Zack Dylan held a steaming mug of black coffee in one hand and his Bible in the other. He stood on the wraparound wooden porch of his parents’ farmhouse and watched a pair of Arabian horses run through the Kentucky bluegrass. The hundred-acre horse farm had been in the family for six generations.
He breathed deep the sweet July air and set his things down on the old wooden table. Four metal-back chairs made up the seating. Zack took the one with a view of the horses. This had been his routine lately. Taking his coffee out here and reading his Bible. He loved Jesus more than his next breath. He could feel Him close as skin. But these days he needed all the wisdom he could get. His girlfriend, Reese Weatherly, would be here in half an hour.
Their last chance to hang out before he left for Atlanta.
The Arabians stopped as if they could sense something changing, something big about to happen. Then like the wind they took off again, flying through the grass, a song in motion. Zack leaned his forearms on the old table and watched them run. His great-great-grandfather had raised thoroughbreds and in 1934 the Dylans’ horse farm had produced the winner of the Kentucky Derby. A sketch of the champion with a bouquet of roses formed the farm’s logo.
Dylan Champion Horse Farm.
A farm doomed to foreclosure if something didn’t change.
Zack let the history hit him again. Sometime in the 1950s the family stopped raising costly thoroughbreds and switched to Arabians. Now dressage riders boarded their horses here and rented time in one of the three arenas. Faith, family, and Southern horse farming. Danville, Kentucky, born and bred. The problem wasn’t the business. It was the tornado that had come through and damaged the barns and stables in January.
The damage didn’t touch the house, but the insurance didn’t cover the barns and stables. Liability, yes. Storm damage, no. The operation was too tight to justify that sort of insurance. Especially when six years ago a different tornado had done similar damage. Back then the family’s insurance had been comprehensive. After the claim, covering the outbuildings against storms wasn’t possible.
From the moment the storm passed, Zack and Duke, his fifteen-year-old brother, had worked alongside their dad to fix the damage. They needed additional lumber to replace the roofs on the outbuildings. Tens of thousands of dollars in supplies. Without that, the buildings had stayed in disrepair and most people had moved their horses to other facilities. The Dylans spent more money than they made and the tension around the kitchen table grew every day.
On top of that Zack’s sister, AJ, had been sick. She had Down syndrome and juvenile arthritis, an especially severe kind. A host of other complications had left doctors convinced she wouldn’t live another ten years.
Zack exhaled, feeling the weight of his family’s troubles. Regardless of the broken buildings and dwindling bank accounts, this was his family’s horse farm. Sure Zack had other dreams, songwriting, even singing. Those were tangents, really. Hobbies. More than anything he wanted to see the farm up and running, wanted to bring in new Arabians and even Derby contenders. Put the Dylan Champion Horse Farm on the map once more. Horse farming was supposed to be his and Duke’s legacy. The fabric of their past, the lure of their future.
A creaking sound made him look over his shoulder. The door opened and Grandpa Dan stepped out, most of his weight on his black cane. “Zack.”
“Sir.” He pushed his chair back and stood.
His grandpa’s steps were slow, Parkinson’s disease stealing a little more of his freedom every week. A smile lifted his weathered face. “Beautiful morning.”
“Like a painting.” Zack waited.
The porch boards protested with each step. His grandpa reached him and put a shaky hand on his shoulder. The old man had lived in the guest house out by the largest arena before the tornado hit. Now he stayed in the guest room on the main floor. He spent most of his time here, on the porch overlooking the farm, staring out at images from decades gone by.
The old man struggled to his seat, exhaled slowly and leveled his gaze at Zack. “You’re leaving. Is that what I hear?”
“I am. Yes, sir.” Zack leaned closer, took his grandfather’s black cane and rested it against the porch railing. He sat back down. Neither of them said anything for a while, the morning breeze warm and easy between them.
Zack broke the silence first. “How are you?”
“Wonderful. Never better.” The old man’s eyes looked deep and full. “Good Lord gave me another day. Got nothing to complain about.” His look grew serious. “AJ’s coughing more. I’m worried about her.”
“Me, too.” Zack studied his grandfather. Stoic, strong. A throwback from another era. Complaining wasn’t an option. He could be drawing his last breath and he’d be more concerned with those around him.
“I hate when she’s sick. She can’t get on a horse coughing like that.”
Zack patted the man’s leathery hand. “She needs a different doctor, someone from Louisville.”
“Yes.” The old man eyed him, sizing him up for a long moment. “You have some time?”
“Yes, sir.” Zack had expected this. Dreaded it.
His grandfather looked deep into his eyes, right through him. “The audition. Fifteen Minutes.”
“You know how I feel about it.”
“I do. Daddy told me.” Zack took a swig of coffee. His father’s words rang in his heart constantly this past week. I believe in you, son. No harm in trying out. But you know your grandfather. Dylan men don’t chase fame . . . they tend the farm and keep up tradition. They get a second job and buy the wood and fix the buildings. They find a way.
Zack forced his dad’s words from his mind. He respected his father, but still he was going to Atlanta. He couldn’t be afraid of success. The idea was ridiculous. He sipped his drink more slowly.
His grandfather gazed back at the front door, his eyes a steely reflection of some yesteryear. Gradually he found Zack again. “Why are you going?”
“What if I’m supposed to go?” Zack felt his heartbeat quicken. He set down his coffee and leaned back in the chair. His words came measured, unrushed. “Maybe God could use me better on a stage somewhere.” He tried to smile. “I could pay off the farm. Daddy wouldn’t have to work so hard.” Zack paused, feeling the weight of the situation. His father had looked older lately, constantly worried. He thought of something else. “We could get better doctors for AJ. Duke could go to college like he wants to.”
“A lot of good men get lost on a stage.”
“Not me.” Zack folded his hands on the table and studied his grandfather’s eyes. “You know me, Grandpa. If I make it . . . I won’t get lost. Not ever. God loves me too much for that.” Nothing stood more certain in Zack’s mind. He watched the Arabians flying across the Kentucky grass. Why was his grandpa so worried? He would go with God’s blessing, sing for His glory, and one audition to the next he would walk only through the doors that the Lord Himself opened. If singing on Fifteen Minutes got in the way of him and God, he’d pray to be sent home.
It was that simple.
His grandpa watched him. “You’re a Dylan, and you’re a good boy.” The old man searched his eyes, processing. “But if they keep you, it’ll change things, Zack. Fame always does.” He hesitated, his tone kind. “God-fearing men . . . we live a quiet life.”
Zack didn’t argue. He respected his grandfather’s opinion but nothing would change his mind. He had prayed for God’s will and he was going to Atlanta. Besides, was he supposed to go his whole life untested? What good was his faith if it couldn’t see him through whatever lay ahead?
“What troubles me”—the old man drew a shaky breath, and for the first time a flicker of fear showed in the lines on his forehead—“is your motive, son. What do you hope to gain?” He waved his hand around. “Yes, you want to pay off the farm. Rescue your tired father. I admire that, Zack, I do.” He let the moment breathe. “When I was your age I worked two jobs. Three, even. You could do that, son. Why the show?”
“I need an answer.” Zack didn’t blink, didn’t waver. He breathed deep, the certainty of a lifetime filling his heart. “God gave me my voice, Grandpa. I have to at least try.”
“You sing at church.” Sincerity softened his eyes. “With the teens. They love you.”
“Yes.” Zack stared out at the far reaches of the field, at the Arabians standing alert now in a tight herd. “It’s just . . .” He turned to the old man. “What if I could shine brighter for God on a bigger stage? In front of the whole world?” A growing passion filled his tone. “Country music, Grandpa. That’s as big as it gets. People will see my faith and they’ll want Jesus. They will.”
His grandfather stayed quiet, his eyes never leaving Zack’s. “God doesn’t measure big the way people measure big. Jesus had just twelve followers.” He blinked a few times. “Fame is a demanding mistress.”
