Saturday, February 27, 2016

Week 31: Heartache and Hope by Mary Manners

1st Chapter

“The testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” ~ James 1:3-4

A chill nipped at Daylin Sullivan’s cheeks as the diner’s door swept open, welcoming the frigid night air. She lifted her gaze from the cup of muddy brew nestled between her palms to see a young couple wedge their way through the narrow entrance, the man’s arm wrapped loosely around his girlfriend’s shoulders. They might have been freshmen or possibly sophomores in college. It was hard to tell with their bulky, snow-dusted jackets and tousled hair spilling from beneath wool toboggans. The girl’s eyes shone with a sparkle of innocence and her laughter tinkled merrily as they wound their way to a booth tucked back in the corner. 
Young love; happy and carefree love. It was just the kind that made a couple forget every trouble in the world and believe their lives would never be touched with even the slightest shadow of heartache. It was the kind of love Daylin longed for and was convinced she’d never have.
Her dating scorecard—if it could even be called that—told the story. Teen years were pockmarked by a flurry of dates with guys she now realized she’d tried too hard to please. Her twenties brought another round of clumsy two-steps with men from the wrong side of the tracks. She knew she was an open and shut case for psychologists, easily dissected as someone seeking a place to belong, finding none that truly mattered, and with a history that could fill an entire series of books cover-to-cover. The product of a father she’d never known and a mother whose longest stint furloughed from the prison system amounted to eight months—not even long enough to birth a baby— Daylin had spent the better part of her childhood passed from one foster family to the next like the odd-man-out contestant in a game of musical chairs. 
As thirty approached she’d sworn off men, instead choosing to cling to the books and sweet confections that had always been there for her—best friends in a sea of heartache. And then she had the misfortune of intersecting paths with Todd Barker. Over the course of several weeks, she’d fallen once again back into the habit of trusting too quickly with her friendship and then her heart.
Four months into the relationship, she’d arrived at his law office with the giddy intention of surprising him with a picnic lunch. Instead of the intimately tender picnic she’d imagined, surprise soufflé had been served up to her on a silver platter when she slipped through the office doorway to find him lip-locked with another woman.
As she drained lukewarm coffee from her mug with a sigh, Daylin tried not to reflect too much on the reasons Todd had so easily discarded her for a newer, slimmer, and more fashion-savvy model. No point beating that puzzle to death. She set the cup back on the table and thought about ordering a second slice of apple pie. What would it hurt—just one more slice of the warm cinnamon-apple confection with a scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream or perhaps a swirl of whipped cream—or both?
She patted her overstuffed belly, acknowledging that she wasn’t even hungry<at least not for food. Yet something gnawed at her, a yearning deep in the pit of her stomach that the food failed to fill, no matter how much she devoured.
“More coffee?” The fifty-something server flounced to the booth as she chomped a wad of gum tucked between her back teeth. Dark hair swept into a messy, stunted tail showcased wisps of gray tangled through the disheveled crown. A plastic, rectangular neon-blue nametag pinned to her uniform just below the right shoulder read simply, “Vera.” The waitress tucked a pencil into the front pocket of her wrinkled apron. “Or maybe I can getcha another slice of pie a la mode? As you know, it’s a specialty here.”
Can she read my mind? Does she know I’d down two pieces of the sweet confection if she served them up right now, wash down the sweet flavor with a swig of coffee, and then request yet another slice? 
And I’d regret the indulgence as soon as I passed by a mirror.
“No, thanks.” Daylin shifted uneasily in the seat and nudged aside the book she’d dog-eared midway through chapter nine, where the plot began to stutter and sag. “Just coffee. One more cup ought to do it.” She’d stay another few minutes and then head home. She couldn’t bear the thought of ringing in the New Year alone in the confines of her quiet apartment. At least she was among people here at the diner, even if she wasn’t actually with them. For the record, she wasn’t with Todd, either. Good riddance.
Daylin’s cheeks flamed with the embarrassment of it all. Just when she’d begun to think there was potential for a long-term commitment in that arena, he’d cut her loose from the line with his betrayal. Daylin remembered the awful day like an embarrassing snapshot—the way Todd had lifted his head when he heard the click of the office door, saw it was her, and, without missing a beat, tossed out a single, callous sentence—“Sorry, but hanging out with you just isn’t working for me.” 
Hanging out? So that’s what he thought they’d been doing. Good grief, were they still in high school? 
Her guy radar was seriously messed up, and Daylin couldn’t figure out how to recalibrate it. Not that it had ever been on the right track. Dating was like trying to craft an award-winning apple pie without fruit. With each passing day, things just seemed to be on the fast track to falling apart. 
Well, what was done was done. There was no use crying over things that couldn’t be changed. She might as well buy a passel of cats and a vacant house down a lonely, dead-end street and resign herself to becoming that lady.
Daylin groaned to herself. She was losing it, fast and furious. A few more nights like this and she just might end up as the proverbial cat lady. Maybe she would have that piece of apple pie after all. What would it hurt? It’s not like one more piece would add a whole dress size to her wardrobe. And the warm, sweet flavor would bring welcome comfort<at least for a few passing minutes.
She lifted a hand to signal Vera as music spilling from speakers segued to an oddly familiar version of “Auld Lang Syne.” Great—that was just what she needed…a melancholy song. She wondered who crooned the subtly heart-wrenching lyrics and snapped her fingers as she wrestled for the answer, racking her brain but unable to come up with the artist’s name. The tune was a particularly sad version, and she hoped it didn’t allude to some kind of omen concerning the year ahead. 
Get a grip. This year brings a clean slate, a fresh approach. You only get so many chances so pull it together.
Daylin shook her head as she quickly lowered her hand to the tabletop once more, deciding against the pie. She’d already had a piece along with a double cheeseburger, french fries, and three refills of soda. Sugar overload caused her pulse to skip and her head to thrum like a snare drum. No matter how tempting, she was sure to regret adding anything else to the mix.
She sighed and nodded fiercely against the temptation to give in to the darkness that threatened to envelop her. 
