Asking for forgiveness from a man like Redd Ryker was sure to backfire.
But Mark Ryker had returned to Corinthia, Georgia, to apologize to his father anyway. Because God had hit him with conviction far more compelling than any fear of Redd's reaction.
As Mark traveled through the overarching trees along the long, winding driveway, he recalled the peace it used to give him as a boy. But for several years before he moved away, even the calm, light-speckled green tunnel offered no relief from his grief. From his guilt.
He braked and stared at the house that had sheltered Rykers for generations. He couldn't believe the poor condition of his dad's home. Home. Not quite a fitting term for the house during Mark's teenage years, yet he did have some good memories here.
Memories from before his twin brother, Matt, died.
The overgrown front walk led to a house, once a cheery yellow, which now sat sallow and peeling. The roof needed replacing. When he stepped onto the porch, he found a shutter tilted at an angle, and a screen door that didn't sit flush. The pair of old rocking chairs, the one place his parents used to seem happy, were mildewed and caked with bird droppings. Why had the old man let the house go? Finances? Lack of interest after Mark's mother had died?
He blocked the pain that thoughts of his mom dredged up, took a deep, fortifying breath and knocked.
A few seconds later, footsteps approached from the yard. He turned and stood face-to-face with his father. He hadn't seen the man in fifteen years, and every one of those years was now etched in his craggy face.
Stooped and rail-thin, the man who once intimidated Mark looked far older than his sixty-five years. But the hard golden eyes that perfectly matched Mark's hadn't changed a bit. They revealed his anger even while registering shock.
The hope Mark had cautiously nurtured over the past few weeks as he'd prayed and prepared for this moment died a quick death, shoving his stomach to his knees.
His father opened his mouth to say something, but then he closed it into a tightly drawn frown, shutting off the words.
The first move would be Mark's. "Hi, Dad."
A flash of emotion flickered in the man's eyes, but then vanished as if snuffed out. "What are you doing here?"
If Mark said he'd found the Lord and had felt led to come, his dad would probably laugh him out of town, or worse, accuse him of sacrilege. "Can I come in for a minute?"
Redd's eyes flickered to the front door. "I don't see why you'd show up here in your highfalutin clothes and suddenly need to set foot inside a house you abandoned years ago." He turned to walk away.
The man Mark remembered as hard and unfeeling paused, his shoulders hunched. Almost as if turning Mark away was difficult.
Mark knew he had to act fast. "I'd like to apologize. For so many things. To—" The words lodged in his throat. Words that were difficult. How could he explain his fierce independence, that he'd stayed away from everyone he cared about, determined to achieve success, to make them proud before he returned? "I need to ask your forgiveness for all the trouble I caused. And for leaving like I did."
Redd's gaze locked onto Mark's and narrowed. "Why now?" The question oozed suspicion as much as venom.
Okay, Lord. Here's my opportunity. "Because I've changed. God has forgiven me, and I'm trying to live a new life."
For the first time, his dad drew up to his full height and squared his shoulders. "How dare you? Your mother was the finest Christian woman that ever lived. And now you come back here and dishonor her memory, spouting religious mumbo jumbo? What do you really want?"
Though Redd's reaction was no more than Mark deserved, hurt seeped into his bones, weighing down his limbs. Why had he bothered? "Nothing. I just wanted to say I'm sorry."
His dad avoided eye contact and looked somewhere over Mark's shoulder. "I don't want no apologies from you. I'm ashamed of you. There's no fixin' that."
The words sliced through him. Though he'd expected this visit to be tough, he hadn't expected total rejection. "I won't keep you, then."
Once his dad stomped away and disappeared into the garage, his escape hampered by a pronounced limp, grief Mark hadn't anticipated seized him by the throat. He'd caused so much pain. Apologies couldn't repair the damage.
The old feeling of hopelessness reared its ugly head. A feeling he'd thought he'd put behind him years ago when he'd pulled himself out of the pit of drunkenness and despair. Or rather, when God had used the New Hope Mission to pull him out of the pit—well before Mark had acknowledged the turnaround of his life as God's work. He'd taken years to grow up to the point he was ready to turn back to God, to invite Him back into his life.
And then it had taken many months before Mark had felt God's leading to come home and face his past.
But as his dad said, there was "no fixin'" to be done here in Corinthia. Lord, I tried.
He trudged to his rental car and cranked up the air conditioner, wishing he'd formed a backup plan. He'd come all the way from Seattle; he shouldn't give up after one try. If he stayed around for the weekend, he could find out why the house was in such bad shape.
But he also had to try one more time to talk with his dad. Maybe if he did, he would at least find a measure of peace—if not redemption.
