"Ma'am, I'm not one of the bad guys."So says the handsome man Martha Gabler encounters near her isolated mountain cabin. Tristan Sinclair claims he's an ATF agent working undercover. And that if she doesn't play along as his unexpected girlfriend, they'll both end up dead. Nursing a broken heart, Martha knows a thing or two about love that isn't real. Still, she calls up all her faith and turns her shaky trust over to Tristan. Soon she's hoping he'll take on a new mission: guarding her for the rest of her life.
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August 11, 2008
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Excerpt from The Guardian's Mission by Shirlee McCoy
Water? Protein bars? Check. Check.
Chocolate? More chocolate? Tissues? Triple check.
Not that Martha Gabler was going to need the tissues. She wasn't. She was over her crying jag and done feeling sorry for herself. It was time to move on, to embrace singleness with the same joyful excitement with which she'd embraced being a part of a couple.
The fact that in one year and three months she'd hit the magical age that separated young-enough-to-hope from too-old-to-keep-looking didn't matter at all. So what if women in Lakeview, Virginia, married young? So what if reaching thirty without heading down the aisle was tantamount to walking around town wearing a placard that read Past My Prime?
Did Martha care?
She sighed, zipping her backpack and shoving a baseball cap over her unruly curls. She'd come to the mountains to put the past behind her. She didn't plan to spend time dwelling on things that couldn't be changed.
Like her newly single status.
Outside Martha's Jeep, the day was as gray and gloomy as her mood, the deep oranges and brilliant reds of the fall foliage muted in the dreary morning light. Maybe visiting her father's hunting cabin could wait another week, another month. Another year.
No. It couldn't.
She hadn't been to the cabin since she started dating Brian two years ago. Now that he was out of her life, it was time to enjoy the things she'd loved before Brian had pulled her into his high-society world. Time to start fresh, to look with excitement at the new horizons stretching out before her.
Martha snorted and shoved open the Jeep door, stepping out into cool mountain air. Gravel crunched beneath her feet as she hoisted her pack onto her back and turned to survey her surroundings. The old gravel road she'd parked on dead-ended a hundred yards up. Beyond that, a dirt path wound its way up into the mountains. A steep and difficult climb led to the cabin, but Martha didn't mind. Some good hard labor would get her mind off Brian-the-jerk.
She started to close the Jeep door and jumped as her cell phone rang.
For a split second she considered ignoring the call, but the thought of seventy-year-old Jesse Gabler hiking up to the cabin was enough to convince her otherwise.
She pressed the phone to her ear, hoping her voice wouldn't give away her emotions. More than anything else, she hated to worry her father, and if he thought she was upset, worried was exactly what he'd be. "I'm fine, Dad."
"Who said that's why I was calling?" Gravelly and gruff, his voice reminded her of all the triumphs and losses they'd faced together since her mother walked out when Martha was five.
"Dad, it's ten o'clock on a Friday morning. Why else would you be calling except to check up on me?"
"Maybe I'm just calling to say hi."
"Right. You can't stand it that I'm going to the cabin alone. Admit it."
"Marti, the cabin has been closed up for two years. It might not be habitable anymore."
"As long as it's still got a roof and four walls, I'll be fine. I don't need more than that."
"Need more for what? Grieving in private over that scumbag doctor? I knew he was no good the minute I met him. Wishywashy, wimpy kid with a head too big for his scrawny little neck. If I'd had my way you would never have..." His voice trailed off and Marti could almost see his hazel eyes going dark with worry and regret. "Sorry, baby doll.You know how I am."
"Yeah, I know." Which was why she'd had to escape to the mountains. Between her father, her friends, her church and her community, Martha had nearly drowned in the outpouring of sympathy since she'd called off her engagement three days ago. That was the problem with living in a small town. Everyone knew everyone's business. Most of the time, Martha didn't mind, but right now she needed space.
She needed time.
She did not need to be smothered by well-meaning people who all claimed to have believed her relationship with Brian was doomed, but who hadn't bothered to tell her that.
Her father cleared his throat the way he always did when he wasn't sure what to say, then launched into a safer topic. "It's supposed to storm tonight. You know that, right? The creek might flood its banks. You might get stranded for a few days."
"A few days isn't going to kill me. Besides, I know how to handle myself out here. I was taught by the best."
"Glad to know I taught you something." Since I obviously didn't teach you how to protect your heart from smooth-talking men.
Martha could almost hear the words, though her father loved her too much to say them. "You taught me plenty, Dad. So, listen, you take Sue out this weekend, okay? Somewhere fancy."
"Why would I go and do a thing like that?"
"Because tomorrow is the three-year anniversary of your first date and she expects it."
"Three-year anniversary of our first date? Who keeps track of that kind of stuff?" As Martha had hoped, mention of his wife of eight months was enough to distract her father.
"Sue. She's been talking about it nonstop for two weeks. I'd have thought you'd have gotten the hint by now."
"You know I'm no good with hints. You could have given me a heads-up before now."
"Sorry, Dad. I just figured you knew."
"I guess I'd better get to work planning something. You be careful, you hear? And if you're not back by Sunday noon, I'm coming to get you. Love you, baby doll."