A beautiful plus-one at a wedding, a hunky cowboy..autumn leaves and rugged horse trails. The perfect setting to unite two healing souls...
Ranch foreman and single dad Hooper Martin is ready to put his health and life back on track after battling cancer...including re-entering the dating scene. His little girl sure could use a mother. Falling hard for wedding guest Malia Cameron makes perfect sense to him: she's a survivor, too.
Mallie has put her heart on hold, knowing she will never recover from her struggle with a brain tumor. She can't promise a future to anybody and vows never to fall in love. Letting Hooper Martin into her life would be a big mistake. But his good looks take her breath away, and his living faith starts to gentle her confusion about Who's really in charge.
As he dried off his peach-fuzz head, Hooper Martin caught sight of his brothers down below at the corral and clenched his teeth. He should be outside helping them mount up the visitors who wanted a trail ride. The last few months he’d missed out on so much. Hearts Crossing’s city-slicker wagon train rides. Bringing the herd in from summer pasture. The October market. Well, just about every aspect of everyday life including his little girl’s first day of school.
Jaw tight, he leaned on the sill of the window of the workout room that had once been his childhood bedroom. A gander at the mountains and hills wrapping around Hearts Crossing Ranch soothed him, and like a swooping hawk, his favorite psalm flew into his mind. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. In spite of everything, he had so much to be thankful for. His Wranglers hung better on his bones than just last week, and his hair had grown out just enough to look cool. He had to grin, but another unhappy thought swamped him. What woman would want him now?
Determined not to be a grump, he wiped off the exercise bike, pulled on his boots, and clomped downstairs to the large dining room and its tantalizing buffet. Ma was changing out late breakfast dishes for barbeque. This way guests could eat lunch and go as they pleased. Sit-down meals were rare at Hearts Crossing.
Delicious aromas started his mouth watering. Something he was getting used to after those weeks of raw throat and tongue. Chemo didn’t differentiate between healthy and malignant when it set out to kill quick-growing cancer cells. Those days of feeling as though he’d swallowed razor blades still had the power to take his breath away. For a second, those memories killed his appetite. He tried to shake them off as Ma looked up from pouring sweet tea into Mason jars.
“Morning, son. Workout go OK?”
He’d finished forty-five minutes on the bike, but flatland only, level four. Not the level ten hills-and-valleys setting he used to be able to tackle. At least the cycle was kind to feet racked with peripheral neuropathy. He blew out a harsh breath, not accustomed to the hills and valleys of his mood since his diagnosis. “Yep.” He bent to smooch her cheek. “Getting better every day. Might just be time to saddle up Alamo. I can get a ride in before I get Ella at kindergarten.”
As she stiffened, he held up a warning hand. No need to let her start nagging that he wasn’t ready to ride yet. “I got to at least try, Ma.”
“All righty. I suppose you must.” She frowned as though he was going against her sound advice. “Thanks for getting that lug of potatoes this morning.”
He shrugged. “No problem. Had to get Ella to school anyway.”
“Well, you have to eat.” His mother stood firm. “Right now you got a choice of breakfast or dinner.”
“Ummmm. Breakfast.” He gave her an enthusiastic grin.
Like he was a helpless child, she dished up two plates, one for each of them and shoved at his shoulder until he sat down. After dumping on a half-cup of salsa, she lifted up a forkful for herself.
“We’ll have a full house tonight,” she said with a change of subject. Some thirty or more folks had settled in at Hearts Crossing for his brother Kenn’s wedding. “Rehearsal dinner tonight’s almost as many guests as the wedding. Did I tell you? The guest bunkhouse is full. The Ricochet Motel in town is sold out, as is the Gingham Grove Bed and Breakfast Inn. Wedding guests all. Mountain Cove hasn’t had this much business in years.” She raised her eyebrows. “Bet they wish all my sons were getting married.”
Heat rising, he ignored her. After all, he’d done it once. Lynn hadn’t wanted to stick around when he was a healthy man. And she’d never been there for Ella. A pain he didn’t like to feel rumbled through him. What would happen to his little girl if the chemo didn’t take?
“Bragg and Scott are moving into the bunkhouse with the hands for a few days,” Ma shoved away worries about the future, “so our west wing is free.”