Zack hesitated out of respect. Most people he knew were excited for him, wishing him well. But his family hadn’t gotten behind him. He swallowed his frustration. “I’m twenty-three. I’ve waited a long time to try this.”
“Just remember the Derby days.” His grandpa’s eyes narrowed, more serious. “Some people never find their way back home.”
Zack had heard the story often. One of his great-grandfather’s friends had owned Kentucky Derby winners also. Only the guy had gotten caught up in a party crowd from New Jersey and lost his life to a heroin addiction. It was the only brush with fame Zack’s grandpa knew about and it hadn’t ended well. Which explained his warning. But that didn’t apply to Zack. He patted his grandpa’s hand. “You’re assuming I’ll make it.” A slow, nervous laugh slipped through his lips. “A hundred thousand people will try out for the show.” He paused. “I could be home by Monday. If so, I’ll get another job. I promise.”
His grandpa studied Zack and a certain knowing filled his expression. “You really believe that?”
Zack thought about the hours he’d prayed, the conversations he’d had with Reese and his parents. The people who had heard the EP he made last year and told him he should get a manager or move to Nashville. He was the next Keith Urban, everyone said so. Year after year he had resisted the desire to audition. Now he could almost hear the clock ticking, almost feel his chances slipping away. Here when his family was facing financial ruin, it was as if God Himself were telling him to go for it.
His grandpa was waiting. “You believe you’ll be home by Monday.”
Zack didn’t think he’d win. But he had a chance. He had to believe that. He shook his head. “No, sir. I guess I don’t really believe that.”
“Me either.” The man angled his head slightly. He took his time with the next part. “You’re the best country singer I ever heard.”
Zack felt the compliment to the depths of his heart. “Thank you.” He took another drink of coffee and felt himself relax. His grandpa wasn’t here to talk him out of leaving. “What you said . . . it means a lot.”
“It’s true.” Concern darkened his eyes. “That’s why we’re talking. The family needs you here, son. You make it on that stage and . . .” He looked out across the farm. The Arabians were running again, the sun warming the bluegrass. “You could lose all this.”
Reese’s car appeared on the horizon. Zack weighed his words. “I have to try. It might be the answer for all of us. God’s plan.”
Together they watched her pull in to the long winding drive and head slowly for the house. “Remember this, son.” Grandpa stared at Zack, like he was willing him to understand. “If it gets crazy, come home. While you still can.”
“Yes, sir.” Zack put his hand over Grandpa’s. “Thank you.” His family was worried over nothing. No matter what happened, Zack wasn’t going to change. He had his faith, the promise that God was with him. Jesus was his helper; what could man do to him? That was right out of the Bible, after all.
The old man watched Reese climb out of the car. “She loves you.”
“I love her.” Zack caught her look from across the way, her dark brown hair swished around her pretty face. “I’m going to marry her. As soon as we get the farm on its feet.”
“She’ll always be special to me. You know that.”
“Yes.” Zack and Reese’s journey was intertwined in a love story that came with the most beautiful history, as if all their lives had led to the single moment in time when their eyes first met. Zack wouldn’t do anything to hurt what he and Reese shared.
His grandpa looked concerned. “How does she feel about this?”
“She believes in me.” Zack looked at his grandpa, deep into his eyes. “Same as you.” He moved to the spot beside the old man and crouched low as he put his arm around his grandpa’s thin shoulders. “It’ll be okay. You know me.”
“I’ll pray.” In a move that told Zack the depths of his concerns, his grandpa rested his head against Zack’s. Reese walked up the porch steps slowly, her eyes on the two of them. Zack remained where he was, his arm still around his grandpa. “I’ll be fine.” He gave the man his black cane and helped him up. They walked together back to the house.
His grandpa stopped at Reese and took both her hands in his. “I prayed for you today.”
“I count on that.” She smiled at him, her eyes shining.
