A Holiday for Healing
As December dawns in the Superstition Mountains, Cooper Smith is resigned to spending another Christmas alone. With his dad gone, his mom ailing and his younger brother in trouble, Cooper's only wish for the holidays is to keep his father's outfitting store going. But when his former high school sweetheart, Elise Hubrecht, unexpectedly returns to her family's ranch, Cooper puts one more item on his to-do list. If he can get Elise to face the tragedy that made her leave Apache Creek, he may get the chance of a lifetime: a second chance at lasting love.
About the Author
Pamela Tracy, a writer from Arizona, has written more than twenty books. Her first Love Inspired Suspense, Pursuit of Justice, was a 2008 RITA finalist. Her third Love Inspired Suspense, Broken Lullaby, won the ACFW Carol award in 2009. Her devotional, Promises and Prayers for Teachers, reached number two on the Christian Booksellers Association’s bestseller list. Pamela is a past president of CWOW, Christian Writers of the West.
Read an Excerpt
Storm clouds rolled in the Arizona sky, a black-and-gray blanket that sank lower even as Cooper Smith watched. One drop hit his forehead. He whooped, then turned and headed inside his store, AJ's Outfitters. His cell phone was out and in his hand before he made it to the counter. He had five regulars who went gold-panning with him on the Superstition after every rain. Plus, this trip, he had three other numbers to call: tourists who had come into his store to buy expedition gear and had shown an interest in going panning. That meant paying customers.
Something AJ's sorely needed.
He'd gotten hold of all but two when an incoming call interrupted him.
It wasn't someone wanting to go panning tomorrow. Instead a deep voice, one he recognized well, said, "I just saw your brother doing doughnuts in your truck in the parking lot of the Apache Creek fairgrounds."
Cooper closed his eyes. Lately, it was one thing after another with his little brother and each and every incident landed at Cooper's feet. "You sure it was him?"
It was a stupid question, and Cooper didn't even bother to pray that Jacob Hubrecht was wrong. Still, there was nothing quite like having an elder of the church, and your ex-girlfriend's father, phone you right after you switched the Closed sign to Open.
Cooper's little brother, just turned eighteen and ten years younger but an inch taller, was skipping school again. Just six months to go and the kid would graduate. Maybe.
"Nothing wrong with my vision," Jacob answered. "Even in the rain."
There was nothing wrong with Cooper's, either. He opened his eyes and looked around the store. Only three customers, one family really, and only the four-year-old appeared to be the potential sale. He held a fool's gold necklace in hand. Cost: five dollars.
Business was down, and Cooper was still learning how to manage the storekeeping part of his responsibility instead of just the guide part. Going panning tomorrow meant Garrett had to work the store. Cooper would bring in three hundred dollars from the three tourists. That might just double their Saturday total.
Cooper didn't know what more he could do except pray. Lately, he'd not said any prayers for himself until after amen. Sometimes, before falling into an exhausted sleep, he added an addendum, a simple plea: Help me, God.
Last time he'd prayed this much was a good ten months ago.
Mitch Smith, his father, had left a big hole to fill when he'd passed away in February, and the hole looked to be getting deeper as the first Christmas without him loomed less than five weeks away.
"I'm sure it was Garrett," Jacob said. "And, it gets worse."
Worse than skipping school and abusing a 1962 classic Ford F-100, four-by-four, V8, four-speed transmission in the rain? Cooper had had a customer offer him five thousand for it two weeks ago, and Cooper had turned him down. They didn't need the money that badly.
Cooper didn't want to know how worse his brother was making it. Each passing day just proved to him that he couldn't fill his father's shoes.
Jacob interrupted Cooper's meandering thoughts by sharing, "He had three other teens in the truck with him."
"Great," Cooper muttered. "One is probably David Cagnalia, right?"
"Pretty sure," Jacob agreed. "Plus, two girls I didn't recognize."
Girls? Oh, please no.
"Thanks, Jacob. I appreciate the call. You wouldn't by any chance have some advice on how I should deal with this, would you?"
Jacob Hubrecht had brought up three girls, pretty much on his own, and they'd all turned out perfect. Especially his middle daughter, Elise, who Cooper had been in love with from fourth grade until Well, Cooper couldn't rightly say that he'd fallen out of love with Elise; it was more as if they'd fallen apart, literally and figuratively.
"Do what you're doing. Keep letting him know you're there. Also, when he decides to talk, listen."
"I've been doing that." Cooper watched his three customers leave the store without the five-dollar fool's gold necklace. They ran to their car, looking at the sky as if amazed at the Arizona rain. Some storekeeper he was, on the phone the whole time.
