WISH Award Winner
Joel Summer knew about living with lies–his past forced him to–but loving with lies was different. Every day he spent with sweet Maggie Henderson, every time she looked at him with deepening trust, he wrestled with his deception. As their precious, innocent springtime moved toward heated, dusky summer, could he halt the churning wheels of fate, prevent the truth from escaping, keep Maggie believing in him?
Her brawny neighbor gently liberated man-shy Maggie–body and soul. Days with Joel were perfect . . . nights, breathless with splendor. Still, like the birds of prey he cared for, a fierce intensity sometimes swooped into his eyes, hinting at inner torment. But surely love would release him into joy ….
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He stepped into the bright, hot day with a sense of numbness, looking first to the mountains, dark blue on the horizon, then to the sky, a clear turquoise painted with streaks of feathery white. A wind, warm and scented with pine, danced over open fields to brush his face with light, playful buffets.
On his body were civilian clothes—jeans and a clean cotton shirt. His sister had brought him his boots and a good leather belt. His hair, freshly cut, lifted over his forehead in the free wind.
For a long moment, he simply stood at the threshold of his new life, unable to quite believe all that had happened in the past week. As he stood there, a butterfly flittered through the air—bright yellow with spots of blue.
His numbness burst, like the chrysalis that had once held the butterfly, and from the deadness surged a thrust of pure joy. He turned to the man next to him and grinned.
“You never did belong here,” his friend said. “Go on, now. Don’t look back. Remember what happened to Lot’s wife.”
“Thanks,” he said simply, and took the first long steps into a future he’d never dreamed he would own.
By the time Maggie Henderson and her photographer arrived at the scene of the protest late Wednesday afternoon, a crowd had gathered. Maggie glanced at the heavy clouds hanging low over Cheyenne Mountain and turned to her photographer. “Rain would be the best thing that could happen this afternoon,” she said.
“I’ll second that,” Sharon McConnell agreed, tossing one of a plethora of braids out of her eye.
“Come on,” Maggie said as she pushed through a throng of black-leather-jacketed teens toward the center of the demonstration.
In front of a record store, a handful of teenagers dressed in pressed skirts and slacks marched in a slow circle, carrying placards protesting a rock band. From somewhere in the crowd, a portable radio blasted the music of the band, adding to the general chaos of shouts and chants.
Maggie couldn’t take notes in the jostling crowd, so she committed it all to memory—the noise and taunts and clashing cultures of the two groups. Suddenly, the crowd parted a fraction and Maggie caught sight of a slender, blond girl seated on the hood of a car. She looked a little scared, Maggie thought, in spite of her black jacket studded with metal and her swinging skull earrings.
Maggie grabbed Sharon’s arm. Shouting to be heard, she said, “Get as much as you can. I’ve got to go kill my daughter.”
Sharon’s dark eyes widened in sympathy as she nodded. Maggie headed through the crowd toward Samantha, unintentionally pushing in her haste to get to the fifteen-year-old trying so hard to be grown-up. These kids were all at least a year or two older than Sam, Maggie fumed. She had no idea what she was getting into.
“Hey, watch it, lady,” protested a girl in a striped tube top.
Maggie ignored her. The chants and noise were growing louder, and a kind of rocking motion rippled through the mass of teenagers. Distantly she heard the sound of sirens. Maggie caught a glimpse of Samantha jumping down from the hood of the car, before the crowd shifted again. Maggie was flung against the body of a boy, who shoved her roughly back. She staggered. The unmistakable sound of shattering glass sent a split second of silence over the crowd. Then all hell broke loose.
As the bodies around her surged and pushed and roared, Maggie looked desperately for Samantha. She could see nothing but the black-and-silver jackets, jeans and flying hair. Someone screamed. The sirens arrived at the scene.
Maggie ducked flying fists, moving back as far as she could, intent now on saving herself from the unparalleled rage of teens who believed themselves wronged. A whisper of cool air touched her face, indicating a break in the hot press of bodies. She turned to flee.
