Only For You
Sam Parker navigated his dark blue SUV through the slice of road narrowly cut between the endless acres of mid-July-high corn.
“Are we there yet?” His eight-year-old son, Kevin, repeated the age-old question for the third time in the space of thirty minutes.
“That’s what you said last time.”
Sam understood his impatience, but he felt the opposite. Instead of being relieved they’d reached their destination, tension pulsed between Sam’s shoulder blades. Would coming home be enough to end the rift between him and his father?
Unlikely. Joe Parker had never understood why Sam had chosen a professional baseball career over farming. And he was certain that in the nine years he’d been away, the old man hadn’t mellowed. When his father took a stand, he held it to the bitter end.
The familiar pristine-white church steeple rose above the towering stalks, acting as a beacon over the emerald sea of cornstalks.
Sam eased off the gas when he approached the corner of Glory Lane and Main Street, and he caught a glimpse of the white picket fence that circled the cemetery. Memories thick as cobwebs crowded him. He hesitated a moment, his heart thudding in his chest, then continued into town.
The corn suddenly parted and gave way to a line of square brick buildings. Silver maple trees in full summer uniform tossed shade over his SUV as he cruised down Main Street. Would he receive a hero’s welcome from the town? Doubtful.
Kevin’s blond head bobbed as he bounced on the passenger seat. “Will I see my grandpa soon?”
The bitter taste of regret lodged in Sam’s belly like one too many donuts for breakfast. He forced a smile. “Yes.”
“How far is it to the farm?”
“A couple of miles.”
This was the most animated Sam had seen the boy since he’d come to live with him six months before. Rarely did he get more than a yes or no response, and it was generally followed with silence.
Surprisingly, Kevin had been downright exuberant when Sam told him they were going to Defiance to see a grandfather he hadn’t known existed until two days ago.
Sam hadn’t had the heart to tell him the real reason for the trip—that his grandfather had leukemia, needed a bone marrow transplant, and that without it, he would most certainly die.
Kevin had enough on his shoulders after his mother’s abandonment six months ago, and then her death days later. Sam wanted to spare him another loss, but he would have to tell Kevin the truth, and soon.
The marquee of Mumford’s Theater towered above the downtown buildings. The Friday night hotspot for throwing Jujubes and watching G-rated movies with his brother, Ryan, his best friend, Griffin, and Emma.
Sam braked suddenly when he spotted Emma’s ancient, battered Ford truck parked underneath the garish neon-red sign that flashed Beauty Bowl: Food, Bowling and All-Around Family Fun. Luella Lorraine Lavell’s pride and joy—a bowling alley, local eatery, beauty parlor and community center all rolled into one.
He pulled in next to Emma’s truck and memories of sultry summer nights, bare skin glowing in the moonlight, and soft laughter dancing on the summer breeze filled him.
“Why are we stopping?”
He shook off the past. “I thought we’d grab some lunch before we went to the farm.”
“I’m not hungry. I want to see the farm.” Kevin folded his arms over his chest and turned to stare out the window, the animated child replaced with the sullen little boy.
Sam swore under his breath. Every time he made headway with Kevin, he did something to screw it up. Of course, he could hardly blame the kid for his reaction. They both knew Sam was stalling, and facing Emma was preferable to confronting his father. But explaining the rocky relationship he had with his father was beyond his abilities and a eight-year-old’s comprehension.
Sam ruffled Kevin’s hair and he jerked back.
Stung by his son’s rejection, Sam retracted his hand. “We will, but first I want to introduce you to some old friends of mine.”
Sam pushed open his door and stepped out into the sticky midsummer air. His knee gave slightly when he put his full weight on it. The collision at home plate a year ago during the playoffs had not only ended his professional baseball career, but left him with several surgeries and months of physical therapy. The doctor had assured him that his knee would heal eventually. It would never be strong enough to play baseball again, but he should have general use of it. Still, it had been a year, and he was coming to the conclusion this was as good as it got.
He took another step, and when the knee held, he walked to the passenger side and opened the door. Kevin obediently got out and followed Sam into the Beauty Bowl without a word of complaint. His compliancy troubled Sam. Keeping his emotions bottled up inside wasn’t healthy, but every time he’d tried to get Kevin to open up he’d been met with a wall of silence.
The cow bell clanked when Sam opened the double glass doors.
Some things never changed.
