Read Chapter One.
Read Chapter Two.
Read Chapter Three.
Read Chapter Four.
Read Chapter Five.
Read Chapter Six.
Chapter Seven - July
Mara gripped the steering wheel. The green highway sign came into focus. Lexington exit five miles. Her heart beat a little faster. She took a couple deep breaths trying to calm her nerves. Whew! She’d done a few apologies already but it wasn’t getting easier. She never admitted it to Jenny, but deep down, she really felt bad about dumping Ted.
Mara had never been to Kentucky. She never had a reason to until now. She turned off the highway onto a winding country road. The beautiful countryside distracted her. During the five hours’ drive from Spartanburg, she obsessed over what she would say and how she would say it.
She slowed to marvel at the beauty God created in Bluegrass Country. On rolling hillsides, sprawling horse farms, dotted with massive red stables sat flanked by miles of fences. An occasional cupola, perched proudly above its structure, seemed to announce that something special resided within. Horses grazed on dry grass. Others sought refuge from the hot July sun under clusters of shade trees, their tails swaying in the breeze.
Mara smiled. Ha! No wonder they called Lexington the horse capital of the world. It was love at first sight. In college, Ted talked about his dream of owning a horse ranch. He appeared to be living it now. Mara made fun of him for it. She didn’t understand then, but she’d never imagined this tranquil setting. She was glad now that she’d brought clothes for the weekend. She’d find a cheap motel and explore the area before returning home to look for another job.
Up ahead, on the right, Mara spotted the flagstone façade arch with a sign, Rivers Rescue and Stables. She pulled onto the gravel drive, her tires crushing the stone. What would Ted think when he saw her? No warning and she was showing up on his doorstep.
Mara stopped her car at a metal gate with a wooden shack that looked like a kid’s bus stop. A man walked to the driver’s side. Mara lowered the window.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“I’m here to see Ted Rivers.”
“He’s on the oval with the horses. Can I tell him who’s here to see him?”
Mara considered only for a second. “You know what? I’d rather not say. Can I just surprise him?”
“Just a moment, ma’am.”
The man returned to the guard house. His boots flung stones with each step. He grabbed a walkie-talkie. “Sir, there’s a lady here to see ya. But she doesn’t wanta give her name. Sir, she’s a beaut. If I were you, I’d let ’er come in.” The talkie crackled. The man opened the gate and motioned her through. He tipped his cowboy hat and winked as she drove past.
Mara opened the mirror on her visor. A long drive was not good for the looks. Mara smoothed her wavy, dark curls and pushed the stray tendrils behind her ears. Oh, well. What’s the point? She was only there to make things right, not to impress him. Mara cocked an eyebrow; well, she kinda was.
She parked her car, the only car, along a fencerow of trucks. Fords of every color, super duty, double cab, evidently a rancher’s vehicle. Not a sight she’d see in New York’s fashion world. She chuckled. What a world apart.
Mara walked toward the candy apple red barn trimmed in white. Was there a horse club somewhere that required all farms paint their fixtures the same color? What a dull world if she had to design with the same color fabrics. Yet, she had to admit there was a certain charm to it.
The clop clop of a horse’s hooves gained her attention. Ted rode toward her, lean and tan in his t-shirt and gray cowboy hat. Why didn’t she think cowboys were cute in college? He climbed down and smiled. “Mara? What are you doing here? You’re the last person I expected to see. How long has it been?”
His comforting smile and greeting were a good start. At least he didn’t take a rope off his saddle and hog-tie her. Or worse, put her in the starting gate and make her run at full speed. “I hope you don’t mind too much that I appeared out of nowhere.”
Hands on hips, resting on his belt, he shifted his weight. Brown boots covered in dust matched the color of his hat. “No, of course not. But I am curious. The last time we saw each other wasn’t exactly pleasant, and you made it clear you didn’t want to see me again.”
“Well, I need to talk to you about something. It’s a little awkward, and I don’t want to interrupt what you’re doing. Can we schedule time for coffee or something like that?”
“No way. You’ve got me in suspense. We’ll talk now. Hold on a sec.”