No more…no more.
Summoning every ounce of willpower she could muster, she pushed her empty dessert plate from the edge of the table and shifted in the seat to gaze out toward the snow-crusted boulevard. She’d approach the New Year head-on rather than let it storm over her like the plow trucks that rumbled the street, battling a storm that threatened to dump another round of the white stuff along the road. 
Engines rattled and hummed as one truck came to life, then another, and readied for battle. Oversized treads crunched the snow, leaving a pattern of crisscrossed marks as they wound their way into the night. As the sound faded and the trucks diminished to toy-car size in the distance, Daylin felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She sat back against the cushioned seat and watched Vera flit from table to table filling coffee cups and collecting soiled plates. No more wallowing in the mire of self-pity. Daylin vowed to plaster on a smile and sing a happy tune if it killed her. Lots of people had it rougher than she did.
Buck up, little camper, and hike up your big girl panties. It’s time to pull your act together.
That’s what her foster-care caseworker had once said as Daylin approached the telling age of eighteen. About to be dumped from the system and into society to fend for herself—as if that wasn’t what she’d done for the better part of her life—Daylin had realized with a paralyzing sense of dread just how alone she was. 
She glanced at the clock over the serving counter as Vera scurried from table to table, a slight limp to her gait but her kind smile ever-present. Six minutes to midnight—three-hundred and sixty seconds to another brand-spanking New Year. Daylin grabbed her purse and rose from the seat as Vera headed her way, toting a bulbous glass carafe. Steam swirled from the metal-rimmed opening and for the slightest moment, Daylin once again nearly caved into the thought of pairing a fresh mug with the pie that beckoned. She paused, considered slipping back into the booth and trading the smile that curved her lips for a mouthful of the sweet confection. 
She squeezed her eyes shut tight and drew a deep breath as the sounds of the diner faded in and out for few moments. The clink of silverware…the strum of a holiday melody…laughter from the couple in the back corner. 
Her recent overindulgence in sweets brought a measure of comfort<a downy cocoon to curl in, until Daylin had caught a glimpse of herself in a department store mirror just last week. There was no denying the changes to her body—and to her attitude. Defeated and battle-weary from years of struggling for acceptance, even the simplest tasks took every ounce of strength. It had become so much easier to lose herself in a book and a bowl of ice cream than to face the fact that she felt broken to pieces on the inside and on the surface. 
“Honey, are you OK?” Vera’s voice drew Daylin back to the present. 
She turned to find the woman staring at her with kind, fudge-brown eyes, her forehead creased with concern.  
“No, thank you. I’m…fine.” As if to prove it, Daylin inhaled deeply. Her belly expanded with the effort and the button of her slacks suddenly popped, shooting the evidence of her overindulgence toward a row of windows facing the boulevard. The plastic pinged against polished glass and then ricocheted across the tile floor. Mortified, Daylin’s hand flew to her fleshy waist as she watched the navy plastic disc skitter beneath a booth seat across the aisle.
“I’ll grab a broom,” Vera offered, without missing a beat. “We’ll get it.”
“Don’t bother.” Daylin shimmied into her wool coat as her cheeks flamed. She snatched her book from the scratched Formica table. “I’d like my check, please.” She turned from the windows and scurried toward the register at a double-time clip. 
“Are you sure?” Vera’s eyebrows disappeared beneath a scraggly spill of bangs while her gaze followed the trail of the lost button. “Won’t take but a minute to retrieve that button. You might be needin’ it. That’s nothin’ a needle and a bit of thread can’t fix.”
“No, thank you.” Daylin adjusted her sweater to cover the hem of her slacks. It would take more than a needle and thread to fix her ample girth—and the sense of loneliness that fell over her like a veil. “Just the check.”
 “Coffee’s fresh. I just brewed it myself. Extra strong, too, and no calories—if that’s what’s worryin’ you.” Vera tucked a pencil over one ear. “Not that there’s anything wrong with a little meat on the bones. Women today…they all want to look like pillows without the stuffing. It’s blame disconcerting, if you ask me.”
“I…no more to drink, thanks.” Daylin nodded firmly to add clarity to the statement. That was just what she needed, a rush of caffeine thrown in with the sugar she’d consumed at this late hour to keep her tossing and turning straight into the New Year. “Just the check.”
“Suit yourself.” Vera chomped chewing gum with a snappy rhythm as she moved to join Daylin at the check-out counter. She placed the coffee carafe onto its industrial warmer and delved into her apron pocket for the signature-green ticket. A quick flourish of scribble and she tore the slip from the pad and handed it to Daylin. “That’ll be eight forty-two.”
“Thank you.” Daylin paid the bill, adding a generous tip for Vera’s service, and then turned in pursuit of a hasty exit. 
“Hang on a minute. You might be needin’ these.”
Daylin turned back to find her car keys in Vera’s outstretched hand. “Oh my, thanks.” She reached for the keys, but paused in her tracks as a gloss of paper tucked into a brochure holder on the counter beside the register caught her eye. “What’s this?”
Vera took one of the flyers and opened it. “Patrick Litton brought them by last week, asked us to display them for him and the boss gave him the go-ahead.”
“Patrick Litton?” The name rang a bell…a very big bell. Could he be one and the same? Daylin turned over the flyer and saw his photograph. Her breath caught as she found her answer. He was older, more polished than she remembered, sporting short-cropped black hair. The shaggy bangs were gone, as was the mischievous grin. But there was no way such alluring gray-blue eyes could be mistaken. Back in high school her nickname for him had been Wolf because of the way his gaze captured and mesmerized. Her pulse slipped into a two-step as Vera continued.
“Yes. He’s a good man, suffered some hardships here lately but keeps paddling the boat, just the same.”
“Hardships?” Immediately, concern flooded Daylin. “What type of hardships?”
“Oh, that’s for him to share when the time is right. I won’t go gossipin’ about a brother’s woes.”
“A brother?” The cryptic remark left Daylin confused.