The gray-haired McDonald sisters still sat at the front table facing the street. All the years Sam had lived in Defiance, they’d sat in that very spot watching the residents of Defiance stroll past while they sipped coffee and gossiped about the local citizenry.
Sam flashed them a smile and nodded. In response, they gaped at him. He quickly guided Kevin across the black and white checkerboard floor, ignoring their whispers. Instead, he focused on the woman with the strawberry-blonde ponytail seated at the revolving chrome and vinyl fountain stool.
His gaze swept over Emma, down the slope of the soft, smooth skin visible at her neck, to the trim waist, to the narrow booted feet hooked over the chrome rung of the stool.
Stopping behind her he leaned forward and caught a whiff of that unique blend of purple prairie clover and sunshine that he always associated with her. He watched her dip a spoon into her signature treat.
He leaned closer to whisper into her ear. “Still got a thing for fudge sundaes, I see.”
A sharp intake of breath followed his comment, then she squared her shoulders and slowly swiveled on her stool. His breath stalled when she faced him fully. She was still a cool drink of water on a blistering summer day.
He studied the average nose and evenly spaced eyes. Most wouldn’t discern a single standout feature, but Sam knew better. When she smiled the ordinary became the extraordinary, setting fire to her eyes and turning the dull green to bewitching velvet.
That smile had been his light once, and her gentle laughter the sustenance for his heart and soul—until his brother, Ryan, found them together. After that everything that had been good in his life went to hell, except for baseball. He’d clung to his career like the lifesaver it was. And now that was gone, too.
“You came.” Her eyes locked with his. Eyes that spoke emotion without words. Eyes that spoke of the pain of death, and regret—and disappointment in him.
It took a moment for her words to penetrate into his brain, and when they did, he bristled. “Did you honestly think I’d have ignored your call?”
Her chin inched up a notch, the green of her eyes deepening. “I honestly didn’t know. It’s not like you and Joe have been on the best of terms since you left here.”
“I left you a message. Didn’t you get it?”
“That was two days ago.”
“I got my affairs in order and came. Has something changed? Is he worse?”
A flicker of fear crossed her eyes, then resignation. “No, nothing has changed.”
His anger melted away as rapidly as the ice cream in her dish. He had no right to be upset with Emma. Any blame fell squarely on his shoulders. He was the one who’d allowed nearly a decade to pass and made no effort to breach the abyss between him and his father.
Pride. It had kept him from driving home and ending their feud. And now his father was seriously ill, possibly dying, and did he call his only surviving son to tell him? No, he’d left that duty to Emma.
The only reason he was here now was Emma. If it had been up to his father, he might not have found out until it was too late.
An ear-piercing screech echoed over the smack of a bowling ball knocking over a set of pins.
“Sam Parker, as I live and breathe.” Luella launched her bowling pin shaped body out from behind the counter and into Sam’s arms, rocking him backward. “It’s about time you came home.”
“Luella, you’re looking as beautiful as ever.”
“You sweet-talking devil, you. This town hasn’t been the same without you.” She gave him a squeeze that he swore cracked a rib.
Resisting the urge to rub his side, he drew Kevin closer. “Kevin, I want you to meet Emma Delaney and her aunt, Luella Lavell. Ladies, my son, Kevin.”
Kevin stared up at Luella’s mass of brilliant straight-from-the-box pomegranate red hair with the ever-present Smokies baseball cap perched on top.
It was difficult, if not impossible, to read the name of the team with all the baseball pins attached. How Luella held her head up beneath the weight of them, Sam couldn’t fathom.
“Fine lookin’ boy. Looks to me as if he could follow in his daddy’s footsteps. You play baseball?” she asked Kevin.
Luella gave him an approving nod. “Baseball is the only sport there is—next to bowling that is. Do you like to bowl?”
Kevin hunched his shoulders. “I dunno. I’ve never done it.”
Luella arched a dark penciled brow above red, cat-eye rhinestone glasses. “Did you hear that?” she demanded to the room at large.
From the corner of his eye Sam saw Emma purse her lips to restrain the smile that threatened. Bowling was serious business, and Luella believed it was God’s game, and the cure-all for anything that ailed a body, not to mention she was a faithful believer in the three B’s—bowling, baseball and the Bible.
Pressing a hand to her heart, Luella exclaimed, “Blasphemy.” She perched one hand on her hip and shook a finger at Sam with the other. “What kind of parent deprives his child of the spiritual experience of bowling? Have you no shame? Have you forgotten everything I taught you? You never would have been the baseball player you were without bowling.”
