Keeper Of My Heart
A bitter heiress refuses to trust man or God...until a faithful veterinarian challenges her beliefs. Determined to keep her heart safe from betrayal, Rebecca denies both God and the man who calls to her, certain his love can never be true enough to bring her back to her faith and a future with him. Adam is equally entranced, but Rebecca's denial of faith proves a deterrent to pursuing a relationship with her. But now that Rebecca has taken a job in Adam's animal clinic, an attraction that neither one believes can work begins to grow.
Haven Falls, VA, 1930
A festive atmosphere permeated the Saturday afternoon crowd waiting for a seat at the historic Waterfall House, just as it had when Rebecca Gresham used to come with her father. Some of the fierce tension in her back relaxed. As far as she could tell, no one pointed her out or leaned close to a neighbor to spread gossip about her. Of course, she couldn’t see anything but fuzzy shapes any farther away than the end of her fingertips, so she couldn’t be sure. But she hadn’t done one scandalous thing in almost a year. People had to have found someone else to talk about by now.
Rebecca wouldn’t have gone to the restaurant at all if her best friend from school hadn’t written, begging Rebecca to meet her. Samantha hadn’t been able to give a definite date as to when she’d arrive, just a general idea. Rebecca looked around and couldn’t spot Sam’s familiar figure. She sighed and wished everything didn’t blur a few feet away from the end of her nose.
With her arms crossed over her cloth coat, she looked at the cobbled courtyard. How long would she have to wait? Within sound of Haven Falls was not a bad place to spend half an hour, but not in such a crowd. She’d get the waiter’s attention, ask if Samantha left word for her to join them, and take herself off.
Still, she appreciated the fine blend of good food, fresh air, and living water. Her stomach growled in the first real hunger she’d felt in ages. If Samantha didn’t show up, perhaps Rebecca would stay and treat herself. In the long year since her public shame, she hadn’t eaten a restaurant meal, had barely poked her nose outside her house. Although unready and unwilling to face those who would remember her failure, she had forced herself this far. Now, something in the autumn-scented air bade her stay. That, and the conviction that no one noticed her.
When she glanced through the open restaurant door again, she saw a fuzzy Thomas, the sweet old waiter who had been her father’s closest friend, wearing what she knew had to be a smile so brilliant she could have warmed her hands by it.
“I’ve got a single chair. Anybody here by their lonesome?”
People shifted and answered in the negative. Rebecca hoped he wouldn’t call attention to her sorry state, but he crooked a finger at her, almost bouncing in delight.
“Rebecca, looks like you’re all alone?”
She hunched her shoulders then nodded and squeezed through the line. Others made a path for her without grumbling, and Rebecca remembered how Thomas managed his customers, able to bestow favors without arousing resentment. But did he have to announce that she’d come by herself? She raised her voice, to prove she wasn’t unpopular. As if anyone who knew her wouldn’t remember how “popular” she’d become after she inherited her father’s money. “Samantha thought she might come into town today—”
“Ah, no, she and her fellow were here last night. He couldn’t wait, got that job in California so they couldn’t stay. She mentioned you, of course, said I was to give you her love and tell you to look for a whole slew of letters from her.”
Rebecca’s mouth twitched. She’d already received hundreds of letters, and while they were almost as good as hearing Sam’s voice, they couldn’t replace her warm hugs. With California so far from Virginia, Rebecca had no idea if she’d see her rambunctious friend again. She shrugged and followed Thomas to the table, stopping when she saw a dark-haired man already seated there. Rebecca didn’t ever want to deal with strangers again.
“Thomas, no, I don’t think—”
The seated man looked up. Shock pulsed through her, silenced her words, and left her shaken. His brown eyes seemed to promise a trustworthy friendship. Stunned, she shook her head and blamed her poor eyesight.
Thomas beamed at her, and she dragged her gaze away from the friendly face to listen to the old man. “It’s all right, Becca. I already asked him if he minded sharing, and he doesn’t. You know how I like to see all my tables full up.” Thomas pulled the empty chair out. “Here’s Rebecca,” he told the man, and another flash of hazel-brown and a reserved smile greeted her.
Once she sat down and pulled her cloche off, Thomas whipped out his order pad. “You know what you want already, Becca? And you, sir, you’ve had plenty of time to study that menu, so you must’ve decided.” He gave the man a piercing stare. “You never said your name, sir.”
Rebecca pursed her lips to keep her smile to herself. Poor stranger. Here was Thomas, acting as though only the man’s bad manners kept Thomas from knowing everything about him.
