Authors: Margaret Daley
Nathan did as Susan instructed, feeling as though he should be there holding his daughter, not Susan. But he’d never been stung by a sea nettle.
When he rushed back with the bucket, Susan said to Carly, “I’m going to wash your leg with salt water and remove the tentacles with the tweezers. How are you doing?”
“It hurts, bad. Like when those fire ants got on me last summer.”
As Anna gave Susan the first aid kit, Susan turned to him. “Wash off her leg with that while I get what I need to treat her.” She rummaged in the box until she found the tweezers and jellyfish spray.
After he ran the salt water over Carly’s calf where she was stung, he sat behind his little girl, holding her while Susan sprayed the solution on his daughter’s leg, then began removing the tentacles from the affected area.
“You’re such a brave girl, Carly. I know it’s painful.” Susan drew his daughter’s attention to her face as she questioned Carly about what happened. The whole time she was talking to his daughter, she was removing the tentacles from Carly’s leg.
Meanwhile he was holding his daughter, watching her become even more enamored with Susan.
And what happens when Susan moves on to her next project?
As Susan finished, Nathan leaned over Carly’s shoulder. “Still doing okay?” He was worried about any complications, but didn’t want to alarm Carly. Usually a sea nettle jellyfish’s sting was merely painful, but some people had muscle cramps and trouble breathing.
Carly swiped the tears from her face. “It’s better now.”
“I don’t know about you, but I think I’m going to raid the chocolate-chip cookies Kim baked for today. I could use something sweet. Do y’all want any?” Susan gave Carly a hug then rose.
“I do,” Anna said, followed by Carly saying yes.
Ten minutes later, as the others returned from exploring the interior of the island, Anna and Susan surrounded Carly, telling her funny things that had happened to them while swimming.
Nathan watched Susan interact with his daughter. Carly soaked up everything Susan said, focusing on every word with rapt intensity. It worried Nathan. That look was the same one his daughter used to have when her mother paid attention to her, on one of those rare occasions she did. Now that school had started, Carly wasn’t even around her great-aunt as much, and it was becoming obvious she needed a woman’s influence.
A constriction in his chest made each breath he took difficult.
I won’t let Carly get hurt again. We don’t need anyone.
In the midst of the crowd around Carly, all trying to take her mind off the stinging sea nettle, Susan glanced up to find Nathan standing at the edge of the water. Every third or fourth wave would drench his feet then recede back into the Gulf. His hands were in his pockets, his body held straight, almost rigid; she knew something was wrong.
She moved toward him, wanting to reassure him that Carly was fine. No complications were setting in, and she was actually laughing at Zane’s story of panicking when he found himself swimming with sharks.
Susan stopped next to Nathan, mere inches from him, and faced the sea. The sound of laughter mingled with the crash of the waves and the screech of the sea gulls. “Carly is an amazing girl.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment. When he finally did, his voice held a husky tone to it. “Yes, she is. She has taken her mother’s death better than I have.”
She touched his arm, wanting him to know she was someone who would listen. “I’m so sorry about your wife. It’s tough being a single parent. My dad died when I was eleven, and my mother struggled to raise me and my two brothers. Thankfully she had family to help and a good set of friends.”
Let me in and I’ll be there for you,
she wanted to add, but didn’t. She sensed that would cause him to totally retreat from her.
He twisted toward her. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“You have family here, and I know they’re all ready and willing to help you any way they can. Let them. Your friends, too. You grew up here. Many of your friends still live in town. Let your old
your new friends help.”
He frowned. “I am. Like you and this group of people you’re going to organize. When do you think that will start?”
“Right away. I’ll still help on the weekends, but it sounds like you need some volunteers throughout the week. Zane and Gideon work with the youth group at church. They’ll be a great place to start. We’ll probably have people pitching in by the end of the week.”
He backed away a few feet. “I don’t know. That’s a lot of new people. It sounds too complicated, if you ask me. It’s simpler if I do it myself.”
