A Time to be Tender
Heartbreaking to heartwarming…stories of love and redemption, trust and second chances.
It started out as an escape…
Help one sad and lonely widower get his life—and his family—back together again while she hid from her past. But Jane Watts didn’t expect to fall for the cowboy next door. Nor did she anticipate he’d fall for her in return.
It was supposed to be an easy out…
The booze, the brawls, the bull riding. But Mike Toryn didn’t ask to be saved by his secretive neighbor. Nor did he expect that he would want to save her in return.
What should have been uncomplicated and temporary had suddenly become profound and heartbreaking. And neither Mike nor Jane did heartbreak, not ever again.
Ebook available at: Amazon
Print book coming soon.
Complete Character List:
- Jane Watts: Jane has a terrible secret and it’s giving her nightmares.
- Mike Toryn: You first met Mike in Terms of Surrender.
- (more coming soon)
Extras & Tidbits: Want to get the inside scoop on this story? Then check out the blog posts below.
UPDATED AUGUST 2017: AND THE WINNER IS: KATEB! CONGRATULATIONS! I’m excited to share the news that the ebook version of A TIME TO BE TENDER is finally here. Yay! And to celebrate, I’m giving away one grand prize of: a $25 Amazon Gift Certificate, a signed copy of A...read more
Are you interested in reading an Advanced Review Copy of A TIME TO BE TENDER? Then apply to join my Advanced Reader Review Team! Application closes at midnight June 19, 2017, so don't delay. ...read more
The “Name the Book” contest is over, the winners have been notified, and I’m thrilled to announce that Mike’s story finally has a title! Grand Prize Winner: Meghan Stith! Meghan submitted the title A TIME TO BE TENDER. I fell in love with this title immediately and...read more
A TIME TO BE TENDER
Guilt pressed down on Jane Watts’ chest until she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think…
…couldn’t feel anything but the sorrowful regret that she had somehow survived while everyone else had died. She curled into a tiny ball on the bed and tried to blank her mind, but the memories persisted, refusing to leave her alone.
She’d been warned that the nightmares would continue until she got professional help. But after one visit with the psychologist her sister had recommended, Jane had refused to go back. Rather than talk about her ordeal, she’d decided to spend the rest of her life in seclusion on her parents’ southern Alberta ranch.
So on this freezing cold, mid-November morning, when she heard her bedroom door creak open and her mom tiptoe across the hardwood floor toward the window to gently raise the blinds, she sensed her self-imposed exile from the rest of humanity had hit a wall.
“Get up, honey. You’re coming with me today.”
When she didn’t move, there was a huge sigh from the other side of the blankets, followed by a tug.
Jane had to be quick. Wishing she were five-years-old instead of thirty-two, she grabbed the covers with both hands, dragged them over her head, and held on tight. “Go away. I’m invisible.”
“This isn’t healthy, Jane—”
“Neither am I,” she shot back before her mother, Barbara Watts, could finish whatever she’d been about to say.
“Yes, you are,” the older woman stated with another firm yank on Jane’s protective shield. “Dr. Kincaid gave you a clean bill of health. Then she gave you another. And just last week, I clearly heard her say those stomach aches you’ve been having are all in your head—”
“Dr. Kincaid is full of crock,” she muttered into the sheets.
“—so honey, there’s no excuse to be moping about in bed. Therefore, I’m giving you a choice.” Her mother’s cajoling voice was closer this time, so close Jane could feel the warmth of her breath against her scalp, so close the subtle fragrance of her chocolate scented body lotion permeated the blankets. “You can either get out of bed and come with me, or head back to Calgary and return to work.”
Jane froze. She could barely look her parents in the eyes. How could she face her co-workers and the innocence of her kindergarten students? Surely they would know, just by looking at her, that she was tarnished beyond redemption.
“Well, young lady. What’s it going to be?”
Jane pushed back the covers and glared into her mother’s lavender eyes. “Can’t I take five minutes to regroup?”
