Read an Excerpt
You marry a man, not an occupation." Lakeisha Wilson made her point, loud and clear.
But it wasn't as if Julia Evans hadn't already considered every angle of her Great Scheme. It was simply a matter of helping her dear friend grasp the concept.
"He is a man," Julia reasoned aloud, though softly. She didn't want Thomas and Evy Martin, sitting across the round table from them, to overhear the private conversation. Goodness knows she didn't want her exceptional ideas exposed to the eyes of the whole waiting world.
It was enough that Lakeisha was going to give her a hard time about it. And if her dear friend of twenty-four years didn't understand, no one would. It was a wretched way to begin.
Smothering a half smile, she coolly shifted her gaze to the subject in questionthe Object of her Affection.
Well, not affection, precisely, but be that as it may
Father Bryan Cummings.
Tall, dark and handsome.
More to the point, ordained to the ministry and headed for a great career in evangelism, maybe even internationally.
He didn't know it yet, but she'd chosen him for a very special project.
Sunshine glistened off his straight, dark hair, and his smile was perfect and white. Practiced, even.
He'd told her once that image was everything. If he smiled to himself in the mirror to get it just right, no one was the wiser. And Julia would never tell.
Father Bryan was surrounded by a raucous group of young men dressed in everything from khakis and polo shirts to little more than patchy fluorescent swimming trunks and bare feet.
Though he stood on the opposite side of the swimming pool from where Julia sat sipping her iced tea, she could tell he was in the middle of a heated theological discussion with his friends.
In Julia's experience with him, Bryan didn't speak about much else besides the tenants of the faith. His idea of polite conversation was debating the merits and nuances of each of the five points of Calvinism. With Scriptural proofs.
That, Julia supposed, was part of the allure. She glanced back to Lakeisha and chuckled at the stunned look on her childhood friend's face. Lakeisha had obviously followed the direction of Julia's gaze, and followed her thoughts, as well.
"I take it you don't approve of my Great Scheme."
Lakeisha snorted. "That's the understatement of the year."
Even as she shook her head disparagingly at Julia, Lakeisha smiled pleasantly at a couple of working associates who'd stopped to say hello. Julia recognized the women as being from the accounting office at HeartBeat, and cheerfully pointed them in the direction of the iced tea and cookies.
As she looked around, she realized nearly every employee of the HeartBeat Crisis Pregnancy Center was here for this Labor Day gathering at the Martins' home. The sun shone brightly, which, with the fickle Colorado weather, was a blessing in itself.
People crowded around the pool, though no one was swimming. Julia had never quite become accustomed to the city version of a pool party. In the eastern Colorado country town where she was from, a pool party meant everyone went swimming. People brought along their inner tubes and blow-up balls. Old and young alike played water volleyball and Marco Polo.
Here, people came to a pool party to schmooze, not swim. They brought their business cards, not their beach towels. It was a different world.
She leaned back in her chair and smiled. She'd dreamed of this world all her life. A challenging ministry in a fast-paced atmosphere. Those around her were her colleagues in ministry.
The word alone made her shiver in delight. She didn't know many names of people here, having only been with HeartBeat for a few months, but a lot of the faces were familiar. Many volunteered their time to the center. Others, like Julia, worked full-time for the crisis center.
There was Mr. Movie in his fancy sunglasses, who worked on the camera side of the video department where they developed audiovisual materials for and about the center; Merry Maid, the administrative assistant who always picked up after everyone else in the office. In the far corner was her boss, Sarah Straight-Arrow, the artistic perfectionist, speaking to Little Miss Muffet, a counselor ever on a persistent insect-killing mission at the center. