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Matthew 17:20, my favorite verse. "... If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you."



Coveted Bride Ch. 1-3



As Lindsey Buchannan stepped from the van, a summer breeze caught her long chestnut hair and whipped it behind her back. The afternoon sun flickered off golden highlights lending her an ethereal grace.

Keaton Durham stared through the glass door of the gas station and swallowed against the sudden dryness in his throat. The beat of his heart accelerated. Why did it only do that around Lindsey? Wasn't there someone else out there for him?

Someone gave a low whistle. “She’s a looker, ain’t she? You sure cain’t tell she’s had four kids. Not at all like my Betty.” Snickers sounded from the other old-timers seated around the table.

One of the farmers seated beside Keaton poked his arm. “That’s what you need, young man, a wife and a couple of kids.”

Keaton swirled the remaining coffee around in his cup. The dark brew reflected his mood. A family. Yep, that's what he thought he needed too. He sighed and positioned his cap back on his head. “See you guys at the sale tomorrow.”

He had to leave before she came in or he’d give himself away. Lindsey Buchannan was the exact reason he didn’t have a family. Why he was drawn to her he didn’t know. But it certainly wasn’t fair.

Keaton’s timing was off. He met her at the door.

Lindsey paused. “Why is it that every time we run into each other, you’re always leaving?”

Keaton clamped his jaw shut. He was an honorable man, which meant he couldn’t answer.

He tipped his hat without a word and stepped outside. A sign at the gas station entry whipped in the wind. Its ninth line served as his reminder…thou shalt not covet.

Purposeful strides took him to his Bronco. Why did she have to keep showing up in the same places as him? He honestly didn’t want to take her from Mike. He was a much better man than that. But if he stuck around, he’d find himself wishin’. Wishing for things he had no right to want.

He slammed the door shut and gunned his rig out of the lot. The familiar Missouri countryside didn't offer enough distraction. His thoughts refused to stray. He’d first met Lindsey during the town’s annual May festival. She didn’t realize he was in line ahead of her and crowded her litter of children to the front of the ticket booth to satisfy their eager pleas. He learned later they hadn’t all been hers, but one could never tell by the way she treated them.

The oldest boy was the one who noticed they’d skipped ahead. Lindsey turned with apologies and Keaton’s heart leapt from his chest. Chocolate colored eyes, accented by milky, smooth skin pulled him in, but there was something more. Unfortunately, he was certain she hadn’t felt the same. Then to later realize she was Mike’s wife—it didn’t make sense. Why would his heart flip for a married woman?



Two years later.



After six months of driving back and forth to St. Louis, the strain of traffic had diminished. Lindsey considered herself a seasoned city driver. If only the air conditioning on her car wasn't seasoned. The fan switch no longer made a difference between settings. A trickle of sweat made a path from her hairline to her jaw.

Better than tears.

She entered the hospital through rotating doors. The tang of antiseptic greeted her like an old friend. Tootsie, a senior citizen volunteer, smiled warmly. “Hi, sweetie, your Mike’s having a good day. He’s had two visitors already.”

“Really?” I wonder who. “I’ll see you later, Tootsie.” She hurried to the elevator.

Mike had been here so often, visitors were something of the past. Last week, though, his cancer had taken a turn for the worse. Perhaps people would start coming by again. Paying their last respects. What a horrid thought.

With a light tap on the door, she entered his room. “Mike.”

He stirred and opened sleepy eyes. “Oh, good, you’re here.” A frail hand patted stiff, white sheets.

 Lindsey bent over to kiss his cheek before taking a seat. “Are you having a better day?”

Eyes full of acceptance implored her to understand. “There aren’t any ‘good days’ left.”

The steady drone of overhead lights filled the momentary silence. Lindsey’s eyes pooled with tears. She knew this day was coming, but denial had proven much happier than reality. What would she and the children do? She’d given birth to their first son soon after her high school graduation. They both agreed she should be a stay-at-home mom. One baby turned into four, then her sister's kids made six.

Six mouths to feed.

Mike’s scratchy voice intruded her thoughts. “Hey, stop worrying, I’ve got a plan.”

A half laugh escaped Lindsey’s throat. “Oh, no. When you say that it always leads to—”

“I know, I know, something you don’t agree with. Listen, Linds,” he started to cough and couldn’t seem to stop.

Lindsey pushed the button for a nurse and rolled Mike over to his side. His body was so weak the coughing fit would sap him of any strength he might have left. The nurse arrived and administered a breathing treatment. Pneumonia had settled in his chest months ago and he still battled its effects.

Lindsey sat beside the bed and rubbed her husband’s arm until at last the nurse could leave. Mike’s eyes grew heavy with sleep. How much longer did they have? Although she’d been filling the role of single parent for much of the last year, she still didn’t feel prepared. Her gaze settled on the locked file box between the bed and the window. She didn’t know what was inside only that Mike had instructed her to bring it with them last time he was admitted. She rested her head against the bed rail, welcoming its cool surface, and closed her eyes.

