that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
She’d tried to kill him.
Jake swallowed an oath and cut the motor on the mower he wrestled through overgrown September grass. His heart thundered like a runaway semi as his gaze locked on the woman’s startling green eyes, framed by a wisp of sun-kissed blonde hair. She was shorter than he was—quite a bit shorter—and willowy as a ribbon in the wind, but the strappy sandals hugging her feet added a bit of height.
“Have you lost your mind?” The words tumbled out before Jake could get a hold on them. “I might have run over you, hacked off a few of your toes.” He quickly regretted his harsh tone when her smile wilted. Her gaze lowered to her feet, and she wiggled her pink-polished toes.
“But you didn’t, and I’m still in one piece. So…” She had a slight Southern accent, a soft lilting voice that he imagined could flash to a bite in an instant.
Jake drew a long, calming breath laced with the sweet scent of freshly mown grass as he swiped a forearm across his brow. Sweat trickled down his back, making his T-shirt cling to damp skin. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to sneak up on people when they’re working with dangerous equipment?”
“Of course.” Her gaze narrowed as she crossed her arms and lifted her chin. He imagined her lack of height was no deterrent to getting her way, and her tone might have scalded the first few layers of skin from him. “But I didn’t sneak up on you.”
“Could have fooled me.” He huffed out a breath and wished he wasn’t feeling so short-tempered. It gave the wrong impression, especially here at church, and with someone new. He tugged the collar of his T-shirt and hoped for a cool breeze, trying not to think about how he was in a hurry to pick up Corey, and that he didn’t have time for chit-chat. But he’d make time…he always did. It was part of his job. “I sure didn’t hear you coming.”
“I called to you, but you’re mowing.” She enunciated the word as if she thought he might be a few cards short of a Pinochle deck. “That’s most likely why you didn’t hear me.”
“Yeah, that’s just my point.” Jake’s restraint was sorely tested by the smug gleam in her eye. His gaze grazed her crisp linen jacket over a flowered sundress that caressed a lithe figure. She looked graceful and cool under the blistering glare of the sun.
Jake, on the other hand, was sweltering to the point of self-combustion. He hadn’t intended to mow the grass, but when Bill Rogers, the church caretaker, called in with a sick daughter, there wasn’t time to find help. So Jake stepped in to pick up the slack. He brushed prickly blades of mulched grass from his faded jeans and gestured toward the mower. “Care to give it a go?”
She took a giant step back. “No thanks. I’m not…properly dressed.” She surveyed him, shielding her eyes from the sun that burned from a cloudless blue sky. Her other hand disappeared into the tote slung over one shoulder. “Drink?” She offered him a bottle of water. “You look like you can use some cooling off.”
Jake reached for the water. His pulse rate was beginning to ease, and thirst won out over pride. “Thanks.”
She gaped as he uncapped the bottle and guzzled the cool water in little more than a gulp then swiped stray droplets from his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Do you need to sit down for a minute? You look…winded.”
“No. I’m almost done.” Jake wouldn’t have chosen jeans that morning if he’d known he was going to have to mow; cargo shorts would have been a better choice. The thick denim held heat against his skin like a sauna. “Ahh, that’s good. Do you make it a habit to carry bottled water with you?”
“Nope…it’s your lucky day.” She adjusted the tote over her shoulder, and he saw it was filled with papers bundled neatly together by an array of colorful, plastic-coated clips. “Who knew I’d stumble across a hot groundskeeper in need.”
Jake did a double-take when her smile turned down and her gaze flashed complete mortification at the unintended double meaning. He tugged his ball cap low over his eyes and crossed his arms as she stuttered through an explanation.
“I-I mean, you’re hot from mowing…” she gulped, shading her eyes from his gaze. “Because it’s so hot out here, and you need—”
“Wow.” Jake burst into laughter. He fought hard to regain his composure as tears stung his eyes and mixed with the sweat on his brow to blur his vision.
“Hey.” Her cheeks flushed and blonde curls bobbed haughtily as she crossed her arms, threw her shoulders back, and gave him a seething look. “Don’t you know it’s not nice to laugh at someone else’s expense?”
