Saturday, March 26, 2016

Week 35: Manila Marriage App (Jan Elder)

1st Chapter

With ten minutes to kill before my flight boarded, I reached into my purse for the letter from Dr. Timothy Flynn. Smoothing the creased page, I read the words emailed a few weeks before:

Miss Callahan,

The marriage application you submitted has been approved. You will be happy to know you passed scrutiny on all five sections with commendable marks. I am particularly pleased with the informative answers you furnished on the essay questions (section four), and the fact that you have read numerous books in the past year—even if most of them were fiction—has unquestionably placed you ahead of the rest of the applicants.

Your PhD in computer science indicates that you are likely intelligent and gifted in several fields of study. I have urgent need of such a partner, one who possesses a keen mind, and a rational outlook on life. I will not put up with shallow, brainless women.

By return email, please inform me of when you are available to come to Pacific Rim Theological Seminary, where I am the church history professor and academic dean.

Sometime in May would be best for me, but June or July will also be suitable as I am on sabbatical until the end of the summer. I feel a period of two weeks would be a good length of time for us to evaluate each other.

I look forward to meeting you at your earliest convenience to discuss the next step in finding a mutually beneficial arrangement for the two of us. A round-trip, first-class airline ticket will be forthcoming when you have made your plans.

Blessings in Christ Jesus,
Dr. Timothy Flynn

P.S. The photograph you attached of yourself is satisfactory, although as per the application instructions, I will also require a picture of your mother. If you would be so kind as to bring one with you, it would be appreciated.

Phew. The letter had me shaking my head to think men like that still existed, but most of his letter made me squirm—which brought up the question what was I thinking? I pulled Dr. Flynn’s picture out of the side pocket of my purse and angled it so the light fell full on his face. OK, so maybe his leading man good looks softened the bite of his words—a little. He was one of the finest specimens of manhood I’d ever had the privilege to behold. Nonetheless…Timmy-boy was a first-rate, sexist jerk. Stealing one last look at the photo,I stuffed it back in my purse.

Wasn’t it time to leave yet? I peeked at my travel companion, Imelda de la Rosa, the mother of my baby sister, Brianna’s, husband. I’d heard good things about her over the years, but this was the first chance I’d had to meet her.

Imelda raised her perfectly shaped eyebrows and squeezed my arm. “Shay, they called for first-class ticket holders. You ready?”

Yeah, I was ready, though I still couldn’t figure out how a seminary professor could afford to spring for first class. Either he was desperate, or he wanted to impress me. While I considered those implications, we boarded the jet. I followed Imelda to our high-priced seats in the front section of the plane, the melodic notes of Chopin’s Sonata Number Two wafting in the background. To top it off, a flight attendant drifted over with a tray of mouth-watering canapés. My satisfied smile split into a wide grin. Now this was the way to travel.

“Shay, dear? Could you help me stow my bag, please? I can’t quite reach.” My sunny new companion couldn’t have topped five feet, while I, on the other hand, had grown much taller.

“Sure. Happy to.” I placed her bag next to mine in the roomy overhead compartment. The plane left the ground as gently as a puff of air, creamy clouds floating past in a bright blue sky. After accepting a soft pillow from another attendant, Imelda cocked her head and asked the question I’d been waiting for. “So…your sister told me you were flying halfway around the world to marry a perfect stranger. Knowing what a jokester Brianna is, I knew she must be messing with me. What’s the real story?”

“That is the real story. Brianna wasn’t kidding.”

“Shay, you can’t be serious.” Imelda knit her brow and shook a breath mint into her mouth.

“Yep. As serious as an overdrawn bank account. I filled out an honest-to-goodness marriage application, and here I am flying over the Pacific. Apparently, I’m Dr. Timothy Flynn’s frontrunner.” Did that sound as bizarre as I thought it did? With a touch of defiance, I fixed my gaze on her. “I bet you think that’s stupid, huh?”

“You’ve never met this guy, and you know next to nothing about him. I’m sure you have your reasons, but why would a pretty girl like you want to marry a man you’re not in love with?” Her short dove-gray curls, the exact color of my favorite pair of flannel pajamas, bobbed with a shake of her head.

“It isn’t about love. Yes, I know this story’s straight out of the Wild West mail order bride handbook, and I have often questioned my sanity…”

What in the world was I doing flying to meet a complete stranger 10,000 miles from home? But then, I figured, why not? A little excitement would be good for me.

With her almond-shaped eyes and flawless skin, it was hard to guess Imelda’s age, but she acted like the kindly granny she was. She put a warm, comforting hand on my shoulder. “Love has everything to do with marriage, but nevertheless, I do envy you. If I were your age, I might do the same thing myself. So tell me. How did you learn about this mysterious man?”

Now that was a story. I kicked off my new shoes and crossed my ankles. “It all started as kind of a lark. A couple of weeks ago, Brianna dropped by after one of her church services, and I made us lunch. As usual, I was busy working and she, also as usual, was lounging at the kitchen table reading some Christian magazine.

While I was busy roasting a chicken and mashing the potatoes, she found a small advertisement in the classified section. A missionary was searching for a wife, and he invited interested women to fill out an application.”

Imelda’s eyes sparkled with merriment. “My! Now, that is extraordinary.”

“After Brianna and I quit laughing, she said, ‘Why don’t you check it out? You fit the criteria. You’re female, single, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five, and you’re a Christian.’”

My sister was right abo
ut my being thirty-one and single, but the Christian part was iffy. I wasn’t sure where God and I stood. Sure, I’d given my naïve ten-year-old heart to Jesus, but by the time I’d hit college, I’d grown out of that childishness. Still, I was good at faking it. I knew all the right words and phrases from listening to my churchy little sister.

I shifted a bit to face my captive audience. “Then that darling sister of mine had the nerve to remind me I clearly didn’t have any prospects, I wasn’t getting any younger, and I hadn’t been on a date in months—all of which is true. What could it hurt to apply? I figured it was probably a gag, anyway. And that’s how it started.”