An elbow, a knee, a fist—something unmoving and hard smashed into her left temple. Maggie staggered backward, clutching automatically at her head. She blinked hard and tried to stay on her feet.
The reporter in her knew that falling under the running crowd would be instant death. In spite of the stars shining with silver light in her eyes, she knew she had to keep her wits in whatever shape she could manage.
It wasn’t much. She stumbled, carried along in the flow of the crowd, and collapsed on the curb, blood streaming into her eye. Head wounds bleed a lot, she told herself, praying she wouldn’t need stitches.
“Maggie!” Sharon knelt next to her.
“Am I gonna make deadline?” Maggie asked weakly.
“Forget deadline—can you stand up?”
“I think so.” With Sharon’s help, she made it to her feet, pressing her palm hard to the wound. “I’m going to strangle a certain young woman as soon as I get home.”
“You won’t have to wait,” said a soft, contrite voice at her side.
Maggie reached out and grabbed Samantha to her. One of the skull earrings bit into her jaw, and she smelled the strawberry scent of Sam’s shampoo. Relief flooded through her.
“Come on,” Sharon said. “Let’s get you to the hospital.”
* * *
Later, as she held a fresh ice pack to the wound marring her eyebrow, Maggie thought the entire afternoon would make a wonderful letter to her brother, Galen, in New Mexico. He would love the absurdity of the three dozen calls she’d made to the newsroom of the small weekly newspaper she owned and edited, frantically trying to make sure that the paper would get to the printer in time for distribution tomorrow afternoon. He would laugh at her descriptions of the lecture Samantha had received about the dangers of not exercising proper judgment in the selection of companions, a speech Maggie had delivered with an ice pack pressed to her blackening eye.
She swallowed a mouthful of cold beer and kicked the front porch swing into a little rocking motion. The May night was incredibly warm for a Colorado spring. Maggie breathed in the gentle breeze, fragrant with the odor of new grass, and felt its recuperative powers spread through her shoulders and down her spine.
Samantha, looking a great deal more like herself in a ponytail and a pink cotton sweat suit, appeared at the screen door. “Do you need anything, Mom? I’m about to go to bed.”
“‘Mom’?” Maggie echoed. “You’ve been calling me Maggie for weeks.”
Sam had the grace to look ashamed. “I know. I’m sorry. But you really are my only mother, aren’t you?”
“You know I am. I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
“‘Night, Sam,” Maggie answered gently.
She took another long swallow of beer. Sam would be sixteen soon. At the end of her first year in high school, she was beginning to ask difficult questions of herself, Maggie and the world around her—a normal, healthy step, but one complicated in Sam’s case by a search for identity.
Given the girl’s tangled parentage, the search was no surprise.
Sam’s mother, a photographer, had been killed in a bomb blast in Belfast when Samantha was nearly four. Maggie had met and married Paul Henderson, also a photographer, when Sam was five, becoming the only mother Sam had really known. Five years later, an amicable but imperative divorce had split Maggie and Paul. Since Paul traveled widely in his career, the decision that Samantha would live with Maggie had been a sensible one.
For the most part, the arrangement had worked out well. Even Sam’s present search for roots was not unexpected.
From the open door of the other half of the semidetached building came the sound of quiet blues. Maggie swung slowly in time to the sound of the mournful saxophone. At least her new neighbor wasn’t like the last ones, she thought, two single girls who had played their music until two or three in the morning, entertained friends constantly and even sunbathed in the backyard with their boombox at full blast. Although she had liked the girls, their noise had become a serious problem. Maggie hadn’t been sorry when they’d moved the week before.
Judging from the clues she’d gathered about the new neighbor, it was a man. Few women drove a truck or moved in during the course of one afternoon without the help of friends.
Now she added another tidbit of information—someone quiet, with a taste for blues. Nice.
As if on cue, a shadow emerged from the door of the other apartment. He walked out to his side of the porch and leaned on the railing. When Maggie’s swing squeaked, he turned, almost imperceptibly crouching as if to spring.
Seeing her, he straightened. “Sorry,” he said in a voice as deep as a mountain gorge. “I thought you’d gone in.”
