by: Staci Stallings
She had heard nothing but her father’s infuriating voice in her head for two hours when her finger snapped the back stitch button on and then off. You would think he could at least try to be reasonable… for once in his miserable life.
Carefully cutting the thread away, Ami pulled the lacey material free. The curtains were turning out nicely— even Mrs. Sanders, her home ec teacher, would’ve been pleased. With one more snip she freed it from the thread and held the finished product up next to the chair to inspect her work.
“Good deal.” Pleased, she stood, unfurling the curtain onto her bed where its mate laid. Then she stepped back to examine her handiwork. It was times like this that she believed somehow she was going to make this work. She was going to make it by September, and she would show her father and prove to him he had been wrong about her and her grandfather and this farm the whole time.
“Ami?” Jaxton called from the stairs.
“I’m in here,” she called back, pulling at the material to measure for the tie-backs.
She tried not to notice as he appeared at her door and leaned there. “Well, I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.”
“What’s the good news?” She tipped her head in his direction as she pinned the material together, trying to act like any bad news would be only a little bump she could easily handle.
“Well, I found the last wall.”
“Cool. So, what’s the bad news?”
“The sheet rock’s no good,” he said clearly wishing he didn’t have to be the one to tell her that.
Looking up, she scowled in confusion. “No good? What does that mean?”
And with that, her feet were moving to go inspect the thing.
“It’s all crumbly,” he said as she stepped past him and headed for the stairs. “It looks like it got wet at some point.”
She didn’t say another word as she climbed the stairs and went into the room to inspect the damage. Horror hit her square. He wasn’t kidding. The floor was covered with white dust and crumbs from the wall. It was worn completely through in one, large place, and in several others it wouldn’t take much to make it fall.
As she stood looking at it, she could hear her father’s lectures, and piece-by-piece her dream began a slow crumble inside her. She closed her eyes to the stinging in the backs of her eyes, pushing back at it with her eyelids and her hand. She should have known. She should just give up now. Why was she even doing this? He was right. She would never be able to make this work.
“I’m not sure the rest is like this,” he said from behind her. “Maybe it was just this one place that got wet.”
However, she shook her head, fighting to keep the tears from spilling over. “Dad said it wasn’t worth it. I should’ve just listened to him.”
It wasn’t said for his benefit. After everything she’d been through, to make it this far and then to have the house crumble from the inside out just ripped the last piece of determination from her. The only thing left was surrender. Surrender to the utter hopelessness of it all.
“But no,” she continued in a mumbled anger, “I didn’t listen, did I? No, I thought I knew better. I thought I could make it work. What a joke.”
“Ami.” Jaxton’s presence closed the distance between them. “Come on, don’t say that.”
“Why not?” And she spun on him as the anger flashed through her eyes. “Why shouldn’t I?”
But he never so much as blinked. “Because it’s not true, that’s why.”
“Yes, it is,” she said as one tear escaped from the corner of her eye and threaded its way down her cheek. She looked away and swiped at it furiously, hoping he hadn’t seen it, but it was too late. Still, the fury made her come back at him. “Look around you. They might as well knock this place down, and put it out of its misery.”
He put his hands on his beltline and licked his lips as he stared down at her. “You don’t mean that.”
“Yes I do,” she said vehemently. “I do. I was such an idiot to think I could make this work.”
He took one step toward her, and the fury didn’t let her think she should move.
“But it’s probably better, you know,” she said, laughing sarcastically as the tears now wound their way down over her nose, not thwarted or even held back. “It was a stupid idea anyway. Always has been.”
“No, it wasn’t.” With worry in his dark eyes, he took hold of her arm. “Please don’t say that.”
Then her senses came back to her, and she jerked at her arm. “What do you think you’re doing?”
But he held her firmly. “Come here.” Not brooking any argument, he pulled her from the room and down the hallway.
“Where are we going?” she asked as fear overtook the anger. He was so strong, she knew as she followed she wouldn’t be able to fight him off if he had anything other than honorable intentions. “Jaxton!”
However, he never stopped as he pulled her down the hallway and into the library. “I want to show you something.”
“What?” she asked as he opened the door and pulled her across the room to the French doors.
On the other side, he stopped for one second and looked down at her. “This.”
And with that, he flipped the handle and flung the doors open. Never releasing her, he pulled her out onto the balcony.
“What?” she asked again as the anger returned to her voice.
“This. Listen,” he said as he took a deep breath.
“What? I don’t hear anything.” She latched her arms in front of her to hold onto her anger and frustration as he let go of her arm and took a step over to the railing.
“Listen,” he said again, closing his eyes, and peace descend on his face.