Imelda rested her elbow on the armrest and herchin on her palm. “But aren’t you afraid this guy might turn out to be a psycho killer or something?”

Her kindhearted concern touched me. “Not really. He’s legit. He sent me a list of several references, including one from an old professor at Yale, and another from his seminary president. Everyone I called spouted effusive praise for Dr. Flynn. And there was a short, but sweet, bio on his social media page, not to mention some eye-catching photographs. He’s gorgeous. The fact that he’s the elusive tall, dark, and handsome, with the most spectacular silver-gray eyes, made the decision pretty simple.”

I caught my new buddy bouncing those curls again.

“Why not? I have weeks of vacation time coming and I’ve been longing to do something exciting. Besides, at home, it’s just Clark and me. It was easy to get away.” Not to mention it could be a blast taking this man down a peg or two. He needed a big-time attitude adjustment, and I was just the woman to give it to him. If only I’d had the opportunity with my last boyfriend

“Who’s Clark?”

“My black and white tuxedo cat. Short for Clark Kent. He’s the only super man I’ve got.” I raised my hands in a shrug.

An attendant wheeled the beverage cart down the aisle, stopping next to a yawning Imelda. “What can I get you both?” Her pleasing, musical voice exuded cheerfulness. With her slim tan skirt, vibrant flowered scarf, and sensible heels, she was the perfect flight attendant.

Imelda asked for cranberry juice, and I ordered a much needed rum and Coke. The generous attendant handed me a cup of ice and the entire can of cola. What I really wanted was extra rum. I poured the rum and soda into the plastic cup, swirled the ice around the fizzy liquid, and took a long swallow. Next, I needed something sweet. I dug in my purse and grabbed a fresh package of chocolate crème cookies—I was never without something chocolate. I offered Imelda a cookie.

Her eyes shone at the sight of the treat. She helped herself, nibbled the edges, and licked her cookie-coated lips. “Please, go on with your story. What I’m wondering, though, is what if you don’t care for him?”

“Dr. Flynn is expecting me for two weeks, but I can leave any time.” I caught Imelda gazing at me askance. “Don’t worry. I’m a big girl. I’ll be fine.”

At least I hoped I would be. I’d been trying to still my restless heart since I left my apartment in Maryland that morning. I didn’t tend toward anxiety disorders, but who wouldn’t be nervous?

“I’m dying to know what questions he asked you.”

Imelda’s faint laugh lines crinkled at the edges. “Did he sound nice in his letters?”

Now how was I going to answer that? Some of his questions were so chauvinistic they’d raised my hackles. That was one of the reasons I was determined to do this. I didn’t plan to marry the sexist hunk, and it might serve him right if I jetted in, enjoyed an invigorating two-week vacation, and jetted out again. I didn’t even have to kiss him—although I might want to, if he was as hot as that picture.

A tiny pang of guilt crept up on me. Maybe I was being unfair, and maybe I’d end up giving him his money back, but, at least, I’d experience a new part of the planet, see some sights, and maybe buy some gifts for my family. Nudging away the twinge of remorse, I pulled another cookie out of the cellophane, and ran my tongue around the smooth white center—pure sugar bliss.

“The first few questions were what you might expect—my age, where I live, my background, and if I was a good, traditional Christian woman.” Hey, I believed in God, so I didn’t feel too bad bending the truth. “Some of the other questions made me laugh. My favorites were ‘Is your weight commensurate to your height?’ I must say, I had to give him credit for not asking the exact poundage. In his ‘deal-breakers’ section, he asked if the applicant was partial to NASCAR or professional wrestling. I was tempted to tell him I was a champion mud wrestler who raced souped-up vehicles on the weekends.”

Imelda’s tinkling laugh reminded me of a wind chime in a gentle breeze. Lovely. I wish my laugh had that delicate feminine sound. Mine boomed—more akin to an air horn. At least that was Brianna’s assertion. Sisters could be so caring and supportive.

“I wish you luck. If this whole thing doesn’t turn out to be as wonderful as you hope, you can always stay with me.”

Aww. What a kind offer. If everyone was as nice, we’d all be in good shape. “Now tell me about you. Brianna told me you grew up in Quezon City on the island of Luzon, and you go back every couple years to visit your family.”

Imelda described the beauty of her native land and gushed over her grandchildren’s exploits. She’d been planning this trip for months. How lucky was I that she was willing to come with me on my adventure?

Brianna, two years my junior, called it a “God-thing.” I considered it a happy coincidence.

A few hours later, we feasted on lobster tails slathered in drawn butter and super-moist banana cake. Stuffed to bursting, we luxuriated in our comfy first-class chairs as the flight attendant passed out steamy hot towels. I could get used to this!

“Be back in a minute, honey.” Imelda moved out of her seat and into the aisle.

When she returned, she pointed toward the restroom. “There’s no one in line if you need to go up front.”

Thankful for the information, I slid by and started up the aisle. The first class lavatory was immense compared to the shoeboxes in coach—my usual mode of travel. I peered into the mirror, and two red-rimmed, sleep-deprived eyes gazed back. Overall, though, not bad considering. I splashed some cold water on my cheeks and brushed out my seat-flattened hair.

As I made my way back down the walkway, I made eye contact with a weary young mother. She gave me a feeble wave as she balanced a fussy baby in the crook of her left arm. The poor woman was doing her best to quiet the baby while struggling to eat her cold, half-eaten entrée.

Taking pity on the harried mom, I paused to assist.

Who could resist a snuggly little baby?—especially one with such pretty, golden-brown skin. “Need some help?”

“Oh!” Relief flooded her features. “Could you hold her for a minute while I finish this off? Every time I try to take a bite, Malaya starts to cry.”

