Grace Svenson has just been released from a TB sanitorium in Birmingham Alabama, along with her friend, Lilly Simmons. They arrive in Lilly's small hometown and are picked up by Lilly's gorgeous brother, a deputy sheriff named Ben. Ben is immediately attracted to Grace but suspicious of her platinum blonde hair, her stunning figure and her rough talk. He knows she has secrets she hasn’t revealed.
Clashing from the first moment they meet, Ben tries to fight his growing attraction. She's not the type of girl he needs in his life, but when a dangerous man from her past shows up to claim her, Ben has to take action or lose her forever.
Grace stepped off the bus into the oppressively hot southern sun and looked around at what would be her new home. Even by rural Alabama standards, it could hardly be called a town with only a post office, a general store, and a scattering of tired looking houses sagging around the little crossroads where the bus stopped. She turned to Lilly, who stood at her side holding a suitcase and scanning the empty road for any sign of her brother’s truck.
“You should sit down in the shade, Lilly. You look pale after the long ride from Birmingham.”
“I’m okay, Grace. A little tired is all. I thought Ben would be here by the time we arrived. I wrote to him last week and told him what time the bus got into Spring Garden.”
“Maybe the bus was a little early. C’mon, let’s sit over here in the shade.” Grace pulled her friend over to a bench outside the general store and sat her down. She stood beside her with her hand over her eyes, looking off down the dirt road toward the east. No sign of anything but an old hound dog loping across the road.
Two men came out of the store and spotted the girls. Lilly sat on the bench, while Grace stood in the road next to her with the breeze plastering her thin dress to her slim, but very curvy shape and tousling her long, blonde hair. One of them, a thin, middle aged man wearing a long apron, peered at them over his glasses. The other, a dark headed younger man, gulped a little when Grace turned her green eyes toward him. He tipped his hat as his mouth fell open.
The older man cleared his throat, looking Grace up and down slowly and nodded. “How do, ladies? Can I help y’all with something?”
From the bench, Lilly waved to him. “It’s me, Mr. Brooks, Lilly West. We just got off the bus from Birmingham a few minutes ago. We’re waitin’ on Ben to pick us up.”
The man looked as if he’d seen a ghost. “Lilly West? Why I heard tell you was down at the TB sanatorium in Birmingham.”
“I was,” Lilly said quietly. “I’m back home now.”
She raised her chin and stood up, letting him get a good look at her. She had a pretty face, though pale and washed out from her illness. Her hair was a soft brown like her eyes, and she stood a little over five feet tall. Though she kept herself as straight as she could, the damage to her body was evident in the way the upper half of her body listed to the side. The doctors at Mountain Brook Sanatorium had removed seven of her ribs when they took out one of the lobes of her lungs, leaving her with a peculiar stance.
The two men paled visibly as they looked her up and down. The younger one tipped his hat again and went back inside without saying a word. The older one took what looked like an involuntary step backward and said, “Well, it’s good to see you home, Lilly. I know your brother will be happy to see you. I need to get on back inside, I reckon.” He turned and practically ran back into the store, letting the screen door slam behind him. Lilly’s face crumpled, and Grace went over to link her arm through hers.
“Well, he took off like a skinned cat,” Grace chuckled. “I guess the old fart thought we might be contagious. Gonna give him the White Plague.”
Lily tried to smile back. “I don’t guess I’ll ever get used to seein’ such a look in folks’ eyes. I wish I could laugh about it the way you do and be so brave and casual.”
“It’s not a matter of being brave, Lilly. It’s just I stopped caring what people thought about me a long time ago. Some of them claim to be Christians, but they only want to act like one when it suits them.” She raised her voice a little and directed her gaze toward the store. “I say the hell with all the damn hypocrites.”
Lilly grabbed her arm. “Shhh, Grace, he’ll hear you.”
Grace grinned back at her. “I don’t give a shit.” She lowered her voice, though, and helped Lilly to sit back down. Lilly was perhaps the only friend Grace had, and they’d made promises to each other back in Mountain Brook as they whispered together during the long evenings in “quiet time”. If they both survived and got out of Mountain Brook, they’d take care of each other always. Of course, at the time, Grace thought she’d never really have to keep her promise or, at least, not for very long. To tell the God’s truth, she thought Lilly would succumb to the disease ravaging her body, but she and Lilly both beat the disease against all odds. Grace was determined to make a new life for herself, a far different one than she’d left behind in Chicago.
They both heard the sound of something coming down the road fast toward them and turned to look. Lilly smiled and waved her hand. “It’s Ben,” she said happily and stood up to meet him.