"Go fetch Garrett now," Jacob said, grabbing Cooper's attention again. "Get him to school. He'll only be two hours late. Wait to talk to him until tonight when you're not so mad. Better yet, let your mother do the talking."
"I don't know," Cooper said slowly, even as he was thinking how much easier it would be on him if he could let his mother deal with Garrett. "She's not feeling well."
She hadn't felt well since the funeral nine months ago.
"I'll ask Elise if she has any ideas," Jacob said.
Cooper opened his mouth to say "Not necessary", but Jacob wasn't finished. Quickly and proudly, he announced, "She's interviewing today at the high school for some kind of social worker position."
Elise was coming home.
After a decade.
But not to him.
"No, thanks," Cooper said. "I'll handle it on my own."
Elise Hubrecht had never been a fan of the term last resort. Unfortunately, she wasn't a fan of the word unemployed, either. Just the thought of it gave her an upset stomach. She had a school loan, more than one credit card and daily bills. If she moved back to Apache Creek, she could live at the ranch for a while, maybe pay off the credit cards and buy a new trucknew to her, anyways. The way things were going, her old truck wouldn't last much longer. It hadn't started this morning, so she was in one of her dad's Lost Dutchman Ranch trucks, which had brought back memories of high school. All her best memories were here, in Apache Creek, Arizona.
And her worst memories, too. Those were why she had left, ten years ago. And why she hadn't planned to return.
Her father, who claimed he didn't have an emotional side, had all but killed the fatted calf when she'd told him she was coming home for a job interview. She had an eleven o'clock appointment with Principal Beecher and a few school board members who made up the hiring committee. Checking her watch, she figured she'd be a good twenty minutes early. For no other reason than curiosity, she turned left when she should have turned right, and headed down the rural road to AJ's Outfitters.
She passed the weathered white brick building with its dark blue roof. Odd, there was a Closed sign on the door. It was a Friday morning, late November. Perfect weather and the busy season for the Arizona outdoors-men.
None of her business. She pressed on the gas and drove toward the street that eventually lead to the high school. She cracked the window and took a deep breath of the eighty-degree Arizona winter.
Just two blocks from the school, she caught sight of a red truck moving fast off-road, to her left, and bumping crazily on terrain never meant for tires. Then it abruptly turned and traveled down a fairly steep embankment.
Elise blinked. She recognized the vehicle.
The driver didn't even hesitate when he swerved in front of her truck, skidding slightly on the pavement, and finally straightening. Then the driver hit the gas and turned down the road that led right toward her family's ranch.
The Cooper she remembered drove slower than her great-uncle and never broke the law. Couldn't be him. Besides, the momentary glance she'd managed into the front seat of the red truck highlighted what looked like four teenagers, all laughing, maybe screaming, but definitely younger than Cooper and his friends.
More the age of Cooper's much younger brother. She'd seen Garrett briefly at his father's funeral back in February. Elise made a snap decision, turned to follow, all the while knowing she was getting involved and that would only make her even more desirable to the school board that so desperately wanted to hire her.
If only Mike Hamm, her favorite minister and now apparently a member of the school board, hadn't seen her résumé posted on a job-hunting website and called her with an offer. It was the only job available for five hundred miles. She knew this. But coming home felt like such a step backfrom everything she'd accomplished in her current home of Two Mules, Arizona, and everything she'd hoped to achieve there in the next few years.
She'd just been starting to make headway with some of the local teens. Her work there was supposed to make up for her failures in the past. She couldn't walk away now. Especially not to come back herethe site of those painful failures.
What she really couldn't seem to do was stop following Cooper's truck even as it veered from one side of the road to the other. It was an accident waiting to happen and she the only witness. Where was everyone?
The truck in front of her turned again, Elise on its tail. She'd be late for her interview, that was for sure, but clearly the teens in front of her needed a reality check.
The truck careened across the dirt road and into the remnants of Karl Wilcox's cotton field. When she was a teen, Mr. Wilcox owned a shotgun, which he filled with buckshot and was quite willing to use on anyone who messed with his land. She doubted that had changed in the years since then.
Elise honked her horn, trying to get the teens to pull over. It took a good five minutes, time Elise spent with her cell phone aimed out the window taking a video. She knew a picture was worth a thousand words, especially when parents wanted denial more than truth. Finally Elise cornered them when a dirt road they'd turned on deadended. She stepped out of her vehicle and waited, noting that a rainbow had already formed above the Superstition Mountains that towered over the landscape.
A tall brown-haired boy stepped from the vehicle. Her breath caught. Cooper ten years ago.
"Garrett," she said. "I just took a video of your little adventure with my cell phone."
He blinked as recognition set in. "Does Cooper know you're here?"