“Sure. I have a nephew her age back in the States. Babies are cute, but they sure can be exhausting, huh? Hand her over.” I loved playing auntie to my middle sister’s little boy, Ethan, and I was proud to say he adored his Aunt Shay-Shay. Whenever Lily needed a break, I was there. I couldn’t get enough of that boy.

The mother handed off Malaya. Holding the babeclose, I shifted my hips back and forth to rock her. She smelled like powder mixed with the slightest whiff of mashed peas. As I stared into the kid’s deep brown eyes, a smile lit up her face. Right before she spit up—on my expensive new blouse—and my sophisticated linen shoes. I’d been right about the peas.

Mom screeched in horror, fumbled in her diaper bag for a clean cloth, and tried to sop up the mess oozing down my neck.

“Hey, don’t worry. That’s what babies do.” I gave the child back to her mom and scraped regurgitated baby food off my blouse. Next, I tried scrubbing off the blobs of goop on my shoes to no avail. Great. I’d spent hours seeking the perfect pair.

Mom sniffled, and a sheen of tears glistened. Now I’d gone and done it. I’d made her cry. Malaya couldn’t help it if peas didn’t agree with her. The putrid vegetables didn’t agree with me either. I schooled my expression to dispel any possible hint of annoyance.

“Really. It’s OK. Give me another cloth and that precious baby of yours and, please, finish your meal.”

Her chin stopped trembling and, this time, she pushed a terrycloth bib into my hand and tucked into her meal.

“Go on, now. Eat up.” Holding the adorable baby once again, I cooed and cuddled. It didn’t take long for the lobster to disappear, and Malaya rested once again in mama’s arms.

My sodden blouse and ruined shoes were beyond repair. There was no way to make pricey pea-green sling-backs presentable. Besides being unsalvageable, my left shoe squished. I had a change of clothes in my carry-on, thank goodness.

To my dismay, inside the small bag I found a partially open shampoo bottle, a pair of soapy Nike’s, two drenched shirts, and wet, dappled blue jeans. At the very bottom, I felt one dry top—my fuchsia cartoon character nightshirt. It was better than nothing, and would have to do.

Heading back toward the lavatory to change, Ispotted our considerate flight attendant signaling me. She’d witnessed the entire debacle. Disappearing into the cockpit, she returned in triumph with a pair of red flip-flops. Men’s flip-flops. “The captain sends his compliments,” she announced with delight.

They were way too big, and hardly a positive fashion statement, but I’d take what I could get and be grateful for it. I thanked her, and scuffled back down the aisle to a softly snoring Imelda. With her head tilted to the side, she exuded cuteness.

Back in my seat, I grabbed the crime novel I’d been reading and tried in vain to finish chapter two. It was no use. Abandoning the book, I concentrated my attention on the spectacular glow of the sunset outside the window. The sun pitched into the water with the speed of time lapse photography and, in short order, the lights dimmed, a sure indication it was time to snooze. With nothing to distract me from my reveries, my insides were jumping like a grasshopper on amphetamines. I did my best to relax, envisioning bubbling brooks and fields of wildflowers.

Several sleepless hours later, the engines throttled back, and the plane began its descent. The seatbelt sign chimed, and the loud speaker crackled. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Tomás. We’ve begun our approach and will be touching down at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in approximately ten minutes. Please fasten your seatbelts and stow your tray tables. The temperature outside is a humid ninety-seven degrees with no chance of rain.” He paused to take a breath. How many hundreds of times had he made this speech before? Some people had all the fun. “Thank you for flying with Philippine Airlines and welcome to Manila. Please enjoy your stay.”

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Week 34: Light the Fire

A choice, a tragedy, and life-altering consequences...

1st Chapter:

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.  ~Hebrews 6:19

“Hurry, Rena. We’re going to be late.” Kelsie tossed a tennis shoe across the room.

Rena caught it, but hesitated before slipping her foot in, halfheartedly tying the laces. “I-I think I’ve changed my mind.” Rena’s stomach turned over, the cereal she’d choked down for breakfast along with two cups of muddy-black coffee roiling unmercifully.

“You can’t change your mind.” Kelsie’s tone left no room for argument. “We’ve already committed to helping. We can’t let everybody down.” Another shoe careened toward her head, and Rena ducked.

She sighed as she slid an arm into her baby blue windbreaker. Kelsie was right.

She reached for the second shoe. “Remind me again why you roped me into doing this.”

Kelsie’s perky blonde curls bobbed as she paced Rena’s living room. “Because the church needs help building this house. They’re a good family, Rena. Their home burned to the ground and they didn’t have insurance. Plus, you’re good at slinging a hammer. In fact, you do it better than most guys I know.”

Burned to the ground. The words startled Rena. Her heart went out to the family. How could she just sit here and refuse to help when she had the means and the knowledge needed? Guilt nudged her as she zipped her jacket, staring into the distance before turning back to her friend. “It doesn’t hurt to have a dad who’s a builder. He’s taught me a lot. I even have my own tool belt, a birthday gift when I turned sixteen.”

“I remember. I was there.” Kelsie’s car keys jingled as she twirled them on a forefinger. “That’s one of the reasons we need you.”

“We? Who’s we?”

“Never mind.” She handed Rena a sack lunch she’d prepared and nudged her toward the door. “Go to the car.”


Kelsie plastered manicured hands over her ears. “I can’t hear you.”

Rena groaned, but opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. “OK. I’m going.”

The sun’s wispy magenta arms embraced an awakening sky as they drove toward the building site. Despite her growing reservations about getting involved in this building project, Rena enjoyed the beautiful backdrop of the Smoky Mountains at dawn. She’d always been an early riser and reveled in the solitude of daybreak while the rest of the world lay slumbering.

“Kyle and I are going to the movies tonight.” Kelsie yawned as she braked for a light. “He has a friend he’d like you to meet. I thought we could double date.”

