Jimmy Doyle Walker unfolded from Harvey’s 1936 Ford Roadster and eyed the open-sided tent bearing a hand-painted sign that read, REVIVAL OF THE SPIRIT. Music couldn’t possibly float on the humid air, but a familiar hymn hung in the atmosphere like a boom ready to drop. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
His buddy, Diplomats second baseman, Harvey Timmons shrugged. “A little religion never hurt anybody.”
Jimmy Doyle adjusted his suspenders and slipped on the suit coat he’d abandoned for the drive. He was used to people trying to reform him. During the five years of exile from the game he loved, better people than Harvey had hinted that he could do with a bit of salvation. What they didn’t know was, clearing his name and getting back in the game was all the salvation he’d wanted.
Following his friend across the ankle-high grass trampled by the hundred or so people congregated in the shade of the white canvas, he silently cursed the summer heat. “You’re going to owe me big-time for this.”
“Shut your yap and come on.”
Jimmy Doyle smiled at his friend’s back. It was difficult to hold a grudge against Harvey. The man seemed to smile all the time and never had a harsh word for anyone. That made his sharp command all that much more amusing.
Removing his hat, he ducked beneath the ruffled edge of the canopy. What little air that stirred outside hadn’t found its way inside. Spying two empty folding chairs on the back row, he grabbed Harvey’s sleeve before his friend could drag them to vacant seats in the front. The last row was perfectly fine. With a little luck, an errant breeze would find them there.
The stout woman next to him elbowed him in the ribs to hand him a hymnal. Even though he knew the hymn they were singing by heart, he took the book anyway, smiling his thanks as he added his voice to the song. Nothing said sinner in need of reform
like nonparticipation. He’d play along until he could get the hell out of there.
This was the first Sunday they’d had off in ages, and the last place he wanted to be was at some holier-than-thou tent revival meeting. He’d grown up attending church services, but once he’d left home, he’d never felt the call to attend regularly. Harvey was one of the few teammates who didn’t go out of his way to avoid him, as if the stain on his career that would never fully go away might somehow rub off on them if they got too close. So when he’d extended the invitation for a drive in the country today, Jimmy Doyle hadn’t thought twice about accepting.
He was rethinking his decision now. The afternoon heat ramped up right along with the preacher’s rhetoric. Beyond the small stage, the breeze, no doubt held back by the hand of Satan, stirred the grass but never made it inside. Sweat trickled down his spine, dampening the back of his shirt. He pulled his handkerchief out to wipe his brow while fighting the urge to vault over the back of his chair and escape. He’d never been a fan of browbeating sinners to repent, preferring a subtler approach to sway people to do the right thing. If his brush with ignominy had taught him anything, it was not to trust those who protested loudly. He wouldn’t trust this preacher as far as he could throw him.
Since he couldn’t bolt without calling unwanted attention to himself and Harvey, he let his gaze wander over the crowd of worshippers. It always amazed him how many people came to these things, and this one, on the outskirts of the nation’s capitol, was no different. Everyone wore his or her Sunday best, from the housewives in their lace-collared frocks to businessmen in suits. A few rows up, the young woman occupying the aisle seat caught his attention, and once he noticed her, he couldn’t look away.
He’d guess her to be in her early twenties. No family surrounded her—no husband, no children, no parents. That, in itself, set her apart. A woman her age shouldn’t be alone.
She wore her auburn hair in a tight bun at her nape, indicating she kept it long when most women her age were cutting theirs short. A nondescript hat crowned her head. Her dress was plain, no fancy trim for her, and her white-gloved fingers clutched a small purse in her lap. They’d reached the portion of the service where they passed the donation basket. Something inside him shifted as he watched her open her purse and select a single coin. He could almost see the way it ripped at her heart to drop the coin in the basket. Maybe it was the straight line of her back, something she’d maintained throughout the interminable service. Or perhaps it was the way her fingers curled into a fist the second the coin hit the basket, as if she was tempted to fetch it back before passing the collection on to the person on her left, but he’d bet his bottom dollar that parting with the money had nothing to do with her financial situation.
When she bowed her head for the prayer, he cut his eyes to her. Sweat glistened on her nape. He licked his lips. He could almost taste her salty sweetness on his tongue.
He nudged Harvey in the ribs. “Who’s that?” he asked behind the paper program someone handed him when he arrived.
His friend followed his gaze. “Never seen her before,” Harvey whispered before returning his attention to the final hymn.
Jimmy Doyle sang the lyrics from memory. There was something about the woman that drew him to her. She wasn’t beautiful, but he’d never cared much for outward beauty. It was what was on the inside that mattered most to him. Her posture screamed of tight control. He’d seen that look before, knew the challenge of breaking through barriers to get to the heart of a woman. She’d never find the answers she was looking for until she let another carry her burdens for her.
EVELYN SQUEEZED HER eyes shut and let the nickel fall into the collection basket, passing it on before she changed her mind and snatched the money back. Only a sinner like her would begrudge God a meager coin. She stood to sing the final hymn, anxious now to escape the stifling heat and the reminders of how far she fell short of the glory of God.
The preacher called sinners to repent. He promised salvation for those who laid their burdens at the Lord’s feet. “Cast the yoke of sin off your shoulders,” he cried, “and the grace of God will be yours.”
Several people made their way forward to kneel and accept God’s forgiveness, but Evelyn’s feet remained rooted in the soft earth of the hay field. Forgiveness was for those who renounced their sin, who put it from their hearts and minds—things she had tried to do and failed. No matter how hard she prayed, or how righteous a life she lived, her sins remained written on her soul, visiting her in the dark of her lonely nights, condemning her to eternal damnation.
