Music was her driving passion and the truest expression of her faith, but three months before her wedding, twenty-year-old Kasia Bernolak can’t even pick up her guitar. Feeling like a fraud who will ruin her dad’s pastoral reputation, she can barely meet his eyes. When Kasia finds the strength to break off her engagement, she still doesn’t realize the dangerous truth: Blake Hamilton isn’t ready to say goodbye. And he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her.
Alexander “Zan” Maddox has seen what a domineering man can do to an unsuspecting woman, and Zan is sick of injustice. He gave up a college baseball scholarship so he could protect his sister from her abusive husband. When he rescues Kasia from her ex-fiancé, he instinctively appoints himself her personal bodyguard. Now, all he has to do is keep from falling for her himself.
Kasia and Zan become fast friends, but true healing and justice might cost more than either of them is willing to pay.
Kasia Bernolak’s fiancé waited for her back on campus.
She could allow that thought, thick and smothering, to choke her. Or she could fight it. When she’d taken off that morning, left Huntington to free-climb Beekur’s Bald, she’d ached for spring’s vitality. Over the past year, her heart had become almost as unfeeling as the granite beneath her—tough enough to withstand the storms, hard enough to cope.
Her father always said she’d been born with sun in her hair and its heat in her veins—all hope, all conviction, all passion. But if her daddy, her tatuś, were here now, his disappointment would fall on her like the rain had. Sudden and cold.
Her lungs burned from exertion, but she relished it. If only navigating relationships were as easy as climbing. The mountain under her feet could be conquered one foothold at a time. Even when she got jarred and bruised along the way, she could best it. The rock may be unforgiving, but it was solid, constant.
Unlike Blake. He was as changeable as the weather.
The rainclouds had finally—mercifully—moved on. They now hung above Huntington proper. She pressed her palms flat against the wet, gritty stone at her back and let her gaze trace the winding road up the far side of the valley. Any GPS would say home was a thirty-minute drive away. But true home—with its piping hot, herbal tea, whispered Polish conversations, and strong-armed hugs—was out of reach.
Mama and Tatuś would argue that homecomings were always a good idea, but some things couldn’t be undone. Apologies couldn’t fix everything.
She’d probably stayed too long up here already, but the rain had slowed her climb. Rather than waste time on the switchbacks, Kasia cut through the trees wherever she could, her footfalls muted by the moss and damp earth. Near the bottom of the trail, she paused to catch her breath and listen to the chittering songbirds. She gripped the slick bark of a birch and inhaled the peace, steeped in it. The scents of damp earth and mountain laurel conjured images of better times, times when she had the freedom to lose herself in the mountains for hours.
She hiked the trail carefully as it sliced down toward the valley. A twig snapped, and a rabbit darted beneath a fallen log a few yards to her left.
Bless it. She recognized desperate fear when she saw it. She slowed, tugged her wet T-shirt from against her rain-slicked skin, put the previous night on replay.
It hadn’t been so out of the ordinary.
At Blake’s too late, curled up with him on his couch, she’d been half watching a gory zombie flick and half enjoying the familiarity of his arms around her.
And when he’d shifted at her back—it was bizarre, really—she felt…hunted. She’d jumped up, coughed out a flimsy excuse, and left.
Would he mention that today? Or just let it hang over them like a storm cloud?
Kasia shoved open the cafeteria door and stepped inside. She took a moment to collect herself beside a small palmetto that’d been transplanted into these South Carolina mountains just like her Polish family. Her shirt had dried quite a bit on the way back to school. She tugged on it, tried to convey confidence. Strength. All the qualities she used to have.
If Blake hadn’t waited, she could get in, eat, and get out. She needed to shower before she spent the afternoon at the homework club. Her sneakers squeaked across the floor and past the serving lines. The smell of garlic and oven-fresh bread made her stomach grumble as she scanned the room.
Blake eased back in his chair, laughing with guys from the business school. The picture of charisma.
Kasia willed her heart to match the steady cadence of her footsteps, prayed a calm façade would hide her discomfort. Under the surface, her mind composed a discordant tune, all sharp words and flat explanations.