He was huge; four or five inches past six feet, with arms like the branches of a great tree. “That’s all right,” Maggie said. “It’s your porch, too.”
He relaxed on the sturdy wooden railing of the turn-of-the-century porch. “Thanks.” His face was in shadow, but Maggie instinctively warmed to the gentleness of his resonant bass voice. “I didn’t want to bother you.”
“No, not at all,” Maggie answered lazily. “There’s nothing quite as relaxing as a spring night, is there?”
“I can’t think of anything,” he agreed. After a moment, he asked, “Is that a black eye you’re nursing?”
Maggie lowered the ice pack, nodding ruefully. “I’ll probably look like a boxer by morning. Seven stitches right through the eyebrow.”
He made a sympathetic noise. “Bet that hurts.”
“It’s all right now, I think.”
“Did you run into a wall?”
“Yes,” Maggie said with a laugh. “A wall of teenagers.”
“Teenagers?” He sounded perplexed.
“I run a small newspaper directed toward thirteen- through seventeen-year-olds,” she explained. “We cover all the news of their community—and unfortunately, the news of the moment is a series of confrontations about a rock band. I got caught in the middle this afternoon.”
He stood to face her, leaning on the support post. “So then you’re Maggie Henderson, right? Of the Wanderer?”
“That’s me,” she said, surprised. Not many people over the age of twenty had much use for the paper. “You’ve read it?”
“Yes. I like the music reviews.”
“Thanks. I’ll pass that on to the assistant editor, who’s also my photographer.” Maggie gave a small laugh. “And tonight she’s doing everything, since I’m incapacitated.”
“The paper is a great idea—most people overlook teenagers.”
“I agree. I don’t think it’s ever been tougher to be that age.” Odd, Maggie thought. Perhaps it was the darkness or her exhaustion or his gentle, vibrant voice, but she felt utterly comfortable with this stranger, even in her oversize T-shirt and worn-out jeans. “How do you like your new house?” she asked.
“I love all the windows,” he said, “and the bookshelves in the living room. Are both sides exactly alike?”
Maggie sipped a bit of her beer and let its golden chill cool her throat before she answered. “There’s a breakfast nook on your side that we don’t have, but that’s the only difference.”
“You can’t find places like this too often anymore,” he said. “Everybody’s building condos and putting in microwaves.”
“Speaking of microwaves,” Maggie said with a laugh, “don’t ever run too many appliances at once. My coffee maker in combination with the microwave or even the VCR kicks off the breakers.”
He chuckled appreciatively. “I’ll remember that. I just bought a microwave.” A pause, somehow filled with the lingering sound of his laughter, fell. “I don’t know how to use it, yet, but I guess I’m going to learn,” he added after a moment, a hint of self-deprecation in his tone.
“Don’t worry. I was terrified of mine at first, but it seemed almost criminal not to have one as fast as they cook things. My daughter’s the one who figured it all out for me.”
“She can use it to cook anything now.” Now that’s a bit of scintillating conversation, Maggie, she thought. Even wounded, she could do better than that. “What’s your name, neighbor?”
“I’m Joel,” he said. “Joel Summer.”
In the soft lamplight spilling onto the porch, Maggie could make out a hard-planed face and very dark, straight hair. The shadow view was promising enough that she wished for better light. “What do you do, Joel?”
He shifted again, crossing powerful arms over a deep chest. “I work at the raptor center.”
“Raptors are birds, right?” she asked with a frown.
“Big birds.” He grinned. “Eagles and falcons and hawks. Owls.”
She cocked her head. “That’s an unusual career.” The natural curiosity that had led her into newspapers prompted her next question. “How did you get into that?”
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love birds. As soon as I learned you could earn a living studying them, I knew what I was going to do.”
Maggie smiled. “You’re one of the lucky ones, then.”
“‘Lucky’?” There was a distinct edge of bitter humor in the echo.
‘”Blessed is he who has found his work,’” she quoted. “‘Let him ask no other blessedness.’” Maggie lifted her beer in a toast. “Carlyle,” she added.
