Authors: Valerie Hansen
Instead of revealing background information that was none of James Harris's business, Megan merely said, “It's not luck. It's a choice. I look at life's roadblocks as opportunities to triumph over adversity.”
Her smile grew to a full-blown grin as her glance traveled from his booted feet to the top of his head. “And you, mister, are about as
a roadblock as I've ever had to overcome. The time we're about to spend working together with the camp children and my animals should be very challenging.”
we agree on.”
The Wedding Arbor
The Troublesome Angel
The Perfect Couple
Love One Another
Blessings of the Heart
was thirty when she awoke to the presence of the Lord in her life and turned to Jesus. In the years that followed she worked with young children, both in church and secular environments. She also raised a family of her own and played foster mother to a wide assortment of furred and feathered critters.
Married to her high school sweetheart since age seventeen, she now lives in an old farmhouse she and her husband renovated with their own hands. She loves to hike the wooded hills behind the house and reflect on the marvelous turn her life has taken. Not only is she privileged to reside among the loving, accepting folks in the breathtakingly beautiful Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, she also gets to share her personal faith by telling the stories of her heart for Steeple Hill's Love Inspired line.
Moreover, let us also be full of joy now! Let us exult and triumph in our troubles and rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that pressure and affliction and hardship produce patience and unswerving endurance.
To Manda, whose trials have been many, especially lately, and who has all my love and prayers
egan White was annoyed with herself for feeling apprehensive. This was the chance of a lifetime. She should be ecstatic. Appreciative of all the blessings involved. Thrilled to have the opportunity to help her teenage sister, Roxanne, as well as the homeless kids they were about to meet. And she
glad. Really. She just needed to keep reminding herself to be thankful for everything, even her brooding companion.
Sighing, she glanced over at Roxy. The fifteen-year-old had relaxed some since she'd picked her up at their mother's house, but Megan could tell there was still a huge chip on the girl's shoulder.
“Hey, look at this great weather,” Megan said cheerfully. “We couldn't ask for a prettier day.”
Roxy merely grunted.
“And the beautiful dogwood trees. Wow! Don't you just love the Ozarks?”
Megan paused a moment, then plunged ahead, following her heart. “Look, Roxy, I know this trip wasn't your idea, but that doesn't mean we can't make the best of it. It'll be fun. You'll see.”
The girl's head whipped around. Her expression was half stoicism, half vulnerability. “You don't have to do this, Meg. All I want is to get away from Dad's new wife and her snotty kid for a little while. I could stay with Mom if she'd take me back. How long do I have to pay for going to live with Dad? All my life?”
“We can't change the past, honey. I'm trying to make things better for you. So is Mom. It was hard on all of us when they got divorced.”
“Yeah, but you could go off to college. I was stuck.”
“I'm sorry if you felt I was ducking our problems instead of sharing them with you.”
Roxanne's eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“I'm a psych major, remember?”
“You think that makes you smarter? You don't have any idea what it was like for me after Dad decided to marry that witch. Her kid was sup
posed to be some kind of perfect angel. I couldn't do anything right.”
“Remember those feelings when you're talking to some of the kids we're going to meet. Compared to the kind of stuff they've been through, you and I've had it easy. We started out with both parents and a nice place to live. Lots of them never had anything like that.”
“I won't know what to say.”
“Just be kind. Be their friend. Working with my therapy animals should take care of the rest.”
And maybe heal your broken heart the way they've healed mine.
Mulling over the events of the past few hectic days, Megan realized the answer to her concerns about her sister had dropped right in her lap. She just hoped she'd be able to properly fulfill her original objective while helping Roxy at the same time.
She smiled. Of course she would. It wasn't chance that had brought her sister to her at such a perfect time, any more than it was an accident that a stray kitten had entered her life when she was a lonely, confused teen like Roxy. That sweet kitten had loved unconditionally and provided Megan's first insights into the work she was now doing. All she had to do was continue to follow
the good Lord's leading and everything would turn out fine.
Such a lofty conclusion made her chuckle. The perfect Christian was yet to be found and she wasn't even close. Knowing human nature, she'd be lucky to get through her short stint at Camp Refuge without making bunches of mistakes.
Good thing even the most fallible people got some things right, wasn't it? Otherwise, nothing worthwhile would ever be accomplished.
