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This Time


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Oklahoma rancher Belle Jamison's world is rattled when her best friend announces that Burke Benning, their former classmate and an NFL superstar running back, will be the Master of Ceremonies at their fifteenth class reunion. Twelve years earlier the handsome athlete broke Belle's heart when he deserted her minutes before their wedding ceremony. 

Burke's retirement from professional football brings him home to Haskell for good. While a new career is uncertain, he knows it's time to deal with the hurtful actions that led him to abandon Belle at the altar. A mountain of unspoken words looms between them and only by allowing themselves to be guided by the Lord can they overcome the past. 

Seeing Burke stirs the embers of love and pain still burning inside Belle. As they rebuild their friendship and rekindle the passion they felt for one another all those years ago, they must both choose to forgive and trust again. But can love heal after such devastation? Enough to make their love last a lifetime? 

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Oklahoma rancher Belle Jamison's world is rattled when her best friend announces that Burke Benning, their former classmate and an NFL superstar running back, will be the Master of Ceremonies at their fifteenth class reunion. Twelve years earlier the handsome athlete broke Belle's heart when he deserted her minutes before their wedding ceremony. 

Burke's retirement from professional football brings him home to Haskell for good. While a new career is uncertain, he knows it's time to deal with the hurtful actions that led him to abandon Belle at the altar. A mountain of unspoken words looms between them and only by allowing themselves to be guided by the Lord can they overcome the past. 

Seeing Burke stirs the embers of love and pain still burning inside Belle. As they rebuild their friendship and rekindle the passion they felt for one another all those years ago, they must both choose to forgive and trust again. But can love heal after such devastation? Enough to make their love last a lifetime? 

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Chapter One


On Friday afternoon, just before dusk, a sweaty and dust-covered Belle Jamison tuggedopen the squeakydoor to Haskell High's gymnasium.

Inside, it was cool, and the lighting dim. Belle pulled off her tatteredhat and used its wide brim to slap the dirt from her faded jeans. After a moment, she strodeacross the wood floor, the heels of her well-worn boots thumping resoundingly.

Fifteen years, she thought.Hardly seems possible.

In a week, the gym would be alive with old friends getting reacquainted, laughing the laughter that comes only when reminiscing, sharing the bond and joy that come only from the past.

"Afternoon, green eyes. Been here long?" a smooth,familiar voice brought her around.

"Spencer, I didn't hear you come in."

"How can you miss the sound of that door openingand closing?" "Lost in thought, I suppose," Belle answered.

Spencer Grey chuckled,loosened his tie and unbuttoned his starched white collar. "This old gym sure takes me back." He dropped his briefcase and crouched forward, pretending to dribblea basketball. "It's Spencer Grey, going for the three pointer.

Two seconds on the clock. He shoots! He scores! Spencer Grey clinches the regionalchampionship for the HaskellHaymakers."

He ran around the top of the key, arms raised overhead,cheering as if he were before a crowd of hundreds. "The crowd goes wild."

Belle stood back, arms crossed,laughing. "As I recall," she said, "you shot and missed."

"You have your memories,I have mine." Spencer shot another pretendbasket. "Spencer, we lost the regionalthat year."

He wagged a finger at Belle. "Yeah, but not on my shot." Belle shook her head."How do you live with yourself?"

"Idon't know... I shower daily, use deodorant. I'm not that bad really, for a lawyer type." Spencer stepped toward her, reachingfor her hand.

She drew away and buriedher hand in her pocket. "Spence, speaking of showers...

I'm sweatyand smelly. I've been rounding up the yearlings all day." "So?"

"So..." Belle squirmed.

"I had a great time at dinnerlast night," Spencersaid, his eyes searching hers. "About last night," she said, hesitating.

Spencer dropped his arm and took a step back. "Uh-oh, here we go." "Spence..."

He held his hand up to her face. "Talk to the hand," he said smugly, then turned his back.