“Nice theory,” he said.
Maggie heard the faintest tinge of resignation in his voice. “It’s not everything you’d hoped?”
“My work never disappoints me.” Again his grin flashed at Maggie, and she wondered if she’d imagined the other resignation. “Did you know a prairie falcon can fly 150 miles an hour?”
“No.” She smiled.
He smiled, too. “They’re the most graceful creatures God ever created.”
“Are falcons your favorites, then?”
“No, I don’t think I have a favorite.” He made a gesture with one hand. “They’re all—“he shook his head slightly “—magnificent. There’s no other word for them.”
The phone rang inside Maggie’s apartment, and she stood up quickly. The motion sent a quick, sharp wave of dizziness through her brain and she stopped, blinking until her vision cleared, one hand over her wounded eye.
Joel crossed to her in an instant, bracing her with a strong grip on her arm. “Are you all right?”
She nodded as the dizziness passed, lifting the beer ruefully. “Maybe I should have stuck to apple juice tonight.” She glanced up at him, about to offer her thanks, but for one split second, less time than passed between the summoning rings of the telephone, Maggie was utterly awestruck.
For the man looking down at her with concern was more than huge, although he was that—he towered over her five foot ten. He was also fiercely beautiful in the yellow light coming through her screen door. Up close, the hard planes of his face were aligned in perfect symmetry, blunt cheekbones angling to a nose that was large but somehow right in his strong face. A hard-cut jaw led to a square chin below firm, sculpted lips, and his broad brow was broken with careless scatters of dark hair.
All of that would have been enough to make any sane woman take a second glance, but his eyes caught and pinned her where she stood. They were a vivid, electric blue and as clear as the spring night, eyes almost too large for a man’s face, eyes that would see everything, always.
Maggie started as the phone rang again. “I’d better get that before it wakes my daughter,” she said, her voice surprisingly even. “It was nice to meet you.”
He nodded, releasing her arm. “You, too.”
Maggie hurried inside, catching the phone on the fourth ring. It was Sharon, needing advice about the editorial page, which was ordinarily Maggie’s responsibility. Maggie gave her the stats she needed and asked, “How’s it going?”
“If you don’t think this is one of the best issues we’ve ever done, I’ll eat my hat.”
“Thanks, Sharon.” She threaded her fingers through her hair. “You know I trust you.”
“You’re just a worrywart. That’s the trouble with you self-sufficient types—you can’t delegate.”
Maggie grinned. “I delegated, okay? I promise I won’t call later.”
“Get some rest. I’ll see you Friday.”
As she hung up, once more firmly anchored in reality, she glanced over her shoulder toward the front door and smiled. It had been a long time since a man had made her mouth drop. She shook her head and turned off lights on the ground floor. Not even a man that gorgeous could jolt her out of her exhaustion tonight.
But as she climbed the stairs toward her bedroom, she wondered what it might have been like to offer him a beer and chat a little longer in the comfort of darkness.
* * *
Joel lingered on the porch after she had gone inside, reveling in the soft night and first insect noises of the year. Her company would have been welcome, but the night, too, was good—clear and full of stars. The gentle air fed his skin. His life had been void of such simple pleasures for a long, long time. He didn’t take them for granted.
The lights in the apartment next to his clicked out, leaving him in a deeper night. The tape that had been playing on his stereo had reached its end. Around the side of the house, he heard a cat meow raggedly several times, and overhead, a rustling in an elm signaled a squirrel or a bird.
Maggie, he thought. The name suited her in ways he hadn’t dreamed it would, suited her sturdy movements and the strength in her arms and legs.
The ragged meow of the cat sounded again, and frowning, Joel got up to investigate. It sounded hurt or hungry or weak. He peered into the bushes along the house and called softly in the accepted fashion, wondering, not for the first time, if the sounds used to coax an animal were universal or just American. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.”
Deep in the bushes, Joel saw a flash of round eyes, and the cat wandered out, a big black-and-white tom with matted fur and a notched ear. He croaked another meow, looking at Joel with wary hope.