The two of them hugged and Zack’s grandpa looked from Reese to Zack. His eyes said what his words did not as he nodded, turned, and headed back in the house. When the door shut behind him, Zack turned and faced Reese, looked deep into her pale blue eyes. If for some reason he became crazy successful on Fifteen Minutes, that would be fine. God’s will. Because nothing—absolutely nothing—would ever get in the way of what he had here. The farm, his family. And the girl standing in front of him.
The one he loved with all his life.
ZACK TOOK THE spot next to her, the two of them leaning on the porch rail. Her eyes shone with a trust he didn’t take for granted. But something was different. As if already she were protecting herself from the imagined storms ahead.
“Let’s walk.” He held out his hand. “When do you go to work?”
“I have an hour.” They walked down the steps toward a path that wound through the estate to the barns and beyond. “How’s AJ?”
“Sick.” Zack eased his fingers between hers. The closeness of her, the touch of her skin against his, the familiarity of it—the sensation was always special. Today he felt more aware of her, the gift of her in his life. Of course he did. He was leaving tomorrow. He stopped when they were out of sight from the front windows.
“We miss her at the center.” Reese was an equine therapist. For the last three years AJ had been one of her students.
“She can’t wait to get better. She misses you and the horses.” He stopped and took her other hand, facing her. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. Her beauty worked its way out from her heart, through her eyes. But today her joy didn’t shine as brightly. “Hey . . .” He studied her, reading her. “You’re sad.”
“No.” She worked one of her hands free and ran it over her hair. “Nervous, maybe. Not sad.” She smiled, and their connection felt stronger than ever. “I’m proud of you, Zack.”
“Why are you nervous?” He searched her eyes.
“I don’t know. Everything feels . . . up in the air.” She squinted in the sun. “Unsure, I guess.”
“Baby.” Zack took a step closer, breathing in her perfume, the nearness of her. “Nothing’s going to change. You and my family . . . Give me more credit. Even if something crazy happens and I make it through, nothing will shake me. Nothing ever could.”
“How do you know? You’ve never done anything like this.” She smiled. “And you will make it through. You’re the best.” The sweetness of her tone told him more than her words could. No one believed in him more.
Zack pulled her close, swaying with her beneath the summer sun. When he drew back he found her eyes again. “You said you wanted to talk?”
She slid her hands in the pockets of her dark shorts. “It’s nothing bad.” A hint of nervousness flashed in her expression. “I got a call today. From a woman in London.”
“Yes.” She looked to the distant parts of the property and then back to him. “She runs a horse farm. She wants me to help bring equine therapy to her center. Maybe get the program established in the UK. She talked about teaching it to three of their instructors. Which could take a while.”
Zack’s mind raced. “You mean like . . . move there?”
“For a year, maybe. Yes.” She hesitated. “Eight students and their families have already signed up. They can’t find a program without a several-year waiting list.”
“Wow! That’s amazing.” The sun shone higher in the sky, the heat and humidity heavy around them. Reese moving to London? What was happening? This talk was supposed to be about the show, about his audition. He should be assuring her that he’d be home soon and nothing would change. He blinked a few times and tried to clear his head. “How . . . how did they hear about you?”
She started to explain. Something about the woman knowing Reese’s boss here in Kentucky, and how Reese came highly recommended, one of the best therapeutic horse instructors in the South. And how the London stable wanted someone with experience, someone from Kentucky with a history of horse sense. Her sentences ran together and Zack found himself stuck back at the beginning.
She’s moving to London?
They’d been dating since their freshmen year at University of Kentucky. Zack had been an animal science major and Reese competed on the Wildcats dressage team. Double major—special education and equine therapy. Only one thing in all the world was more beautiful than seeing Reese ride. Seeing her help special-needs kids find their way on a horse. Kids like his sister AJ.
Zack used to tease her that if he could ever get her off the back of a horse, he’d marry her. Four years had flown by, and a month ago they graduated. Zack had never loved her more. Their beautiful history—the history they didn’t realize until after they started dating—the way she made him laugh, the very deep beauty of her heart. Her love for special-needs kids and horses and him.