“You’ve had five months. It’s time to quit feeling sorry for yourself. You’re not the first woman to—”
The room went silent, so silent she could hear the soft swish of her dad shoveling the front drive-pad outside. So quiet she could hear the ice crack on the shutters in the sun and the old farm house creak as the winter frost penetrated deep into the ground.
She sat up, forcing her mother to straighten, and arms crossed, heart breaking into another million pieces, it was all she could do not to scream out in anger. Because if she started, she might never stop. So she kept a lid on her emotions before they spilled free. “I’m not imagining my stomach pain. I’m not making it up, either.”
Her mom had left her alone since she’d returned home and allowed her to wallow in the darkness of her pity party. She’d needed to be close to her family. Needed the quiet comfort of the foothills and the nearby Rocky Mountains to patch the broken pieces of herself back together. But apparently the fun times of holing up in bed all day and night, and hiding from the rest of the world were over.
Except she needed more recovery time, like maybe the rest of her lifetime.
Barbara’s mouth thinned and she bent to scoop up a blanket off the floor, taking her time to refold it before she set it neatly on the window seat. When she faced Jane again, her calm demeanor was back in place like a Halloween mask that no longer fit. “Jane May Watts, whether or not you like it, you’re coming with me this morning.”
Arms folded across her chest, Jane stared back at her, determined to be as stubborn as the woman hell bent on dragging her back to the land of the living. But while her mom might only be five-foot-two, the older woman was as feisty and ferocious as an Amazonian warrior.
“Fine,” she snapped, sulky and petulant like a teenager high on hormones. “Where are we going?”
“To perform an intervention.” Mouth tight, Barbara headed toward the door. “Be down in thirty minutes or I’ll sic your father on you.”
“Good luck with that,” she mumbled, but as her mother disappeared out the door, Jane pushed back the covers and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. As her feet touched the floor, she shivered in the chill of the early morning air and quickly shoved them into the slippers she’d borrowed from her mom.
She rubbed at the spot between her ribcage and breathed deep in an attempt to ease the tightness in her stomach.
It was times like this that she most wished she could draw the line, persuade them all to leave her alone—her mother, her sister, her dad—but she couldn’t risk being booted to the curb. And her mom, bless her kind heart, rarely tossed out a threat without following it through.
Her phone bleeped. She picked it up, read the message on the screen, and scowled before she slapped the device face down on the bedside table. Pushing off the bed, she crossed to the window to check out the weather. She passed the remnants of her childhood—4H awards, barrel racing trophies, and a framed photo of her holding her teaching degree on the day she graduated from university—and wished she could be normal again.
Normal and clean and free of the nightmares that continued to haunt her sleep.
That was the worst part of being home. Waking to her parents frightened faces, uncertain what she’d revealed before becoming fully aware that she was safe, healed on the outside, but oh so damaged on the inside.
Reaching the window, she pressed her heated forehead against the icy pane of glass.
Outside, the mid-November sun barely rose above the treetops and cast long shadows along the snow covered ground. Overnight, it had stormed again, and the main yard had been covered with a layer of pristine flakes that sparkled like diamonds in the sunlight. She could see her dad on the driveway, a worn cowboy hat on his head, the snow shovel in his hands, pretending to be oblivious to his youngest daughter’s ruin.
But she saw his knowledge in the sloped edges of his shoulders, in the anger in his eyes whenever she accidentally met his gaze, in the new lines on his once unlined face.
Tearing her gaze from his broad back, she let her attention drift past the snow drifts between the house and barn, past the huge round bales of hay wrapped to protect them from the winter moisture, past the cattle dotting the snow covered rolling hills, to the white-capped mountains beyond. Once upon a time, all of this had felt peaceful and safe, but now it seemed like fear permeated every bone in her body.