Hannah Hughes loved the new office that came with her recent promotion to bank branch manager. A large wooden desk faced the door, and she'd hung her children's original artwork on the walls surrounding her. A nice, cozy work space. And though the job demanded more of her time and energy, she appreciated the pay raise that had enabled her to rent a bigger house for her kids. She'd be up to speed on her new duties soon enough.
She turned to her computer, hoping to knock out some of the time-sensitive reports so she'd get off early enough to cook a decent dinner for her kids.
A man's voice carried across the lobby and in through her open door. His cultured, soothing tone made Hannah relax in her chair as she tried to decipher what he was saying to Amy, their new part-time teller. But something in Amy's voice put Hannah's senses on alert.
As she rolled her chair back, a man in sunglasses holding a briefcase stopped in her doorway while Amy, wide-eyed and wringing her hands, peeked around from behind him. "Um, this gentleman is looking for Mr. Jay. I thought maybe you could help him."
Poor Amy. She was new enough that she must've thought the man was a threat.
“Thank you, Amy." The teller walked away, and Hannah said, "Mr. Jay retired last month. Is there something I can do for you?"
As the man looked around, she cataloged him: six feet tall, wavy dark blond hair, expensive navy sports coat…and maybe a niggling of something familiar?
“Possibly," he said. "Do you have a moment?"
Hannah calmly stood. "I'm sorry, sir, but could you please remove your sunglasses?"
He slowly reached for them, as if he didn't realize he had them on. "Oh, I'm sorry." He tucked them in the pocket of his finely made jacket and looked up.
Those eyes. Such a unique light golden color…cat eyes—the Ryker eyes. Ryker eyes?
She sucked in a breath. Mark.
“May I speak with you privately for a moment—" he glanced at her nameplate "—Ms. Hughes?"
Could this really be the town's infamous bad boy? He hadn't been around since he dropped out of high school and ran off—leaving a swath of devastation in his wake. She clenched her fists and forced a pleasant, neutral expression. "Have a seat, Mr. Ryker."
The unusual yellow eyes narrowed. "You know my name?"
"I recognized the family resemblance." She motioned toward a chair opposite her desk and sat.
"You're correct. My name is Mark Ryker. I'm originally from Corinthia but left Georgia years ago. You must know my father, Redd."
Yes, she did. She'd looked at those same golden eyes nearly every day. The eyes of her landlord.
Hannah tried to maintain her professional face. Not easy when this man, who'd thrown her childhood into chaos, was sitting across the desk. "What can I do for you, Mr. Ryker?"
"Jason Jay is an old family friend. I had hoped to talk with him about my father's account. To make sure his finances are in order."
The man sat there calmly, his striking, larger-than-life presence smacking of arrogance. Though he looked like a successful businessman, that couldn't change the fact he was the reckless punk who had led Hannah's sister, Sydney, down a destructive path.
She pushed away the memories and checked the churning knot of anger to get to the task at hand.
"May I ask why?" Though his intentions weren't any of her business, she felt protective of her kind landlord.
Just as Mark opened his mouth to answer, Police Chief Gabe Reynolds stepped into her office, his dark hair windblown. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know you were busy." He eyed her customer.
"Hello, Chief Reynolds," she said. "We'll be through soon. Can you come back in a bit?"
Mark didn't turn around. He sat still, as if he wished Gabe would go away.
Seconds ticked by as Gabe eyed the back of Mark's head. "I see the rental car out front. You new to town or just visiting?" His amiable smile faltered the longer Mark sat without speaking.
Then Mark sighed, although Hannah didn't actually hear a sound. It was more like he simply deflated. "Yes, Officer. I'm here on bank business," he said, while turning his head slightly toward Gabe to acknowledge the man's presence without actually showing his face.
He's trying to hide his identity.
Gabe wasn't having any of that. He walked around to the side of her desk to face Mark head-on, and Hannah wanted to cheer.
The weasel was forced to stand and look Gabe in the eye. "Hello, Gabe."
Gabe's eyes narrowed, and he shook his head as if he couldn't believe who he was seeing. "Mark? Mark Ryker?"
Mark offered his hand. "Yes, in the flesh."
Gabe didn't hesitate to shake his hand, but he didn't offer a smile and a clap on the back like he might do for someone else who'd returned after so many years. "So, what brings you home?"
Mark glanced at Hannah. "Banking business."
"Well, I'll let you two get back to it. I hope you'll stop by and see your dad while you're here." She heard the challenge in Gabe's seemingly innocent comment.
"I already have. But I'd like to keep my business at the bank private. I'd appreciate it if you don't mention it to anyone—especially my father." Mark's manner bordered on threatening.
Or maybe desperation disguised as threat?