They’d dated throughout her senior year. Mike was older and showed a true interest in her. His family didn’t drink, they didn’t smoke, and they definitely didn’t take drugs. The exact opposite of her home-life.

Mike stirred beside her. “Good, you’re still here.”

Lindsey moved to sit on his mattress and ran a hand down his stubbled jaw. She blinked back the urge to cry.

“I want you to come back tomorrow with the kids.” His voice was whispery and hoarse.

Tears began to fall. One by one, they slipped from Lindsey’s cheeks and fell to the sheet below. Mike blinked several times. “Don’t do this, Lindsey. Be strong. I need you to be strong.”

She sniffed and nodded her head, unable to meet his eyes.

He tried to clear his throat but couldn’t quite succeed. His voice came out thick. “You won’t like what I’ve done, but I did it to take care of you and the kids.”

Lindsey brought her head up. What was he talking about?

“Go home, now. I need to rest. Come back tomorrow with the kids.” His voice faded as heavy lids closed over his eyes.

Lindsey released a heavy sigh.

“Mike,” she whispered, “what have you done to me, now?”

***

Keaton returned to the city the following day. Was he making the right decision? Lindsey wouldn’t take it well, and he couldn’t blame her. But Mike was trying to do what he could while he still had the chance.

He thought back to the day he described her to a couple of guys at work. “Do you know who she is?”

His two coworkers exchanged glances. “Yeah,” one of them said. “We know her. She’s a real beauty isn’t she?”

Keaton had stared past them, seeing a mental vision he often frequented. “But it’s more than that. I think I could love a woman like her.” He refocused, “Is she married?”

The men’s eyebrows rose as humor danced in their eyes.

Then a voice sounded from behind. “Yeah, to me.”

Keaton turned around to face his boss. His build was lean in comparison to Keaton’s solid frame, but he stood a few inches taller. Mike had made use of that height as he glowered over him.

Keaton hung his head and rubbed the back of his neck. He looked up again with the side of his mouth pulled in a grin. “Well, Boss, you’re one lucky guy.”

“Uh, huh. Just keep your charm to yourself.”

There was that word again. Charm.

Everyone called him a charmer. He took after his grandpa with eyebrows that slanted upward and a constant smile on his face. But his idea of a charmer was someone who manipulated people with their looks to get what they wanted. Something he would never do.

He despised the comparison.

The traffic light signaled green. He turned toward the hospital, arriving on time. Inside, the elevator doors opened to the third floor. He stepped into the hall and rounded the corner when Lindsey bumped into him. Her face was red and tears streamed down her cheeks. He reached out to balance her but she jerked back.

“It’s you.”

He didn’t know what to say. Obviously, Mike had told her his crazy idea. Keaton wanted to assure her he had nothing to do with it, but she wasn’t about to give him the chance. “Lindsey, I—”

“Don’t bother. I can’t, I can’t…” She brushed past him, probably unaware of where she was going.

A voice sounded from further down the hall. A boy, about seven, stood outside Mike’s room. “Are you Keaton?”

He nodded, not trustful of his own voice. Lindsey had been in tears, her heart was breaking and although he wasn’t the cause, he felt as guilty.

The boy stepped into the hall and met him halfway. “Dad’s gonna die, and he wants you to be our new dad.”

Keaton stalled. Yes, Mike had told him of his plan, but reality had yet to sink in.

Until now.

The boy straightened his back and looked him directly in the eye. “My name’s Jack.” His handshake was as firm as a man’s. Yet, he was just a boy.

Keaton pulled off his cap and ran a hand through his hair. His dark curls were beginning to tickle his ears. He needed a haircut. He slapped the hat across his knee then wound it between his hands. “How do you feel about this arrangement?”

The boy’s swallow was visible. “I know we’ll need a dad. And Mom will need help. But are you up to it? There’s a bunch of us kids.”

Keaton rubbed the back of his neck. Was he? He’d dated off and on since meeting Lindsey, but never seriously. No one pulled a halt to his thoughts like she did. But was he dad potential, especially, for six children?

He sighed before answering. “I guess that’s up to your mama, son. I’ve prayed about it and I didn’t get a red light.”

The boy’s shoulders sagged with what appeared to be relief. Why was this so important to him? Shouldn’t he have a problem replacing his dad? He took Keaton’s hand and pulled him toward the room. “Come on, Dad wants to talk to you.”

Inside, children were gathered around the bed. Some sat in the chair, others beside Mike. The oldest girl held a toddler. The room fell silent. All eyes were upon him. His stomach rolled with apprehension. Would he measure up?