Jake coughed into a hand and dipped his head to hide his grin. “Sorry, but you stepped right into that one.”
A crimson splotch crept up her neck and crawled across her face. “OK, I guess I did. Anyway—”
“I’m Jake.” He wiped his hand on his jeans in an attempt to brush off some of the sweat and dirt before extending it to her.
“Carin.” She grasped his hand and gave it a tentative shake. The scent of sandalwood perfume clung to the humid air, and Jake inhaled deeply, his pulse easing down another notch.
“So, what brings you here today, Carin?”
She tucked a stray curl behind one ear and trained those pretty green eyes on him. “I need to speak with the pastor of this church. I was hoping you could help me locate him.”
“Maybe I can.” Jake leaned lazily against the mower. She was neat and tidy, all business, while he stood sweaty and covered head to toe in mulched grass that had been swept up on a breeze. Maybe it was the heat, or her smug expression, or perhaps the fact he was in a bit of a foul mood and only human, after all, but he decided to have a little fun. “Which pastor are you looking for—youth or senior?”
“I…um…I don’t know.” She caught her lower lip between her teeth, gnawed for a moment and then let go. “I didn’t think to ask. I suppose he must be the youth pastor. Senior pastors tend to be older, I assume.”
Jake stifled a groan. She’d conveyed the typical sentiment. By all accounts, he should be a balding, stooped over, crotchety old man. The thought raised his ire even more. “Well, the youth pastor stepped out for a while. Meetings and planning sessions…you know how pressing church matters can be. Was he expecting you?”
“No, but…I was hoping to speak with him, confidentially.”
The disappointment in her gaze caused Jake a slight prick of guilt. His voice softened, and he remembered why he was here at the church in the first place. “Is what you need to speak about an emergency of some sort?”
“No!” Carin emphasized the word. “I mean, no, I wouldn’t want to worry him. It’s not pressing. I just need to…” The words died in her throat.
“Are you sure it’s not an emergency?” He couldn’t leave her hanging if it truly was a pressing issue.
“Sure, I’m sure.”
Jake debated. It wasn’t an emergency, and she’d be back in a day or so if he played his cards right. Then he wouldn’t be in a hurry to get Corey, and he’d have all the time in the world to talk with her—a better prospect, all the way around.
“Tell you what,” Jake coaxed. “Why don’t you come back Sunday morning for the ten o’clock service, when both pastors are sure to be here, and I can personally guarantee that following the service whichever pastor you need to speak with will give you his undivided attention for as long as you’d like.”
“You’re positive?” One eyebrow rose into a smooth little arch. “What I need to speak about could take a while.”
She jostled the bag on her shoulder and sighed, her gaze scanning the steps that led into the church. “Well…that’s just the day after tomorrow. I suppose it can wait until then. Ten o’clock, you said?”
“For the service, yes. And you can do your talking afterwards.”
“I don’t want to divulge the details.” Her forehead creased as her eyebrows knit together. “But perhaps I should leave a short message in the office, maybe a note with the secretary.”
“No need.” Jake tried not to glance at his watch. Corey would be waiting at the ball field, and who knew what kind of mischief he’d get into if Jake was delayed too long. “Besides, the secretary’s gone home for the day. But you have my word; the pastor will be OK with you showing up.”
Jake eyed her…abundant ringlets of soft blonde curls, tidy appearance, and eyes that said she didn’t think he could possibly know anything about the pastor. The slight prick of guilt he’d felt fled. “I’m sure.”
“Well…” Carin wound a strand of curl around an index finger. “Thank you…I guess.”
“No problem.” The late-afternoon sun silhouetted her figure. She had to be a runner—or perhaps a dancer. Though her figure was slight, Jake noticed the definition of supple calf muscles below the hem of her skirt. He drew his gaze away. “I’d better get back to work now…unless you’d care to stay and help.”
She pressed a finger to the forehead crease and gnawed her lower lip again while readjusting the tote. “No. I’ve…um…got errands to run.”
Yeah, right, Jake thought as she backed away. You wouldn’t want to dirty those freshly-manicured nails.