"No, but we can talk about that later. I'm on my way to speak with Principal Beecher about a job opening. That makes it very convenient to just follow you four to school. That's where you were heading, right?"
She worded it carefully, hoping they'd realize that a Yes answer might mean fewer consequences. From where Elise stood, she could see relief on the girls' faces. The boy standing by the red truck never changed his angry expression. As for Garrett, he merely nodded his head, lips pressed together, and then marched back to his truck.
"Get in," he told his friends. After a deliberate few seconds making a point, they crawled in the front seat.
Later, slightly late and a little damp from the rain, Elise sat at a conference table and studied the three men sitting across from her. The principal of Apache Creek High, David Beecher, still looked annoyed. Not at her, but at the four seniors who'd showed up right behind her late to school and with an escort. They were now with the vice principal.
She hoped that on their own the teens owned up to their responsibility, not just about ditching school but about where they'd been and what they'd done. Wilcox's cotton field was pretty much destroyed.
She hadn't shared with the principal the lack of respect shown by the two boys when she'd mentioned showing her video to their families. Not without knowing more about the situation.
Of the four teens, she only knew the background of one, and she remembered him at age seven or eight, building a tree house in the backyard, a place where he and his friends could play their handheld electronics without being disturbed. He'd had a slight crush on her, and oh how big brother Cooper liked to tease. She wanted to believe that sweet kid was still there inside that surly teen.
"Tell me again what you saw," Mike Hamm asked.
"I recognized the trunk and knew Cooper wasn't driving. It was easy enough to figure out they weren't on their way to school," Elise said. "I followed, managed to get them to pull over, and suggested a tardy would be better than an absence."
"Good thinking. I hope there's someone like you around when my children get to high school." Mike had two children, both under the age of three. He had a while before he needed to worry. She, however, knew what he was doing. He was letting her know how very much she was needed here.
She knew she was right when he leaned forward, hands folded in front of him, a sincere expression on his face. "Situations like these are why we petitioned for funding to hire a guidance counselor."
"We have a school counselor," Beecher said, "but quite honestly, she knows more about getting kids on track for college than on getting them back on track for life."
"Miss Sadie's still here?" Elise asked.
"For three more years." The principal smiled as if he'd heard the threat before. Miss Sadie had been advising students of future opportunities since Elise's mom had been a student.
"Once the funding came through for a school counselor, Mike found your résumé online and we read about what you've been doing up in Two Mules." This came from an imposing man who sat on Mike's left, and the only one Elise didn't know from her years growing up in the area. Mike had introduced him as the new chief of police, Ethan Fisher.
The principal nodded before adding, "Three new teen programs in under a year."
That I'm still developing, she thought but didn't say.
"Your résumé is impressive," Mike said. "But we didn't think we were looking for a social worker. Then we started looking at the successes happening where schools employ one."
"Of course, those schools are a lot bigger and have more tax dollars and such. We would need you to wear a couple of hats," Principal Beecher said. "You'd not only be a social worker dealing with crisis intervention within the school walls but also working outside the school with families and the communities."
In Two Mules she'd had to make time for academic emphasis. Apache Creek was dictating the emphasis. On the table before her was her dream job. But why did it have to happen now, when her work in Two Mulesthe work that was supposed to make up for her pastwas still unfinished?
Principal Beecher opened a manila folder and withdrew some papers. "We've changed the job description a bit since Mike spoke to you. And we were able to raise the pay so it matches what you make now."
Almost as if they were bidden, her fingers slid across the table and took the papers. She still wanted to say nobut her justifications were melting away. Yes, she'd be two hours away from Two Mules, but she could live at the Lost Dutchman and save on rent. She'd easily be able to afford gas back and forth to visit often. Once a week, she could manage that. She'd find the time. That had been her mantra since Cindy died. To always make time for someone who needed her.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Second Chance Christmas by Pamela Tracy The Rancher's Daughters Series Book Two Elise Hubrecht had, in a way, run away from home after high school. After a tragedy, she blamed herself and felt that staying out of Apache Creek was the best cure. Leaving her family and friends behind. Including the man she loved and was going to marry. And now, ten years later, it's time to come home. Cooper Smith felt burdened after returning home when his father fell ill and then passed away. He had a store to run, a mother who was still grieving deeply, and a younger brother who decided to start misbehaving. Even in his busy life, he still felt lonely. Especially since the cause of that loneliness just came back to town. Another fantastic series by this author. In book one, Finally a Hero, her older sister finds happiness at home while Elise and the youngest sister, Emily, are still away. Now that Elise has returned, maybe she can put the past behind her and start living again. Looking forward to the next book.