A thin hand waved him over. Mike tried to clear his throat. “I want you kids to meet your new dad.”

Keaton couldn’t help the tears that filled his eyes. This trustful man was handing his family over to him. He couldn’t imagine the pain it must cause. Mike went through the names of each child, but Keaton couldn’t concentrate enough to remember them.

“Mike, this…this doesn’t feel right.”

Mike turned pleading, sunken eyes on him. His cheekbones were hollow. He wouldn’t make it through the week. “You promised.” He started to cough. “You, you promised.”

“I know, I know. But Lindsey…she was so upset in the hall.”

Mike stared out the window. “She’ll come around. She’ll have to. I made sure of that.” His eyes slowly closed followed by labored breathing.

Made sure of it? What about Lindsey's opinion, shouldn't she at least have a say? Guilt prickled his conscience.

Keaton looked around at the expectant faces. His eyes trailed back to the shadow of the man his boss used to be. He sucked in air between his teeth and turned toward the door. He only made a few steps, before he thought of the children and turned back. “Let’s go. Your dad needs his sleep.”

“Where are we going?”

Keaton looked down at the little girl who’d taken his hand. They were so trusting. So accepting. He wished their mom was as much. “I bet you kids could use something to eat.”

“Ice cream?” Questioning voices chimed in unison.

“Ice cream sounds great.” Keaton led the troupe to the cafeteria. It wasn’t long before they were all seated at a table with ice cream for everyone. It amazed him how well-behaved the children were. They didn’t fight and helped look after one another. He supposed a family illness would draw any family closer.

They’d just finished when Lindsey stepped inside the room. “There you are.” She came to stand behind the eldest daughter. “I went back to Dad’s room and all of you were gone.”

Jack stood to collect their trash. “It’s okay, Mom. Dad fell asleep, so Keaton bought us ice cream.”

She glanced in Keaton’s direction but wouldn’t meet his eyes. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I wanted to.”

The children picked up on the adult tension. Wide eyes took in everything. Keaton stood and emptied his pocket of change onto the table. “Hey, why don’t you kids throw some pennies in the fountain while I talk to your mama?”

The children ran toward the coins. Lindsey kissed the top of her daughter’s head and with slow movements, followed Keaton to the row of windows on the other side of the room. She kept her arms hugged around her body and stopped a few feet away.

“Are you cold?”

“No.” She pressed her forehead to the window before the sobs took control.

Keaton positioned himself so the children wouldn’t see her cry. His heart ached to hold her, to offer some kind of comfort. But he knew it was too soon. She'd only pull away. He shoved his hands in his pockets and gritted his teeth. “I’m sorry, Lindsey. I know this is hard. I don’t understand why Mike chose to do things this way.”

A few moments passed, she sniffed several times and wiped her eyes. “I could do this on my own. I don’t have to remarry.” She straightened. “This isn’t the turn of the century. People don’t do this anymore!”

Her ranting’s wouldn’t have made sense to just anyone, but Keaton knew exactly what she meant. Lindsey had allowed Mike to carry everything they owned in his name. Thus, giving him full control to do what he wished.

            “You don’t have to marry me if you don’t want. You can find a way to work around this. He gave you a couple months, talk to a lawyer; see what your options are.”

            “Don’t you mean we could talk to a lawyer to find a way out of this?”

            “No.” He looked her straight in the eye. “If you want out, you’re on your own.”

            Lindsey’s mouth dropped open. “What are you talking about? Look at what you’re getting.”

            Keaton’s gaze encircled the children and settled back on Lindsey. “I see a family. And the only woman I’ve ever wanted.”




Chapter Two



            The clock struck one reminding Lindsey she should be in bed. It was the end of the second day since Mike revealed his plan for her future. Did his parents know what he’d done? They were here two weeks ago. Had he even hinted to what he wanted her to do? Although her in-laws lived overseas and didn’t keep close contact, she still cared for their opinion. She was sure they’d be disgusted if she remarried within two months of their son’s death.

I’m still up. I might as well call them.

Her mother-in-law, Donna, answered on the second ring. “Lindsey, has something happened?”

“No. Oh, no, I didn’t want you to think that.” Guilt filled her heart. She hadn’t given consideration that they expected something worse.

“I’m sorry, Donna,” she’d never felt encouraged to call her mom, “I just wanted to talk to you.”

“Okay. I hope it’s not lengthy, as I have to take Bryan to his doctor appointment in twenty minutes.”

Lindsey blinked back tears. She wouldn’t feel sorry for herself. At least they didn’t use drugs, nor had they ever encouraged their kids too. And Bryan, Mike’s younger brother, had complications. He’d been handicapped since birth, so of course Donna’s focus would be on him. She cleared her throat. “Then I’ll get right to the point. Did Mike mention anything to you about his plan if he doesn’t make it?”