 “My brother in Christ. We attend church together over at Community Christian. His mom and I share a cup of java from time to time.”
“Sure, that’s right.” Vera’s eyebrows knit together. “You know her?”
“I used to. She was kind to me when I was younger and a student at Lake Meade High…drove me home from school a few times.”
“Yes, that’s Frannie. Kind to the core, she is. Always findin’ her way to a good deed or two.”
“Patrick…I knew him. We went to school together.”
“That so?”
“Yes. We lost touch after we graduated. I had no idea he lives here.”
“Funny thing, isn’t it, the way the Man Upstairs works His way around things. It just so happens Patrick’s the head of that organization mentioned in the flyer. I think it’s called…” She snapped her fingers, her brow furrowing with concentration as she searched for the name. “Race for the Dream. No, I mean Dash for the Dream. That’s it. Yes!” She slapped her left hip, the scowl flashing to a toothy smile. “Word around here is, they plan to run the Knoxville Marathon this coming April to raise funds for research.”
“What kind of research?”
“CF—Cystic Fibrosis.” Vera did a slow sweep of Daylin, head-to-toe, scrutinizing her abundance of curves. “Are you a runner?”
“I’m…not sure. I used to pound the pavement a bit, but it’s been years…” Daylin snatched one of the brochures from the holder and flipped it over to scan the back print. The cloudburst of warmth that zinged through her deepened, shooting straight from her forehead to the tips of her toes. A thought squeezed through the simmer. She was suddenly clad in running shoes, her feet slapping along the high school track as she sprinted around a final curve and toward the finish line. The breeze kissed her cheeks as her hair fanned out in a veil behind her, ushering in a sense of freedom so pure it made her heart soar. On the air, she heard Frannie’s voice as the woman cheered her on, along with Patrick who usually could be found a stride or two ahead, from the stands. Frannie must have sensed that sprinting was an escape—a way to leave the heartache behind—however briefly.
Daylin clutched the edge of the counter with her free hand to right herself as she found her voice once again. “I used to run cross-country in high school—the five-K and road races—but that was years ago. I haven’t laced a pair of sneakers since then.”
“Why in the world not?” Vera’s gaze was heavy with questions. 
“Life got in the way, I suppose.” High school days had given way to a plateful of responsibilities. Daylin’s job as senior editor with Home Spice Magazine meant long days seated at a desk. At home, in the evenings, she managed to squeeze in a bit of freelance editing for whomever needed her services so that one day, God willing, she might manage to afford the new car she needed before her current battle-scarred Honda finally bit the dust. The euphoria gained from her days of running was replaced by something quick, easy, and satisfying—at least in the short term. 
Lack of exercise and extra calories brought on a bout of perpetual lethargy and pounds that crept up like unwelcome visitors in the night. All too easily it became a habit to collapse on the couch following a long day at work, prop open a pint of Extreme Moose Tracks along with the latest quick-mart paperback and spend an hour or two engrossed in the goings-on of some far-off magical place. 
But she could try running again. Why not? It sure looked like Patrick had kept up the pace, despite his hardships—whatever they might be. She glanced at his photo once more as she drew her lower lip between her teeth and bit down. Judging from the headshot, he hadn’t added so much as an ounce to his frame.
“Well, I’ll admit life has a way of sidetracking the best of us.” Vera’s voice broke into Daylin’s thoughts, drawing her back. “But there’s no better time to find out what’s left in the tank. You’re much too young— and pretty—to let life derail you.”
“Maybe so, but for now I should be heading home.” 
“Time enough for that. Looky there.‛ Vera pointed to the clock whose hands rose toward the ceiling in near-perfect unison, like a couple lost in a slow, sweeping dance. ‚It’s spot-on midnight. Happy New Year, honey.”
Honey…there was that word again. It was a term of endearment she’d rarely heard. Daylin’s gaze watered as her eyes filled with tears. “Happy New Year, Vera.” 
“I’ll bet you’ve got yourself a list of those fancy whatta-ya-call-ums…” Vera snapped her fingers, struggling to conjure the elusive word. “…resolutions?”
“No…not really.” But she should think about getting herself moving again, get her heart rate elevated and shake off the dust. Maybe it was time. Could the brochure be some sort of sign? "I really need to be going now. Take care.” 
“Maybe you’ll drop by again soon, honey? It’s always nice to see a familiar face, and we make the coffee fresh all day.”
“Maybe I will.” Daylin swallowed a nip of sadness as she tucked the brochure and paperback into her purse. Back in the corner, the young couple leaned into one another, lost in a sweet, celebratory kiss as the aroma of cinnamon swirled with coffee. 
Daylin bit back a wave of melancholy and turned away, affording the happy young pair all the privacy a public diner might provide. She slung the strap of her purse over one shoulder and tugged on a pair of wool mittens. Outside, snow drifted along the boulevard, burying the length of curb and cracks along the sidewalk. As she shoved open the door to the street, she shivered against the cold. The rumble of an engine in the distance signaled a snow plow had begun its journey. 
What type of hardships had Patrick Litton faced? And how had he ended up in Knoxville when they’d attended high school together in Crossville? The thought niggled at Daylin as snowflakes stung her cheeks. Was he alone tonight and wishing he had someone with whom to share the holiday? 
It was a crazy thought. So was the idea of running the marathon—especially in this weather. But there was the option of a half-marathon, as well. She could manage that if she tried hard enough. Couldn’t she?
Vera had mentioned fundraising for Cystic Fibrosis research. Daylin had heard of the disease, but knew little about it except that it was serious. 
Life-altering. She brushed snow from the car’s side-view mirror and caught her reflection beneath a streetlamp.
“You’re much too young—and pretty—to let life derail you.” Vera’s voice seemed to echo from snowcapped Smoky Mountains that flanked a crisp, moonlit horizon. Daylin swung toward the rounded peaks, searching for her newfound friend. 
You can do it, Daylin. 
Daylin turned back toward the diner. Through the glass she saw Vera weaving her way through the tables, pausing here and there to refill coffee mugs and share a smile.
