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Oh, God! She's in love with her preacher.
But it's not as if Amanda O'Leary set out to fall for the most gorgeous (and unattainable) man this side of South Carolina Low Country. It's just that he organized building a cozy home for her and her children at a time when the future looked darker than blackstrap molasses. Not even her own father, the arrogant and wealthy Big Max, would have done as much for her. But that's a whole other kettle of fish.
Caleb can count on fingers and toes why his attraction to widowed Amanda is plain wrong. How can he objectively counsel this chin-up spitfire without letting his emotions—and imagination—run wild? And now that Big Max has burdened him with not one secret, but two, he knows his priorities should be mending fences between father and daughter—but he can't help trying to build a place for himself in her heart first....
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With her roots firmly planted in the South, Sherryl Woods has written many of her more than 100 books in that distinctive setting, whether in her home state of Virginia, her adopted state, Florida, or her much-adored South Carolina. Sherryl is best known for her ability to creating endearing small town communities and families. She is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 75 romances for Silhouette Desire and Special Edition.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Sunday services were over and most of the congregation had gone home for the traditional midday dinner. Caleb, however, was still in the church office trying to feel his way through an unexpected and troubling counseling session. He studied the couple sitting across from him and wondered if he dared tell them what he really thought, that they were way too young even to be thinking about marriage. Mary Louise Carter was just a few months out of high school. In fact, with her stylishly short, sun-streaked hair, she looked even younger. Danny Marshall, every bit the preppy overachiever, was barely into his sophomore year at Clemson. In Caleb's opinion, they were years away from knowing what they really wanted out of life.
Unfortunately, he could predict exactly how they'd reply. They'd remind him that they'd known each other since grade school, been sweethearts since Danny's freshman year in high school. They both thought their marriage was inevitable. So what if having a baby on the way had kicked up the timetable by several years?
"It's not the end of the world," Mary Louise said, her adoring gaze on Danny.
Though she rarely looked away from her fiancé, she evidently didn't see the barely concealed panic that Caleb spotted. He'd counseled enough couples during his ten years as a minister to recognize the signs of a man being pushed toward a commitment he wasn't ready to make.
"Danny, is this wedding really what you want?" Caleb asked directly. Aware that Mary Louise's eyes had widened with dismay, he quickly added, "I know you love Mary Louise and I think it's wonderful that you want to take responsibility for the baby and do the right thing by Mary Louise, but there are other options."
Danny squirmed uncomfortably and avoided Mary Louise's hurt expression. "What kind of options?"
"You could acknowledge paternity and pay child support. Or you both could agree to give the baby up for adoption to a family more prepared to give a child the life he or she deserves," Caleb suggested, careful to keep his tone neutral.
Even so, Mary Louise leapt up. "No way," she said, quivering with outrage. She scowled at Caleb, then whirled on Danny. "This is our baby. How could you even think about giving away our baby, Danny Marshall?"
Danny gave her a sullen look. "I didn't say I'd do it. I asked Reverend Webb what the options are. Jeez, Mary Louise, settle down."
"I'm keeping the baby and that's that," she said fiercely. "If you don't want to marry me, then don't. I don't want you if you can't love both of us. And you can keep your stupid money, too!"
"I never said I didn't want to marry you," Danny said placatingly. "You know I love you, baby. It's just..."
"Just what?" she asked.
"How are we going to make it?" Danny asked reasonably. "I can't quit school. I worked too hard to get accepted and win a scholarship to throw it all away now. I don't want to wind up in some dead-end job for the rest of my life, like my dad."
"You won't have to. I can stay with my folks for now and keep working. It's only minimum wage, but I'll get another job. I can handle two," Mary Louise promised staunchly. "We can put all that money into savings so we'll have it when I have to go on maternity leave. I won't have to take off long. Once the baby comes, I'll move to be with you. We can figure out a schedule so you can take classes when I'm home. Then you can watch the baby while I work."
It was evident she'd already given this a lot of thought. Caleb admired her earnest conviction that she could handle a pregnancy and two jobs and that Danny could keep up with his classes and take care of the baby. But Caleb was more realistic. He knew the toll that would eventually take on the marriage and on Mary Louise and Danny individually. He also knew she'd never listen to him if he tried to tell her any of that.
However, he did know someone who might be able to get through to her in a way he couldn't.
"Okay, you two, I think that's enough for today," Caleb said. The pair needed a cooling-down period.
"I'm sure this has caught both of you by surprise. You need to spend some time thinking about what you really want and what will be best for the baby. Danny, can you get home from college again next weekend, so we can talk some more?"
"I guess," Danny said, his reluctance plain, but the stoic lift of his chin told Caleb he would do it. He'd always been a good kid, one who took his responsibilities seriously. He'd worked hard to get a college scholarship, even harder to earn money to help with bills for meals and books.
"Great, then we'll talk again next week right after church," Caleb told them. "In the meantime, Mary Louise, there's someone I'd like you to meet."
She regarded him with evident suspicion, clearly not happy about the monkey wrench he'd thrown into her plans for a hasty wedding. "Who?"
"Let me speak to her first and get back to you," he said.