“Is my son near the end?”

“Donna, he hasn’t come home since you were here over two weeks ago. He’s pretty bad.”

“Yes, I know. I was just hoping for a change.” She sighed audibly.

“Have you talked to him recently?”

“I called on Wednesday.”

Lindsey’s breath stalled. “Wednesday? Did he mention his plan for us?”

She could hear Donna shuffle the phone to her other ear and say something to Bryan. “No, he didn’t. He couldn’t talk very long. I’m sorry, Lindsey, but I need to go so we won’t be late. I’ll talk to you later. Tell the children hi for me.”

“Okay.” Her voice sounded small as she hung up the phone. If his parents didn’t know, then it would be left to her to tell them. What would they think?

Would they help her out of her situation? Were they financially able? She knew so little about them. Mike’s father had been in the military when she and Mike met. After his overseas tour, he and his wife decided to stay. Their youngest son, though now in his twenties, needed a lot of care and the hospital they frequented provided excellent services. She didn’t blame them. Nor did she miss them.

She shuffled toward her bedroom, shoving toys out of the way with her foot. The house never looked clean, even when it was. But that came with children. They brought so much joy to her life though, she didn’t mind.

What little sleep Lindsey managed passed quickly. She dressed for the day and stood in front of the mirror. Her jeans were so baggy, even a belt didn’t help. Time didn’t allow her to sort through her drawers. Not that she had anything clean. Laundry day had been skipped to visit Mike again. She grabbed a box from the front of the closet labeled, pre-children clothes. If memory served her correctly, there was a pair of stretch-jeans near the top. They’d get her through. She grabbed the first pair, but they weren’t the stretchable fabric she expected.

            They slid on easily.

            Lindsey stared at her reflection. Due to her husband’s illness, stress had taken its toll. Even the extra weight she couldn’t lose after their fourth child was gone. A tear slid down her cheek. She’d take it all back, every ounce. Her children needed their dad.

            A timid knock sounded on her door. It had to be Clara, who had yet to speak. This was her way of letting Lindsey know she was up and probably hungry. Lindsey glanced at the clock before she opened the bedroom door. Six-thirty a.m.

No time for myself today.

“Hi, sweetie.” She knelt to hug her niece good morning then held out her hand. “You want to help make pancakes?”

A quick nod of Clara’s head told her she’d chosen the right thing to say. The child grasped her hand and followed her to the kitchen.

Lindsey had only gained guardianship of Clara after her sister’s death. Since that time, Mike had been in and out of the hospital. Little Clara still hadn’t experienced a normal family. She used to think, once Mike got well, Clara would start speaking. But not even that was an option now.

What about Keaton?                    

Lindsey faltered with the measuring cup and flour spilled onto the counter. A gentle hand tapped her shoulder.

 “I know, Clara, Aunt Lindsey made a mess. My mind was somewhere else.”

She hadn’t seen Keaton since their shared visit at the hospital on Wednesday. Since that time, she’d done everything she could to keep her mind away from him. And, away from her husband’s schemes.

But thoughts still crept in. While leaning on the hospital window, she'd thought Keaton would try to comfort her. It impressed her that he didn't. She hadn't wanted it, not from him. Still, it would have been nice to have a shoulder to cry on. Her throat constricted, she couldn't cry, it would only upset and confuse Clara.

By seven o’clock, the rest of the children were up and seated at the table. It was the weekend, no school, and still the children rose early. Lindsey bowed her head. “Let’s say grace.”

After their prayer, Elizabeth, her daughter of six, spoke up. “Are we going to see Daddy today?”

Lindsey swallowed her bite of food to answer, but the shrill of the phone grabbed her attention. Who would call this early in the morning? Unless…

Jack answered the phone and held it toward his mother. “It’s for you, Mom. It’s the hospital.”

Lindsey rose on numb legs. Her son’s solemn eyes latched onto hers. They both knew. She spoke into the receiver and forced herself to hear what she couldn’t bear. Her shoulders began to shake as a hand covered her mouth. Jack drew to her side and helped support her as they cried.

***

Keaton wrestled with the decision he’d made on Wednesday. One night of prayer on the subject wasn’t much time before giving an answer. Still, he’d awakened with peace that morning. If only Lindsey had shown more support in her husband’s decision. But he didn’t blame her. If she had, what would that have said about her devotion to Mike?

            He’d keep his word. What Lindsey decided to do was up to her. She had two months before the house and trusts set aside for their livelihood would go to a designated charity. If she married Keaton, it became theirs.

            He didn’t envy Lindsey’s position.

            Over dinner at his parent’s house that evening, his mother asked for the third time, “Are you sure you’re making the right decision?”

            “I’m sure. Lindsey’s the one having doubts.”