Amazed and pleased that she'd located the camp so effortlessly, Megan pulled through the gateway. She slowed her pickup truck, peering out at the old wooden cabins and deserted play areas.
She'd chosen Camp Refuge because it reportedly housed only a few wards of the court at one time and she'd wanted to limit the number of children she had to chart for her thesis, but this place looked too desolate.
Roxy noticed, too. “Where is everybody?”
“I don't know. Maybe I got the wrong camp.”
“Nope. The sign out front said this is it.”
“Okay, I'll keep going.”
Following the dirt road deeper into the complex, Megan noticed a tall, dark-haired man standing in front of what looked like the main building.
He'd apparently been anticipating her arrival because he started to amble toward the truck before she'd come to a complete stop. Then he looked up, smiled slightlyâand took her breath away.
It wasn't an inappropriate smile. Certainly not a come-on. Yet the mountain air seemed suddenly insufficient. Megan had to work hard to appear unaffected.
Roxanne had no such qualms. “Wow. Maybe I
going to like it here.”
“Down, girl. This is strictly business, remember?”
“For you, maybe. I'm just along for the ride.”
“Oh, no, you're not. I brought you because you're a natural with animals. I really do need your help.”
“I know, I know. Don't have a fit. I'll be good, Meg. But I'm not dead. And that is one great-looking guy, even if he is way too old for me.”
“Can't argue with that,” Megan said with a knowing grin. She put the truck in park and killed the engine. “Guess I'd better go introduce myself. You wait here.”
“Do I have to?”
“Yes. Until I explain who you are and why you're with me, I think I should be the one to do all the talking.”
“Like, I can't talk?”
“Nooooo. Like, I'm the adult.”
If Roxy hadn't been smiling, Megan would have been more concerned about their sibling relationship. The younger girl had grown up a lot while Megan had been away at college and there were areas of both their lives that had changed.
She paused and tried to swallow past the dryness in her throat. “I'll be right back. I promise.”
“Naw. I always shake like this.”
“How come you're scared?”
“I'm not scared. Not exactly. It's just that this project is very important to me. I want to make a good first impression.”
“You will. You've always been the brainy one. Go impress him, sis.”
“Thanks, I willâ¦I hope.”
Comparing her equilibrium to that of a formerly sturdy table that had just had one of its four legs sawed off, Megan stepped down out of the truck, slammed the door, tossed back her shoulder-length hair and smoothed the hem of her T-shirt before she turned. Then she boldly stepped forward to meet the man she was to work with for the next two weeks.
Smile bright and eager, she offered her hand. “Hi. I'm Megan White.”
“James Harris,” he said pleasantly. “Welcome to Camp Refuge.”
“Thanks. I'm happy to finally be here and meet you face-to-face, Mr. Harris. After we spoke on the phone the other day, I wasn't sure what kind of reception I'd get.”
“Really?” One dark eyebrow arched.
She chewed her lower lip, ruing her candid comment and wishing she could take it back.
Oh, good one, Megan,
Put him on the defensive right off, why don't you? Way to go.
Questions remained in his deep brown eyes as he shook her hand. Megan was thankful their handshake was brief. A few more seconds of that man's warm touch and she was afraid she'd have felt like a second table leg had been sawed off!
“Are you always so honest?” James asked.
“I hope not,” she said with a nervous chuckle.
His resulting laughter was hearty and genuine.
Megan's stomach did an immediate flip-flop and landed in her throat where it could keep close company with her racing heart. Her project was already getting too complicated, thanks to the addition of a moody assistant. Finding that the camp director was neither old nor ugly, as she'd
imagined, just added to her problems. Roxy was feeling abandoned and unloved. The poor kid was primed to develop a crush on the first good-looking guy who was nice to her, and in the case of this particular man, Megan could see how easily that could happen.
Well, there was nothing to do but forge ahead. “I brought my sister with me. She'll be a big help with the animals. I hope you don't mind.”
He leaned to peer past her into the truck. “Sister? I wasn't expecting two of you.”
“I know. Sorry for the inconvenience. We'll bunk together, of course. I'll be totally responsible.”
“Yes, you will. How old is she?”
“Fifteen. She's a great kid. You'll like her.”
He looked again. “You're not twins?”
Megan blushed under his steady assessment. “No. I assure you I'm much older.”