Sounded so presidential Hoop’s mood lifted, and he burst out laughing. “The Prez and First Lady?” he asked.
At first, her face crumpled. Then she caught his joke. “No. I’ve got a Mr. and Mrs. Cameron in the Belle’s Starry Night Suite. Brian and Malia. Two of Christy’s sorority sisters have the Huckleberry Holliday room.”
“Otherwise known as Pike’s room.” Hoop snorted. Pike had recently set up his own house on twenty acres Pa had left him. With him and Daisy getting ready to marry in December, Ma—and the local innkeepers—must be mighty glad about the next batch of guests and plans. Hooper felt a little twist of envy, but Ma smiled so bright he couldn’t help a warm swoosh of affection. Her recent redecorating project had helped him get through a particularly noxious bout of chemo when she’d made him brainstorm names for rooms with her, even pick paint swatches. He grinned back.
However, Belle’s Starry Night wasn’t exactly a suite. His shoulders shook now. Pa had plumbed a toilet and miniature sink inside a coffin-sized closet for his sister Rachel when she turned thirteen to give her five brothers a break and Rachel her own privacy. No grown man could even shut the door of the fool thing over his knees if he was, well, sitting down.
Ma’s voice turned serious, too serious. “Sorority sisters just stopped by for lunch before their ride. Those bridesmaids’ gowns I made ’em fit like dreams. Awful pretty girls.”
Sensing matchmaking was afoot, Hooper ground his teeth. Even his brothers had yapped about beautiful bridesmaids. But when Ma put her large, warm hand on his arm, his heart melted. She’d been his rock many times, and in spite of her meddling, he knew she meant well. Still…
“Ma, this is Kenn and Christy’s wedding,” he warned. “Not some romance movie.”
“Hooper, you said it yourself, before you got sick. Lynn’s out of the picture. You’re ready to date again.”
Heat scorched his cheeks. He might have mentioned such to his sisters and brothers, but he’d never gossiped about it to his ma. Which of those turncoats had ratted him out? He wrapped his fingers tight around a cup of coffee. Deadened finger tips could hardly feel the warmth. Maybe someday the numbness would wear off. Maybe not. “That was before.”
“Before what?” For a second, her plump face wrinkled like a dried apple.
He huffed. “Ma, don’t you get it? No girl would want me now.”
“What are you saying?” Her fork stopped in mid-air. “You’re handsome as ever.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
She stared at him. “Aha. I see. You lost one testicle, but the other one is fine. Lance Armstrong and Scott Hamilton, why, they’re healthy and fathers. The doctor says…”
“He doesn’t know for certain,” Hooper hissed, hating the sound. “What if things don’t work right?” His heart panged. Most of the guys on his online support group didn’t seem to have problems, but Hoop wouldn’t know for sure until his wedding night. And that wasn’t the kind of worry a guy confessed to his mother. “I just don’t think I could let a girl I care about take a chance with me.”
Ma nodded, firm. “If she loves you, it won’t matter.”
“Well, it matters to me.” He ground out the words.
“You need to put all this in the Lord’s hands.”
“That’s always your answer, Ma.”
“As it should be.”
Hooper sniffed. Of course it should. He was a man of faith himself, and a real good father, but wouldn’t the Lord rather Ella have a mother in her life? Especially if, well, if she did end up losing her daddy? Because she might. For years yet, he’d require regularly-scheduled CT scans and blood work. So why make marriage impossible?
Which it was, in his mind, after a diagnosis of testicular cancer. What woman would take a chance on things that might not work right? On the possibility of caretaking an invalid down the road? No matter he’d gotten a hopeful prognosis and potential cure. Once the ugly thing comes to live with you, cancer never truly ever leaves your head.
“Ella’s a beautiful little girl, Hooper. Any woman would be proud to be her mother.”
“I don’t doubt you for a second, Ma. It’s just that women don’t marry little girls.” He heard the darkness in his own voice and rushed on, so Ma couldn’t stick her nose in further. It was time to rally up some faith. Fresh air always helped. “Now, this all tastes mighty fine, but I need time to get a ride in before I pick up Ella at school.”