            Keaton’s father leaned closer. “Son, marriage is a life-time commitment. When it comes time, make sure she’s doing this to stay.”

            “She can’t divorce me, Dad, if that’s what you mean. If she does, everything goes to the charity.”

            His mother shook her head. “Poor girl. The turmoil she must be going through.”

            Keaton strolled into the kitchen for his wake-up cup of coffee. It was Saturday, but no sleeping in with Ranger, the rooster. At least he didn’t get mixed up again. Twice, earlier in the week, the rooster had awakened in the middle of the night confused by the full moon, and claimed it was sunrise.

            He stared at the cup in his hand. On its side, etched in gold ink, was the company’s name where he and Mike were both employed. Mike, as manager, had given them out as Christmas gifts to the entire crew. Though Keaton had a deep respect for his boss, he didn’t always agree with the way he handled things. Mike liked being in control and fought his way on everything.

            Was that the kind of man he was at home?

            It made sense. Even though Mike and Lindsey had been married for eight years, he carried everything in his name. He’d even made her bring the bills to him while in the hospital. Was she allowed to make any decisions? Did she have a voice in their relationship? No wonder it was so easy for him to arrange her future. Everything was in his control. Not at all how God intended marriage to be.

            Mike had given Keaton a list of chores that needed to be done at the house. He wanted him to stop by this week as often as possible, but Keaton couldn’t. He couldn’t impose on a family that wasn’t his. Until Mike’s last breath, they still belonged to him.

            The phone rang and pulled Keaton from his thoughts. He listened to the hospital personnel on the other end of the line and hoped Mike’s family made it in time to say good-bye. He pocketed his keys and headed out the door.

            How would Lindsey take his presence? Mike had made it clear the staff should contact Keaton directly after her. Did she hate him? Or did she perhaps hold no opinion of him? The latter would be better. It would give him more to work with.

He wanted to ask why Mike had chosen him. But he already knew. Two months ago, Mike had again been out of work because of sickness, and called in a favor.

“Hey, think you could drop by and cut up a tree in my yard. It fell over last week in the storm.”

“Sure, thing. Just tell me where you live.” Keaton had thrown his saw in the back of the Bronco and went to work. After he finished loading the cut wood onto his trailer, he visited with Mike on the front porch. Lindsey stepped out once to hand him a glass of tea. He tried not to stare as she turned to go back inside.

Mike propped his cheek up in one hand and looked at Keaton. “Still think you could love her?”

Keaton was surprised Mike remembered his comment from two years earlier. “I’ll get my own wife.”

“But, you haven’t.”

Keaton ground his teeth and stared across the yard in silence.

Mike shifted in his chair. “Stay single a while longer and you might get your chance.”

 “Don’t talk like that.” Keaton rose from his seat. “I’ll be seeing you at work.”

He now sighed with the memory. Their conversation had been two months ago. Mike must have started his plan then. Had he actually brought Keaton out to the house that day to reassure himself?

The hospital came into view. Keaton parked his Bronco in the farthest parking lot available. He needed the walk to calm his nerves. Halfway across, he realized he hadn’t planned on the temperature. The July heat already warmed up the pavement and it wasn’t even ten o’clock. A light sweat began to prickle his skin before he made it to the doors. Missouri weather could never be depended upon, except for July.

Inside the elevator, a shapely woman near his age tried to make conversation. “It’s gonna be a hot one today.” She fanned her blouse, stimulating her overly scented rose perfume.

Keaton saw her from the side of his vision but refused to give her attention. He simply nodded. He never could understand what women saw in him. Though he was broad and stout, he couldn’t claim the height of his dad or brother. Nor did he take after them in looks.

The sugary voice tried again. “A dip in the creek would sure be nice.”

The elevator dinged. He was saved. Keaton stepped forward as the doors opened. “Enjoy your swim.” He imagined her disappointed look with disgust. Some people never think past themselves. You’re in a hospital, lady. People are sick. People are dying…

He found three of the children in the waiting room. Red, swollen eyes supported what the staff had told him on the phone. The little girl who had taken his hand rushed toward him and wrapped her arms around his waist.

Keaton froze.

            Her sniffles clouded his throat with tears. He bent down and lifted her into his arms as he made his way to a vacant chair. Her tiny limbs clasped around his neck as her tears dampened his skin. A young boy left the lap of his older sister and crawled onto Keaton’s knee.

He was at a loss for words. Why were the children so open with him?

“Dad’s talked about you a lot.” The older girl looked at the floor as she spoke. “He said you would teach Jack how to mow the yard. And sometimes we might even be able to see your cows.”

Keaton swallowed against the lump in his throat. “What’s your name, hon’?”

“Elizabeth.” Bright green eyes met his. “I’m six. Josh and Samantha are four.”

He looked at each child in his arms. “Are you two twins?”

