When Ann Balard decided to move on with her life after her husband's disappearance, she found happiness with a younger man from her past - until she learned the truth of what happened to her husband.
Lisa J Lickel
Love can heal even the deepest scars …
After seven years with no clue as to the whereabouts of Ann Ballard’s missing husband, nearly everyone presumes him dead. Now forty-something, Ann is ready for her stagnant life to flow again. Then one day, a dark-haired younger man from her past shows up on her doorstep offering a river of hope in place of tears.
Former neighbor Mark Roth has secretly loved Ann for years. A respected attorney, he’s returned home to help Ann face down disapproving family members and the legal maneuvering of her likely deceased husband’s family— while quietly winning her heart.
When the hidden truth of Ann’s situation turns their lives on end and another tragedy strikes, the two must come to terms with family, faith and the depths to which true love can run.
“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its ardor unyielding at the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters can’t quench love; rivers can’t wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” Song of Songs 8:6-7.
Ann Ballard jerked awake, shaken by a rumble she felt clear to her bones. A dazzling flash of light burned her retinas when she glanced through the living room window. She jumped and felt her heart stutter at the roll of thunder that rattled the panes of glass.
At least she’d been saved from sinking into the nightmare again. Three times in a row, whenever she’d closed her eyes she dreamed of being trapped in a swampy pool on the banks of the winding Black Earth Creek, helplessly watching her son Ritchie and his friend Trey struggle against a current. The fact that the creek was not that big in real life didn’t seem to matter in her dream.
Ann tossed aside the afghan that had been covering her feet and stood. Only little old ladies took naps in the afternoon. What was the matter with her? The magazine she’d been reading slipped to the floor, sending the photograph she used as a bookmark spilling out. She snatched up the picture before it bent. She knew what sleeping during the day would lead to: wandering her big empty house at night, wide awake and scaring herself silly at every creak. Probably another headache, too. One that would take two days of head-banging and nausea to get over.
Another crack of lightning sent her scurrying to the kitchen.
Dinner. Make dinner. Anything to distract herself from the storm.
Speaking of which … Ann stopped in front of the cupboard and rubbed her arms. Where had she stored the battery-operated lantern? Were the power cells charged and ready? She hadn’t swept the basement all summer and hoped she wouldn’t have to wade through curtains of cobwebs if the severe weather forced her to take shelter down there.
Long ago, her first thoughts in inclement weather went to protecting her family. Since she’d been alone, wondering who would come to her rescue if she became trapped like those Chinese earthquake victims was turning into a sour hobby—especially on weekends when her niece Maeve was gone.
One thing she knew for sure: her mother-in-law wouldn’t be the first in line to save her. Maybe Ritchie would care. After a few days anyway, when she was due for supper at his and Colleen’s house in Portage and didn’t show up with the casserole.
The doorbell rang. Ann walked down the hall, grinning at the thought of Donna, her mother-in-law who hadn’t liked being a grandmother, becoming a great-grandmother. She fingered the colored square of paper in her hand while she pushed aside the filmy panel covering the sidelights to check out her visitor.
Bonus. A beautiful, dark-haired man stood on her step. Almost any company would be a welcome interruption. Ann opened the door to a gust of chilled wet breeze. Goose bumps rose at the sudden drop of temperature the coming storm brought. A scurrying rustle of dried leaves swirled on the unswept deck of her pillared front porch. Rain slashed at his little car on the brick drive.
Did she recognize him? Something about the nose … the photograph! Ann resisted the urge to compare her picture with her guest.
The man’s lips tilted into a practiced smile as he held out a hand. “Mrs. Ballard? Ann? Do you remember me? Mark? I’m Mark Roth. Trey’s brother? We lived next door.”
Yes, yes. That was it. He squatted at the edge of the frame in her photograph of Ritchie and Trey in fifth grade with a catch of bluegills. How could she have forgotten Mark’s eyes? Even when he’d been a high schooler, those eyes had been the talk of the neighborhood ladies. Arresting blue, the iridescent color of bluebird feathers, Patricia from across the way used to say. Patricia always had been a bit of a nature freak.
Ann put a hand to her mouth and held up the picture with the other. “Well, this is amazing. I was just cleaning Ritchie’s closet and thinking about the boys and their fishing and found this photograph.” What on earth made her say such a ridiculous thing? “Oh, you don’t care about that. Please, come in.”
Ann pulled the door wide and gestured. He’d filled out from the wiry athlete who took the basketball team to a regional championship. How many years had passed since she last saw him? Ritchie’s high school graduation. Mark had gone east to college and stayed except for an occasional visit. After Trey’s accident a few years later, the Roths moved away from Wisconsin.
When Mark’s broad back was turned, Ann smoothed her hair and tugged her blouse straight, took a deep breath and prayed her deodorant was still working.
Mark preceded her into the living room and, with sweet attentiveness in his enchanting smile and raised brows, waited until she’d taken a seat before he settled into a place of his own. Wow—no one had manners like that anymore. She perched on the edge of one of the oxblood club chairs on either side of the formal brocade sofa. “Well, how are you? It’s been a long time. Are you visiting friends?”
“I’m fine, thank you. I’ve moved back to town. Just a week ago, as a matter of fact.”