The old pickup truck careened to a stop beside them, gears groaning loudly and dust swirling. The driver opened the door and stepped out. Grace got her first look at Ben West, the brother Lilly never seemed to stop talking about. He certainly was every bit as good looking as Lilly said. In fact, he was downright gorgeous. Big and muscular, he wore tight workman’s trousers and an old cotton undershirt so thin it left nothing to the imagination. He had on a slouch hat pulled down low over his handsome face, but Grace could see his blue eyes flash as he pulled Lilly into his arms and glanced at Grace as she stood by the door of the general store.
“Is this your friend, Lilly?” he asked in a low, sexy voice, surveying Grace slowly.
Lilly pulled him over to Grace and looked up at him proudly. “Grace, this is my brother, Ben. Ben, this is Grace, my best friend in the whole world.”
His eyes narrowed a bit as he took her in, and his gaze continued to rake her over from her head to her toes. His gaze rest a bit too long on the length of her skirt, way too short for this part of the country she’d been told. It was barely above mid-calf, a stylish length, she thought, but around this neck of the woods, women’s skirts came almost to their ankles. His gaze stopped altogether when it got to her peep toe high heeled shoes. His face traveled back up to her face, and he frowned at whatever he saw there. He stuck out his hand, though, and said, “Grace, I’ve heard a lot about you from Lilly.”
His warm grip enveloped her hand, and Grace smiled up at him. “Nice to meet you.”
He cocked his head a little to one side when he heard her broad mid-western accent, but didn’t say anything. Picking up Lilly’s suitcase in one hand and Grace’s in the other, he stowed them in the back of the truck before helping Lilly up to sit in the front seat. Grace jumped up next to her, and he closed the door to go around to the other side and start up the old truck. Turning around in the little crossroads, he angled back east and drove them down the road toward home.
Lilly sat between them, chattering all the way and asking Ben a million questions. He smiled at Lilly and answered her questions patiently on the short ride, as Grace looked out the window.
“Grace, you’re going to love it, here. Won’t she, Ben?” Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed Grace’s hand and squeezed it tightly. “I know it’s a little hot this time of year, but we just missed the prettiest months in the spring, when all the azaleas are blooming and the nights are so cool and lovely. We’ll have to suffer through a few warm months, but fall will come and the leaves will all turn orange and red on the mountains and days are cool again.”
Grace laughed and squeezed her hand back. “Take a breath and slow down, honey. I’m sure I’ll love it.”
From the other side of the truck, Ben stared straight ahead, but said quietly. “Lilly, we can’t keep your friend away from her own family too long. I’m sure they’ll be anxious to see her.”
While Grace’s cheeks grew warm, Lilly blushed, poking her brother in the ribs with her elbow. “Grace’s going to stay here with me, Ben. I told you Grace is my best friend, and she can stay as long as she likes. In fact, I hope she decides to stay forever.”
Grace stared straight ahead with the air turning chilly in the cab of the truck. “Don’t worry, Mr. West, I won’t impose on your hospitality for long. I’ll be out of here in a few days.”
Not that she had any idea how she might pull it off. She’d used the last money she had to buy the bus ticket to accompany Lilly, but she wouldn’t stay where she wasn’t wanted. As soon as she could figure out a place to go, she’d leave and walk if she had to.
“No, Grace, don’t be silly. Ben, tell her she’s welcome to stay!”
Still not turning his head to look at her, he said, “You just told her, Lilly. She can stay if you want her to.”
Lilly turned back to Grace and threw her arms around her. “See, Grace, I told you you’d be welcome.”
“Oh, yeah,” Grace said wryly. “You people down here sure know how to make a girl feel right at home.”
Lilly laughed, but Grace saw Ben’s handsome face flush darkly, and the frown around his eyes deepened. Grace always found it strange to see the varying effects she had on men. All her life, men had reacted strongly to her in one way or the other. Some men, when they saw her face, figure, and platinum blonde hair, acted tongue tied and bashful. Others leered at her and made rude remarks, unable to keep their hands off her. Ben, however, had taken one look at her and apparently decided she was bad news.
For her part, Grace wanted nothing to do with any man. Men had been trying to mess up her life for as long as she could remember, and when she lay in the TB sanatorium all those months, she promised herself if she survived, she’d never depend on another man for anything, for as long as she lived. She would depend only on herself, and maybe a good friend like Lilly. Men were just no damn good.
About the Author
Stefanie Keith currently lives in the South with her husband, large family and one very spoiled cat. A lover and avid reader of romance, she began writing several years ago. Though there are never enough hours in the day, she tries to work as often as she can, giving in to the demanding characters in her head and writing their stories. She loves, traveling, reading and spending time with her family.
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