He pointed at his classmates. “I’ll catch you gentlemen later. Kasia finally decided to join me.”
“Oh, don’t leave on my account, guys,” she said. A crowd could take some pressure off.
Blake shook his head. “They know I’ve been waiting for you. It’s all good.” Blake’s friends meandered elsewhere. And his gaze landed squarely on her. “Drowned rat isn’t your best look. Probably a good thing you missed the rush.”
She balled her toes in her soggy shoes and pulled her long ponytail over her shoulder. The sudden rain shower on the bald had dulled her fiery hair to mud-brown. She looked up and noticed an empty plate smeared with tomato sauce near his elbow. “You already ate?”
He tapped his thumb against the tabletop. “Really? You ditch me last night with no warning, you’re late today, and now you’re going there?”
“Sorry.” She touched the hard, angular stone on her finger, held the engagement ring firmly in place.
“Sit down. I’ll go get you some lunch.”
She blinked in surprise, and he was gone. The air conditioning kicked on a second before ice-cold air whooshed over her damp skin.
Blake’s sweater peeked out of his backpack, taunted her. A minute later, a plate clinked against the tabletop, and he slid her a fork as he sat. “Here you go.”
Yum. Yesterday’s chicken cordon bleu masquerading as something Italian. Her stomach wobbled. “Did they not have soup?” She longed for one of her mom’s signature winter dishes—a deep purple barszcz or chicken rosół with potatoes and fresh dill.
“Sure. But I just sat down.”
As she reached for the fork, her diamond caught the light and sparkled.
As if the promise of marriage were a beautiful thing.
Fear swallowed her like the pitch-black of a cave. In three months, she’d be Blake’s wife. His wife. Every other option would cease to exist.
But to be realistic, she’d blown her chance at anything else when she gave herself to Blake. She had to make this work—to redeem their relationship.
She missed the old Blake. In the beginning, he’d have jumped at the chance to get her soup, hot tea—anything she wanted. He’d have offered the sweater the second he saw her wet and chilled.
She could make him smile just by being herself.
He reached out and fingered the hem of her soggy shirt. “So, you were climbing again. What is it about that place? Every time you’re up on that ridge, you come back with your head full.”
I have to climb to get out from under you. “Just struggling with some stuff.” She forced down a bite.
He crossed his arms and rocked back in the chair.
She didn’t have time to play his game. “I might switch from Elementary to Secondary Ed. I…I feel weird about where I’m headed.” It wasn’t a total lie.
Had she played the role of blissful fiancée that well?
“We’ve already discussed this, Kosh. We’ll travel, see the world. Dad’s got big plans for me as the international liaison—Paris, Bangkok, Dubai. Your sole responsibility will be keeping me entertained.”
She let the dull murmur of others’ conversations fill her head, wished she could rewind, delete the innuendo. But it played back.
He wasn’t talking about her music.
Did he not remember all the things he’d said made him fall for her?
Or did he simply not care anymore?
She’d been somebody—the musical daughter of that gracious Polish-American pastor from the church on the ridge. Her family had always won everyone’s affection and respect without even trying.
For Kasia’s whole life, music had been her driving passion—the truest expression of her faith. Her music had blessed people. Then she’d quit it all. Blake didn’t like her in the limelight.
If she still wrote songs or sang, that might bother her more. But since her well of music had dried up, it hadn’t been worth the battle.
When was the last time she’d enjoyed the weight of the guitar, the taut strings against her fingertips? What had changed?
She should’ve asked those questions long before now. Doubt breathed down the back of her neck.
Blake stroked the back of her hand. “Your chicken as bad as it smells?”
“It’s fine.” She poked at a piece of melted mozzarella with her fork. “Do you remember that song I wrote for you the summer we met?” she asked.
“All I remember is your crazy possessive parents.”
They were never possessive. Tatuś protected his girls was all. “Overnight stays weren’t the kind of thing his girls did—even at your parents’.”
Past tense. She hadn’t been back at school long before she spent most nights at Blake’s apartment.