They hadn’t talked about an exact date. But he’d figured that if the farm were solid again by Christmas, he’d buy her a ring. This was the year he’d been waiting for.
“Zack?” She moved closer. “Did you hear me?”
“You’re moving to London?” His mouth was cotton balls and sawdust. He led her into the shade against the side of the house so he could see her eyes. Straight through them. “For a year?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
She allowed a single laugh, one that held her usual grace. “I’m good at it.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.” Zack’s mind raced as fast as his heart. “No one’s better at what you do.” His mouth felt dry. “I mean . . . why now?”
“They need me. The kids there . . . they have no one.” She stared at the spot between their feet for a moment before looking at him again. “Maybe it’s God’s timing. You know, with you auditioning.”
“A whole year?” Zack brushed his hand against the side of her face. If only they could stay in this moment. Without the audition or this crazy London idea. He looked deep into her, all the way to her heart. “You can be good at it right here in Danville.”
“So can you.”
Her tone remained kind, but her words took his breath away. “Okay. So you’re serious.”
Her smile was tinged with sadness. “It’ll be hard to be apart. But right now, I don’t know. Our dreams are maybe taking us in different directions.”
“London?” He released his hold on her and took a slight step back. “Sure. I mean, I’m happy for you. If your dream is to live in Europe for a year.” The feeling that he’d been hit by a truck lingered. The news had him dazed and off-balance. “I guess . . . I didn’t know.”
“Right. Like I didn’t know you were going to try out for Fifteen Minutes.” She folded her arms tight in front of her, almost as if she were cold despite the morning heat. “Look, I want you to go. I’ll be your biggest fan, Zack. But you’ll be busy with the show. The whole thing, the audition, the process . . . the tour. It could take a year.” She reached up and touched his cheek. “Maybe then we’ll know what’s next.”
“The tour, Reese? Really? I haven’t even made it past the first round.”
“Maybe the timing is part of God’s plan.” Her words didn’t come all at once. She took hold of his hand. “It sort of seems that way.”
He tried to keep control of his frustration. “What?”
“Don’t get mad.” Her smile softened things for a few seconds. “Just . . . you know, sometimes being apart is good. So we can be sure who we are. Before . . .”
He ran his fingers through her windblown hair. “Before I marry you.” He brought his face closer to hers. “That’s what you mean, right?”
“Yes.” Her voice was barely a whisper. Her smile touched his soul. “Maybe that.”
“Baby . . .” He wanted her so badly. “I’d marry you today if I could. You know that.” He stepped back and searched her eyes. “I have to audition. It could mean . . . saving this farm. It could change life for my family.”
“I know.” Her smile touched his soul. “If I move to London it could change things for those kids.”
“Look.” He kept his voice steady and worked to control his warring emotions. “I need you. Whether I make it or not. Please . . . don’t move to London.”
His words seemed to hit their mark. A few seconds passed and she took his hands. “I haven’t said yes. It’s just an option.”
“Crazy girl.” He put his hands around her waist and drew her close. “London’s not your dream. And New York’s not mine.”
“No?” Gradually the shine returned to her eyes.
“No.” He could breathe again. They had found their way back to normal. He eased his hands from hers and gently framed her face. Then he kissed her the way he’d wanted to since she arrived. “This is your dream, remember?” His voice fell a notch.
“You?” She giggled, brushing her cheek against his. “Zack Dylan? You’re my dream?”
“Not me.” He kissed her again and when he pulled back, he felt the humor leave his expression. “Us.” He searched her eyes, making sure his place in her heart remained. Untouched. Like before he’d made his decision to audition for Fifteen Minutes. “We’re the dream. Okay?”
“Is that right?” The corners of her lips lifted and she rested her head on his chest, the two of them swaying in the warm summer morning air.
“Yes, baby. That’s right. This is the dream.” The words he’d said to his grandfather came back and he repeated them. “I want to marry you, Reese. I’ll audition and then I’ll come home. Please don’t go. Not for a year, anyway.”