Joel made no sudden move. Instead, he spoke to the stray in a soft, even voice. “Somebody left you behind, didn’t they? I always hate that.” Slowly, he crouched and reached a hand through the rails. “I won’t hurt you.”
The cat shied, and giving Joel one more glance, dashed back into the bushes.
“You’ll be back,” Joel said, his heart tight. “You’ll see.”
* * *
Thursdays were Maggie’s only certain day off, and she reveled in the chance to sleep late and start the day as lazily as she could. A little after one, her grandmother came over with a copy of the Wanderer and a rich selection of pastries in a square white bakery box to share over coffee. It was a Thursday afternoon ritual.
Since she hadn’t seen the paper yet, Maggie was particularly glad to see her grandmother. “I was so worried this wouldn’t get out on time,” she said, eagerly snatching the tabloid-size weekly.
“Goodness, child,” Anna said in her Texas-shaded drawl. “What in the world happened to you?”
“Oh, I forgot you hadn’t seen me. Come on.” Maggie led the way through the living room to her spacious, sunny kitchen before she answered, shaking open the paper as she walked. When she saw the photo covering a solid three-quarters of the front page, she grinned, turning to show her grandmother. “This is what happened,” she said with a chortle. “Isn’t that gorgeous?”
Anna, dressed in a pale green shirtwaist dress with splashes of pinkish flowers, made a clucking noise. She poured a cup of coffee. “I suppose you were right in the thick of it.”
“Not intentionally, but yes, that’s where I ended up.” Maggie smiled as she examined the photo more closely, a good action shot of the crowd, with the demonstrators in the background and an angry boy in leather raising a fist in the foreground. His fist pointed perfectly to the hand-lettered sign in the background that read End Violence in Our Music. Ban Proud Fox. “Beautiful,” Maggie said with a sigh. “The kids are going to love it.”
“My readers, Grandma. The ones that buy the paper, remember?”
“Well,” sniffed Anna, “I think it looks like you support that vile music. You’re giving this whole thing so much attention.”
“You know better.” It was old ground. The war over the band Proud Fox had been raging for two months. “I think they write reprehensible lyrics and that they’re not behaving responsibly. But you know what they say about free speech. It’s not free unless everybody has it.”
Anna opened the box of pastries. “No sense in us arguing about it again.” A frown wrinkled her pale white skin as she arranged the sweet rolls on a plate, then took a seat at the table. “That cut looks pretty serious, Maggie. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Fine.” Maggie paused to look at herself in the mirror behind her plant shelf. Aside from the neat arch that sliced through her eyebrow, extending an inch into her forehead, she also had a colorful black eye. She brushed her straight, tawny hair away from the wound and turned back to her grandmother. “I’ll live.” She selected a cheese Danish from the plate on the table and sat down. “Better me than Samantha.”
“She was there?”
“Wearing a leather jacket, yet.”
“Ye gods. See what I mean?”
Maggie chose her words carefully. “None of this would be happening if those who didn’t like the band ignored it.” The Danish was perfect, and Maggie sighed. “Sam’s just going through some kind of identity crisis or something right now.”
“Are you going to let her stay with her dad this summer?”
“Of course I am.”
Anna dabbed her mouth with a paper napkin, her cornflower-blue eyes snapping as she gazed at her granddaughter. “He’s no good for her.”
“I disagree.” Maggie straightened in her chair and cocked her head, puzzled. “Are you angry with me about something? You’re not exactly cheerful today.”
For a moment, Anna measured Maggie. “I’m worried about you. I don’t like this job, and I think you’ve got more than you can handle in your stepdaughter, and you won’t accept help from anybody.” She stood up briskly and carried her coffee cup to the counter. She paused there for a moment. “I spoke with your mother this morning.”
Aha, Maggie thought.
“She’s talking about divorce again.”
Maggie eyed a bear claw, trying to decide whether to have a second. “Big surprise.”
“I didn’t raise her to be like this. Three marriages, all in the dumps. What’s wrong with her?”