“Could have fooled me. Same dark hair, same pale skin. Don't see that much around here, not with all the sun we get in the summer.”
“Our mom is light and Daddy is kind of dark,” she explained, nervously combing her hair back with her fingers and tucking the sides smoothly behind her ears. “Roxy can get a pretty tan. I always burn. But enough about us. I want to thank you for letting me bring my project here.”
“Don't thank me,” James said. “Like I told you when you phoned, I think these kids have enough troubles already. They don't need more grief.”
“I agree. But my animals have been chosen and trained to be particularly gentle and loving. What makes you think being around them will have a negative effect?”
“Experience,” he said flatly. “These kids are only here for a short time. They already get too attached to me and my staff for their own good. Imagine how hard it will be for some of the more sensitive ones to leave a favorite pet behind, too.”
This was the kind of unreasonable attitude Megan had battled more than once. “Have you bothered to read my formal proposal, Mr. Harris?”
“I scanned it enough to get the basics. I don't need to read all the details to see it has problems you haven't even considered. I know what'll happen. I have plenty of firsthand experience working with troubled kids.”
“And I suppose they all respond to your methods?” she asked. “None of your students resist reform?”
The brief flash of emotion in his deep brown eyes took her aback. So did a surge of compassion. She hadn't meant to belittle his work or hurt his feelings; she'd merely wanted to make him listen
to reason and give her project a fair shake. She needed an ally, not an adversary.
“I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that,” Megan told him. “I know this camp has done a lot of good. But there must be children no one's been able to reach by normal methods. Kids who've been so battered by their pasts that they've withdrawn from everybody and everything. Isn't that so?”
James gave a reluctant nod, shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Yes. Of course.”
“Then you should be glad to have me around. It's not like it's forever, you know. When I wrote my proposal for the grant, I designed it to cover a short period of time.”
“I know that. I also know these kids.”
“I can help them.”
“Can you? They come and go around here like they're stuck in a revolving door. They need peace, not some do-gooder trying to run them through a maze like lab rats.”
Megan was appalled. “If you'd read my entire proposal you wouldn't say that. All I'm planning to do is introduce a few docile animals into their lives, to give them a nonjudgmental friend to care for and confide in. You talk like I'm planning to throw defenseless kids to a pack of lions.”
“It could end up being the reverse of that,” James warned. “Have you stopped to consider the welfare of your animals? Or of your sister?”
“What do you mean?”
“This isn't a church camp anymore. It's a way station for kids who have no place else to go. They've been bucking the system for so long, they don't know how to behave in a normal family environment.”
“I understand that.”
“Do you also understand how cruel they can be for no apparent reason? I can't guarantee absolute safety.”
Megan huffed as she gave him a brief once-over. The man was obviously strong as an ox. Moreover, now that she'd had time to observe him, she'd noticed a hard, militarylike edge that gave him the kind of commanding presence few people questioned.
She, however, refused to be cowed. “You look like you can handle just about any situation, Mr. Harris. With your support, I'm sure we won't have any trouble.”
“Exactly my point, Ms. White,” he said, raising an eyebrow and folding his arms across his chest. “I can't be everywhere at once. And even if I could, I don't have time to baby-sit you or your
little sister. Bringing more unknown elements into these kids' already-muddled lives is about the dumbest idea I think I've ever heard.”
Blinking in disbelief, she suddenly giggled. “Hey, don't hold back, mister. Feel free to speak up. Give me your honest opinion.”
“I thought I just did.”
“That was a joke, Harris.” She shook her head and continued to chuckle. “Okay. Have it your way. I prefer to focus on the good stuff.”
“You would. You've had a comfortable life. Some of us weren't so lucky.”
Instead of revealing background information that was none of his business, Megan merely said, “It's not luck. It's a choice. I look at life's roadblocks as opportunities to triumph over adversity.”
Her smile grew to a full-blown grin as her glance traveled from his booted feet to the top of his head. “And you, mister, are about as
a roadblock as I've ever had to overcome. The time we're about to spend working together should be very challenging.”
we agree on.”
It amused her to watch the corners of his mouth twitch while he struggled to stifle a smile. She laughed lightly, her mood beginning to confirm
her innate spirit of joy. “I'll want to speak to the rest of your staff, of course, but that can wait until I've brought my animals and set up their compound. First, I'd like to look the place over, pick out a cabin and start moving in.”