Gracie Kennedy first came across “Billy the Bully” Becker in the woods, when she was seven. He had frightened her terribly that day but ended up taking her home. As a little girl, lost in the woods, that was what made her believe in him.
Coming home after years of being away at art school, she is determined to make a success of her life, despite the fact that Strasburg is still a small town. Small, it might be – to Gracie, it is home.
Now called “William,” Billy is a deputy in the sheriff’s department who is given some of the most challenging cases to solve. He is grown, well-respected, and looked up to – by everyone but Gracie, that is. Yes, he has grown up; but he’s not at all sure that Gracie has. She has come back full of disrespect and quite unladylike language, something he is not at all inclined to put up with. And Gracie is about to find that out.
Publisher’s Note: The Return of Lucy Grace contains the stern discipline of a rebellious young lady. If such themes are not to your liking, please refrain from purchasing this book.

 

 

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Prologue

Friday, December 7, 1849
The woods seemed menacing, as seven-year-old Lucy Grace Kennedy made her way through them. She had waved goodbye to her new friends and gotten off the school bus early with the Johnsons, before trying to walk home. Sheila Johnson had offered her a new slate, since hers had gotten broken that morning at school. She had been lost all day without it.
“Stay on the path,” Sheila had said, as she waved goodbye. “It will lead right to your house.”
Lucy Grace looked around her now. Where had she gotten off the path? She wasn’t sure anymore. Gleason, driving the wagon, had been concerned about leaving her there. But the Johnson property was right next door to Papa’s; she had been confident she could find her way home.
Now, she was not so sure. She clutched the new slate tightly in one hand and her basket in the other, as she picked her way around broken and fallen branches; some hung low from the trees and seemed to grab at the long, thick, reddish gold braid that hung down her back.
She gazed at the twisted vines and shadows surrounding her and looked upward. The woods seemed to have a thick canopy above her that shielded the sun; it was impossible to know what time it was. These were the woods Papa had been hired to clear. She tried to comfort herself with that thought. Maybe Papa was here close by somewhere
“Papa!” she called out. “Papa?” But all she heard was the sound of her own voice as it echoed through the woods, weak and fearful. She sat down on a fallen log and reached into her basket. As always, a good lunch had been packed for her, and she had not eaten it all.
“Oh, be quiet.” She scowled down at her stomach, which had been growling at her for the past few moments. She took a bite of bread and cheese and looked back into her basket. There was another cookie in there, too, but she had promised herself to save it for the babies at home.
An answering growl from her stomach caused her to giggle as she put the rest of the bread back into the basket. But the smile quickly faded. Would Papa find her? How late was it? She wished, so much, that she had waited and picked up the tablet tomorrow, in the safety and familiarity of the wagon, with all the other children.
“Papa!” She could feel tears forming behind her eyes, and despite her effort to ignore them, they began to creep down her cheeks.
It was when she heard the crackle in the woods behind her that she turned, her little face alight. “Pap-“
She stopped. It was not Papa who was standing behind her, in the shadows. Her eyes moved up-up-upward, at the huge man, and she gasped. He was very nice looking, but his face held a scowl.
They stood there, staring at each other. Lucy Grace was sure she was going to faint dead away.
“You should not be out here…” His voice sounded like a growl to her. “Are you lost?”
Lucy Grace summoned all the courage she possessed, staring back at him. She jutted out her chin. “Who wants to know?” she said, trying to sound brave. But the telltale tears were still coming.
A smile crept across his face. He took a step toward her, and she began to quake.
“No! Do not come closer!” she cried, trying to look fierce. “I-I shall hit you with my slate!”
He laughed and reached down, taking it from her in one swift movement. Lucy Grace stared at him in dismay.
“Now, what?” he said. He was eyeing her basket now. Lucy Grace hugged her basket to her, unwilling to have him take that, too. She was sure her heart was pounding loudly enough to be heard all the way to Strasburg. She looked around her.
Suddenly, she spied a fallen log and jumped up. “I shall use that log!” Her basket went tumbling as she reached down and began to tug on it.
But it did not move. The other end seemed to be trapped under something. With all her might, she pulled at it. Still, it stayed fast.
Before she realized what had happened, the man was in front of her. He was tugging at the log, too. Lucy Grace looked up incredulously, as he easily freed the other end of it and held it out to her. She took it, but could barely hold it, now that it was in her grasp. It was terribly heavy.
“There,” he said, standing up straight.
“Thank you…” Lucy Grace stared at him blankly with wide blue eyes, realizing the absurdity of her situation.  But when their eyes met, she realized he was amused.
Suddenly, she began to giggle, and the man threw back his head, laughing. Still, she eyed him suspiciously as he sat down on the log next to her and picked up her basket, handing it to her. Listening to him speak now, she realized he was not a man, but a very large boy. His voice gave him away. Somehow, that was not as frightening.
“What is your name?” he said, looking down.
“Lucy Grace Kennedy.”
“Well, Lucy Grace Kennedy, you look more like a ‘Gracie’ to me.”
“Gracie… She frowned, thinking it over. “Your name?”
“Billy Becker,” he said in a gruff voice. “They call me ‘Billy the Bully’.” He watched to see what kind of effect that had on her.
Lucy Grace, however, was determined not to let him see her fear. She had indeed heard of him, and what she had heard was frightening. But some of the children at her first school had talked of him as if he were a hero. She swallowed, hard.
“Why…” she said, her mouth dry. “Do they call you that?”
He seemed to consider it for a while and finally shrugged. “I beat up a teacher, once, because he was picking on a boy in school.” He shook his head. “The teacher deserved it. He expelled me from school, though.” Again, he shrugged. “I would do it again. He was mean. But it doesn’t matter. No one believed me.”
Lucy Grace looked up at him, her young face entirely serious. “I believe you, Billy.” She shook her head. “But it is terrible that he expelled you from school,” she said. “I would feel awful if I got expelled.”
“You like school?” His voice was filled with disbelief.
“Yes. You do not?”
“No.”  His glance flickered over her. “Why are you here?” He eyed her as she looked at him blankly, and he continued, “In the woods? You lost?”
Lucy Grace faltered. Should she tell him?” Deciding to, she said, uncertainly, “Yes.”
He stared at her a moment before answering. “You live in the house they just fixed up,” he said, frowning.
“Yes. You…” She licked her lips nervously. “Know where it is?”
He nodded. “Want me to take you home?”
She frowned. “Yes. Please?”
“I will show you the way,” he said, rising. “Keep up.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Billy.”
He began to walk, but slowed when he realized she was having trouble keeping up. “I figured you were lost,” he said abruptly. “Watch out for snakes.”
“Snakes?” she squeaked, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice and failing miserably. Then she added. “I am not afraid of snakes.”
Billy turned around, stopping. “Guess you are not afraid of anything. Are you?”
Her chin lifted, defiantly, “No.”
He chuckled and turned back, picking his way through the trees. “Watch that,” he said, stepping over a huge log that had fallen. Lucy Grace tried stepping over it, but nearly lost her balance. Arms reached out to grab her, steadying her and lifting her completely over it. Then, he let go and began walking, once again.
“Thank you.”
His only response was to nod.
Eventually, the shadows began to grow lighter, and Lucy Grace thought the forest looked much less frightening. She smelled smoke, and her eyes grew wide, as she looked up. Billy turned to glance down at her.
“The smoke is coming from your chimney. Someone is cooking.”
“Oh.” She looked down. “I knew that,” she said, trying to sound as if it was true. Billy just nodded. He did not speak, but the corners of his mouth had turned up.
It was amazing how quickly the woods had lightened up, now. Lucy Grace stopped when she heard a man shouting.
“Papa!” she said, excitedly. “He is looking for me!”
Billy stopped and turned to face her. “See that big rock up there?”
Her big blue eyes followed the direction he was pointing. “Yes.”
“Keep straight on, after you get there. Straight. Hear? You can see your house from there. And Gracie?”
She paused, looking up.
“I don’t want to see you out in these woods again. It is not safe. You hear me?” His voice sounded suddenly stern.
Lucy Grace nodded, running now. “I hear!” She was nearly at the rock when she turned back.
“Thank you, Billy, for-” she stopped,
Billy the Bully was nowhere to be seen.
* * *
Lucy Grace turned back as she began to approach the edge of the clearing, wondering if she had indeed dreamed him up. Billy the Bully had been right; she could see her house. The woods were much lighter now, and the pungent smell of dinner was stronger, coming from the chimney. She heard Papa’s voice once again, calling her name.
“Papa!” she called out.
“Lucy Grace!”
She could see him now and began running as hard as she could. “Papa!” She flew into her father’s arms, hugging him as tightly as she could. “Oh, Papa! I was so scared!”
“Lucy Grace!” He held her out, frowning down at her. “I have been looking for you for an hour. What were you doing in the woods, young lady?”