“No!” She’d rather have a root canal without the anesthesia. No way was she going to get mixed up with another self-centered smooth-talker who thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. “I mean, thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested. You know my track record, Kel. It’s hopeless. Guys are off limits—for good.”

“Nonsense, Rena. You can’t hide forever. Eventually you’ll have to plunge into the dating world again.”

Rena cringed at the thought. “Plunge? I prefer to…wade.”

“No, you prefer to sit on the beach with your nose in a book, oblivious to all the guys passing by. Just think about it, will you?”

“I already have, and I’m just not interested. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Kelsie frowned. “Rena, the world is full of nice guys.”

“Sure it is. And maybe someday I’ll win the lottery and retire a multi-millionaire.”

“But you don’t play the lottery.”

“And I don’t date—at least not anymore.”

“We’ll see about that.”

They turned into the work site and staccato hammering filled the air as Kelsie parked her Honda beside a mud-splattered black pick-up.

“Let’s go.” Kelsie unlatched her seat belt and grabbed the sack lunches. “Daylight’s burning, and there’s a lot to do.”

Rena sighed and drew in the musty-sweet scent of freshly sawn wood. She wished she shared Kelsie’s enthusiasm. As she eased from the car, flakes of sawdust settled like new-fallen snow across the damp earth. They brought back fond childhood memories of the many times she’d accompanied her dad on building projects. Those had been good times, before he’d become semi-retired and turned most of his days to leisurely games of golf with his grizzle-haired buddies.

“Where’s the party?” Rena stepped over a bag of concrete mix. “This place looks like a war zone with no survivors.” Broken cinder blocks and torn nail boxes littered the ground.

“Kyle’s over there.”

At the far side of the block foundation, Kyle lifted a two-by-four into place, but it was the guy hammering beside him that caused Rena’s breath to catch. Dark, unruly hair kissed broad shoulders. The thin fabric of his navy T-shirt strained over a terrain of muscles as he struck each nail neatly into place with a single, confident blow.

His strength caused her heart to lurch and her pulse to quicken. Rena tore her gaze away. She’d seen enough guys like him in New York City—handsome guys convinced they were a gift to every woman within a five-hundred mile radius—when all they really excelled at was breaking hearts.

She tightened the tool belt around her hips and hop-skipped through an obstacle course of construction supplies toward the two-by-four frame, ready to drive a nail. The quicker she got to work, the quicker she could get out of here.

Suddenly the thunderous crash of a stampede filled the air. As she spun to look, Rena was tackled by what felt like a runaway freight train. The breath rushed out of her as she flew airborne, and then slammed to the ground. A finale of fireworks exploded in her head. She sputtered for air.

Footsteps pounded as someone sprinted over gravel and jumped pallets of brick. A deep male voice shouted, “Sammy, no. Bad dog. Sit!”

Stunned, Rena shook her head to clear the fireworks and came face to face with a massive, drooling dog. Jowls drawn to expose spiked teeth, he loomed as if he intended to devour her for breakfast. Her heart pounded and her cries ripped the air. “Help! Kelsie!”

“It’s OK.” The male voice slid over her like warm molasses as the guy who’d been helping Kyle set down the two-by-fours and then dropped to his knees beside her. “It’s just Sammy. He’s harmless.”

“Yeah, right.” She dipped her head and attempted to shield her face with the collar of her windbreaker as the dog buried his meaty snout in her tangled hair. “Just get him away from me.”

He frowned and gave the dog’s collar a yank. “Sammy, no. Bad manners. Bad dog. Sit. Stay.”

Rena gasped and fought to bring her breathing under control. She sputtered, “T-that’s not a dog. It’s-it’s a bear.” She scooted through damp grass to put distance between them. As if to mock her, Sammy followed. He sniffed her hair and then lazily licked her face, leaving a trail of warm, sloppy saliva across one cheek.

“Yuck, I’ve been slimed.” She swiped a forearm across the gooey moisture and tilted her head to stare into the most soulful pair of doggy eyes she’d ever seen. Now that she could breathe again, he didn’t seem so menacing. “What’s your name, big boy?”

“My name’s Cody.”

A nervous giggle erupted, and she covered her mouth. “I meant the dog.”

“Oh, right. Meet Sammy.” Cody offered a hand and she sat up cross-legged, brushing slobber-matted hair from her eyes while she waited for the dizziness to pass. “He’s a Saint Bernard who thinks he’s a toy poodle. He forgets he weighs as much as a truck.”

Calluses mingled with her clammy palm and reminded her he still held her hand. She quickly let go. “Haven’t you heard of obedience school?”

“For me or the dog?”

She wiped her hand on her jeans. “Maybe you should check into a buy-one-get-one-free program.”

“Point taken.” He grazed fingertips over each of her arms, searching for cuts, and then brushed a smudge of slobber from her cheek with his knuckles. Rena shivered, and turned away. His voice gentled. “You OK?”

She shrugged and buried her hand in Sammy’s thick fur. “I’ll live. Are you sure he won’t bite?”

“He’s toddler tough, I promise. The worst he’ll do is drown you in slobber.”

“Been there, done that.” Rena scratched behind Sammy’s ears and his tail swept wildly across the ground. A cloud of sawdust erupted. Rena stroked the dog’s fur and murmured, “Hey, Sammy, you’re just a big, playful baby, aren’t you?”

“He’s a stinker. Sorry he knocked you down. He’ll get a timeout when we get home.” Cody shook a finger at the mutt. “It’s the doghouse for you, buddy.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” Rena laid a protective hand on Sammy’s massive back. “He just scared me. There’s no need to punish him. I’m OK now.”

“Are you sure?” Cody grasped Rena’s hand again and helped her to her feet. The world swirled and turned gray for a moment before coming back to life.