Trust me. 
A chill coursed through Daylin as she made quick work of unearthing the car from its film of snow before slipping into the driver’s seat to crank the engine. 
Gears howled and shrieked as the engine struggled to catch. Daylin’s belly clenched with dread.
“Come on, baby, please.” She patted the ice-cold dash. “You have to start.”
Another crank of the ignition and, like a stubborn child who finally acquiesced, the engine turned over.
“Thank God.” Daylin lowered her head, sighing as frigid air swooshed into the cab. She felt like a traitor. She hadn’t spoken to God—really communed with Him—since her high school days, wasn’t even sure she believed in Him anymore. She removed her mittens to blow on numb fingertips. Shivering as the heater labored toward warm, she took the brochure from her purse and switched on the overhead light. 
Dash for the Dream, read the title in bold, black letters. The small print inside mentioned an informational meeting at Dusty’s Diner in two days. An email address to confirm interest was included. 
Daylin gnawed her lower lip as the car’s heater made quick work of the fogged windshield, unveiling a boulevard that shimmered crisply beneath new-fallen snow. The scenery, devoid of footprints and gloppy-gray slush, appeared so fresh and clean that it nearly stole her breath. For a moment, she felt as if she’d been captured within a snow globe to watch the world dance by while she stood on the sidelines. 
A pain shot through her heart, causing her to cry out. She’d spoken to God once already tonight. Why not again? What would it hurt?
She caught her lower lip between her teeth and then ran her tongue over skin the cold had begun to chap. Her throat tightened, making it difficult to form words. “Please, God, help me find a purpose again. I’m tired of feeling so alone, so lost. I want to do this race. I want to serve others, serve You.”
The prayer of her heart, raw with painful emotion, came as a complete shock. Daylin cringed as the words reverberated inside the snow-crusted cab. If it was possible for lightning to strike in the dead of winter, surely she’d fry right there in the driver’s seat. Through all her heartache, she’d become convinced there was no God. 
And, even if God did exist, why shouldn’t He turn His back on her pleas? Sobbing now, Daylin fished her cellphone from the pocket of her purse with trembling fingers. Without time to second-guess her actions, she typed a quick, shaky message to the inbox noted in the brochure and hit Send.
There…done. There was no backing out now. Daylin swiped her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket and tossed the phone back into her purse. She tightened the scarf at her neck like a noose and gritted her teeth against the desire to cave to the darkness. 
No more…no more. Help me, God!
Tears dripped onto the steering wheel and splattered into Daylin’s lap as the sobs racked her body. Could God still care for her? Could he still hear her pleas?
Heat fogged the windows as a peace cocooned her. Without a doubt, she knew what she must do. She’d attend the Dash for the Dream meeting, listen to the information Patrick Litton-who-had-suffered-some-hardships presented, and decide where to go from there. She could manage that much, couldn’t she? Sorrow parted and a tiny trill of excitement buzzed through Daylin, chasing away a chill of loneliness.
She switched on the wipers, brushing away the last remnants of slush, and shifted into drive. The engine grunted as tires slogged over coated pavement. It would be good to see Patrick again. It had been so long and this chance encounter was a pleasant surprise. Would he remember her?

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Week 30: Date Night by Marianne Evans

This week, it is my pleasure to welcome my friend and fellow Pelican Book Group author, Marianne Evans, to A Year with Mary Manners and Friends. I know you'll enjoy reading the first chapter of her Pure Amore title, Date Night. Pure Amore is a wonderful book-of-the-month subscription service with a focus on purity before marriage. Find out all about it here, or click on the book cover below.
1st Chapter
Natalie Gibbs swept a wool beret from her head and fingered her hair into place. Boot heels clicked against cream colored marble as she strolled through the entryway of a Georgian-style estate freshly purchased by Theodore Owens Pierce and his bride Beverly.
“Antique Waterford crystal chandelier. I want that to stay right where it is. It’s a showstopper. We also have phenomenal, airy space…cathedral ceilings in need of warmth and maybe a few character touches—a buttery yellow accent wall perhaps, or maybe a bold piece of art. Gorgeous, new marble flooring that extends straight through to the kitchen. No need for modification there, either.”
She listed observations while her assistant, Peggy March, followed close behind, clipboard in hand, pen scratching as she composed action items and bullet points.
Natalie sighed, contentment riding through her system while her gaze continued to sweep and absorb her surroundings. Friends affectionately referred to her as quirky, but to Natalie, homes that protected couples as they bloomed into families, walls that captured laughter and tears, prayers, celebrations, and tribulations, were much more than mere wood or brick-and-mortar. The structures breathed with a type of soul all their own, an ordained spot from God for the purpose of His grandest design ever. Life.
She unwound a fringed scarf from her neck, drawing the silk fabric through her fingertips as she wandered and lost herself in her surroundings. “First impressions? This place is fantastic, but the best part is it’s bare. It’s like a beautiful blank canvas.”
“Oh, sure. A beautiful blank canvas with twenty-foot foot ceilings, high-end finishes and an incredible location.” Peggy joshed, reading from a property specification sheet completed during the interview process with their prospective clients. “The entryway floor is crafted of Italian Carrara in crème with subtle lines of gray. Evidently, the wow factor they want spotlighted comes in at the living room. Just to the right.”
They moved forward. Un-belting and peeling away her coat, Natalie cantered down a trio of steps into a sunken living space with a double-tray ceiling, recessed lighting, and expansive windows that framed—
“Wow.” Peggy froze, and whistled.
“Ah, yeah.” Natalie stopped in her tracks as well, savoring the view of sloping land and thick, well-manicured grass of deep green. The grounds were dotted by towering old maples and pines. A sweeping panorama of the Hudson River was highlighted by ancient trees with thick, craggy trunks and leaves presently transforming into every fiery autumn hue imaginable. Naturally, her gaze was enticed to travel the length of at least an acre of verdant land. “The view is outstanding. Plus, we have more blank space to play with. Hard to believe all this tranquil greenery is located just fifteen minutes from Manhattan.”
“I know, right? I can’t wait to get to work on color schemes, furnishings, and fabrics.”
Next came the kitchen. Natalie walked through the arched entryway, silent, breathing in, absorbing nuance, and searching for all those mysterious yet powerful vibrations produced in her own soul—that unique response to a room that told her whether the place would be homey or cold. Once again, the space struck her as a masterpiece just waiting for the final brushstrokes of a creative and luxurious touch. She swept through the center of the room. “Oh, Peg, can’t you just see a peninsula right here for intimate gatherings? Picture black and white granite countertops, chrome seating. Plus, we can blow out that wall between the kitchen and family room and extend. It’ll open up the entire space and improve site lines and flow for their family.” Natalie’s imagination took flight. “I’d like to place a large, half-moon window over the backyard entrance.”
She gestured toward a simple sliding door that allowed access to the backyard and a large patio shaped by brick pavers. Beyond that, there wasn’t much in the way of natural light in the kitchen, so Natalie continued to express ideas. “We could position a glass panel beneath it, with small, squared panes, then wide, uninterrupted glass on each side that’ll bathe this space with incredible afternoon sunlight. Just look at the grounds. The play of shadows and colors is amazing. We need to bring all that beauty indoors.”
The house tour continued, and Natalie reviewed the task ahead. In competition with two other companies, the interior design firm she worked for, Mathers and Mathers, had been invited to bid on this hefty assignment. Winning the project would be a coup; the close knit design world in New York City had been buzzing about the opportunity for weeks. This space cried out for upgrades in a major way, but the bones of the house were perfect, and she loved the idea of bringing a sleek, modern vision from concept to reality.
The chime of an incoming text message came from the cellphone perpetually glued to her hand. Checking the illuminated face of the device made her cringe. looks forward to welcoming Natalie Gibbs to Date Night at the Renaissance Hotel. Get ready to mix and speed date in the relaxed, chic atmosphere of the R Lounge overlooking Times Square tomorrow evening from seven until nine. See you then, and always remember to mingle…in faith.
A happy gasp sounded from just behind Natalie’s shoulder. She jumped, turning her phone into a mini projectile as it launched from her hand and clattered to the floor—uninjured, thank goodness for plush aubusson rugs…
Peggy added a brief squeal to her reaction. “You did it! I’m so proud of you!”
“You snoop!”
“Fire me later. For now, I’m seriously stoked. You’re going to be awesome! I’m so glad you followed through and decided to get out there and enter the dating arena.”
Natalie groaned and rolled her eyes. “Be calm, little flower. Trust me; this random act of insanity is a one-time only thing.”
Natalie fluttered her lashes in an exaggerated display of sweetness. “Oh, but it will be, because you see, I’m going to meet the man of my dreams, and my whole world will be changed forever.” She gave a snort and trounced to the sliding doors, ignoring romantic intrigue in favor of the more practical and comfortable aspect of her life: her job.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” she muttered to her petite, Asian-featured friend. “Ding-dong, desperation calling.”
“It is not! Lots of folks have great success with Mingle in Faith. Furthermore, you better be careful, Nat. You’re throwing down the gauntlet of challenge before God himself.”
“Umm-hmm. Come on. We need to focus.” Before her, stretched sumptuous outdoor living space accented by abundant seating and an entertainment area covered by a pergola. A brick, built-in fire pit crowned the center of the patio.
Natalie homed in on the project rather than the lonesome ache of her heart. “What’s set aside in the budget for the installation of an outdoor kitchen? And how about fairy lights strung throughout the wooden slats and along the columns? I’d love to place ground-level illumination along the border of the patio. I can see just enough light to create a saffron glow…”

“Excuse me. You did what?” Eyes wide, jaw clenched while he waited, Ethan Miller stared across the dining room table at his brother and sister-in-law.
“You heard me. We made an executive decision about your life.”
Jeff’s spare response carried more than enough impact to curdle Ethan’s blood. Jeff, on the other hand, stretched back in his chair and grinned. Meanwhile, his wife Marilyn sipped from a glass of orange juice and smiled at the scene. Ethan tossed his napkin along the side of his plate. This moment should have been a perfect conclusion to the dinner they had just shared of fettuccini alfredo, Caesar salad, and garlic bread. Instead, Ethan’s stomach rolled.
“Since you won’t do it yourself, Mar and I took matters into our own hands. We’ve put you out there.”
“Put me out there?”
“Ah…meaning what, exactly? Could you be a bit more specific?”
“Sure he could, if he wasn’t afraid of finding himself flattened by his baby brother.” Marilyn snickered at her quip, gaze bouncing gleefully between Ethan and Jeff.
“We created a page for you at this great Christian dating site called Mingle In Faith.”
“Jeff created the page, Ethan. All I did was watch.”
Aghast, Ethan’s mouth dropped open. “Internet dating? Have you two lost your minds?”
Ethan leaned away from his plate, the remainder of the meal forgotten. He growled and Jeff hastened to interject.
“You should see the results. You’ve gotten so many hits. Lots of nice-sounding ladies would really like to meet you.”
Ethan expelled a long, unsteady breath; his nerves zipped and sizzled. “Oh, please, for the love of everything I hold dear, please tell me you’re joking.”
“Can’t do that, bro. This is for real, and it’s going to be great. Want to see your profile? It’s awesome, if I do say.”
“My fingers literally itch to wring your neck. If you and Marilyn weren’t going to be making me an uncle in a few more months…” The words dangled into an obvious and ominous warning.
“Hold that thought. I’ll be right back.” Visibly enjoying the moment, Jeff excused himself from the table and dashed out of the room.
Ethan stared at Marilyn and did nothing more than heft a brow and shake his head.
Marilyn held out her hands in surrender, but her lips twitched. “In his defense, this is for your own good. You need to break away from the job and focus on building a life. You have the best heart, and so much to offer—”
“But this is ridiculous. I’m not comfortable meeting a woman via on-line connections. I’ll find someone. Someday. I don’t need or want—”
“Ah-ah-ah…no squabbling, kids.” Jeff trotted into the room carrying his electronic tablet. “Take a look at this before you jump down our throats. I think we did an outstanding job.”