He didn’t know how well he’d do in the saddle yet. It wasn’t so much leftover surgical discomfort, but the weakness that still hung on and on. Still, the feel of Alamo under him always had helped things along before he’d gotten sick. He waited for Ma to chide him for being reckless. Instead, she just pulled a list from her pocket and began checking it twice. He couldn’t help smiling at her. What was it with women and weddings? Planning the wedding along with Christy’s mother had formed a strong friendship between the two women and had given Ma both something to look forward to as well as another shoulder to lean on during her role as Hoop’s caretaker.
All this…his heart ached for a sec…after her being Pa’s rock during the pancreatic cancer some years back that had taken his earthly life.
After a loud sigh, he chugged the coffee, kissed Ma’s cheek, and headed out, reminding himself of the chant that had gotten him through. Each day is a gift from God.
“That’s why they call it the ‘present.’” He said out loud and then hurried out of the room so Ma didn’t think he was starting up a new conversation, grabbing his gray beanie and gloves on the way. ’Course he’d rather wear his Stetson, but the temperature had been chilly of late, and wool felt better against that peachy-keen head of his when breezes blew off the mountains. As he heaved himself out the big front door, Hooper stumbled against a suitcase on the porch and smacked forward into the arms of a female so tall his chin brushed her nose. He was tall himself, so that didn’t happen too often. Besides, she was holding him up.
“So sorry, ma’am,” he muttered, heat rising. “Please excuse me.”
“It’s all right. I like a man with a mission.”
Righting himself, he looked at her, breath tightening in his throat. Beautiful was the only word he needed. Short blond curls tight against her skull, raspberry lipstick he had a sudden ache to taste, dark blue eyes bright with life. For a second, he couldn’t talk. A citrusy scent tickled his nose.
Still holding him, she leaned back and peered as if she saw something he didn’t know about. “Hooper?”
The fact this gorgeous woman remembered him from somewhere couldn’t help but flatter him. His belly fluttered. “Yep. How, who?”
“I’d know you anywhere.”
He narrowed his eyes which only brought her into clearer focus as she continued. “A bit of a haunted look. Like your eyes are too bright, too hot. Tight somehow.”
“What do you mean?” Without any effort at all, he found himself visualizing her words as she stepped back. He saw it every time he looked in the mirror.
“What do you mean?” He repeated, a funny trill skimming his spine.
“Kenn told me. You’re a survivor.”
Shock all but swamped him. “Kenn?” He ground out the name while doing his best to hold on to his manners. His brother had betrayed him? Eyes troubled, the woman extended her hand as if she wanted to shake his, and out of habit, he clasped her fingers to be polite. But anger pounded through his veins, and he pulled away quick. What on earth was Kenn doing, babbling his condition to, well, to anybody?
Worse, this woman didn’t know him at all. They hadn’t met before. He hadn’t left an impression. As for her eyes, well, he’d seen that look before. She felt sorry for him. That was all. Nothing but sympathy from this beautiful, perfect stranger, for a guy who’d lost half of the family jewels. Without another word, he lifted her bag and nodded at the big front door. After he handed her over to his ma, he’d take off to find his brother and have it out. Today Kenn would be happily looking forward to his wedding day, his beautiful bride, and a future full of kids and marital love. Likely a bit of jealousy mixed in with Hoop’s anger, but whatever it was, Kenn had no right to spill Hooper’s personal beans.
Q1 As Hooper says, once cancer comes to live with you, it never really leaves. What incidents from Jesus' life on earth are helpful and comforting to share with whose facing such a serious health challenge?
Q2 Mallie starts off with a hodgepodge of beliefs. What are three incidents in the story that begin to open her up to accepting Christ?
Q3 Mallie's brother Brian is close to her and apparently was a "rock" during her her recovery. What do you think happens next in their relationship, in terms of faith?
Q4 At first, Hooper wonders if the appearance of his ex-wife Lynn might be meant as a reunion of their family. What would you have felt and/or done in a similar situation?
Q5 Even for people of faith, it's hard to lose those we love. For Mallie, with her own belief issues, Renny's death hits her hard. What Scriptural passages meaningful to you would you use to comfort her, rather than "preach'?