“No.” Elizabeth answered for them. “Samantha was Aunt Lauren’s.”

Keaton didn’t understand but the time for answers would come later.

Nurses milled about in attendance. Then Lindsey stepped from the door. She had a child on her hip and two sons by her side.

“He’s gone.” Her voice was a mere whisper.

Josh slid from his lap and rushed to his mother. Keaton stood with Samantha still in his arms and stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Lindsey. Mike was a good man.”

Blank eyes stared past him. She looked as though she couldn’t take another step. Keaton reached for her elbow. “Come on, I’ll drive you home.”

He led them to the parking lot, all the while keeping a hand on Lindsey. He wasn’t sure if it were more for her sake or his. But seeing her numb with pain tore at his heart. She must have really loved him.

If she loved Mike this much, how would she ever be able to marry Keaton in two months? How could he expect her to?

A heavy disappointment weighed on his soul.


  

Chapter Three



            Lindsey brushed through her hair and stared at the children playing in the yard. To be a child again. The whimsical thought played through her mind. Of course, through the freedom of her imagination, her own childhood would have a different setting than the one afforded her by reality. She too, could run and laugh after healthy siblings. She’d be able to toss back her head while swinging without a worry for what her mother was doing inside. Or, to what detrimental ends she was leading her other daughter.

            She turned from the window and took in the haphazard state of her home. It was a wreck and her in-laws would be here this afternoon. At least they’d made arrangements for Bryan’s care. Even if she managed to get the house clean, the children’s toys would pose a constant threat underfoot. Bryan would never have been able to manage.

            She started a load of laundry and almost missed hearing the phone ring. The answering machine had clicked on by the time she reached it. She fumbled with the off button in the middle of Mike’s recorded voice. “Hello.”

            A moment of silence followed before someone breathed into the phone. “Sis. I hear you’re about to inherit some money.”

            Lindsey gasped as a cold shiver ran up her spine. Clayton Turnbaugh. He’d always given her the creeps. “Mike just died, Clayton. Whatever it is you want, can wait. We haven’t even had his funeral.”

            He laughed in her ear. “You still scared of me, little thing? That’s good to know. Good to know. I’ll be in touch.” His whispery voice faded out before the dial tone sounded. Lindsey looked down at her arms and noted the hair standing on end.

Mike, you’ve always handled, Clayton. What am I going to do?

A knock came from the front door, startling a cry from Lindsey.

The unlocked door parted open as Keaton stuck his head through. “Lindsey, are you okay?”

She rested her hands on her hips and turned away to catch her breath. “Yeah, you just startled me, is all.”

“Can I come in?”

Lindsey turned around. “Okay, but don’t trip. I’ve not paid much attention to the house lately.”

Keaton stepped inside. He bent to retrieve a toy truck from the floor. “This looks like one I had as a kid.” He fumbled it in his hands before continuing. “I stopped by to help out.”

“Thanks, but I don’t need any help.” She glanced around the room. “Well, I guess that’s calling the kettle copper.”

Keaton smiled. “Mike mentioned you had your own set of clich├ęs.”

“What do you mean?”

She could tell he was trying to keep from laughing. He scuffed the toe of his boot against the rug by the door as he looked down. “The way I’ve always heard it said is, it’s the pot calling the kettle black.” He brought his head up exposing his engaging smile. “Show me where the toys go and I’ll get this room.”

Lindsey stared at him in disbelief. “You’re going to clean?”

“Why not?”

She fought the small grin teasing the corner of her mouth. His eyebrows shot upward in an innocent look. But was he innocent, or did he have another motive behind his offering? He’d said he didn’t want out. Was he trying to soften her to Mike’s crazy idea? “Why would you want to do that?”

He set the truck down and ran a hand through his hair. He needed a trim but somehow the tousled look seemed to add instead of take away.

“I figured you’d be getting a lot of folks stopping by and…can’t I help?”

Lindsey shook her head. She didn’t understand him but she wouldn’t look a gift horse in the eye. Or was it the mouth?

 “That basket in the corner is where most of this goes. What doesn’t fit can go in the toy box up-stairs.” She pointed to the loft. “And please don’t think this will win you any brownie points. I’m not marrying you.”

A pained look shot through his eyes and was gone. She bit the inside of her lip. The words slipped out of her mouth on their own. She hadn't planned to sound mean, but wasn't it the truth?

Her excuses did little to wash away the guilt.

Keaton gave a polite nod and went to work. Before she knew it, he was finished and asking for more instructions. She looked over his shoulder to appraise his work. The spotless room stared back at her like a stranger. Even the children’s drinking glasses had been removed and the end tables wiped down.

 “Thank you…” His name was on the tip of her tongue but she couldn’t bring herself to say it.