“Well, the invitation’s open…anytime.” He swept a hand across the clipping-littered sidewalk. “There’s always plenty of lawn to mow.”
The mortified look on her face was priceless, and Jake grinned as she hastily retreated to her car. “Thanks for your help.”
“See you Sunday?” Jake called.
“Of course…if you’re here.”
“Oh, I’ll be here.”
“Me, too.” The way she said it, her voice lilting with a biting edge to it, made Jake wonder exactly what was up. Now he had no choice but to wait to find out. Guess that was the price he’d pay for letting the heat—and a bit of temper—get the best of him.
He thought about going after her, but the compact sedan’s engine rumbled to life before he had time to make up his mind. As the car puttered from the lot, Jake checked his watch and quickly turned his attention back to mowing. He crushed the empty water bottle and stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans before double-timing it through the last section of lawn. Then he wrestled the mower back into the shed, brushed off his jeans, and went inside the church long enough to wash grass from his hands and check his voicemail. The last bit of mowing gave him time to reflect, and guilt gnawed at him.
He wondered what Carin wanted. He shouldn’t have run her off without asking. What kind of pastor was he, anyway? What if it was important? What if she didn’t come back?
Who on earth does he think he is? The arrogant, filthy, grass-covered bohemian. Why, I’ll—
The shriek of a horn startled Carin, and she slammed the brakes, skidding toward oncoming traffic. “Oh!” She held her breath as tires squealed over pavement and her car came to rest mere inches from the pickup truck in front of her. The odor of burning rubber coupled with fear made her gag. “Sorry,” she gasped, as if the driver of the truck might hear.
Oh, why on earth had she allowed Hailey to talk her into moving from her job helping her dad at his law firm in Nashville to take a teaching job at East Ridge Middle…and seventh grade, to boot? Middle school kids were a far cry from the affluent adults who came into her dad’s upscale firm to seek his advice on everything from basic living wills to complicated estate planning and civil suits. But she had a degree in English, and East Ridge Middle needed a qualified English teacher when Mrs. Baldwin, a thirty-five year veteran, decided to retire. So when Hailey called and suggested the move, Carin had jumped at the chance to take over. She’d always loved the Tennessee Valley and the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and there wasn’t much anymore to keep her in Nashville.
Except for her dad, and he was pretty much busy at his law firm all the time.
Besides, she needed a change to get away from the memories…the grief of losing her mom and then Cameron, and of the turmoil that had followed with Phillip, too. Nothing else she tried seemed to work. A change of scenery—a bit of distance—was the answer for her troubled heart.
But it wasn’t easy being the new kid on the block at East Ridge Middle, especially when she demanded the absolute best from her students. During the first few weeks, chaos nearly choked her, but she finally had a handle on things—a routine and a plan she was more than satisfied with.
Except for Corey Samuels. Apparently he reigned as King of Chaos.
The kid had a chip on his shoulder the size of Montana, with an attitude to match. To say his grades and effort were underwhelming put it mildly. But his records showed top test scores and well-above-average ability, and something in his eyes told her there was more to the story. He reminded her of her younger brother, Cameron. As she tamped the urge to throttle Corey when he blew spit wads at her white board and made rude comments under his breath, something about him tugged at her heartstrings.
No one had been able to help Cameron, and the end result was nothing less than heartbreaking. She missed her brother, gone nearly a year now. The pain of his death never left her.
When she asked Hailey for guidance concerning Corey, her friend mentioned that a talk with Corey’s brother might help. So on the way home she’d swung by the church where Hailey said he was a pastor, but confidentiality had kept her from searching for him past that behemoth caretaker.
Carin expelled a long breath and released her hands from their death grip on the steering wheel. She wouldn’t allow that poor excuse of a caretaker get to her, even if he did almost run her over with the hulking, dilapidated piece of junk-metal he called a mower.
A second horn blared, and Carin sprang to attention as traffic began to flow southbound toward the outskirts of town.
Just wait until Sunday, Mr. Lawnmower Man. I’m tougher than I look. I’ll show you…