Tatuś probably still thought she was worth protecting.
As Blake sat there people-watching, she searched for a trace of his former sweetness—the letters he used to write her! No luck. “I’ll be at Heritage Acres today—running the homework club.”
He sat straight. “We’ve been over this.”
“Jen has a doctor’s appointment—just today.” She hadn’t realized how much she missed it.
“It’s pointless, Kosh. You change nothing for those ghetto kids.”
Maybe she wouldn’t change anything long-term, but she could certainly make them smile and laugh before they went home. Somebody needed to tell them they could amount to something. She wished someone would offer her the same hope.
She wadded her napkin and set it next to her plate.
“Pointless.” He shook his head like a disappointed teacher. “What you need to do is—”
Enough. She stood. “What I need to do is go. I’ve got to shower before I leave.” She left her tray and stalked off.
“Do not walk away from me.” Blake’s voice kept on, but she tuned him out. He wouldn’t cause a scene in front of all these people. “Presentation is key,” he always said. Stupid catch phrase.
Let him feel the embarrassment this time.
She passed a guy she’d seen in the music building a few times. Kasia smiled, chin high.
For the first time in months.
Twice now, in twenty-four hours, she’d left Blake in the dust. And she sort of liked how it felt.
An hour later, wearing a dressy T-shirt and capris, her curls barely tamed into submission, Kasia grabbed her keys off the desk and headed to the parking lot. Thankfully, the rainclouds had vanished.
Heat poured out the door of the old sedan Tatuś had given her before she left for Oconee State. Inside, she soaked in the warmth of the sunbaked vinyl. As the engine turned over, she focused on the slight vibration and the hum of the engine, rested a hand on the wheel. The car always felt safe—like a place where her dad watched over her.
She pulled out and left campus, wound along side streets through east Huntington. She decided to take the bypass around town, merged seamlessly, hit the gas.
All she needed now was her music. A little Eric Peters would suit her nicely today.
The car shimmied and lurched to the left. She yanked the wheel right, fought against its pull toward oncoming traffic. One glance at her rearview mirror and her heart turned percussionist.
A horn blasted.
A semi swerved.
In the right lane, car after car snaked past, kept her from the safety of the shoulder.
She punched the hazard lights button, slowed to a stop, waited for an opening.
Show some mercy, people.
Eons later, she saluted the final vehicle, edged her car onto the shoulder, and parked.
She got out and checked all four tires. A flat. The absolute last thing she needed. At least it was on the passenger side.
She ducked in to grab her cell and touched the screen to bring it to life. Nothing but black. Ugh. Now she couldn’t call for help or let Mrs. Peat know she might be late. Could today get worse? At least Tatuś had taught her how to change a tire.
It was different now though. Last time, she’d done it with him. When he was close by, smelling of aftershave and wood chips, she could do anything.
She popped the trunk and hoisted the jack. The spare took a little finagling. She gripped the rubber and lowered it to the gravel.
With the jack crank, she pulled off the hubcap and set it behind the wheel. The stubborn lug nuts held on, though, and the edges cut against her skin. They hadn’t been this difficult to unscrew when Tatuś was here.
Kasia imagined him coaxing her with his familiar accent. Get some leverage, Kasiu. Use your body weight when you must. She maneuvered the tire iron, shoved down on the left, pulled up on the right. Her arms shook, palms burned. Kasia stood, brushed tiny stones from her knees and considered grabbing one of the hair bands she kept on the gearshift. Hair clung to her neck, prickly, annoying. She placed her right foot on the iron and stepped up, bounced her full 120 pounds.
The lug nuts moved about as easily as the guilt she kept wishing away.
What now? If she flagged somebody down, she might get a psycho. If she stood there like an idiot, a psycho could volunteer.
Tires crunched on the gravel as a black military-style vehicle rolled to a stop behind her. Kasia prayed for someone sane, helpful, gracious. A tall guy about her age jumped down from the driver’s seat and strolled over. His hair was a mess—a haystack all gold and shadow. Laugh lines creased his eyes, and deep dimples punctuated his cheeks as he smiled.