At least he didn’t give some snide answer or try to put Thomas in his place, as if someone as special as Thomas had a “place.” A memory of Crispin and the way he’d talked to and about her old friend rose, but she squelched it before it could overtake her and lead her down another melancholy path. Crispin was gone, and good riddance, but he’d taken an enormous amount of her trust with him.
“Well, Mr. McCormack, if the lady is ready to order, I’ll just let her go first.”
Mr. McCormack nodded.
“The house special,” Rebecca told Thomas.
“House special it is. Always recommend that.” Thomas scribbled a line. “And for you, sir?”
The stranger glanced at Rebecca before he said, “The special sounds good to me.”
“Excellent choice.” Thomas collected the lone menu and nodded. “Excellent, you mark my words.”
After he left, Rebecca tried not to meet the man’s eyes. Behind him, a vivid watercolor painted by a local artist depicted the famous waterfall, but now that her eyes rebelled against focusing on anything not right in front of her, she could barely make out the familiar scene. Memory more than sight showed her the thundering falls, mist rising from the tumultuous base. Every bit of decor in Waterfall House Restaurant reflected Haven Falls, from strings of silvery beads meant to look and sound like plunging water, to the wildflowers in bud vases, to the miniature cascade that burbled over rocks just inside the entrance. The sound relaxed the patrons but didn’t overpower their conversations.
Waiters bustled past with trays of steaming meals and customers milled about, but Rebecca couldn’t see faces clearly enough to recognize anyone. She needed a visit to the eye doctor, but the thought of trusting her weakness to a man, doctor or not, left her terrified.
“Is he always so approving of his customers?” Mr. McCormack asked.
Rebecca jerked her attention back to her tablemate. “Thomas? I suppose so. He’s very friendly, you see. He knows people. Understands them.”
“But he doesn’t know me.”
Rebecca’s automatic defense of her old friend surfaced. “Perhaps not, but he’s worked here going on forty years. He’s developed a knack for figuring people out at first meeting.”
If only she’d believed Thomas when he first warned her about Crispin. She pushed that reflection into the overflowing bin of untouchable memories.
Rebecca narrowed her eyes. “If you don’t trust his taste, why did you order something he recommended?”
The man laughed. “Because you ordered it, and I figured if one of the locals didn’t have to look at the menu, it must be good.”
Rebecca stared down at her fingers, busy rolling the edge of the cloth napkin. “I take it you’re a traveling man.” Crispin had claimed to be a salesman. She shouldn’t have come here tonight. Everything reminded her of the man who’d betrayed her, and she wasn’t up to facing the memories. Not now, not ever.
“Yes, in a way, I am.”
“Why did you stop in Haven Falls? It’s off the normal route.” Ha. Now she knew all the questions she should have asked, too late.
He looked away as if seeking his answer from thin air and gave Rebecca a chance to view his profile. A Romanesque nose, deep-set eyes, fine lips—Rebecca caught herself up short. She didn’t need to get lost in some good-looking stranger’s attributes. Not again. She was not going to do that again. Crispin had left her with enough pain.
“I’ve been looking for members of my family.” The soft words took her by surprise. “My mother’s sister was supposed to have lived around here.”
“And you haven’t found her?”
“I have, in a way.” Again, he looked across the restaurant dining room.
Rebecca studied the lines of pain etched around his eyes. What caused them?
“I learned that she died without leaving any children, so my search is ended.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. It sounds as though you didn’t know her.” Rebecca cringed inside and wondered if she’d infringed on his sorrow. She wouldn’t welcome anyone, much less a stranger, prying around her past.
“No, I didn’t. She and my mother corresponded, but circumstances kept them from visiting after my mother moved away to marry my father.”
The ache in his face touched her once again, but it intrigued her as well. “And yet, you grieve for her.”
“For my mother, more than my aunt.” He closed his eyes. “Mother passed away last year. I have no family now.”
Rebecca nearly patted his hand and soothed him with “there, there,” but she snatched her sympathy back just in time. He was a stranger, after all. He had no business eliciting her pity and she had none in giving it.
“Here you go, two house specials.” Thomas deposited identical steaming platters of roast chicken, steamed vegetables, and a crisp baked potato before each of them.
Rebecca thanked him with more gratitude than a waiter merited. She watched, amazed, as Mr. McCormack folded his hands and bowed his head. She’d learned to say grace before a meal, but she’d seldom witnessed anyone offer it in a restaurant. Setting her jaw, she waited for the man to finish before she took up her fork. She’d been raised a Christian, but she and God had had a serious falling out back when Crispin left her, broken and humiliated, and she hadn’t tried to make up with Him yet. Sometimes she doubted she ever would.