Ted looked at his wrist watch and then plucked his cell from his front pocket and made a call. His steel-blue gaze scanned the area beyond her. The streak of premature gray along his temples didn’t make him look older, just wise and dignified. “Hey, Beth, I’m gonna step in my office for a few. Have Troy cool down Brownie Rose. Then bring ’er in and clean ’er up.”
Ted’s nice, clean office was tucked inside a stable. He pulled a chair out and asked her to sit and then settled into a leather chair behind his desk. “So, Mara, what’s on your mind?” He rested his elbows on the desk with his hands folded. Like he was closing a sale.
Mara fidgeted, unable to get comfortable. She sighed. “Well, you know how I—well, we dated for a while. Then I—” Mara put her hands over her face and rubbed her forehead.
Ted remained silent. He leaned forward, studying her.
“Okay, here’s the thing. I’ll get straight to the point. I treated you horribly, in ways you didn’t deserve. You were so kind to me, and—”
He remained stoic while she bared her soul.
“Um, I’m just really sorry about it. The truth is, a man just treated me how I treated you, and the whole thing stinks. He made me feel about this small.” Mara raised her thumb and index finger together to demonstrate. “And I’m just sorry that I made you feel that way, too.”
Ted’s phone rang,
“Hold that thought.”
Mara nodded. She just wanted to blurt it all out and be done with it. She preferred ripping off the Band-Aid quickly. She found it less painful.
“Ok, I’ll be a few more minutes.”
Only a few more minutes? Well, what did she expect? He was a busy man and wasn’t going to waste any more of his time after her apology.
“So, what were you saying?”
Really? She was groveling, and he needed to be reminded?
“Ted, the night I broke up with you, the date you planned was so sweet. What I did was unforgiveable. I mean, you invited me to church and to dinner with your parents to meet them for the first time. And what I said at dinner—at the restaurant—and in front of your parents.” Mara lowered her head. “It turns my stomach to even think about it. You were a complete gentleman the entire time we dated.”
Ted sat back, hands folded in his lap. “It’s water under the bridge. I forgave you already, even before you asked. I admit I struggled. It hurt, and you were good at playing games. But, I knew I needed to let it go.”
Wow. If Ted forgave this easily, maybe Jenny was right. The hardest part for Mara would be forgiving herself. She knew about the roller coaster ride of forgiveness. On some days, she’d realize God had wiped her slate clean and she’d live it. Other days, she struggled to forgive herself.
“So, tell me Mara, what have you been up to for the past few years?”
Mara blinked and shook her head. Was this guy for real? She pried an apology from the depths of her soul, ripping her flesh along the way, and he wanted to chitchat. Well, she supposed this could have gone worse.
“I’ve had a rough time. Lost my job, uh, several jobs, which means I have no money, and I’m trying to get back on my feet. I’m also trying to apologize for some wrongs. But I won’t take any more of your time. Thank you for being so gracious about the whole thing, Ted.” She stood.
“Hold on there. Why the rush?” Ted stood and reached for Mara’s arm. “Look, you said you’re broke, right? Well, it’s not much, and it’s not pretty, but I could use a hand around here. I even have a small cabin on the property you can use.”
“Ted, really, you don’t have to do that.” Mara shook off the gesture. She wasn’t prepared to stay. This had been a weekend trip.
“I’m always looking for farm help, and you need some money, so it sounds like a win-win to me.”
“What’s the matter, princess? Can’t handle this horse and pony show?”
Pride made her straighten to meet his challenge. “Princess? Nah. I’m not the same girl I used to be five years ago.”
“We’ll see about that.” He winked and squeezed a click sound from his cheek, like he was giving a horse a giddy-up.
Someone knocked. A woman peeked inside the office. “Teddy, excuse me.” The woman acknowledged Mara with a nod and a smile, then turned to Ted. “The horses are back in their stalls.”
“Thanks, Beth. I want you to meet our newest hired hand. This is Mara, a friend from college. Mara this is Beth, the trainer for the stable.”
Mara shook the gorgeous blonde’s hand. Beth was tall and fit. Perfect for the runway. Mara designed a clothing line for Beth in her mind within a split second of their hand shake.