“It is a long time.” She smiled up at him as they started walking. “Hey, Toby’s doing better. He’s talking in sentences.”
His pride for her work welled up inside him. “I love that boy.”
“He loves you.”
Zack listened, loving her heart, the way she cared for her students. They checked the one small stable that hadn’t been destroyed in the storm and walked back to her car. The show didn’t come up until he took her in his arms again.
“Zack, I’ve known you since you were eighteen.” She allowed some space between the two of them. For a long while she said nothing, only looked out at the land, at the horses. Finally she drew a deep breath and stared at the sky. “You said singing at church was enough. You were never going to try out.”
“We need the money. You know that. Singing’s the only other thing I can do and—”
“Let me finish.” She put her hand on his shoulder, a fresh depth in her eyes. “Please, Zack.”
“Sorry.” He shifted, waiting.
She paused as if having this part of the conversation with her own conscience. “You were going to be a songwriter. You’d spend your life here and continue with your family’s farm.” Her words came slowly again, like the passing white clouds. “That’s the Zack I fell in love with. You said the fame thing, singing on a stage, it wasn’t for you.”
“Reese . . .” He raked his fingers through his thick dark hair. They’d been over this.
“That’s what you said.” She turned her eyes to his again. The defeat in her tone turned to sadness. “Remember?”
“Try to understand.” He searched her eyes. “The music, the songs . . . they live in me. I have to try. Sure I want to write, but if I can sing, if I can do something I love and help my family, shouldn’t I try?”
“I know.” She nodded, never breaking eye contact. Her fight was gone. The finality in her tone told him she had accepted his decision. Even if she had doubts. She took a step toward her car door, her eyes still on his. “I want you to go, Zack. You’re amazing. I think you could win the whole thing.” Her smile didn’t hide the hurt in her eyes. “But you have to know . . . if you win, that could change things. It could change us.”
“Not in a million years.” He was sick of this, of the doubts from people who should’ve known him best. “Not ever.”
“Okay.” She smiled despite the shadow of sadness in her eyes. “As long as you’ve thought it through.”
He didn’t respond. Couldn’t say anything in light of her heartfelt reminder. Whether he liked it or not, she was right. If he went far, if he won, there might be no way back to the life they shared here. Now.
“You need answers.” Her tone was kind. “Your family needs money. I get it.” She kissed him more quickly than before. “I need to go. We’ll talk tonight.”
“What about your song? You haven’t heard it.”
She giggled. “Later. You’re busy.”
“But you want to hear it, right?”
“Of course.” She placed her hands alongside his face. “I can’t wait.”
He felt the minutes slipping away. He planned to leave at sunup. “I’ll play it tomorrow. Before I go.”
“Okay.” She tilted her head, like she couldn’t say exactly what she was feeling.
“I’ll be home soon.”
She shook her head. “You won’t.”
“Reese.” He wouldn’t argue with her. He was grateful she believed in him. He said the only words that mattered. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
She took a few steps back, her eyes still lost in his. But then she turned around, climbed into her car and drove off. He watched her go. She was worried over nothing. If his parents were about to lose the farm that had been in the family for over a hundred years, then he needed to find a way to make money. Other than working with horses, singing was all he knew.
That and the saving power and love of Jesus Christ.
God would see him through wherever the ride took him. Of course he had to audition, had to pray for a chance. If by some miracle he made it, he would have a platform to share his faith and the money to pay off the farm. Then he would marry Reese—the way they’d planned all along—and Grandpa Dan could die happy.
As he walked up the stairs to the old farmhouse peace spread from deep inside him. Whatever happened next he would be home soon. Reese would stay in Kentucky and they’d be engaged by Christmas. He was sure.
Before he turned in that night he found his guitar and played her song, the one he’d written for her. He called it “Her Blue Eyes” and the verses talked about a girl who saw beauty in the life of a handicapped child and joy behind the counter of a homeless shelter. As he fell asleep, the chorus stayed with him.