"Okay. As long as you'll promise me you're not here to hurt Redd."
Pain flashed in Mark's eyes, but his expression didn't change. "Of course I'm not here to hurt him."
Gabe seemed to accept Mark's word and left her office with a nod and a wave.
Once he was seated again, Mark pinned Hannah with his feline stare. "I need to know you'll keep my visit confidential."
Drawn to those scary yet beautiful eyes, like she had been years ago, she couldn't have looked away if she tried. "As long as you mean no harm."
That same pain flashed once again before he looked away. "I noticed my father's house in a state of disrepair and wanted to inquire about possible financial troubles."
Hannah's face burned. Redd had told her he was renting out the place because he didn't want to live alone in such a big home. She'd tried to overlook the condition of the house, assuming he'd been too busy running his hardware store to handle repairs. But now she had to wonder about Redd's motivation.
Had he moved into the garage apartment so he could earn money by renting the main house? "I'm afraid I can't share any information about your father's accounts unless your name is on them."
"Mr. Jay has done so in the past. I used to check in with him about once a year to make sure my father didn't need any financial help."
"And what about his well-being? Did you inquire about that, too?" she sniped before she could stop herself. She held up her hand to hold off an answer. She didn't even want to know. Didn't want to spend another minute dealing with this man. "Again, I'm not authorized to divulge account information."
Mark's jaw twitched as if he were grinding his teeth back and forth. "Thank you for your time."
She took his outstretched hand and forced herself to look into his face—his too-handsome face, a scar near the left eyebrow the only thing marring its perfection. She hated to continue the conversation but needed to know his plans so she could make sure to avoid him.
"Will you be staying with your dad while you're visiting?"
She thought for a minute that he might laugh, but then she realized it was a grimace. "No. I guess I'll need you to point me to a hotel."
From the look of him, he liked nice things. He might not appreciate their little motel over by the lake. "The Cardinal Motel is still here. Or the Gunters opened a new B & B not far from your dad's house."
"Thank you, Ms. Hughes. I'll try the B & B." He stared at her a moment. "You look familiar. Is Hughes your married name?"
"Yes." Part of her wanted to ignore the questions and hurry out of her office. But another part wanted to tell him her maiden name. To see if he even remembered ruining her sister's life.
She chose the latter. "I'm Hannah Williams Hughes."
He sucked in a breath, then quickly closed his mouth.
Oh, yes. He definitely remembered. Not that his remembering could change a thing for Sydney.
Stunned, Mark stared at Hannah Williams. He couldn't believe God had led him back to Corinthia to make amends, then tossed a Williams into the mix the moment he hit town.
Dealing with Hannah would make his job that much more difficult. "Good to see you again, Hannah." A rote reply, even though he'd rather be anywhere but talking to Sydney's sister.
She didn't return the sentiment. She simply brushed past him and walked out of her office. "I'll see you to the door."
He followed as she marched across the high-ceilinged lobby, the click of her high heels echoing off all the marble. She was trim, but the boxy skirt and fitted jacket couldn't hide her curvy figure. How could he have not recognized her vivid green eyes?
She'd been a pesky middle-schooler when he'd dated Sydney. Had worn dark-framed glasses back then and had been serious, studious. She used to stare at him—until he'd finally asked her why. She'd blushed and claimed she wasn't staring. After that, she didn't hang around often. Acted scared of him.
Which was smart. All girls should have stayed away from him at the time.
At the front of the lobby, she held the door open for him. Her expression, cool and closed, said his actions had not been forgiven or forgotten over the past fifteen years. Apparently, his father wasn't the only one holding a grudge. He would need to make amends with the Williams family as well. A daunting task.
But obviously, God expected it.
"The B & B is a couple of miles out, on the left, heading to your dad's house. Is there anything else you need?" Hannah asked from her post as bank bouncer, her tone dismissive.
If only he could just thank her and head out the door, straight back to Seattle. You can do this with God's help. "No, thanks."
Hannah, as pretty as she was, glared at him, her anger evident. "Enjoy the visit with your dad."
He gave her a smile that used every last ounce of energy, then slipped his sunglasses back into place.
An ache tore through his chest as he concealed his Ryker eyes. It would be best to remain anonymous since everyone else in town would probably feel the same way Hannah did. The way his dad did.
Redd would never welcome him back. Would never forgive him for all the hurt he'd caused when he left town. Lord, help me to make amends while I'm here. And if it's not too much to ask, please enable those I've hurt to forgive me.
Even if Mark could somehow prove God had changed him, that he'd grown up to make something of his life, he knew he was after the impossible. Because the fact still remained: Mark was responsible for his twin brother's death. His dad would never forgive him for that