She ignored the scolding tone in his voice. “Oh, Papa! I got lost in the woods on the way home-and this-“
“Lucy Grace, those woods are dangerous. You are never-ever-to go into them again, do you hear me?”
“I hear you, Papa. I got off the wagon at Sheila Johnson’s house and she gave me a new…” She remembered the slate, suddenly, and a wail escaped. “My new slate! Oh, Papa-I left it in the woods! I will never be able to find it again.”
He frowned. “I will come across it, Lucy Grace, when I clear. But it may take a long time. What happened to yours?”
“It got broken at school today, Papa. But Sheila gave me an extra one that she had. But the man in the woods took it-“
Her father turned, alarmed. “Man? What man, Lucy Grace?”
“A man showed up and wanted to know if I was lost. He said his name was Billy the-” She halted, before the word ‘bully’ escaped. “I think his last name was Becker, but when I told him mine, he said he knew where we lived. He showed me the way home. And when I turned to thank him-he was gone. Just-gone!”
Her father frowned, digesting the information she had shared. “Lucy Grace, do not ever go into those woods again. Do you hear? If you do, I shall paddle you.”
“Yes, Papa, I hear you. That is what he said, too-that they were not safe,” she said sadly. She was unsure whether she was sadder that her father was upset with her or at the loss of her beloved slate. It was the only thing she had to do drawings on.
She followed her father up the steps and into the house, frowning. Carrie, from the Pembroke Estate, was standing in the kitchen and met them with relief, when they entered.
“You found her!” she said, rushing over to Lucy Grace and hugging her. “I was so worried-“
“She said someone named Billy found her in the woods and showed her the way home,” Mr. Kennedy said, sounding ill-at-ease.
But Carrie’s eyes flew to Lucy Grace. “Billy the-” She caught herself. “Billy Becker?” She tried to calm her voice, as she searched the little girl’s face. “Did he have a big yellow dog with him?”
Only a shake of Lucy Grace’s head answered. Carrie was glad Mr. Kennedy could not see the expression on her face. She rose suddenly. “The babies are all asleep, Mr. Kennedy. They have eaten and I put them to bed, while you were out looking for Lucy Grace. Give me a moment and I shall have dinner on the table for you while it is hot.”
“No, Carrie. Thank you, but I need to escort you home before you are too late for your own dinner.” But he sounded surprised. “And how did you manage to get them all down and asleep? I have never been able to do that.”
Carrie smiled back. “I have six little brothers and sisters at home, and my parents both work at Pembroke. I have learned to care for the children. Let me get Lucy Grace’s dinner out for her, then. Yours should still be hot when you get home.”
“All right, then. I shall bring the horses to the front.” He disappeared out the front door as she set out a plateful of food onto the table.
“Here you go, Lucy Grace.” She grinned. When she saw Mr. Kennedy descend the front porch for the horses, she leaned down and kissed the child on the forehead. “Did Billy the Bully actually show you the way home?” she whispered. At the answering nod, she smiled and gave a slight nod.
“I always thought that boy had a heart in there, somewhere.”
Lucy Grace grinned back. “He does,” she whispered back. “A big one.”
Carrie hugged her again quickly and grabbed her shawl. “I shall see you in the morning, sweet girl.” She grinned, hurrying toward the front door. “And Lucy-do not go into the woods anymore, all right? They are dangerous.”
“All right. That is what Billy-and Papa said, too. Only Papa sounded more threatening.”
Carrie grinned. “That is what papas are supposed to do. It means they care about you.” She giggled and disappeared out the front door.
Lucy Grace was giggling as well, as Carrie left, thinking that she liked Carrie.
A lot.
* * *
Lucy Grace finished her dinner and went to the sink. She washed her plate, cup and fork, and rinsed and dried them, then went to check on the babies. They were all asleep, so she tiptoed back into the other part of the house.
As she walked back into the living room, she heard footsteps on the front porch. Papa must be home. She went to the front door and opened it, looking out.
No papa.
But as she stood there, looking out into the shadows, something small, leaned up on the banister in front of the porch caught her eye.
It was her new slate.
“Oh!” she cried, in disbelief. She threw the door open the rest of the way and ran to pick it up, clutching it to her chest, and looked around for Billy the Bully. Peeking around the side of the porch, she looked up and down into the woods. But there was no one there. She leaned over the banister and shouted, as loudly as she could, “Thank you, Billy!”
Carrie was right, she thought. He did, after all, have a heart in there, somewhere. And Lucy Grace knew she would always consider him her friend.
She leaned over the banister once more, shouting at the top of her lungs, “I believe in you, Billy Becker.”