“Yes.” She felt a bruise forming on her hip but dismissed the pain. She’d had much worse while living in New York. The realization was sobering, and reminded her she’d sworn off men for now…most likely for good. She tugged her hand from Cody’s and brushed blades of grass from the seat of her jeans. “Besides, I like dogs...most of the time.”

“Good thing, because Sammy likes to hang around the building site. He’s become a sort of…mascot.” Deep blue eyes studied her. Rena found herself dwarfed by his broad-shouldered, six-foot-something frame. She took a step back as he continued, “I’m Cody Jamison. And you’re...?”

She hesitated, but his gaze pierced her. The rush of her pulse was irrational, she knew, yet she couldn’t seem to bring it under control.

“Rena…” she finally murmured, and turned from him to Kelsie, who had sidled up to her. “We’d better get to work. It looks like a storm might be rolling in.” The breeze had picked up, and concrete dust swirled over the ground. Beyond the foundation, a row of willows danced.

“Well, OK...for now.” Cody reached for Sammy’s collar and grimaced as he jabbed a finger at the mutt. “Come on, you mangy beast. Go lay down. You’ve caused enough trouble for one day.”

They sauntered across the yard and Rena watched as Sammy chased his tail in a trio of circles before settling beneath one of the willows with his massive head nestled on two meaty front paws. Cody turned back to grin at her, and shook his head as if to say the dog would cause no more trouble.

She nodded. The whine of a circular saw pierced the air and exhaust fumes drew her attention as other workers arrived in a variety of pick-ups and sedans. Rena shook wooziness from her head as she reached for the hammer hanging from her tool belt. She wondered if her dizziness was caused by Sammy, or if Cody’s gentleness and humor had somehow dislodged a piece of the wall she’d so painstakingly erected to guard her heart.

She sighed as her gaze was drawn to Cody once more. Of course, it was the dog.


Cody aimed for the nail and missed. He stifled an oath as the hammer grazed his thumb.

“That’s gonna leave a mark.” Kyle snorted. “Better keep your eyes on your work…instead of Rena.”

“You’re a real comedian.” He reached for another nail, held it in place and sank it with a single blow. “But she is…appealing.”

Kyle laughed. “I thought you swore off women.”

“I have…but there’s always room for adjustments to the game plan.”

“Game plan?” Kyle quirked an eyebrow as he lifted another two-by-four into place. “This isn’t football, my friend.”

“I know.” He glanced away from the lumber long enough to find Rena once more. The baby-blue windbreaker stood out among hues of brown and gray building materials, and her long blonde hair lifted in the morning breeze as she and Kelsie worked together to lay two-by-fours along the foundation. “She’s a friend of Kelsie’s?”

Kyle nodded. “Since they were kids.”

“Wow, she swings that hammer like a guy.” He whistled appreciatively. “Wonder where she learned that.”

“Why don’t you ask her?” Kyle handed him a nail. “It’s a good place to start.”

“I don’t know…maybe.”

“She volunteers at the rec center, you know, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe you could come out and help with the basketball program. Who knows, you might run into each other there, too.”

“Smooth way of roping me in to volunteer.”

Kyle grinned. “If it works…”

Cody’s gaze locked with Rena’s as she walked over to get another box of nails. She smiled slightly, and motioned to Sammy, who slept beneath a tree at the edge of the site. When she held up one hand and formed her index finger and thumb into the OK sign, he grinned and nodded back.

“The rec center…on Tuesdays, you said?” He turned to Kyle.

“And Thursdays, like clockwork.”

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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Week 32: Blackberry Ridge (Mary Manners)

Congratulations to our Week 30 winner of Marianne Evans's Date Night...Robbye Faye!

Congratulations to Pam Zarate, as well...she is our Week 31 winner of Heartache and Hope!

Now, for this week's feature...

Will Chloe and Connor put past hurts behind to work together, or will the project—and their love—fail?

1st Chapter:

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  ~Luke 12:15

“No, Aunt Chloe…not like thaaat.” Lizzie’s sing-song voice admonished as she pirouetted from Chloe’s reach. “Mama always uses my princess comb, so the tangles come out easy and my head don’t hurt.”

“Doesn’t hurt.” Chloe followed the direction in which her niece’s tiny finger jabbed. On the white-washed dresser backed up to a bubble-gum pink wall sat a wide-toothed comb, complete with a colorful handle fashioned in the form of a princess. Beside the comb, a ceramic bin overflowed with a rainbow assortment of clips and bows.

“Doesn’t hurt,” Lizzie mimicked. “And I need my apple spray for the tangles, too. Daddy says it makes me sweet.”

“Of course it does.” Chloe eyed the pint-sized green pump-bottle propped beside the comb as a breeze drifted through the open bedroom window, carrying the scent of rain-kissed grass and playful bird-chatter. “Thanks for the four-one-one.”

Lizzie skipped back to where Chloe waited. Dimples formed at the corners of each cheek as she grinned. “The four-one-what?”

“The info…the heads-up.” Chloe corralled Lizzie and ran a towel over the child’s hair one last time, squeezing the last bit of moisture from the matted locks before dropping the towel on the floor. “It means, thanks for explaining.”

“Oh, yeah…Daddy says that sometimes, too.”

Rick…her brother-in-law and the reason Chloe had absconded from her quiet apartment nearly an hour away to this sprawling house where she and her sister, Pam, had spent their childhood. Once their family home, Pam and Rick had taken over the property following the death of her and Chloe’s parents four years ago. The country house, closing in on a century old, was in need of some renovations and Rick was just the guy to see it got done. He was a house-flipper by trade, and specialized in scooping up properties, fixing them up, and then reselling them at a profit—a healthy profit. They’d chosen the farmhouse to work on next, and had recently taken up residence as they planned the renovations.