“That’s your problem. You think you have to do everything yourself. You are not alone. God is here for you. Your family is. I am.”
Anger hardened his features, and he invaded her personal space. “You know what your problem is? You butt into other people’s lives. People who were perfectly fine before. I don’t need you.”
Susan opened her mouth to say something, only no words would come out. But Nathan wasn’t finished.
“Why is it so important to you to run my life? What’s wrong with your own? You came to my ranch, seeking my help with an injured dog, and before I knew it, you start taking over. It might be fine for Zane, but not me.” Nathan peered toward his daughter, still on the blanket. “My daughter was hurt and you even tried to take over with that.” He stabbed his finger into his chest. “
her father. She doesn’t need to become dependent on you.”
Susan’s eyes grew wide. Her face went pale. She stepped back, tears shining in her eyes. “I like her, but I’m not trying to get her to depend on me. That’s your job.”
Susan raised her chin. “What are you afraid of? That she might like someone other than you? What is so wrong about me caring about y’all?”
“Because when you get bored, you’ll move on to your next project. I am not anyone’s project.”
Two red patches colored her cheeks. She glared at him. “Don’t worry about that.” She pivoted and stalked back toward the group.
Carly called out to Susan. She glanced back at him then went to his daughter, sat down next to her and began talking to Carly. His daughter was starting to care about Susan, and when she got tired of them, he would have to pick up the pieces of Carly’s broken heart. Just as he had when his wife left them.
In the middle of the preparations for the hurricane, Caroline had decided she needed to visit her mother in Memphis and told him she didn’t know if she would be coming back. She’d been a mother and housewife for seven years, and she didn’t want to be either anymore.
Nathan inhaled a deep breath, the scent of the ocean and salt filling his nostrils. He’d wanted more children. She didn’t even want Carly. He’d known their marriage was falling apart, and had tried to give her what she wanted. He’d thought a new start in Hope would be good for them. She could start selling her pottery like she’d talked about. He’d even set up a place at the farm for her so she could make more pieces. She’d hated it.
He’d thought somehow they’d be able to work things out. He’d been wrong. He couldn’t control what his wife wanted or did—just as Susan had said he couldn’t control whether the volunteers showed up or not.
“Daddy, come over here.”
Nathan looked toward his daughter and waved, forcing a smile that he didn’t feel to his face. He jogged to his daughter, who was laughing at something Susan had said. He loved his daughter’s laugh. He wanted to hear it more.
“Susan is gonna get some high school students to help us with the animals. Isn’t that great? We need it.”
“Yes, it’s wonderful.” Susan wasn’t his dead wife. She was just trying to give him a hand. He relaxed the tense set to his muscles and maintained his grin. All he knew at the moment was that his daughter was beaming. Maybe having volunteers was the answer he was looking for.
Where is Susan?
Nathan watched the group of teenagers leave after they’d helped clean the pens and stalls of the animals. He checked his cell probably for the tenth time in the past couple of hours. In the past few weeks, Susan had always been there by seven on Saturday. It was nine and she hadn’t even called to tell him she wasn’t coming or would be late.
What if something has happened to her?
That question taunted him over and over for the next hour. He couldn’t forget how, as the hurricane had come closer to Hope, he’d been expecting his wife to come back to the farm. And she never did. She’d headed for her parents’ house in Memphis. But she never made it because she got caught in a flood.
He stared at the road, willing Susan to appear. She had come every weekend for the past month. He’d begun to look forward to her visits. For the first time in months, he actually had the chance to play, to enjoy doing activities other than work with Carly
Susan. So where was she?
He punched in Susan’s cell number, but it went straight to voice mail. He didn’t leave another message. The fact that his call had gone to voice mail only heightened his worry. He didn’t want to care.
But he did.
He couldn’t stand around any longer, staring at the road, waiting for her arrival. He’d planned to go riding with Susan and Carly and have a picnic by the stream in the woods. He might be disappointed, but he wouldn’t let his daughter be.