"I don't know why you're so opposed to this wedding," Mary Louise said to him plaintively. "You've known us forever. You know we're in love."
"I do," Caleb agreed. "But I want your marriage to have the best possible chance to succeed, and the way to accomplish that is to make sure you've given this serious consideration from every angle before you rush into something. I've seen too many young people who start out crazy about each other wind up bitter and divorced because they did the right thing and then resented each other afterward. I really don't want that to happen to you."
Danny gave him a grateful look. "Thanks, Reverend Webb. I'll see you after church next week. Mary Louise, you ready to go?"
For a moment, based on her pouty expression, Caleb thought she might insist on having this out right here and now, but apparently she caught something in Danny's steady, unrelenting gaze that told her to wait till next time.
"Remember, I want both of you to do some soul-searching this week. See if there are some other solutions that might make sense. If marriage is what you both want, then think about the best way to make sure you have plenty of support," Caleb suggested. "And I'll be in touch with you, Mary Louise, probably tomorrow."
"Okay," she said, and followed Danny from the room.
Just outside the door, Caleb saw Danny reach for her hand and whisper something in her ear that put a smile back on her face. Caleb sighed and reached for his phone to follow up on his brainstorm.
Okay, he'd been looking for an excuse to call Amanda all day. Ever since he and the other church volunteers had finished building her house two weeks ago and had held a housewarming party just yesterday, he'd been suffering some weird withdrawal symptoms.
He'd fought his feelings for Amanda O'Leary, struggled to pretend that she was just another member of his congregation in need of help, but the time he'd spent with her and her kids had fulfilled him in unexpected ways. He'd come to admire her strength, to enjoy her sense of humor.
Before he actually dialed her number, he gave himself a stern lecture on remembering that he was her pastor, not a would-be lover, much as he might wish otherwise. It wasn't the first time he'd struggled to place duty above his needs as a man, but it was the first time he was right on the edge of losing the battle.
But the lecture didn't seem to stop the jolt to his heart when she answered the phone, her voice soft and a little breathless.
"Amanda, you weren't taking a nap, were you?"
"In the middle of the afternoon with three kids loose in the house?" she replied, laughter threading through her voice. "You must be kidding. No, if I sound out of breath, it's because Susie, Larry and Jimmy insisted I play tag with them in the backyard. They can't get over having so much room to run around in. I can't get over it myself. Thank you again, Caleb."
"Would you stop thanking me?" he pleaded. "Getting that house built for you was something the whole congregation wanted to do." Well, except for a couple of obstinate holdouts, and eventually even they had come around.
"I just want you to know how much I appreciate it," she said. "If there's ever anything I can do to pay you back, let me know."
It was exactly the opening Caleb needed. "Actually, there is something you could do." He explained about Mary Louise and Danny. "I think Mary Louise needs to understand the realities of trying to work two jobs and care for a baby. Would you consider talking to her?"
"Of course I will," Amanda said at once. "But maybe I should clarify something. Are you asking me to help you talk her out of getting married?"
He considered the question, then answered honestly. "I just want her to know what's ahead. Right now she's all caught up in this romantic notion of living with Danny and having his baby and being happy forever. She needs to know how exhausting it can be and what a toll it might take on their marriage. These two kids have been in love practically as long as I've known them. I don't want them to lose that because this pregnancy has backed them into a corner."
"Will their parents help them?" she asked, an unmistakably wistful note in her voice.
Caleb knew what it would have meant to Amanda if her father, Big Max, had stepped up when her life fell apart, but the divide between them had been too great. Amanda had made a tentative overture, but as usual Big Max had blown the opportunity. Sometimes Caleb wanted to shake the stubborn old man, but instead, he'd settled for trying to gently nudge them back together. So far, he'd made precious little progress. And if Amanda ever found out what he'd been up to, she might very well hate him for his interference.
"Actually, even though I haven't spoken to them yet," he said, "I think their parents would help as much as they can. They're all good, decent people who want what's best for their kids. Even so, it's still going to be tough. Danny would probably have to give up his scholarship, quit college and come home."
"He could go to college here," Amanda reminded him. "It might take him longer, but he could do it."
"I suppose," he conceded, though he knew how much going to Clemson had meant to Danny. Caleb had made quite a few calls himself to assure Danny's acceptance there. He'd even spoken to the scholarship committee on Danny's behalf.
"And both sets of grandparents could help out with babysitting if they're here," Amanda continued. "Maybe Mary Louise and Danny could even live with his folks or hers for a while. It wouldn't be ideal, but it might work. Have any of you considered that?"
"What are you saying?" Caleb asked, startled by the turn the conversation had taken. "Do you think I'm wrong for urging caution?"
"No, I think you're being a responsible, compassionate minister who's trying to make sure two kids get off to a good start, but sometimes things happen even when the timing sucks. Not every marriage is ideal at the beginning, but if the love is strong, a couple can weather almost anything."
"The way you and Bobby did," Caleb concluded.
"The way I thought we had," Amanda corrected. "I lived the illusion right up until the day he died. Then reality set in."
"Hey, I'll make you a deal," she said, a teasing note in her voice. "I'll stop saying thank you if you'll stop saying you're sorry."
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