Chloe had mixed feelings about the sale. When her parents died she hadn’t felt ready for such a huge undertaking as putting the house to rights required, and had instead left the upkeep in Pam and Rick’s care as she followed a job promotion into the city. But now, a handful of years later, she felt saddened by the thought of letting the property go to strangers. So many memories…so many bittersweet times spent here. But she had no one to talk to about her mixed emotions. Her parents were gone and Pam, well…due to the success of the business, she and Rick were most likely sleeping off a twelve-hour drive on Day One of a two-week extended trip. The vacation was part business, part pleasure. Rick had intentions to expand what he’d grown over the years. Thus, the trip to check out some outlying properties in the Smoky Mountain area, capped by a Caribbean cruise to celebrate his and Pam’s tenth wedding anniversary.

What it all meant for Chloe was two weeks alone with Lizzie…and the fact that she’d been handed supervision of the first leg of the farmhouse’s renovations Pam and Rick had asked her to oversee during their absence. Chloe didn’t know which of the two—Lizzie or the renovations—had her nerves more on edge. On one hand, the kid was a spitfire of energy if she’d ever seen one. On the other, the thought of making decisions about the structural integrity of the century-old house and the grounds surrounding it were daunting.

Not to mention, the memories of a childhood spent here had Chloe’s head reeling and her heart heavy with nostalgia. She missed her parents, their death sudden and unexpected. She hadn’t returned to the house since the day they’d been laid to rest, and had gladly handed the keys over to Pam and Rick in exchange for her freedom.

But she’d returned. Rick had promised Chloe that the guy he and Pam had hired to head-up the construction of an indoor work studio and a playhouse for Lizzie—as well as the added project of a gazebo near the rolling grounds of the creek behind the house—was a good friend of theirs, and a coworker who could be trusted. Chloe had expected to meet this elusive tool-belt-wearing miracle-worker before Pam and Rick took their leave, but he’d been too busy in the days leading up to their trip to drop by. It sure didn’t give her the warm fuzzies to think the guy was too overbooked for even a quick hello and cursory introductions.

As for Lizzie, a play-date with her here and there, where they spent the day swimming or making rounds at the local playground or indoor gaming facility was one thing, but two solid weeks of responsibility for her every need? What had Chloe been thinking to take on such a challenge?

Chloe shrugged off the thought. Surely she could handle chauffeuring her niece to school, helping with kindergarten homework and preparing a meal or two each day, not to mention the laundry and remembering to feed Ginger the cat. No problem…no problem at all. She redirected her attention to the waiting princess comb.

“Mama sings to me when she combs my hair.” Lizzie tugged at the hem of Chloe’s sleeve. “Will you sing to me, too?”

“Um…I don’t know what I have stashed in my repertoire, but I’ll do my best.” Chloe closed the distance between the bed and the dresser, snatching the comb as beads of water dripped from Lizzie’s hair to the carpet. Thank God spring had settled in, with temperatures warm and forgiving. They were running late for school, so Lizzie’s hair would have to air-dry on the way, with the windows down. That was blow-drying on the go, wasn’t it? Perfectly acceptable in this situation. “What would you like me to sing?”

“I don’t know what it’s called, but it sounds like this…” She pursed her lips and hummed a few off-key measures. “Do you know it, Aunt Chloe?”

“Sure. That sounds an awful lot like Amazing Grace.”

“That’s it!” Lizzie clapped her hands together. “Sing it for me, please.”

“I’ll give it a go.” Summoning the best tone she could muster, Chloe broke into song. She took her time, drawing out each note in a soulful timbre as Lizzie scampered over to the dresser. Chloe scooted onto the edge of the bed and drew Lizzie onto her lap as Ginger slinked across the floor before finding a place on the area rug to curl up. Their reflection in the mirror stood as a contrast—Lizzie with mischievous, bright blue eyes and curly wheat-blonde hair while Chloe’s jet-black hair, straight as an arrow that swept her shoulders in a blunt, sleek bob framed wide-set, deep-green eyes. Both, though, had dimples that winked as they smiled. Lizzie laughed and stuck out her tongue out at her reflection.

“You sing real pretty, Aunt Chloe. Are you gonna sing at church Sunday?”

Chloe paused mid-refrain to answer, “I love to sing at church. What about you?”

“Uh huh. Mama says singing at church is like your heart havin’ a talk with God. Is that true?”

“Your mama is absolutely right.” Sunlight streaming through the window warmed

Chloe’s cheeks. She gazed through the glass to the creek beyond. Water rippled and

shimmered like a million brilliant diamonds as it danced downstream.

“A little higher, Aunt Chloe,” Lizzie directed as Chloe swept into the second verse of the song. She turned her attention to the task at hand and carefully spritzed the detangler, then combed, spritzed some more and combed. “Yeah, like that. Keep singing. I like it.”

Lizzie liked her voice. OK, so Chloe wasn’t front and center on the American Idol stage, but Lizzie’s enthusiasm was something, at least. With renewed gusto, Chloe swept slick, damp locks into a band on one side of Lizzie’s head, and then the other, belting out the hymn with each stroke. Soon, two curlicues framed impish, dancing eyes and deep-dimpled cheeks.

“Good?” Chloe asked, feeling quite a bit proud of her handiwork. She had to admit, it wasn’t bad for a novice. The sweet scent of hyacinth that grew along the creek bed drifted. It’s subtle aroma evoked childhood memories of time spent playing in this very room—time with Pam…with friends. A wave of longing swept through…the desire for a simpler, more carefree time when summers were meant for wading in the creek and baking in the sun—not trapped within the confines of an office building with her eyes weary from the glare of a computer screen as she compared swatches of fabric and blended textures of paint to enhance room interior designs.

“They’re super-duper.” Lizzie’s voice brought Chloe back to the present. The child bobbed her head, her image dancing in the mirror. “Thanks, Auntie Chloe.”

“You’re very welcome.” Sure, sometimes the kid had the attitude of a six-year-old going on fifteen, but her smile could charm paint off the wall.