“Mara, let me give you a tour of the place.” Ted stopped outside a stall. “I want you to meet Brownie Rose. You met my mom once, remember?”
“Very funny.” Mara rolled her eyes.
“Well, I named this filly after her. I loved her brownies and putting the two together just had a nice ring to it. Sounds cheesy, doesn’t it?
“No, that’s sweet.”
Ted was close to his mother. That’s one reason why she’d had that soft spot for him.
“But what’s the matter? She doesn’t make you brownies anymore?” Mara teased.
“As a matter of fact, no, she doesn’t. She died of breast cancer two years ago.”
“Oh, Ted, I’m so sorry. I feel so stupid for joking around.” Mara sucked air and hung her head. She had a habit of sticking her foot in her mouth.
“Don’t feel bad about it. There’s no way you could have known.” Ted stroked Brownie Rose’s nose. “This sleek beauty has promise, and with Beth’s training, Brownie Rose is gonna take us to the winner’s circle. The best of the best only win twenty percent of the time, so the odds are against me. But I have a good feeling about Brownie Rose.”
Ted leaned against the stall. “We have a pretty strict regimen around here. We get up early, work late, and in-between those hours, there’s no smoking, drinking, or cussing.”
Mara followed Ted down the center aisle of the long horse barn with stalls on both sides.
“You’ll muck out stalls, give fresh bedding, and feed and water. You’ll learn how to saddle and bridle horses. You’ll brush ’em and hose ’em down and fill the hay feeders. And whatever else that needs doing. I’ll give you seven bucks an hour plus staff meals and your cabin.”
Mara nodded. It wasn’t New York, nor fashion week, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. They shook on it. “It’s a deal.”
“See you bright and early—5:00 a.m. Have a good night’s sleep.” He tipped his hat, waved his good-bye to Mara and called out to Beth. “Beth, can you take Mara to the cabins and get her settled in? She’ll need some work clothes and boots for tomorrow.”
He turned back to Mara. “It’s only a mile. You can walk back in the morning.”
Mara stared after him. Either he was the most easy-going fella around, or he wasn’t done with her yet. She didn’t know how to read the mixed vibes. But she had a job, and a free place to sleep. If she lasted a few days, she’d ask Mom to overnight her some clothes.
They climbed into Beth’s white pickup. Beth handed over a bundle of clothes and brown work boots. “Probably not what you’re used to …”
“I’m not used to working in a horse barn either so …” Mara shrugged. “Can I ask you a question? I noticed you call Ted, Teddy. Why is that?”
“Ted’s middle initial is E. So, Ted E. became Teddy. He has a reputation as a lady’s man—in a good way. Women like Teddy, his gentle nature, and his respect toward women. He’s quite the catch if any woman could.”
Mara assumed Beth might have tried. She was beautiful, and they worked together. Why not? Mara hoped to find out as they got to know each other better.
Every morning for a week, the sun peeked above the horizon, but Mara was up before it even lit the sky. Her muscles were beginning to get used to Ted’s grunt work. And she enjoyed working with the horses that greeted her with stomping and tails tossing.
“Get the horses on the hot walker and ready for their exercise then clean the stalls.” Ted rushed Mara.
Mara was getting accustomed to the early morning rush, but today she sensed higher stress and an even faster pace.
Beth breezed past. “I have a potential client on the way. Their colt is a Triple Crown hopeful. They’re an established power couple, and their business could mean a lot for me and this ranch. So, let’s make sure everything is perfect.”
Mara worked well into the morning. She hauled hay and lugged buckets of water. She scooped wheelbarrows full of manure and lost count of the number of trips to the manure pile and back. Her hands ached, her arms were fatigued, and her back hurt.
Other hands snickered as she walked past. She dumped the manure and stopped, wiping her shirtsleeve across her sweaty brow. Loneliness came to roost as the other hands joked and laughed. She sat with them through every meal in the dining hall but felt as if she ate alone. She worked non-stop, sunup to sundown, drenched and dehydrated in the Southern heat of summer, and collapsed into bed each night.