Jack stepped through the back door. “Mom, I saw Keaton’s truck outside—”

“Keaton!” Samantha pushed past her cousin and ran toward her new hero. Lindsey watched with fascination as Keaton squatted down to receive her with open arms. Her niece clung to his neck with obvious adoration. The house filled with the rest of the children, all excited with his presence. Their voices rose in unison as each fought for his attention.

Since when had they become so attention starved?

Keaton cleared his throat. “Let’s go back outside and play before we mess up the clean rooms.”

He smiled at her as he walked past. It wasn’t a smile of politeness, it went all the way through. He was just as happy to see the children as they were of him.

Lindsey managed to change another load of laundry and dump the clean clothes on her bed before a knock sounded from the front door again. Her breath stalled. With Keaton’s appearance all thoughts of Clayton had vanished. But now the fear returned. She peered out her bedroom window.

Her shoulders sagged with relief. It was members of her church with pans of food. She opened the door wide to invite them in. Laverne and Lilly exchanged greetings with her as they entered her front room. At the moment, she was very thankful for Keaton. His efforts saved her from embarrassment.

“We brought some casseroles, dear.  Now these can be easily frozen. And you might want to do that. Edna and Olga Jean will be stopping by as well, but I’m not sure what they made.”

Lindsey’s eyes pooled with tears as she accepted a dish. She was so thankful for their little country church. She swallowed, unable to speak. Lilly pulled her into a tight embrace and rubbed her back. Lindsey fought to balance the casserole to the side.

“Honey, we knew it was comin’, but we’re so sorry. Now you let us know if there’s anything we can do, ya here?”

“Yes, I will.” Lindsey swiped at her tears once she was released.

She saw the women glance about her house. Laverne waved her hand toward the open rooms. “It looks like you’ve kept things up pretty well. But is there anything we can do, such as floors or look after children. Where are the children anyway?”

Lindsey stalled. She hadn’t given any thought how to explain Keaton. “Actually, one of Mike’s friends stopped by and is playing with them out back while I ready the house. Mike’s parents are coming in this afternoon.”

The women nodded in understanding and took their leave. Lindsey gathered the casseroles and strode to the kitchen. Would they have accepted the news as easily if they’d seen Keaton? Probably, not. He possessed the looks of a heart breaker.

Did that thought come from her?

Familiar tears gathered in her eyes. She despised the predicament her husband created. How was she supposed to mourn Mike if he already expected her to move on? How much easier it would have been if he’d lived. A small voice niggled her conscience. She tried to squelch it but it begged to be heard.

Life hadn’t been easy with Mike. She often dreaded the time when all the children would be grown. They’d had nothing in common outside of the kids.

She searched for space in her freezer then groaned at the disastrous kitchen. Laundry could wait, but the smell in here had to go.

***

The viewing lasted for hours. Lindsey’s feet throbbed from standing so long. People from work continued to file in and offer condolences. Never had she hugged so many strangers before.

She glanced over to where part of her children sat with Mike’s parents. Elizabeth was such a blessing. She sat beside her grandmother with Clara on her lap. Donna had tried to befriend Clara but was only met with tears. That act wouldn’t win Clara any favors. Lindsey knew her mother-in-law well enough. Her whole demeanor could turn if things didn’t go her way.

Lindsey’s eyes trailed the room in search of Keaton. Wherever he was, she could be sure her other children were with him. She glanced once more. His absence brought a small unexpected disappointment.

She refocused on the conversation of the man in front of her. He was reminiscing about a trip he and Mike had taken. If only he knew how much she resented Mike’s ‘trips.’ Instead of family vacations, he’d go hunting with the ‘boys.’

The ache in her legs climbed to her hips. She winced and shifted her weight. Before she knew it, Keaton was by her side. “Looks like you could use a break. How about you tend to Bradley?  He doubts my skills. I’m sure Mike’s parents can take it from here.”

He smiled politely and guided her to the side before she could protest. She glanced back at her in-laws. They were already in her place.

“I spoke with them first.”

All she could do was nod. He led her to the restrooms. “Bradley’s in the men’s room but I’ll stand guard out here.”

Lindsey stepped through the door with caution, hoping it was empty of any unsuspecting males. “Bradley?”

“I’m in here, Mama.”

Mama? That was new. It had always been Mom or Mommy before. What changed?

She found her three-year-old in the far stall. After helping him get clean they returned to the hallway where Keaton kept three men waiting in line.

Lindsey felt color rise to her cheeks. “Sorry about that.”

She turned her gaze to Keaton. “And thank you…Keaton.”

He gave her a gentlemen’s nod then turned his attention to Bradley. “I think your mama could use something to drink. You want to show her the snack room?”

“Yeah, come on, Mama. They got tinkies’!”

She glanced between her son and Keaton, the source of her new title.