In annoyance, Ami shook her head and pushed the beauty of the day and the way he looked enjoying it away from her. “I don’t hear anything.”
“That’s just it. There’s nothing there. Nobody yelling at you or telling you what to do or telling you that you’re doing it wrong. Nothing. Just you and the wind.” A moment and he opened his eyes so his gaze came right down to hers. He was looking right at her then, right into her, and she couldn’t look away. “Don’t you see, Ami? You can’t give up now. People need this.”
However, her spirit held only disgusted anger with the whole horrible idea.
“Can’t you feel it?” he asked as peace found his voice and his movements.
Although she knew exactly what he meant, at that moment, she didn’t want to feel what he was talking about. She wanted to be mad. She wanted to be frustrated. She wanted to give up, and she knew if she let herself feel the peace of that balcony, she would find a way to talk herself out of it.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She shook her head, pushing the peace away from her just as easily as she brushed away the strand of hair that caught the breeze and ended up in her face.
“Okay, then, here.” Once again he took her hand and led her over to the railing where he put her hand on it gently. His gaze slid down and rested on her. She felt it thought she never looked up.
“Now close your eyes,” he instructed, and when she moved to protest, he said, “Just do it.”
With a shake of her head, believing she could hang on to the anger no matter what, she closed her eyes.
“Just listen.” He was right beside her, his arm practically around her, and heat she wasn’t sure was from the sun began seeping into her. “Listen to the wind in the trees.”
She pushed the pain in her chest down and squeezed her eyes closed to keep it there. It was a stupid dream, a child’s fantasy.
“Let it go,” Jaxton said, watching her, mesmerized by her and the day. She was so incredibly beautiful. “Just let it go, Ami. For once, just breathe and let it go.”
She shook her head vehemently. Once and then harder.
His heart broke for her, for the struggle and the deck that was stacked against her. “Your grandfather gave you this place because he knew you understood,” he said softly. “He knew you’d share this feeling with everyone who came here.”
“But,” she started to protest.
“And he knew that no matter what you wouldn’t give up,” he said, knowing in his heart it was true.
“But,” she started again, just as he reached down and laid his hand on the small of her back. That touch brought her back from keeping the pain down, and she looked up, right through the depths of his eyes. He had never felt anything like that moment.
“Listen to me.” His gaze held hers gently. “It’d be so easy to let everybody else talk you out of this. I guarantee you it’d be a lot easier than trying to make your dream come true. But if you do that, if you let them talk you out of your dreams, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
She shook her head and mashed her lips together. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do.” And he knew she did as he was now looking right into her soul. “You think they’re right. You think they know more about what’s possible than you do. Well, they don’t. They don’t understand your dream.”
“And you do?”
A second and he had to admit the truth. “No, I don’t see all of your dream either, but I know if you give up now, you’ll think about this moment forever and wonder what if. What if you hadn’t given up? What if you did what you had to to make this happen?”
“And what if it doesn’t happen anyway?”
“Well, then what have you lost?” He shrugged slightly. “A few months? A little time? If you don’t try, you’ve lost your dream. That’d be a thousand times worse.”
Ami ducked her head to the side, and her gaze fell onto the little grotto below.
“He gave you this place for a reason,” Jaxton said, watching her struggle, feeling it in the depths of his own soul. “He believed in you, Ami. He knew you could do it.”
She shook her head again, sending strands of hair skittering on the breeze.
“And you can,” he said softly, putting his hand once again on her back because that just felt so right to all of him.
Her spoke of exhaustion and defeat. “But there’s so much to do…”
“I’ll help you all I can,” he said solidly.
“Why?” she finally asked, looking up and searching his eyes.
With no hesitation, Jaxton enveloped her with his. “Because I know how many people need what this place can give them,” he said with a soft smile. “Just say you’ll give it to September. If it doesn’t work, at least you tried.”
“But what about you?” she asked slowly, a new worry tripping into her dark eyes. “Don’t you have to go back to Chicago?”
His gaze sank to the planks at their feet as the question raked through him. But then he knew, and he picked his gaze up to meet hers. “Chicago’ll still be there in September. I think I’m standing exactly where I need to be right now.”
Ami exhaled slowly and shook her head. “But there’s so much to do.”
“So, we take it one project at a time,” he said, “one day at a time, and we get done whatever we can.”
“But I don’t have the money to pay you,” she said, the determination to quit waning with each new excuse she found.
“So we’ll just call it payback.”
“For showing me what’s really important,” he said.
Although she couldn’t have known the depth of those words, she nodded. Then she closed her eyes. “Okay. So, what do we do about that sheet rock?”