"Oh, that's mature, counselor." They sounded like they were back in high school. "I'm tired of your excuses." Spencer folded his suit jacket and draped it over his

briefcase.

"Would you let me explain?" "Think you can?"

She sighed. "I just want to go slow, that's all."

"Slow? Slow! Belle, you're thirty-three years old. It's time to pick up the pace a little."


She flared at his condescension, and was about to give him a dose of his own medicine when the rattling of the gym doors stoppedher short. The rest of the reunioncommittee strolled in together,their voices reverberating.

"Let's talk about this later," Belle whispered to him.

"If you have the time," Spencer countered, terse with frustration.

"Belle, Spencer, you'll never guess who we got to be Masterof Ceremonies for the reunion." Gates Fuller's blue eyes snappedwith excitement.

"Tyler McDermott," Belle answered pragmatically. As reunion chair, she had personally called and invitedtheir most respectedand honored classmate, a recently elected United States Senator, to act as the emcee for the fifteenth reunion of the class of '85. He had graciously agreed. Belle couldn't imagine anyone better to host the weekend.

"He's hosting Saturday night," Gates confirmed. "We have a schedule all made out for him. Just like you asked.But guess who has agreed to emcee Friday night?" Gates and Meg Carsongiggled like schoolgirls.

"Tyler McDermott," Belle answered again, dryly. What were those two thinking? If they weren't her best friends,she'd, well she didn'tknow what she'd think of them. She often wondered what made that red head of Gates' tick. Her imagination constantly manufactured new ideas and workednew angles.

"Guess again," Gates prompted.

Belle lifted her hands, in no mood for guessing games. First, the tense exchange with Spencer, now this. "Gates, for crying out loud, what made you think we needed another emcee?"

"Tyler, actually," Gates answered,her attitude now defensive. "He'd been on the phone with our other emcee, and asked if he was coming to the reunion. One thing lead to another and well, we have a second emcee."

"Just tell us," Belle pleaded, weary.

The men of the committee, Spencer, Dan Green and Cody McDowell chimed in that they'd like to know, too.

Gates paused for one beaming moment, then blurted out, "Burke Benning!" She and Meg shriekedin unison.

The guys whooped and hollered, giving each other high fives. With two words,the reunion excitement rocketed, and everyone talked at once.

Except for Belle. Gates announcement sent her heartto her stomach like a boulder hitting a smoothglassy lake. Waves of panic crashed over her, eroding bits and  pieces of her senses.

"No! No, Burke Benning," she blurted out. The othersgawked at her. "Why not?" Dan wantedto know, peering over his glasses.

Desperate, Belle manufactured a weak reason. "Tyler McDermott's name is on reunionhandbill.

"You have to do better than that," Gates said, arms crossed,giving Belle the eye. "The programs haven't been printed yet."

Belle squirmed, feeling cornered. "This is a committee," she argued. "Gates and Meg can't make the decisions like that without all of us weighingin."

Gates turned to the men. "Any objections?" "No," they said with one voice.

"Well, I object," Belle said.

"Overruled," Spencer bellowed, sounding like a season judge rather than a lawyer. "Sustained!" Belle firedback without thinking. She reddened at how ridiculous her

own voice sounded as it echoed around the gym.


Everyone laughed. "You can't sustain an overruled, Belle," Spencersaid, his laugh crowningevery word.

I'm making no sense! I'm falling apart already. Blasted Burke.

Spencer stepped in front of her, his determined stare holding her gaze in a contest."Belle, he's an NFL star running back. He's been All Pro since his rookie year. He was Rookie of the Year. He's an awesome athlete."

"I'm not impressed." Her words were flat and cold.

Gates pushed Spencer aside and took a turn. "Belle, I've known you since the Community Church Cradle Roll. You are one of my best friends, and one of the most extraordinary people I know. You are also one of the most inflexible. Put aside your personal feelings and realize the rest of the class would love to see Burke as emcee."