She was well aware that Ted watched her. And every day, she worked hard, not wanting to do something to make his humiliation of her easy. Beth couldn’t realize that shoveling manure was a step up from her former life as a beauty queen and purveyor of similar humiliation. Mara squared her shoulders. Humility, Lord. I get it. Don’t like it, but I get it.
With the wheelbarrow filled for what she hoped would be her last trip today, Mara gripped the handles and whipped the wheelbarrow around a corner.
“Oh!” A woman’s horrified cry rang out.
Mara righted the tipped wheelbarrow and then stared at a well-dressed man and woman. She gasped. The fashion designer in her recognized the woman’s Armani slacks covered with ripe horse patties. “I’m so sorry. Let me help you.”
Stunned, the couple stood motionless, trapped as if they were in quicksand.
Ted and Beth ran toward them, both stopping short. Beth’s eyes narrowed. Ted’s eyes widened.
“I’m—I’m so sorry.” Mara fought to maintain her dignity. “I should have been more careful.”
“You’ve got that right!” Beth screeched.
The couple stared down at their ruined finery and stepped out from the spilled manure. Ted ushered them off, looking back at her, his face a brilliant red.
Humiliation complete. And she had no one to blame but herself.
“Get your stuff. Ted will have your paycheck. You’re outta here,” Beth screamed.
Ted returned and stepped between Beth and Mara. “Now hold on Beth. This could have happened to anyone.”
“Are you defending her?” Beth demanded. “You were the one who wanted to make it hard on her, and I went along with it. We’ve probably lost a client. I don’t want to play this game. It’s her or me, and I doubt she can get Brownie Rose ready for the show.” Beth faced Mara. “It’s nothing personal. I like you. But, whatever’s going on between you and Ted, I don’t want to be involved, especially when it jeopardizes our business.”
Ted paused and rubbed his stubble. “Mara, I hope you understand. I gotta let ya go.”
Mara glared at Ted. Her gut had questioned his sincere forgiveness, now reality proved he was seeking revenge. She stomped off.
“Wait a minute, Mara.” Ted grasped her arm before she could make a clean break. “I don’t want you to leave like this.”
“Why do you care? Let’s just say that we both got what we needed to get out of my coming here.”
“I do care, Mara. Okay, it’s true. I asked the staff to make it rough for you. I hadn’t thought about you in years. Then you show up here, tell me you’re sorry. And it opened up a wound I thought had healed.”
Mara rubbed her temples. “What are you saying?”
“Since you’ve been here, I’ve actually witnessed the inner beauty that I thought you always had but you never showed. You were like a wild horse. Uncontrollable, full of spit and spunk. You’ve changed. You’re still full of spit and spunk, but you have something else. Grit. And character.”
She’d hurt him so long ago. She couldn’t blame him for wanting at least a little vengeance.
She had to admit that the last few days, she’d been tamed by this gentle horseman, despite the vengeance he sought.
“Mara?” he whispered.
She started away but turned. “That grit and character you see in me … that’s from the Lord. And I’m going to allow Him to continue building it in me so that I can be a woman worthy of a good man.”
Mara stared out over the grounds. She was going to miss the place—the horses, Lexington—and Ted, too. She wiped one last tear then drove away.
VOTE FEBRUARY 5 THROUGH FEBRUARY 8 FOR YOUR FAVORITE HERO!
Voting opens at Noon (EST) on Feb 5.
Because we want YOU to choose the best hero for Mara, we're going to try to keep the author/creator of each chapter a secret until after the voting is over. If you know one of the authors, and pick out her chapter, please help us keep the secret. We want the hero chosen based on his personality and his chemistry with Mara, and not make it a contest between authors.
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Our authors are also offering some inside glimpses into the writing process, some interviews with authors, heroes, and even the publisher. And that Marji - she somehow got hold of Mara's journal, so you'll be able to read some of her thoughts as she goes through this experience. Fay snagged interviews with all the heroes too. Check out all the links below to stay on top of the latest.
Thanks for joining us in Mara's adventure - we hope you have a great time!
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