Sam did his best to hide his amusement and present an appropriately contrite expression. “I waited until I could bring him to the best—you. I didn’t want just anyone teaching my son about something as important as bowling.”
Luella sniffed, then nodded, her outrage appeased. “I knew I’d taught you well.” She studied Sam, then Kevin. “Well, what do you two want to do first—eat or bowl?”
Sam rubbed his stomach. “Eat.”
A smile tilted Luella’s hotsee-totsee red lips. She clasped her hands together. “Praise the Lord. I’ve got another believer in my midst.”
Luella glanced over to the beauty parlor that her daughter, and Emma’s cousin, Cassie Cooper, operated. “Jeff, come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Sam grinned as a boy about Kevin’s age wiped grimy palms on his white T-shirt, leaving parallel smudges of dirt down the front.
“Jeff and his older brothers, Tyler and Trevor, are staying with Cassie until their dad comes back.” Luella turned to Kevin. “How about Jeff and I teach you the finer points of bowling while your father fills his belly?”
Kevin immediately brightened. “Really?”
Luella gave a firm nod of her head. “That okay with you?” She posed it as a question, but Sam’s agreement was clearly an unimportant afterthought.
And really, what did he know about raising a kid? He’d taken Kevin in without a thought about the realities of raising a child alone. He struggled with the basic day-to-day details of getting him fed and clothed, but Kevin had plenty of psychological issues that left Sam completely bewildered. And what kid wouldn’t have emotional problems after being abandoned by his mother, then have her die in a plane crash? So yes, he’d turn over care of Kevin for a few minutes to someone with experience and knowledge about the workings of children.
Sam nodded at Luella. “Yeah, it’s fine.”
“Good. Jeff, help Kevin find a bowling ball.” She turned to Sam. “What do you want to eat?”
“Cheeseburger, fries and a soda.”
Luella nodded. “I’ll have it ready in a jiffy. Have a seat, and you can catch up with Emma while I fix it.” The devilish gleam behind those rhinestone glasses told Sam she was hoping for a whole lot more than reminiscing between them.
Knowing Luella, she’d be working overtime to get him and Emma back together. That would never happen. He’d walked out on Emma when she’d needed him and that was unforgivable. He’d blown his chance with her, besides which, Emma loved farming as if it were her own personal slice of paradise, while he placed farming right up there with having a root canal without Novocain.
As soon as Luella disappeared into the kitchen, Emma pushed her dish away. “Actually, I’m finished.”
Sam looked down at the sundae. “You don’t look finished to me.” He braced an elbow on the counter and flashed a smile at her. “Come on. Take pity on me and keep me company while I eat.”
The rough timbre of Sam’s voice sent goose bumps chasing over Emma’s arms that had nothing to do with the refrigerated air from the overhead vent and everything to do with the man crowding her.
“There’s an open booth in the corner. It’s more private, and we can talk uninterrupted,” Sam said.
Privacy was not something Emma needed with Sam Parker, especially when those dark eyes passed over her and made her skin tingle like she’d mistakenly grabbed an electric fence.
A ghost of a smile hovered on his lips as he studied her with that all-American-boy innocence that had women from coast to coast clamoring for his attention—Emma included, once upon a time. Not anymore. After Ryan died, guilt shadowed every word, every look between them.
Emma shook her head to clear it. “I like the counter.”
Sam glanced at the McDonald sisters, then back at her. “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer not to be the center of attention.”
The two sisters peered furtively at Sam as if he were a sideshow misfit. They were both hard of hearing, so they shouted to each other.
Matilda, the older McDonald sister, raised her voice. “He’s finally come back. Can you believe he has the nerve after all these years?”
Eleanor tilted her head toward her sister and yelled, “I most certainly cannot.”
Emma cast a reproving frown at the two.
With a huff, they turned away and resumed their study of Main Street.
Rather than subject Sam to their rude behavior, Emma relented, picked up her sundae and followed him to the booth at the end of lane twelve.
They’d barely gotten seated when her aunt arrived with Sam’s food. Visibly relaxed now that he was away from curious eyes and disapproving stares, Sam dug into his burger with gusto. “Delicious. You put every burger joint in Chicago to shame.”
Luella’s face crinkled into a smile. “How is it you’re still single?”
Sam winked at her. “I’ve been holding out for the right woman.” He took her hand and stroked it. “Tell me you’ve been waiting for me.”