Meg added her logic to the argument. "This is the first reunion that he's attended since that spontaneous one we had the year after we graduated. It's an honor to have him. Not many small town high schoolscan say they have such a famous alumni."

"So, we make him Master of Ceremonies?" Belle challenged.

"Belle," Spencer began. "Give it up. It's five to one. He's going to emcee the Friday night events.It's a SquareDance, so there won't be much for him to do. Does that make you feel better?"

She looked at the determined faces of her committee. They wanted Burke Benning. No objection of hers would changetheir minds.

With a sigh, she conceded. She could never expectthem to understand how the sound of Burke'sname made her heart pound, her stomach weak and her mind confused.

For the past twelve years she'd managed to avoid him and the rest of the Benning family. Not an easy feat in a small town. Exceptfor the magazine rack at the grocery checkoutcounter, she rarely saw him.

Now she would be confronted with him for an entire weekend. She shuddered. Yet, wasn't it that very morning she read the Apostle Paul's words,"I forget what lies behind and press forward to what lies ahead."

Obviously, she had not forgotten the past. She had not pressed forward. Not when it came to Burke.

Once, about ten years ago she had resisted a little nudge during a Sunday service to give Burke a call, to get it all out in the open, to clear the air. Forgiveand move on.

But she could never bring herself to face him with the pain. "Belle?" Spencer peered into her face. "Youokay?"

She lifted her chin and glanced into his eyes, bringingher wandering thoughts into focus. "I'm fine. Let's go to the bleachersto discuss the rest of the reunion agenda."

Within an hour the reunion committee had finalized the weekend events, and each memberhad a list of to-do's.

Spencer and Meg jotted notes. Spencer in a leather bound organizer, and Meg in a cartoon coverednotepad.

"I think that does it," Belle said.

"Great," Spencer said, tossing his organizer in his brief case and slapping his hands on his knees. "Idon't know about you guys, but I'm hungryand thirsty. Anyonefor a soda and burgerat Charlie's?"

"Not me," Gates said, standing and moving down the bleachers. "Paul is grilling out tonight. He's holding down the fort until I get there."

"Well, my husband is not grilling out tonight,so if we are going to have dinner at my house, I need to get going," Meg said, following Gates.

Cody and Dan also had families waiting. "See ya'll," Belle called after them. Spencer stood and reached for his briefcase and jacket. "Charlie's?" he asked

Belle. "We can finish our conversation."

Belle gathered her papers and stuffed them in a worn leather saddlebag. The news of Burke's reunion appearance left her in no mood to deal with Spencer's romantic overtures. "Nottonight, Spence," she said, flingingthe saddlebag over her shoulder and startingdown the bleachers. "I'm tired, and in desperate need of a big bar of soap and a hot shower."

"Can I stop by a littlelater?"

"I'll be in my pajamas. Maybe another night," Belle said over her shoulder, as she stepped onto the gym floor and headed for the door.

"Belle,"Spencer said with force. "You can't keep avoiding me. Avoidingus."

She turned and waved just before stepping outside,a weak smile on her lips, and heavy feelingcoating her heart.

***

The Jamison ranch, Bar J, ran along the southerncounty line; six thousandacres of rich grazingland.

Mechanically, Belle turned her refurbished '57 truck into the homestead's long gravel drive, her thoughts still on the events of the meeting. She passed the large river stone, nestled between two tall, thriving cottonwoods and pulled alongside the barn.

A yipping, panting pack of Border-Collie mutts greeted her as she cut the truck's engine and hopped out of the cab. She threw her bag of reunion notes into the bed and bent down to greet her canine companions.

She buried her nose in Rascal's black and white mane, scratched Petie and Jasper behind their pointedears, smoothed her hand over Scout and Junior's sleek tan and chocolate colored backs.

"Got a new one in the litter today," Duke Jamisonsaid, coming acrossthe barnyard toward the garage.

Belle looked around. A black, tan and white puppy face with round brown eyes poked his nose throughthe crowd with a high-pitched yip. "Where'd he come from?" she asked, picking up the puppy. His long, pink tongue slobbered on her face.