Careful to keep her distance, she moved to the front of the car.
“Got a flat?” The barest hint of a southern drawl played in his words—more gentleman than country.
She eyed the deflated tire. “The lug nuts are too tight.”
“Mind if I give it a try?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He stepped onto the tire iron and used his body weight to kick-start it. For him, it worked. Of course.
“I did try that.”
He peeked from underneath a few strands of gold. “Were you standin’ on the right side?”
A black sports car blew past and laid on the horn.
“The correct side? Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey?” He made a letter L with his fingers.
Her mouth hung open, and she parked her fists on her hips. “Not all women are inept.” In fact, she could change her own oil without any help, thank you very much—if she could get the filter unscrewed.
Both his hands popped up in surrender. “Whoa, not even going there. Just checking.” He smiled and muttered “inept” as he knelt to work the iron with his hand. He glanced up at her. “And not all redheads are feisty.” The smile in his voice disarmed her.
He wiped his jaw with his shoulder. “Auburn, then.”
“For the record, I stood on the correct side. And jumped on it.”
He chuckled. “Sorry I missed that.”
She watched him work, watched his shirt dampen between his shoulder blades, watched ropey muscles move beneath his tan skin as he turned the iron. Even with the hours Tatuś spent in his wood shop, he didn’t have that much definition in his arms. How did a guy get forearms like those?
The lug nuts were off in minutes, the last one clinking against the others as he pocketed it. He reached around both sides of the tire to haul it off. “Maybe we could grab somethin’ cold after this.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” She spun her engagement ring around her finger and swung her hand behind her, out of sight.
Mr. Forearms shoved her spare into place and met her gaze as he hand-screwed the nuts back on. “Come on. I’m doin’ you a solid. Cold glass of sweet tea sure sounds nice.”
She leaned against the hood. “Does that line usually work?”
“Ouch. Go easy on me, Auburn.” He winked and reached for the tire iron.
He swiped a hand across his sweaty brow and glanced up at her. “Sorry? Kosh-what?”
“I’m introducing myself. My name is Kasia, not Auburn.”
“Zan Maddox. How about a truce?”
She offered a single nod and half a smile.
He worked in silence until he finished the job and then moved the flat to her open trunk. She caught a scowl as he set it in and wiped his hands on his jeans.
“Is something wrong?” she asked. “You, um, looked concerned.”
“I am. You’ve got a nail in your tire.”
“Oh.” She waved him off. “I’ve run over those before. It’s no big deal.”
“You didn’t run over this nail.” He pointed midway up the sidewall. “Somebody had to hammer it in there.”
Kasia swallowed. Blake would never intentionally hurt her. “I have no idea who would…” The words stuck, thick and false on her tongue. She fell silent as a semi blew past, rattling the car windows. Why bother with a convincing story?
His arched eyebrow told her he knew it was a lie.
Question 1: How did Kasia tell Busia she felt about her upcoming wedding? Have you ever felt like that about something? What did you do?
Question 2: What does Busia suggest she do to find herself again? What do you think of that plan?
Question 3: Focusing on others’ happiness above your own can be beautiful, but if you’re always the one to give in, it can be a red flag in your relationships. Where did you see that in Kasia’s life? Do you see it in your own?
Question 4: As Kasia broke up with Blake, she thought, “If God would let her lay this on Him, she could make a clean break…” Do you think God minds taking the blame?
Question 5: Have you ever tried explaining a decision you’d made to someone who didn’t share your convictions? How did it go?
Question 6: Have you ever felt like you’ve made too many mistakes to be forgiven?
Question 7: Why does Zan say he doesn’t trust Christians? What do you think of his reasoning?
Question 8: According to Bailey, what is the point of forgiveness? Can you think of any other reasons it's important?
Question 9: Think about what Zan sees and thinks in court following his sister’s assault. What do you think is his most important realization in that scene?
Question 10: There are a lot of people in Kasia’s life who support her and encourage her. Who do you see as the hero of the story?