Aunt Luella’s deep throaty laughter enveloped them. She leaned over and whispered in Sam’s ear.
He smiled, and whispered back with a jaunty lift of his eyebrow. Watching him sent Emma back to the days when he’d held her captive with nothing more than a hitch of his brow and a long, sultry look—before Ryan caught them together.
Luella slapped Sam on the shoulder. “You behave yourself, mister, and be glad my Albert isn’t here, God rest his soul, because he’d have taken you outside and walloped you good for saying that to me.”
Sam grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”
Emma scooped up a bite of her sundae to cover a smile. Uncle Albert had been the sweetest, dearest man, and the very idea he’d raise his voice, let alone fight someone, was preposterous.
“You two enjoy,” Luella tossed back as she headed over to supervise the boys.
Emma’s gaze strayed to where the boys were bowling. All these years she’d thought Sam feared commitment, but clearly that wasn’t the case. He’d committed to another woman, had a child with her, but Emma he’d ran from.
Emma pushed aside the past and focused on Sam. “It’s good you came home.”
He gave her one of those charming all-American-boy grins that had her forgetting all the reasons they’d broken up and had her curling her fingers into fists to keep from reaching over and running them through that swatch of neatly-trimmed, sun-bleached hair.
“It’s been too long.” His eyes darkened with an emotion she couldn’t define.
Oh how easily she could fall under his spell again.
Emma shook her head. She wouldn’t let that happen a second time. She straightened her spine and rallied her resistance to him. “I meant because your father needs you.”
Sam bit into a French fry and choked. “Joe Parker?”
Emma frowned. “Yes, Joe Parker.”
Sam shook his head. “You must be mistaken. My father has never needed anyone.”
“You’re wrong. He needs you. He needs a bone marrow transplant.”
Sam munched on another fry. “You really think he’ll accept mine?”
She sensed the anger he attempted to conceal behind the question. While she understood his feelings, she didn’t condone them. It was time to let go of the past and forgive his father.
“No, not without some persuasion.”
“Have you forgotten the last time he and I spoke face-to-face? We nearly came to blows.” He didn’t give her an opportunity to respond. “He won’t even see me unless I agree to take over the farm.”
Emma dipped her spoon into the sundae and searched for the words to pierce that protective shield of skepticism he cloaked himself in. “So, why did you come home if you’re so sure he won’t see you?”
Sam studied her a long moment. “I have to try.”
“So, try. Agree to his terms.”
“Easy for you to say. I have a life, a new job. I have commitments I can’t just walk away from.”
“It’s not forever, Sam. Once Joe is back on his feet you can return to your life.” Was that really so much to ask of a son?
“And just how long will that take?”
Emma hesitated, not wanting to scare him off. “Six months, possibly a year.”
He laughed a humorless laugh that should have detracted from his allure, but didn’t. “Tell me you’re kidding.”
“Afraid not. The recovery time is lengthy. Once he’s back on his feet, you can go back to your life.”
His expression turned speculative. “Isn’t that what you told yourself when you left college to help your father? Seems to me you had plans of being a scientist and doing research, but once you left school you gave all that up.”
He made it sound like she’d been trapped here. She’d chosen to remain on the farm.
Emma studied the wall opposite their table that was covered in memorabilia from Sam’s baseball days with the Smokies. With two Gold Gloves to his credit, he’d been a shoe-in for the Baseball Hall of Fame, until that career-ending knee injury a year ago.
He would never understand that farming came as naturally to her as breathing, and that she loved it as much as he loved baseball.
“I’ll admit my life went in a direction I hadn’t envisioned,” she said. “But it turns out the farm was my dream.”
Sam’s dark eyes turned flinty. “No, it’s your prison.”
Nothing she could say would make him understand. He believed she’d given up her dreams when she’d left college. It had been a point of contention back then, and obviously it still was, but he was wrong. She loved farming.
The truth was, her dream vanished when Sam left her for fame and fortune. Not when she left college.
Raising her chin, she doggedly continued. “I’m content with my life as it is.”
Why were they discussing her decisions when it was Joe they needed to focus on? Because Sam Parker was a master at manipulating the conversation away from him.
Time to get back on track. She cut to the heart of the conflict. “Joe didn’t mean what he said at Ryan’s funeral.”
Sam looked away from the lanes where he’d been watching his son bowl and focused on her. “He damned well did. He expected me to choose the farm over baseball.”