Speaking of paint, the room was a glowing testament to girly, frilly stuff, just as Pam had always dabbled in as they grew up. It was the first and only room thus far that Rick and Pam had done any work on. They both wanted Lizzie to feel at home in the farmhouse since they’d relocated to it a few months ago. Obviously, Lizzie was well on her way to following in her mother’s footsteps. Chloe, the youngest sister and resident tomboy of the family, had a hard time relating to the world of lace and taffeta. By contrast to her older sister, she felt more comfortable in faded jeans and a no-nonsense blouse, like the ensemble she’d donned following her morning shower. As a child, she’d preferred turning cartwheels along the front lawn to tea parties and playing with dolls.

Without warning, Lizzie interrupted Chloe’s singing as she broke into an onslaught of questions.

“Do you think Mama an’ Daddy is havin’ fun on their trip?”

“Are having fun, and yes.”

“When’re they comin’ back?”

“They just left here last night, so they’ll be gone two more weeks, sweetie, until the last Thursday of this month—April. See the calendar on your wall by the light switch? I marked the days for you.”

“I see it.” She glanced toward the wall calendar where Chloe had highlighted a sting of days with yellow marker. “Is two weeks a long time?”

“It depends on how you look at it.”

“When Mama comes home will you still stay here with us?”

“I’m not sure where I’m going to stay. It depends on a lot of things.” Pam and Rick had offered her the run of the house, but to Chloe that felt an awfully lot like sitting third wheel. Even so, she’d have to make a decision soon since the lease on her apartment was set to expire at the end of the month. With her job in transition, she seriously considered branching out on her own. Five years with the company had garnered the experience she’d need to successfully carve her own path in the interior design business. She’d certainly managed to squirrel away enough capital for any startup costs and if she took Pam and Rick up on their offer that would lighten the financial load, as well. Having more time with Pam, Rick and Lizzie also served as an incentive.

So much to consider…

“Depends on things?” Lizzie parroted as she craned her neck, turning back to gaze at Chloe. “Like what?”

“My job…it’s in transition.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It’s going through changes. I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

“But Mama said this used to be your house, too, back when Papa and Gran were alive. She said you grew up here, and that you used to share this bedroom with her.”

“It was and we did.” The thought of her parents brought a wave of sadness. Their loss tore a jagged rift in the fabric of her life. “I used to play with your mom in this very room. The walls were sunflower-yellow back then, like rays of sunshine.”

“I wish you’d stay here forever and ever, Aunt Chloe.” Lizzie leaned in to peck her on the cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, sweetie.” Chloe stroked Lizzie’s hair and cupped one pinked cheek in her palm. The skin was smooth, soft as a flower petal and sticky with syrup from a toaster-waffle.

“Is ten years a long time to be married?”

“I guess that depends on your perspective.”

“What does that mean?”

“For someone your age, ten years is forever. But for someone who’s eighty, it’s not so long.”

“Why aren’t you married, Aunt Chloe?”

The question startled Chloe and she struggled to find an answer appropriate to share with a five-year-old. She finally settled for, “It’s just not time yet.”

“When will it be time?”

“I don’t know. I imagine the time will be right when I meet a man I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

“Are you lookin’ for a man?”

“No.” Chloe laughed at the innocent yet pointed question. “Not particularly.”

“Then how’re ya gonna find him?”

“I suppose God will help me if I’m patient enough.”

“Is it hard to be patient?”

“Sometimes.” Chloe tweaked Lizzie’s nose and offered a smile. “But that’s not for you to worry about. Worrying is my job.”

“Mama says if you trust God there’s no point in worryin’, ’cause He will see you through.”

“How did your mama get so smart?”

“I dunno. Maybe Daddy helps her.”

“Maybe they help each other.”

“Yep.” Lizzie plodded to Ginger, settled on the floor beside the cat for a quick snuggle. She pressed her ear to Ginger’s snout and gave a listen.

“What’s she telling you, Lizzie?”

“Ginger asked if we can we have pizza for supper. She likes pizza…and ice cream.”

“Is that so?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well, it depends on whether or not you get all your toys up off the floor and into their bins lickity-split. Otherwise it’s spinach and Lima beans.” Chloe winked. “We’re already running late for school.”

“Oh, no. Ginger doesn’t like that at all.” Lizzie released the cat and hopped up, launching into a full-on assault of dolls and dress-up costumes strewn across the floor. Her pigtails bobbed as objects flew toward bins, finding their target with amazing accuracy. “Spinach ain’t so bad, but Lima beans are yucky.”

“Isn’t so bad, and ditto.” Chloe surveyed the room, pointed to a doll peeking from beneath the bed, and waited while Lizzie snatched it up and set it on a shelf.


“Pizza it is.” Chloe smiled and winked as Ginger, completely unaffected by the chaos, hopped onto the cushioned window seat and curled up in a sunbeam. “Boy, you had that done before I could count to twenty.”

“I can count to one hun’red. Wanna hear?”

“Sure, when we get in the car. For now, we’d better get going so we’re not late. I promised your mom I’d get you to school on time. And a builder’s supposed to come by later this morning to start on the gazebo your mommy and daddy ordered to be built as you’re a memory to your nana. She used to love to sit down by the huge Weeping Willow tree and read, so your mama and Daddy are going to have it placed there. We’ll break it in when they return from their trip.”

“Can I break it in, too? I like to read pic’cher books. Mama says I’m a good reader.”

“Yes, you are. And of course you can break in the gazebo with us. We’ll all take turns reading. It will be fun.”

“Daddy said there’s a surprise for me, too.”

“That’s right.”

“What is it, Aunt Chloe?”

“Now, if I told you that it wouldn’t be a surprise.”


“And the quicker you get going, the quicker the builder can get started. He’s on his way now with all the materials, but he can’t work on your surprise with you standing here.”