"Found him in a box at the feed store. Looks to be part hound,part collie. Figuredhe'd fit in here okay."

Belle laughed at the puppy's long, floppy ears."Reckon Chet Guthrie's hound is the father."

"Probably," Duke laughed. At seventy-five, Duke Jamison was the picture of a life- long rancher - lean and leathery. His angular face fanned into long wrinkleswhen he smiled,though his blue eyes were young and vibrant. "How'd the meetinggo?"

Belle stepped inside the barn and gave the dogs a treat before answering. "We finalizedeverything," she said, walking with Duke toward the warm light of the kitchen. An old westerntune drifted from Duke'ssixty-year-old radio through an open window, and the easy, tumbleweed melody comforted Belle. In the lean-to,she  kicked off her boots and followed Duke into the kitchen.

"What you gonna call him?" Belle asked about the new puppy. "This one's yours to name, I believe."

"How 'bout Little General? Isn't Chet's hound named General?" Belle went to the refrigerator and pulled out the pitcherof sweet iced tea.


Duke nodded his agreement. "So,you all ready for the weekend then?" he asked, motioningfor Belle to sit at the table as he loadedup their plates with fried potatoes, slices of seasonedroast beef, and a scoop of green beans.

Belle waited to answer until her father had pulled up to the table and offeredthanks to the Lord for the blessing of dinnertime.

As soon as Belle echoedhis Amen, she said soberly,"Burke's coming." "Burke Benning?"

"You know anotherBurke?" "Ain't that something?"

"Ain't that something?" Belle repeated. "Makes me nauseated." "Still?" His question met with her silent gaze. "It's been twelve years."

"Mom's been dead over twenty years. Are you over that?" Belle gave her dad a hard look.

"Your mom and I were married for over thirty years.It's not the same." "Youstill miss her though,don't you?"

"Can't help it much," he said softly. "Isee her every time you smile."

Duke's reference to Colleen Jamison's wide, bright smile cut to Belle's heart. "I'm sorry, Daddy," she relented,tenderly touching his arm.

Duke smiled his crooked smile. "Aw, it's all right, kitten. I reckon you didn't make plans for ever seeing Burke again, did ya?"

"No." She stabbed her meat with her fork.

"Ya know, I prayed about you and Burke not long ago." Belle droppedher loaded fork. "Whatever for?"

"It come to my mind while I talked with the Lord. I reckonyou and Burke never had any closure. The door to your heart is still ajar, leaving room for feelings and thoughtsto come and go. Maybe that'swhy you haven'tlet love come near since him."

Belle sat back in her chair and rolled her eyes. "Now, where did you come up with a pop psychology theory such as that?"

"I don't know anything about psychology, pop or otherwise. I believethe Lord guidedme. I simply prayed, 'Give 'em Your wisdom,Father. Let Your will be done in Burke and in Belle's life. My very words."

They ate the rest of their meal in silence,Belle's mind churningwith questions she could not answer.Could it be that after all these years, the burden of Burke still weighed on her heart?

"Isee you were chewing on more than your food," Duke said, when Belle finished eating and carriedher plate to the sink.

"I have a lot to think about Daddy. This weekend, well-"

"The Lord don't give you more than you can handle." Duke loosely quoted First Corinthians.

"That verse is talking about temptation," Belle countered, smiling.

"This is a temptation," Duke said, filling the big ceramic sink with hot, soapy water."A temptation to stay bitter and angry - chainedto the past."

Belle picked up a dishtowel and started to dry. "It's my decision, isn't it?" "Noone else's."

After the dishes were done, Belle showered and called good night down the stairs.

It was still early, but she needed some time.

"Lord, what am I to do?" she prayed, reaching for her guitar. She curled up on her bed and sank into the pillows. For the better part of an hour, she playedand prayed, lettingthe peace of His Spiritwash over her and strengthen her soul.


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