“That’s the past. It’s time to move on, Sam.”
“I have moved on.”
He said it like he believed it, but if that were so, he wouldn’t have stayed away for the last nine years. Whether he realized it or not, Joe’s ultimatum to remain on the farm or be disowned still festered inside him. How could it not, unless he’d stayed away because of her?
This isn’t about you, Emma. This is about Sam and Joe.
“There’s no question Joe loves the farm, but there’s also no question he loves you, too. Yes, he’s a difficult man, and stubborn, and willful and opinionated. And yes, he’s judged you. But here are a couple of life lessons for you. He’s not going to change. He’s not going to come crawling to you and beg your forgiveness. It’s up to you to bridge this gap.”
Sam started to interrupt, but she held up a hand to stop him. “No, it’s not fair, but the reality is, Joe is not going to budge. You have to take the first step and make him see the truth.”
Sam glowered at her. “After everything you’ve just said, can you give me one good reason why I should?”
Emma inhaled a steadying breath, tears burning her eyes. “Because he won’t. You need to do this for yourself and your son. Kevin should get to know his grandfather, now, just in case the—” She hated even considering the possibility the bone marrow transplant wouldn’t work and couldn’t bring herself to voice her deepest fear.
She looked away and silence enveloped them. The thought of losing Joe left an ache inside of her that wouldn’t subside. He’d been her support and encouragement after her father died and she’d taken over the farm. He’d been the one who believed in her when everyone else predicted she’d fail. He never gave up on her, and Emma was determined to return the favor.
Sam’s voice brought her attention back to him. “All right, I’ll try, but that’s the best I can offer. Now, tell me, what’s involved in a bone marrow transplant?”
“You should speak to Griffin since he’s his doctor. He can give you a better understanding than I can.”
“I’ll do that when I meet him at the clinic tomorrow. In the meantime, how’s Dad doing?”
Emma stared at the ice cream melting off the side of her bowl and puddling onto the table. “He has good days and bad, but the bad are starting to outnumber the good. He can do about half the work he used to do.”
Sam took a sip of his soda. “Considering he turned seventy this year that’s not surprising in itself. He’s got help doesn’t he?”
Emma shook her head.
“If that’s the case, who’s been running the farm?”
Stalling, Emma slid her finger along the edge of the fluted glass dish, then sucked off the melted ice cream.
Sam’s fingers tipped her chin up, the brown depths of his eyes hard and unrelenting. “Who’s been running Dad’s farm?”
“You already know the answer to that.”
“I do, but I want to hear it from you. Answer my question.” The quiet intensity of his voice tugged at her.
She swallowed back the lump of emotion clogging her throat. “Joe was strong enough to plant the corn when the weather broke. I’ve been doing what I can since, but a lot of things aren’t getting done.”
His hand dropped away. “What about hired help?”
The warmth of his fingers continued to burn the flesh where he’d touched her. With a concentrated effort, she focused on his question. “He has a college kid part-time, but it’s not enough.”
“He’s seventy for crying-out-loud. Why doesn’t he hire more help?”
Emma casually lifted her shoulder. “Extra help is expensive.”
“Yes, I suppose it is, but it’s a necessity now.”
“That’s a discussion I’ll leave to you and Joe.”
“Discussion, ha. It will be a knock-down, drag-out fight.”
Emma smiled as she envisioned father and son going toe-to-toe. “I think you’re more than capable of dealing with your dad.” Snagging her purse from beside her, she slid across the vinyl seat and rose.
“I’ve got to get back to the farm.” She tossed some bills on the table for her sundae, then walked to the door.
She resisted the urge to look back at Sam. She needed a man she could depend on when life went sour. Sam wasn’t that man. He’d left her without a word of goodbye to pursue his dreams while mocking hers.
She’d watched the newscasts and seen the kind of women Sam dated after he left Defiance which proved her assessment. Commitment was not part of Sam Parker’s makeup.
She glanced down at her ragged cuticles. They were a blatant reminder she was not his kind of woman. Sam Parker dated women with style and elegance. Definitely not an Indiana farm girl with chipped nails and calluses.
The bright lights of the city had always beckoned Sam, whereas her destiny had been set with the simple things life had to offer. Home, hearth and the commitment of a loving man. And she refused to settle for anything less.
Raising her chin, Emma stepped out into the sweltering afternoon sunshine, and walked away from the only man who’d ever made her feel complete.