“We’d better get a move on, then.” Lizzie grabbed her lunch box and headed toward the door. “That’s what Daddy says when he’s in a hurry…better get a move on. Come on, Aunt Chloe. We got fish to fry.”

As she scampered to the car, Lizzie began to hum Jesus Loves Me. She buckled into her seatbelt before breaking into stereo-surround-sound song.


Connor sang along with the radio as he maneuvered the truck up the long, winding drive that led ’round back of the sprawling white farmhouse where his friends Rick and Pam now resided in wedded bliss.

OK, the first ten years had been bliss as they relocated from place to place, flipping the properties as they went along, and he prayed the next ten followed suit. He knew all too well the landmines complacency could bring, having watched his parents navigate the fields during his middle school years and stumble into divorce court the year he graduated high school. Now, his sister sailed the same route. These were not waters through which he planned to navigate…all the more reason to row a single-seat canoe for the time being. No hurry here.

He’d hated missing Rick and Pam, missed taking the time to shore up the details of their projects before they left, but his sister had needed him and another work order had taken longer than expected. Thankfully, though, both situations had eased from flash-fire to simmer and he’d returned in time to launch the projects he’d promised to have completed by the time Rick and Pam returned.

Fourteen days—no, thirteen now—were slated on the calendar. Materials for Rick and Pam’s daughter Lizzie’s playhouse were neatly stacked along the far side of the house, delivered just that morning. As for the gazebo, Connor had considered hauling all he’d need to complete that in one load, but a truck huge enough to haul the materials would wreak havoc with the soft earth that meandered toward the creek, especially with the onslaught of rain over the past week or so. Today promised to be the first day of full-blown sunshine in a string of days. So, instead, Connor had opted to use his extended cab pick-up and start with the basics today. If the weather held, he’d knock out the frame in the better part of a day. The rest would take a bit longer, considering the details Rick had requested. And then there was the second, smaller project to consider. Connor had a pretty good feel for Lizzie’s personality—she was a full-on power surge, spunk and innocent cheerfulness rolled into one—so he felt pretty good about starting in on that one. An interior designer was slated to put the finishing touches on his work when the skin-and-bones were completed, so there were no worries in that department. Even so, he always liked to have his finger on the pulse of the person he was building for. It was sort of like viewing the cover of a book before diving into the first chapter. The trio of projects would be no problem to finish if the weather held, and the fact that Rick and Pam were so highly concerned about the personality of each individual task made him think Rick and Pam were possibly considering making the farmhouse their permanent home.

That would be OK with him. The place held memories for him…bittersweet times spent through his teen years and then some. Working on the place was a coming home of sorts for him, as well.

The willow came into view as the truck rumbled over uneven ground, its majestic trunk swollen with rainwater and shielded by wispy arms that, kissed by a gentle breeze, swayed along the ground. The scent of hyacinth mingled with the woodsy aroma of leaves and sweet grass. Connor switched off the radio as he nestled the truck onto level ground, and then killed the engine with a sigh.

His ears rang for a moment as they adjusted to the sudden, profound quiet. He leaned back in the seat, taking a deep breath as he released the stress from a string of exceptionally difficult days. Sunlight warmed him through the windshield, chasing away tension that clamped the span of muscle between his shoulder blades like a vice. He drank it all in; the heat…the graceful ballet of willowy tree limbs…a sun-dappled lazy stream like a swarm of fireflies wearing diamonds…the—

“Excuse me. Hey, you there.” A tap on the driver-side window killed the calm and brought the tension knotting back. “I said, excuse me.”

Connor turned toward the voice. A pair of eyes came into view…an almond-shaped, vibrant green framed by a swath of sleek onyx hair that spilled across creamy skin. Sunlight spilled over her as she leaned in to tap the glass once more.

“Are you the builder Pam and Rick hired?” Her voice was muffled through the glass. “The guy who’s supposed to do the construction work around here?”

Connor shifted in the seat and tugged a ball cap down low
across his forehead before he popped open the door. “If I’m not, you’re in trouble.”

She crossed her arms and leaned one slim, jean-clad hip against the fender. “How so?”

Connor cleared the sudden dryness from his throat. “Do you always approach strangers so…forwardly?”

“Forwardly?” She laughed, and Connor suddenly felt ridiculous. He unfolded himself from the seat and faced her.

“Yes, forwardly—without regard to your safety.” His voice was a low growl.

“It’s hard to feel unsafe around a man who’s sprawled in the seat, sunning himself like a lazy cat.” She lifted her chin, and something about the glint in her eyes seemed vaguely familiar. “Do you always fall asleep on the job?”

“I wasn’t sleeping. I was…envisioning the project at hand.”

“Good one. Nice save.” She pushed off the fender and rounded the front of the truck to stand beside the driver’s door. Sunlight bathed her in a halo of gold that made her onyx hair shimmer as she continued. “Well, I hope you’re envisioning includes sticking to the schedule, because I’m responsible for seeing that the work gets done by the time my sister returns from their trip, and I don’t plan on letting her—or her husband—down.”

“Your sister? You’re Pam’s sister?”

“You’re a little slow on the uptake, but that is one-hundred percent correct. I’ll award a gold star for you this go-’round.” She offered him her hand. “I’m Chloe Chastain.”

“Chloe…the same Chloe who used to shimmy up trees here along the creek and hang like a monkey from the branches?”

“A monkey…?” She paused and took a step forward for a closer look at him. “I beg to differ.”

“You can beg all you want.”

“Wait just a minute—”

“No, thanks.” He cut her off as he unfolded himself from the truck and stood to face her. “I’m guessing you’re Pam’s kid sister, the one who broke my nose doing back flips when your foot sideswiped my face?”

“Oh my goodness, it is you...” She pressed a palm to her open mouth as recognition dawned. “You’re Connor…Connor Lawson?”

“Yep. One and the same.” Connor slammed the driver door as his lips bowed into a grin. “Who gets the gold star now?”

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