travel and daily contact with clients from Pacific to Mountain to Eastern kept him in a constant chase of the correct time. Clients in any part of the country could count on his prompt call or arrival. Plenty of time to meet the deadline, but there was no sense in delay. “May I meet with Mara?”
“Sure, follow me. She’s back in her workroom.” A hint of resentment floated in her tone. “Like always.”
The TV screen held a frozen Wii game with several cartoon Wii avatars. “Mom” wore a purple shirt and long dark hair. He sidestepped the Wii balance board on the floor and followed.
“There’s another entrance for that part of the house, if you want next time.” Cadence traipsed off into a long hallway with her braid swinging.
“Mom!” Cadence rounded the corner.
Mara lay on her left side, stiff and chilled. She opened her eyes at the alarm in her daughter’s voice.
Cadence knelt at Mara’s feet, gently picked up her mom’s top ankle, and unthreaded the wooden stool from Mara’s legs.
“I’m okay—” Mara tried to sit up but only made it to her elbow. She didn’t have the strength to push up all the way past the sharp pain in her shoulder. The dizziness rushed back. Her whole body didn’t feel all that great now either since hitting the floor. But her left shoulder really ached all the way on the inside, wow!
“Cadence, is everything all right?” A man stood in the doorway. He wore a dark blue ski parka over a business suit. Louie growled as the hair along his backbone stood on end. He leaped and stood over Mara. The man jumped back into the hall away from the big dog.
“No, Louie, no!” Cadence kept her voice steady, but firm. “Joel, he’s not mean.” She shot off without looking away from her mother. She moved around to Mara’s back and pulled Louie aside by his collar. “Good boy, now go lay down.”
Mara glanced at the stranger near the door. He looked ready to take over, but Louie held him at bay. Her old dog stood on guard, disregarding Cadence’s command.
“Here, I’ll help you up.” With her arm around Mara’s back, Cadence tried to lift her.
“I don’t think I can stand yet.” Mara leaned against the table leg. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.” She shivered at the cold seeping up from the tiles into her legs. The shiver started a new spasm of pain in her shoulder and ankle.
“Sheesh, Mom, what did you do? How’d you end up on the floor already?” Cadence still knelt beside Mara and waited.
“I don’t know.” Mara gasped for air. “One minute I was picking out pictures for your quilt and the next I fell. Maybe I have the flu. I’m a little light-headed.” She pressed her stomach and fought for control of the nausea. “I might have twisted my ankle, though. Man it hurts!” She wanted to reach for her left leg, but the pain in her shoulders held her back.
“Louie.” Cadence pointed at the dog bed. “Go!” Louie crept backward an inch at a time fighting his instinct to protect. His long ears stayed flattened back on his gleaming black head and his eyes trained on Joel without a flinch.
Joel eyed Louie and stepped into the room. “May I suggest we get you checked out?”
Mara dragged in another breath. “Who are you?” Her lips trembled and her heart fluttered out of control.
“I’m Joel, your new consultant from Business Mentors, Inc. I’m replacing Rich.” He put a file down on her worktable. “I really think we ought to get you to the ER” He moved closer towards Mara and knelt down at her level.
“I don’t need—”
“Mom, you don’t look good at all. I think he’s right. You’re like, white as your shirt.”
But she could ask the doctor to check her heart. No, that’s silly. At thirty-nine, she probably just had a bad case of the flu. Mara’s arm throbbed with sharp jabs, her neck and jaw muscles clenched tight. She’d probably sprained her shoulder now, too.
Exhausted she bit out, “Fine, fine. I probably need an antibiotic or something.” Another shiver shot through her. “I’m sure it’s the flu. I have the chills and ache all over.” Mara rubbed her left arm.
Joel moved in to Mara’s side to help her stand. Together both Cadence and Joel lifted Mara from the floor.
“Ow, ow! I can’t—” Mara felt herself swing up. Her head lolled back from the motion.
“I’ve got you. You can trust me.” He glanced over at her daughter. “Cadence, would you grab a blanket for her and let’s go.” Joel tipped his head toward the door. “We’ll take my car so you can help your mom if she needs it.”
“I don’t need—”
“Really?” Joel’s blue eyes captured hers again. “Can you walk?”
A shooting pain screeched through her left side.