Jane caught her reflection in the window, and her entire focus shifted to the tiny scar on the edge of her upper lip. The impact pushed her backward, halfway across the room, and stole her breath. She grabbed her chest, felt a hand around her throat—
Her mother’s shout broke through the panic squeezing the air from her lungs, and she fell to the floor with a thud.
Footsteps tripped up the steps to the second floor and the bedroom door flew open. “Jane, honey, it’s okay. You’re home now. Safe.”
She kept her head lowered so the edges of her long hair hid the fear on her face, and pretended to dig through the clothes scattered on the floor nearby.
“I’m fine,” she said around the tightness in her throat, unable to cover the high-pitched wobble of her voice. “I’m just looking for something clean to wear.”
They’d been through this before and her mother knew the drill. Walk away. Pretend like finding her daughter in a frightened heap on the floor was normal.
Barbara shuffled her feet and cleared her throat. “Breakfast is almost ready. Don’t be tardy.”
The door closed with a snick behind the older woman, leaving Jane alone to regather her defenses and forcibly turn off the fear while she dug around on the floor for something to wear. Her attention drifted to the bedside table, and on hands and knees, she crawled across the cold floor and opened the bottom drawer.
Below the report cards and teenage diaries were the pills she’d squirreled away. She’d tucked them way in the back of the drawer so no one else would find them, deliverance from the guilt of who she’d become.
God, she missed her old life—the morning rush to get ready for school, the classroom giggles as her five-year-old students settled in for the day. Segregated from everything bad in the world.
But she knew the drill too, and a moment later, she slid the drawer shut, then clambered to her feet on unsteady legs while she clutched a pair of reasonably clean blue jeans, a frayed t-shirt, and a heavy hoodie perfect for the sub-zero temperatures on the prairies.
Jane dressed. Avoiding the mirror, she quickly washed her face, brushed her teeth, and pulled her blonde hair into a ponytail, then headed downstairs. She walked into the kitchen as her mom pulled a tray of freshly baked cinnamon buns out of the oven. “I thought I smelled something delicious.”
Barbara pointed to the counter. “Sit. I’ll bring you coffee and breakfast in a sec.”
“Mom, you don’t have to wait on me.” She sidled around her mother, grabbed a cup out of the cupboard, and filled it with the dark brew. “Want one?”
“No thanks.” Her mom’s face elongated, like she’d lost her only friend, and her shoulders hunched as she squeezed the tube of icing over the steaming hot buns with a little more aggression than necessary. “Want the truth, honey?”
Her breath stalled. Surely her mother didn’t want to talk.
The older woman continued. “I would love a cup of coffee. Dearly, desperately, regrettably. But I won’t. As much as it pains me to decline, the delicious brew keeps me awake when I should be fast asleep. I’m now forced to drink herbal tea.”
Drawing in a breath, an unfamiliar bubble of laughter worked its way up Jane’s throat and escaped as she scooted past her mom again, then sat down on the opposite side of the island to watch her work the tube in her hands. “Herbal tea is good for you, Mom.”
“Maybe so, but I miss my coffee.”
Five months ago, she’d missed her coffee too…for all of five seconds. Then she’d just missed her freedom and her family. “So where are we going today?”
“To the Rocky Creek Ranch.” She paused and glanced up. “You went to school with the owner. Mike Toryn.”
Jane sipped at the steaming coffee, relishing the strong aromatic flavor, before setting the cup down to let the dark liquid cool. “I remember Mike. Tall, quiet, cute. Gosh, I haven’t thought of him in years.”
Barbara set the empty tube in the sink, then bustled across to the fridge to pull out the tray of eggs. “Did you know he was married?”
“Nuhuh,” she responded as she caught a melting dollop of icing on the end of her index finger and stuck it into her mouth to suck it off. Her stomach responded with a hungry growl. “Anyone I know?”
“Remember the Davis twins, Hannah and Harley? He married the quiet one. Hannah.”
“Sure I remember them.” She stole another smidgen of icing. “So what’s the problem with Mike and Hannah that you have to go over there and stick your nose into their business?”