Jeff booted up his device; his fingers danced across the keypad. Marilyn tucked next to her husband. “There you go with the whole we thing again. Don’t go throwing me under the bus. This was your brainchild, babe. I disavow.”
Ethan growled once more and scooted his chair closer to the end of the table. He needed to find out what kind of nightmare had been hatched behind his back. “You’re safe, Marilyn. I’d never hurt a woman—especially a pregnant one. Your husband, on the other hand—”
Still unrepentant, Jeff tilted the computer in Ethan’s direction. The Internet was up and running. On the screen appeared his profile and what he saw, what he began to read, left him aghast. This was worse than he thought.
“I’m not a fan of chick flicks!”
“You watched “Casablanca” with me and Marilyn once.”
“That was a war movie.”
“Oh, then by all means I stand corrected.” Jeff clucked his tongue and issued a long-suffering moan. “Keep going. This is good stuff.”
Eyes narrowed, Ethan continued to peer at the screen, and he tried hard not to cringe. Front page center was a sunset shot of him sitting on Jeff’s deck out back. It was a picture Marilyn had taken this past summer. The image wasn’t half bad, but the entire profile cried out for attention, as though he were broadcasting the message: Hey, ladies, look at me…
This kind of entrée to dating wasn’t part of his wheelhouse—at all.
Sucked in in spite of himself, Ethan continued to read. “Oh, come on. Seriously. My eyes are brown, not amber with flecks of gold.”
“The description is accurate, plus, doesn’t it make you sound romantic?” Marilyn shot him a sweet, eager look.
Ethan busted out a glare for his sister-in-law. “So, all you did was watch, huh?”
She delivered a glance chock full of innocence that he didn’t buy for even a nanosecond.
Ethan leaned in once more and reviewed the two-paragraph bio of his life. Ophthalmologist—check. Single and twenty eight—check, check. Athletic build, muscular, six feet tall, fan of hiking, softball, chick-flicks and romantic dinners by candlelight.
“What?” Ethan couldn’t take a single word more. Romantic dinners by candlelight? This was impossible. “You make me sound like some kind of fantasy character. My hikes involve the mountains around Honduras. My softball games take place with kids at the school in Texiguat.” He jabbed a finger at his brother. “And I refuse to dignify romantic dinners by candlelight with a comment.”
“You don’t like candlelight dinners?” Marilyn pouted.
“They’re great, but—”
“But nothing.” Jeff sliced a hand through the air. “There are no qualifiers in the dating game, bro. Accuracy is accuracy. Now, check this out.” He directed Ethan’s attention to a sidebar against the right side of the screen. “There’s a thing going on tomorrow night that you’re expected to attend.”
“A thing.” Ethan felt a tsunami brewing.
“Yeah. A cool thing. Sounds like a lot of fun. It’s called Date Night, and it’s taking place at a gathering spot located not far from your practice.”
Complications increased. Up to now this development wasn’t much more than an annoyance. He could log on to the site, contact anyone who had pinged his profile, and craft a very polite but very definitive ‘No, thank you,’ note. Not any longer. According to the site, he was already scheduled to ‘connect’ with four attendees at a speed dating event happening tomorrow night. Too late to bow out now. Hmm, maybe he could be sick tomorrow night.
He snorted. His conscience and common courtesy forbade him from the deceit of calling in with some kind of feigned illness. Tempting though the idea might be…
Thoroughly trapped, Ethan dropped his head back and groaned. No way was this actually happening. “Oh, Jeffrey, how sad it is that I have to kill you now.”
“After tomorrow night, feel free. I won’t even allow Marilyn or Aunt Sheila and Uncle Kurt to press charges. They’re all for this, by the way.”
Perfect. Even Aunt Sheila and Uncle Kurt were in on this ambush. Life couldn’t get much better.
Jeff plowed on. “Here’s the drill. You arrive at the Renaissance Hotel at seven o’clock. You check in at the R Lounge, mix and mingle with everyone in attendance then the scheduled dater—that would be you—breaks off into a series of private, pre-arranged speedy meetings with potential datees—those would be the lovely ladies we’ve already pre-screened for you. Check out Valerie, Belinda, Jessica, and Ann.” Jeff touched his way through photos and profiles that Ethan needed to explore in greater depth before tomorrow night. “These interviews—sorry, speed dates—only last ten minutes. It’s quick and painless and you’ll be home a few hours later. Who knows? You might even end up being surprised.”
“Sure, I will.” Ethan’s stomach twisted and pulled. Curse it all. Why couldn’t well-meaning friends and relatives let him exist in peace? So what if he wasn’t married yet? So what if he wasn’t in the thick of a long-term relationship? He was only twenty-eight for heaven’s sake.
“If I were single, and if I weren’t already married to the most fantastic woman in the world, I’d join you in a heartbeat.”
Marilyn snickered. “Way to dodge a bullet, hon.”
Jeff lifted his wife’s hand from the table top and kissed her fingertips. The gesture won Ethan’s brother a sexy wink and a grin. Lucky guy. Sure, Ethan avoided the world of dating. No time, and no inclination. He was one of three ophthalmologists in charge of a thriving practice in Midtown Manhattan. But that was only half of Ethan’s life and heart. The rest of his soul resided half the world away, in a tiny, destitute village of Central America.
“You’ve got me right where you want me, don’t you?” He sighed, authentically bemused and uncertain. All kidding aside, this was uncomfortable.
For the first time since they sprung their trap, Jeff and Marilyn had the good grace to share disquieted glances.

“You’ll be great.” Marilyn issued the assurance, resting her hand on top of his. “Jeff’s right. Open yourself a little beyond work and missions. This whole exercise just might take you by surprise.”