            Keaton showed his winning smile. “I learned there’s more than one name for Twinkies.” He held open the door. Inside, she found the rest of her children seated in the floral upholstered chairs watching a cartoon on a portable dvd player.

            “Someone was thoughtful. I wonder who brought this in.”

            Keaton turned toward the sink to fill a glass with water and Jack answered. “Keaton brought it.”

            Lindsey starred at him in awe. He cleared his throat. “I know these things can be kinda long for kids. So I borrowed it from a friend.” He bent his head and rubbed the back of his neck. “I hope it’s okay.”

            “It, it’s fine.” Never, had she been around someone so thoughtful. It made her uncomfortable. She downed the offered water and made an excuse to leave.

            Another hour passed before the funeral home closed its doors. Phase one of the mourning process had been initiated. If only her tears hadn’t been so selfish. She hadn’t cried for a lost love. Her tears had been for the confusion of her current state. It didn’t seem fair. She had abided by God’s law. She’d stayed true to her marriage vows, tried to be a good wife and mother despite life’s challenges. Why did this have to happen?

She didn’t have a higher education. Aside from the small jobs she’d held in high school, she didn’t even have work experience. What would she and the children do? She had to talk to Mike’s parents. Surely Donna and Michael would give her a way out.

            Lindsey and her in-laws drove home in relative silence. Their eyes had belied their curiosity as to why she let Keaton drive her van home with the children. But now wasn’t the time for explanations. Her father-in-law was seated beside her while Donna stretched out as much as she could on the back seat of the Bronco. She knew they were tired. Jet lag, toppled with the funeral of their son had to be emotionally, as well as physically exhausting. Their conversation would have to wait.

            A light from the T.V. flickered in the front room of the house. Lindsey stepped through the door and stopped. Keaton was seated in the middle of the couch with his legs stretched out in front. Her children were in various positions on each side of him, and the other furniture. But what made her heart pause was the one sleeping on his chest.

            “Clara?” Donna’s voice sounded next to her ear.

            Keaton’s eyes fluttered open. Lindsey hadn’t realized he’d been asleep, too. He put his finger to his lips to signal for them to be quiet. Donna pushed past Lindsey and went down the hall toward her room.           

            Keaton stood, careful to keep from jostling Clara awake. He approached Michael and whispered. “Could you help me get the rest of these rug-rats to bed then I’ll be on my way.”

            Michael nodded in silent agreement and carefully picked up a sleeping Bradley. Lindsey led them up the stairs and pulled down the children’s bedding. Tonight had taken its toll on everyone.  

            When at last the children were tucked in, Lindsey walked Keaton to the door. “Thank you for all your help. I have to say, I was amazed to find Clara asleep on your chest. What charms did you work to win her over?”

            The tired but friendly smile fell from his face. “I don’t use charm.”

            Lindsey stared up at his serious expression. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to offend you.”

            “I know.” He smiled and gave the nod of his head that was becoming more familiar to her and left.        

***

Keaton arrived at home, his stomach in knots. He opened the refrigerator door, grabbed the last can of soda and stared at the nearly empty contents. Just as well, since lack of food wasn’t the problem. Standing so close to Lindsey as she thanked him tonight was. It took all of his control not to touch her. Now he was free to love Lindsey, but he still had to hold back. Give her time to mourn.

From stories the children told him, he was beginning to understand part of their family’s history. Lindsey’s sister had died leaving two daughters in her care. They looked enough like the other children it was hard to believe they weren’t all siblings. Though the youngest one’s quiet ways were haunting. No child that young should be so withdrawn. What cruel lessons had life taught her?

Keaton flinched from the cold liquid on his hand. He’d unknowingly crushed the can he held and spilled its contents. The children had already made themselves at home in his heart. He hated to think of anyone ever causing them pain. One thing for sure, under his care, they would always be protected.

The next few days went by in a blur. Work was chaotic. Everyone had pulled together to make things work while their manager, Mike, was sick. But now that he’d passed, his position was being fought over like grade-schoolers. Keaton knew when to back off every time a conversation turned that direction. None of them were in the position to make the decision, so why waste the energy? Besides, he had other areas to focus on.

His cell phone vibrated in his shirt pocket. “Hello, Keaton, here.”

“Keaton.”

The small voice pricked his heart. “Elizabeth?”

“Yeah. Daddy gave Jack and me your number in case we ever needed you.”

Keaton moved toward the exit. The factory’s interior noise made it too difficult to hear her soft voice. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“Mama fell asleep with Clara, and me and Jack saw a man look in the window.”

Alarm tensed his muscles. “What man, hon? What window?” He took off toward his truck.

Her voice was just above a whisper. “The scary man.”


 
Don't forget to leave a comment or vote to tell me what you think. This is the third in the series and is still a work in progress. There will be five all together in The Ozark Durham Series.

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