Striding toward the barn, he caught sight of Carly with Oreo. She tossed a tennis ball and the dog half limped, half ran after it. It wouldn’t be long before Oreo fully recovered. The way his daughter had attached herself to the dog, he figured they would have another permanent animal around the farm.
She waved at him. “Have ya heard from Susan?”
“No, but we’ll still go riding.”
“But what if Susan comes and we aren’t here?”
“We can’t wait any longer. The horses need to be exercised. I’m sure something just came up with Susan. Probably she had to work today,” Nathan said, but he didn’t think that was it…
* * *
At least she was dressed properly for a hike down a country road.
Susan peered down at her right palm, where a blister had formed when she’d tried to get the lugs off her blown-out tire and they wouldn’t budge. At all. Okay, maybe she was a wimp and had no muscles in her arms. She definitely was going to take up lifting weights.
On top of the blowout, her cell phone was dead. She was always forgetting to recharge it overnight, and now, when she needed it, the cell wasn’t working. Could the day get any worse?
Well, yeah. Only a couple of people had driven by, and not one had stopped to help her. That would teach her to come the more scenic way to Nathan’s farm. So now she was forced to walk to Nathan with the sun beating down on her and the air filled with humidity.
Up ahead she saw the turn to the dirt road that led to his house and barn. Although her feet ached from the two-hour hike, she increased her pace, jogging the remaining distance. When she approached the barnyard, it was deserted. None of the teenagers were there, and she didn’t see Carly or Nathan.
She went toward the barn to check it before going to the house. As she neared the barn, she heard murmurs coming from inside. Entering, she found Nathan talking with his horse, Thunder.
“You didn’t tell me you’re a horse whisperer,” she said.
He jerked back and swung around, holding the saddle. His surprise quickly vanished to be replaced with a frown. Without saying anything, he turned and hefted the saddle onto his gelding.
She closed the space between them. “I’m sorry I was late. Wait till—”
“That’s okay. You don’t owe me an explanation. It’s not as if you’re an employee.” The tight thread in his voice underscored his anger.
Susan marched the few steps to him and clasped his arm to rotate him toward her. “I had a blowout.”
“Why didn’t you call? I’d have come to help you. After all, you’ve been helping me for the past month. Is it okay for you to help others, but not for us to return the favor?” Shrugging from her grasp, he proceeded to finish readying his horse to ride.
Her own anger surged through her. She pivoted, deciding to leave. She charged out of the barn, only to be reminded her car was about six miles down the road.
“Daddy, Susan is walking toward the road, limping. Isn’t it too far for her to walk home?”
Susan is walking? To Hope? Where’s her car? She mentioned a blowout…
Nathan thrust the reins into Carly’s hand. “Tie Thunder to the post and get Jersey ready. I’ll find out what’s going on and be back in a minute.”
He hurried from the barn, coming out into the sunlight, its brightness causing him to blink repeatedly as he searched for Susan. When his gaze latched on to her, almost at the highway, he spurred himself even faster.
What did he just do? He didn’t even give her a chance to really explain. But he knew what he’d done. He’d been trying to shut her out before she did that to him. His wife’s rejection had left a deeper mark on him than he’d realized.
“Susan, wait up.”
She kept walking. Didn’t even look back at him. He didn’t blame her. He’d been wrong, fluctuating between worry that something had happened to Susan and anger that her visits to the farm weren’t as important to her as they were to him. There. He’d finally admitted that he looked forward to seeing her, having her around. And it had nothing to do with the help.
“I don’t blame you for being angry. I’d be mad at me, too.” He fell into step next to her, slanting a glance toward her face.
A face devoid of emotion with eyes staring straight ahead. He surged forward, spun around and began walking backward. “Let me explain, Susan.”
She came to a stop, her glare drilling into him. Emotions flooded her expression, with fury dominating in the end. “Get out of my way.”
She peered off to the side, her arms folded across her chest, her breathing hard and rushed. “You are a…” Her lips pressed together, but no other words came out.