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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Week 29: Disguised Blessings by Mary Manners

Blessings linger at a fork in the road as the winds of change whisper…

1st Chapter:
Serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will be found by you. ~ 1 Chronicles 28:9
“I need to know now.” Jaxon Briscoe shoved papers aside and tapped a pen over the polished glass top of a chrome coffee table that flanked his leather couch. He barked orders into the cellphone, “Right now—today.”
“I’m sorry.” The receptionist’s matter-of-fact tone was punctuated with a hint of weary frustration. “But the results of your paternity test haven’t posted yet.”
“That’s impossible. I’ll be too old and feeble to collect Social Security by the time your lab analyzes a tiny blood sample. Those results have to be floating around somewhere in your computer network or in one of your archaic charts. If the lab report gets into the wrong hands, the press will have a field day with it.”
“That won’t happen. We’re highly professional here. I assure you, Mr. Briscoe—"
“I don’t want your assurances.” Jaxon clenched the barrel of the pen and broke it in two with a single, swift crack. “I want the results—now.”
“Sir, I’m trying to tell you—"
“Then tell me what I want to hear.” Jaxon punctuated his words by launching the pen at the table. Broken shards of plastic scattered across glass and danced over the polished hardwood floor, disappearing beneath the black leather couch. “Just check once more.”
“Once more…for the fourth time today…” The receptionist drew a long sigh and released her breath in an exaggerated huff of air that made the phone line tremble. “And it’s not even noon yet. But, if you insist.”
“I do.” Jaxon’s nerves sizzled and popped. “I most certainly do.”
“In that case…” 
Sketchy piano music drifted over the line as Jaxon was placed on hold once again. He kicked the couch leg and paced a tight holding pattern along the oak planks beneath his feet. Unruly black hair fell across his eyes and he ran a hand through it, feeling a rough ridge of scar buried along his hairline, a battle wound from a Stanley Cup playoff bid two seasons ago. That had been the high point of his career—leading his team to the coveted Cup. With that victory tucked neatly into his back pocket, endorsements and appearance requests poured down like summer rain. Soon, Jaxon found himself worked into a state of exhaustion in an attempt to fulfill them all, before his agent finally began to turn away all but the most lucrative. Maybe later, when things quieted down a bit, he’d manage a fly-by to the schools and hospitals that had been left behind. At the moment, he was still recovering from the commercial fallout and the fact that he could hardly venture from the apartment to order fast food from the drive-thru without being accosted by at least a fan or two wanting to give their take on the outcome of a game or working to snag an autograph.
He never turned down a kid when it came to signing his name or posing for a photo, but the armchair quarterbacks really got on his nerves. He supposed he should be thankful anyone even cared. For as high as the Stanley Cup season had ended, this year had proven to be the valley of all valleys. Jax still couldn’t make sense of it…dropping from the summit to the depths of the ocean like a lead balloon. And now rumors swirled about his advancing age, and the growing assumption that the best days of his career in the NHL were behind him. He was due for a contract renewal, and things didn’t look all that promising. Jaxon saw the writing on the wall, and he didn’t like the message.
That last concussion hadn’t helped much. The blow had benched him for a good part of the season and left his brain scrambled for weeks. Coach worried one more hit like that might leave him completely out of his head, hence the hold-up in his contract.
Go figure…washed up at the ripe old age of thirty-six. Break out the rocking chairs and prune juice; it was a good bet he’d just skated his final pro season. Where he’d go from here, he had no idea. 
The thought coiled like a snake in Jaxon’s gut as elevator music continued to drift over the line. Seconds segued into minutes while one sleep-inducing song melded to another. In his wildest dreams, Jax never imagined he’d encounter a situation more disastrous than a career-ending season. Yet, he was smack-dab in the middle of a quagmire. The current phone call carried a sense of foreboding more ominous than an impending tornado. Each breath became more difficult as the levity of the circumstances dawned.
I might be a father.
The very thought struck Jaxon with pulse-jamming dread. A child was the last thing on his agenda…even farther down the list than retirement and marriage and white picket fences. But Shayla had shown up on his doorstep two weeks ago sporting photos of a child. She—and her slime-bucket of a lawyer—had insisted he was responsible for the sudden tangled fork in her road, swaddled in a neat little package of diapers and blankets.
Good grief, Jaxon didn’t even like Shayla, with her sun-streaked blonde hair and skirts that clung like plastic wrap to a figure way too enticing for his own good. He hadn’t seen or heard from her in months, and now he racked his brain to remember the details of their infamous…encounter. Was it before or after Margo? In Detroit or Montreal? The fact that he couldn’t place the exact time and date or even the location unsettled Jaxon. He shrugged the tension from his shoulders and thought of the string of women who waited at every venue, like flies drawn to sugarcane. How was he supposed to resist them all when they threw themselves at him? Wasn’t that a perk of his tenure as a top-ranked athlete, anyway? 
Truth was, he’d sampled one woman too many, and now his escapades had come back to bite him. The thought caused a stab of embarrassment and something else—something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, yet it nibbled at his insides like a swarm of ravenous termites.
Jaxon paused to gaze through an expanse of floor-to-ceiling palladium windows that overlooked the Tennessee riverfront near downtown Knoxville. People scurried along the river walk on foot and by bike while others coasted the cerulean-blue water in ski boats and an occasional canoe or paddleboat. The Star of Knoxville riverboat rested in port, waiting for its evening dinner cruise while the mouthwatering aroma of barbecued ribs drifted from Calhoun’s Restaurant on the River.  
Jaxon shook his head as he leaned against the glass and remembered that he was still on hold—again, and waiting on information that might very well change his life forever. How could the world continue to spin on its axis when his future hung in the balance by a single, fraying thread?
I swear I’ll do anything You ask, God, if you just let this paternity test come back negative.
Good grief, where had that thought come from? Jaxon hadn’t prayed in years, hadn’t so much as given God a passing glance in at least a decade…maybe more. And now he was bartering with the Man Upstairs? 
Music faded as the receptionist finally returned to the line. “Mr. Briscoe? Are you still there?”