A demon lived inside her—her father and her ex-husband had said so—and she believed them. Why else would her mind and her body crave the things it did? She’d tried repenting. Had prayed for the longings to go away. Had let an entire congregation lay healing hands on her, and still, wicked desires stirred her body and disturbed her dreams. Satan dwelled inside her as surely as the sun rose in the East every morning.
Hope had drawn her to this tent today, but as the preacher laid hands on the repenting sinners, she knew in her heart his sermon had changed nothing. His words were as hollow as the ones she heard every Sunday morning at the church down the street from where she lived. Salvation was not to be hers, not in this lifetime.
Preacher Nathan placed his hands on the head of a woman kneeling at his feet. After commanding the demons to leave the woman, he offered a blessing no different from the ones Evelyn had heard a million times over, then helped the new child of God to her feet. The woman’s face glowed with life and love, her expression one of wonder as tears of joy streamed down her cheeks.
Evelyn couldn’t bear to remain there another minute. While the congregation raised their voices in celebration at the salvation of another soul, she stepped into the aisle and, head down, fled as fast as her feet would carry her.
It was a long walk back to town, but she’d rather walk than share a car with strangers the way she’d gotten there. Her emotions were too raw, her disappointment too fresh for her to listen to the inevitable recounting of Preacher Nathan’s success. How many souls had he added to his saved tally today? How eloquent were his words? How fortunate they all were that he had answered God’s calling and brought the Word of God to their neck of the woods today.
“Bullshit,” she mumbled to herself. It was all bullshit. Only one who knew a demon’s grip firsthand could understand that Preacher Nathan was all show. God had not been present in that hell of a tent, and he most certainly had not cast any demons out of bodies. If he had, he would have recognized the one dwelling inside her and cast it out above all others.
She drew the cooler air into her lungs and focused on the horizon, putting one foot in front of the other. “Nothing but bullshit.” The breeze carried the softly spoken words from her lips.
“What’s bullshit?” Evelyn started at the masculine voice close behind her. A second later, the owner of the voice joined her, matching his longer gait to her shorter one.
“Nothing.” She continued walking, resisting the urge to look at the man beside her. What was he doing here, anyway? “I’m not going back, if that’s why you came out here.”
“Nope. Not why I’m here.”
They continued walking in silence until she stopped on the edge of the gravel road. The man was a full head taller than her five feet three inches. He was one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen, with sandy hair and eyes as green as winter wheat that seemed more amused than angry at her assumption that he’d been sent to drag a stray sheep back to the fold.
“Then why are you following me?” The last thing she needed was a Goody Two-shoes meddling in her life. Her demons were hers to battle. She’d been doing it alone, and she would continue to do it without any help from a stranger.
He shrugged his wide shoulders. “Don’t know, exactly.” He looked back the way they’d come as if he wasn’t sure why he was standing on the side of the road instead of back there, watching the spectacle. When he turned back to her, the amusement was gone, replaced by an expression that sent a shiver along her spine. She took a step back toward the safety of the tent.
“Please, don’t go.” The plea in his voice stopped her. “I saw you in there, and I knew I needed to get to know you, so I followed you out.”
HER EXPRESSION CHANGED from alarm to curiosity. He hadn’t imagined the interest in her eyes when she’d first checked him out either. And now that he saw her up close, he didn’t know why he hadn’t seen her beauty before. Her skin was flawless, like the finest porcelain. Sunlight glinted off the streaks of gold in her hair, making her look like an angel. An annoyed angel, but he could work with that. The revival would be breaking up soon; he didn’t have much time to convince her to give him a chance. He was taking a calculated risk, but some things in life were worth it. “I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t take another minute of that.”
He considered her silence a good thing and continued. “I’m glad you left.”
She glanced back at the tent where people were beginning to meander out, and then back to him. Without another word, she moved past him down the road toward town. He fell into step beside her.
“I don’t know what you want, but you aren’t going to find it here.” He’d heard subtler turndowns, but she wasn’t going to get rid of him that easily. It had been a long time since he’d seen a woman who intrigued him the way this one did, and he wasn’t going to let a few barbs deter him.
“The only thing I want is to get to know you. I’m Jimmy Doyle, by the way.”
“Like I said, Mr. Doyle, I’m not interested.”
He chuckled at her mistake. “Walker. Jimmy Doyle Walker. I’m thirty years old, never been married, and I play baseball for the Washington Diplomats. I’m originally from Texas—grew up on a dirt farm there before I left to play ball.”
He hoped opening up some would encourage her to do the same. That had been his error. Shoulders back, she continued to walk as if he didn’t exist. A few cars passed them, kicking up a cloud of dust thick enough to choke a horse, but she continued on like a soldier marching to war. Another car passed, this one too close. He grabbed her arm, pulling her off the road and into the shade of an old oak tree.
“What are you doing? Let go of me!” She wrenched her arm out of his grasp. Her chest heaved with indignation and exertion. He had to force his gaze up to her face. The minute he’d touched her, his dick went hard. Seeing her breasts press tight against the thin fabric of her dress only made his situation worse. He’d have her, but not until she gave herself to him. Convincing her to surrender her control was going to take time and patience. He had plenty of the former and not so much of the latter.
“Those people are drunk on believin’, sugar. You think they didn’t see you leave before the show was over?” He pointed at the car disappearing down the road. His heart was beating with a combination of fear and lust; he didn’t know which one fueled his outburst, and he didn’t care. Keeping her safe had suddenly become a top priority for him. “That one only wanted to scare you. The next one might not miss. Unless you’re prepared to plead your case at the pearly gates today, best you wait awhile.”
He hated the look of fear on her face, hated that he’d put it there. He reached for her, pulling her into his embrace. “You’re okay, sugar. No one is ever going to hurt you again.”