Her mom paused and gave her the stink eye. “Helping out a neighbor isn’t always interfering in their business. Sometimes it’s giving them a helping hand up when they need it the most.”
And sometimes, it was just plain, unwanted interference.
Jane blanked her expression and waited for her mother to continue.
As Barbara cracked eggs into a pan, her face elongated. “Hannah passed away last spring. Breast cancer. It was a terrible ordeal for the whole family.”
Last spring. In a heartbeat, Jane’s appetite vanished. She focused on the cup in her hand and felt her mom’s gaze on her. “How sad.”
“Very,” she continued, her tone mild. “Mike lost his reason to live and his two motherless girls. The twins have been staying with their aunt and uncle, but they need their father. He needs them too, or he will never heal properly.”
She toyed with the edge of her mug. “Sounds like a job for Abby, not you.”
“Don’t even mention Mike around your sister. The girl has it in for that man.” She sighed heavily as she whisked the eggs. “Honey, Mike deserves our help. He looked after Hannah and their twins the entire time without any help. Do you know what that kind of pressure does to a person?”
“I suppose.” Still, that wasn’t any reason to drag her into the mess. She chewed at a jagged fingernail and wondered how she could get out of being dragged along. Because once her mom decided to do something, nothing short of a freight train could stop her. “Why do I have to come?”
“Because that’s what neighbors here do. They help each other out. Have you been gone so long you’ve forgotten?”
She sat up straight, hope stirring in her chest. “Well, technically I don’t actually live here, so I’m not really a neighbor.”
Barbara stopped stirring the eggs in the pan and eyeballed her with a fierceness that made Jane feel thirteen again. “Five months you’ve been up in that room. I’d call that living here.”
“Fine,” she snorted and slouched onto the countertop, one arm supporting her upper body while she spooned sugar into her coffee. “If Mike needed help so bad, why didn’t all of you good neighbors help him out then?”
“Because Hannah didn’t want anyone to know about her illness. By the time we found out, it was too late and we were attending her funeral.” Her mother dumped the eggs onto a plate with some orange slices, then turned like a waitress in a diner and set the plate in front of her. “Eat, honey. All of it. You’ve gotten so thin and I worry about you.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Watching her mom bustle around the kitchen tidying things up, Jane dug in despite the fact that she had no appetite, no will to live, and no wish to leave the house. There had to be a way. Maybe she could fake one of those stomachaches.
The plate vanished from under her nose, and only then did she realize that she’d actually eaten everything on it. While her mom rinsed off the plate and set it in the dishwasher, Jane slid off the stool and rubbed her stomach.
Her mom straightened her back and pointed a spatula at her. “Don’t you dare, young lady.”
Jane couldn’t help it, she smirked. “You’re still pretty sharp for an old lady, aren’t you?”
“I’m not as old as some and sharper than most, and don’t you forget it.” She pointed toward the back porch. “Now, go get your boots and jacket on, and we’ll get going.”
“Okay, but I really think you should call Abby. This is her area of expertise.”
Despite her objections, Jane headed to the porch, pulled on her winter jacket and boots, then followed her mom outside. Her dad had the truck warmed up and ready to go. “Morning, Dad.”
His troubled blue eyes swept over her. “So you finally came out of your room.”
“Yep.” She kissed him on the cheek and gave him a hopeful smile. “I don’t suppose you could persuade Mom to drive away without me?”
He pulled open the passenger door. “Annoy your mother deliberately?”
On the opposite side of the truck, the door swung open, and Barbara climbed in behind the steering wheel. “Your father knows better than to upset the woman who feeds him.” She glanced at her husband. “Are you sure you don’t want to come?”
He shook his head. “Positive. This kind of business is best left to you women.”
As Jane opened her mouth to protest, her mom said, “This shouldn’t take long. We’ll be back in time for coffee.”