“Well, I can’t speak for the second and third, but my father was not a gem of a man,” Maggie said. “I think she was brave to stick it out for the twenty years she did.” What Maggie’s mother did was her own business. The two had never been close, and over time had drifted apart to the point that they corresponded only infrequently. If pressed, she would have said she loved her mother but that they had nothing at all in common. Maggie’s true parent was—and always had been—her grandmother.
She went to Anna and hugged her. “Mom’s a big girl now, and you did the best you could. Let the rest go.”
Anna nodded, and when Maggie released her, peered out the window over the sink. “How are the lilacs doing this year?”
Maggie poured a second cup of coffee and glanced out. “Not quite open yet, but they’ll be pretty in a few days.”
“Who’s that man out there, Maggie?” Anna said sharply.
Maggie felt her heart flip oddly as she leaned over, bumping Anna’s shoulder as they both looked out the window. There, admiring the buds on a semicircular bank of lilac bushes, was her new neighbor. “Joel Summer,” she said quietly. He wore shorts this afternoon, and his legs, Maggie thought, were a sight to behold—winter pale but sturdy and corded with muscle. His hair in the daylight was dark chestnut, flicking sparks of deep red light when he moved his head.
As she watched, a stray tomcat wandered through the yard, a cat as big, in his own way, as the man who crouched to call him.
“Good luck,” Maggie said. The cat had been mistreated at some point, then left behind to fend for itself. It wandered the streets, slept on convenient porch swings, accepted food when it was offered but disdained human touch.
“What a scruffy cat,” commented Anna.
“I feel sorry for him,” Maggie said, and smiled, for in spite of Joel’s cajoling, the black-and-white cat veered off to the left and plopped down in a patch of grassy sunlight. Joel stared at him for a moment, then stood and went back into his house.
A minute later, he emerged with a can of tuna. He carried it toward the cat, talking and approaching slowly. A few feet away, he put the can down and backed off to squat nearby.
The cat was antisocial but far from stupid. As if expecting a blow at any minute, he moved toward the can, keeping an eye on Joel, who continued to talk to the animal but didn’t move. It ate with the kind of desperation born of long-term hunger, gobbling as quickly as he could.
“That’s kinda sweet,” Anna said.
Maggie nodded. “He seems like a nice person—works with eagles and hawks, he said.”
Anna lifted an eyebrow teasingly. “More than just nice,” she teased. Her laugh was surprisingly ribald and bold, coming from the mouth of such a refined-looking woman.
“Come on away from the window, Gram,” Maggie said dryly. “We have to watch your blood pressure.”
“Oh,” Anna said, disappointment thick in her words. “The cat ran off, got scared.”
Maggie glanced back out. Joel hadn’t moved and he watched the departing cat with a pensive expression on his face. She looked at her grandmother. “I have to admit he’s good-looking.”
“Now you come on away from the window,” Anna said. “Don’t want your blood pressure going up.”
“Oh, please,” Maggie protested, and laughed as she took her chair. “Men are like flowers, strictly for admiring.”
Anna halted in the center of the kitchen, hands on her hips. Maggie thought her grandmother was about to offer some proverbial injunction about the comforts of a husband in old age. Instead, she let go of another ripe laugh. “If you think looking at a man like that is enough, you’ve been working too hard.”
Maggie rolled her eyes and picked up the bear claw. “Forget it, Gram. I’m not interested. Men are terrific for about six months, then you have start picking up socks and changing the channel so they can watch their ball games.” She wrinkled her nose. “And they all want you to cook. Ugh.” With a grin, she added, “Sharon calls it PMS—Permanent Male Syndrome.”
Anna nodded appreciatively, her cornflower eyes sparkling. Then she patted her white collar into place. “The right man can make it all worthwhile.”
“Hmm…” Maggie murmured. As she focused on the flavor of brown sugar and pecans, she remembered the way Joel had described a prairie falcon in his resonant voice, the way he had searched for a word to describe the birds he worked with.
She heard his voice utter the word again. Magnificent.
Resolutely, she shut it out. “What else did my mother have to say this morning?”