“Of course I’m still here and, like a said before, a giant leap closer to claiming Social Security benefits.” Jaxon clutched the phone so hard the case might have cracked beneath the pressure of his callused hands. “Where else would I be?”
“I’m sorry for the wait, but—"
“Save the apology. Do you have the results or not?”
“I do, right here in my hands.”
“Well…?" The single word barely came as his throat filled with sandpaper.
“Let me see here…just one moment. Yes, here it is…”
An army of ants marched up Jaxon’s spine as his hands turned clammy and his pulse kicked into warp speed. “Mr. Briscoe, the paternity test returned negative. Not even a remote match.”
The breath whooshed out of Jaxon. He turned and pressed his forehead to the cool balcony-door glass as beads of sweat broke out across the nape of his neck. “Are you sure?”
“I’m positive. That is, the results are negative. Would you like me to page Dr. Rafferty to confirm?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Just keep those results clear of the press and forward them to my attorney ASAP.”
“Will do, Mr. Briscoe.” Papers rustled through the phone line, followed by the tap, tap, tap of a keyboard. “I’m taking care of it as we speak. Rest assured that it will be done immediately, and with the utmost confidentiality.”
“Thank you.”
“You are most certainly welcome. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“I believe you’ve done more than enough.”
“In that case, and until next time, have a nice day.”
Until next time? Over his dead body would there be a next time. Jaxon disconnected the call with a jab of the power button and slipped the phone into the back pocket of his jeans. From this point on, he was swearing off women. Off, off, off!
He swung open French doors leading to a corner balcony and let the warmth of late-spring air wash over him. Sunlight played hide and seek with a quilt of rain clouds, and he sucked in a gentle breeze laced with the sweet, musky scent of impending rain. Along the river, Bradford pears peaked to full bloom. The pollen wreaked havoc with his allergies, but at the moment, he didn’t mind. 
I’m not a father…the baby is not mine.
Thanks to negative test results, he wouldn’t be bound to Shayla for the remainder of his life. But someone would. Obviously, she’d had more than one fish in the tank, so to speak. Jaxon didn’t know why it crawled under his skin to imagine her with someone else. He certainly had enjoyed more than his fair share of the female persuasion, never giving a second thought to the flip side of that perspective. His encounters had always been laid back and easy…no strings attached and certainly no expectations. He wasn’t sure why, but he’d never considered the women he enjoyed might be dabbling in more than him.
But now that that gear was turning, Jaxon couldn’t shove the idea from his mind. And suddenly the images he conjured bothered him—very much. And the oath he’d muttered in his weakest moment came back to haunt him.
I swear I’ll do anything You ask, God, if you just let this paternity test come back negative.
Surely God wouldn’t hold him to such an oath, would He? Jaxon shook off the thought as he punched a series of numbers into the phone. Calhoun’s didn’t usually deliver this time of day but he was sure they would make an exception…for him. 
Adrienne Price blew a strand of auburn hair from her eyes and pushed the rolling chair back from her desk. Files lay scattered across an oversized calendar blotter that was riddled with scribbled notes, and the clutter made her crazy. The dreaded five o’clock energy lull set in, dulling her thoughts to gauzy cotton. She needed a cup of coffee—quick.
As she rose from the chair and crossed to a coffeemaker tucked on a small table near the door, she replayed dialogue from the consultation she’d just wrapped up with a frazzled mother whose thirteen-year-old daughter was in desperate need of help.
“Shawna’s run away from home twice in the last six months.” The harried woman had paced the length of the office, wearing a path along the carpet as she retraced her steps time and time again. “She’s angry…rebellious. I don’t know what to do.”
“Her father…?”
“Not even in the picture. Never in the picture. I’m on an island here…for better or for worse.”
The woman’s sharp and somewhat caustic words resonated to Adrienne’s very soul. Were it not for one simple variation in choices, she might find herself the one being counseled instead of the one offering the counseling.
That variation was adoption.
Adrienne thought of the daughter she’d relinquished to a loving couple, desperate for a child of their own, just a few days shy of fifteen years ago. She’d been alone, pregnant…scared and, at seventeen, much too young to raise a child on her own. Her choice, though heart-wrenching, had been the right one for the baby—one that might afford the child a life of stability and opportunities way beyond Adrienne’s reach at the time. 
Even so, some days the decision…the memories…crept back in to sting like an angry swarm of bees once again, leaving an empty and unbearable ache in her heart. 
A few moments in her arms was all Adrienne treasured before her daughter was whisked away, swaddled in a soft rose-petal-pink blanket, to find her new path…and begin a life with her adoptive parents.
Saying goodbye to her child was—and remained to this day—the most difficult moment of Adrienne’s life.
And it was the fuel that had spurred her to pursue an advanced counseling degree from the University of Tennessee and then spend the better part of a decade learning all she could about wayward teens before she branched out on her own and opened Second Chances Day School, a place for teens to have just that—a second chance for a happy, fulfilling life.
Adrienne lifted her mug from the table and filled it with coffee. The brew had been steeping on the burner a while, and a first sip soured on her tongue. Extra cream was in order, so she squatted to open the door of the small fridge tucked beneath the table and plucked a carton of French vanilla from the shelf. She dumped in a healthy splash, gave the muddy liquid a quick stir, and the java was transformed to just this side of palatable. 
Adrienne sighed…nearly quitting time. She’d leave everything on her desk, all the folders and registration forms that waited to be aggregated and then filed. She’d promised herself a night off—time to savor a meal instead of inhaling it on the go—and to curl up with the novel she’d promised herself, several weeks ago, she’d take the time to read. She’d get back to the mess on her desk in the morning even if it meant heading into the office an hour or two early to make up for the free time tonight.
As caffeine coursed through her veins, Adrienne grinned and smoothed back her bobbed hair. The summer caseload was shaping up nicely. All classes were full, except for one remaining slot in the full-day, academic/adventure session. Maybe tomorrow she’d fill it, and welcome another hurting teen to his or her opportunity for a new beginning.

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