And then her dad closed the truck door and stepped back from the vehicle.
Jane pulled on her seatbelt and glared at her mom. “That’s totally unfair.”
“What is?” Barbara asked as she navigated the truck backwards down the driveway and turned it down the lane.
“This kind of business is best left to you women,” she repeated. “I can’t believe Dad allows you to deal with a potentially dangerous situation without his backup.”
“First off,” Barbara sniffed indignantly. “Your father doesn’t allow me to do anything. We have an agreement. I do whatever I want, and he gets my permission before he does whatever he wants.”
“Still, it’s not fair,” she mumbled while fear twisted her stomach into a ball of pain. She rubbed at the spot between her ribs and mumbled, “I don’t feel very good.”
Her mother turned the truck off the lane onto the secondary highway and headed south. “And you never will if you don’t get out of the house.”
Barbara flicked on the radio. As an unfamiliar country tune filled the cab, Jane slumped on the seat, stared out the side window, and wondered if her mother expected her to be the muscle in this operation.
Probably not. The other woman didn’t have a mean or spiteful bone in her body.
Yet ten minutes down the road, as the truck steered off the pavement and drove under the arched gateway with the Rocky Creek Ranch sign on top, Jane still couldn’t fathom the reason for her presence.
She finally broke the silence. “So what’s wrong with Mike?”
Without taking her eyes off the unplowed road, Barbara sighed. “The boy doesn’t care whether he lives or dies.”
Jane turned her head and pretended to peer out at the passing landscape.
She totally understood how he felt, and even without seeing him, she knew how he’d react to her mother’s interference.
It wouldn’t be pretty.
Barbara parked the truck near the house, and shutting off the motor, grabbed the door handle and resumed the conversation. “He’s probably still in the bunkhouse sleeping off last night’s binge.”
Frowning, Jane climbed out of the truck and followed her mom up the porch steps where the older woman peered through one of the windows. “Why isn’t he living in the house?”
“He hasn’t been, not since last June when the incident happened.”
Jane craned her neck to see inside. “Incident?”
She took in the rectangle stack of empty beer cans in the corner of the dining area. Clothes from the laundry room were scattered down the hallway. Unwashed dishes were stacked on the table, countertop, and sink.
“He wasn’t always like this, you know, drowning himself in pity and booze.” Barbara turned away from the window, retraced her steps through the snow, then headed across the yard toward one of the outer buildings. “Mike loved being a husband and father. He was crazy in love with Hannah, and his life revolved around her and the twins. But when Hannah died, he fell apart. Attacked his sister-in-law. Lost custody of his daughters. They say a person’s true colors come out during times of extreme pressure. But that wasn’t Mike. It was the alcohol.” She huffed out an angry breath. “I’ve been staying out of his way for months now, but the boy isn’t getting any better. There’s only one way to deal with him and that’s head on.”
The fear Jane had battled on the ten minute drive turned into full-fledged terror. She sprinted after her mom, tried to grab her arm, but the older woman was wily and faster than she looked. “Mom, you can’t go barging in there.”
“No? Just watch me, honey.”
As her mom headed straight for the bunkhouse door, Jane stopped to peer through one of the windows.
The man they’d come to roust lay face down on the single bed, the sheets tangled around his hips and legs, his naked back golden from the hours he’d obviously spent outdoors in the summer sun. An empty whiskey bottle had fallen on the floor beside the bed with the cowboy’s hand still gripped around it.
Once her mom roused him, they’d be faced with a half naked angry man.
From around the corner, she heard her mom pound on the wooden door and yell, “Mike Toryn, I’m sick and tired of your BS. Get out of bed, or I’ll come in there and make you.”
Jane ripped her gaze from the broad shoulders and smooth back, and tried to move her suddenly leaden feet, but her fear became a living, clawing animal, and there was no way she could escape its clutches. She fell to her knees and curled into a tiny ball.
The nightmares that plagued her were about to come true…for the second time in her life.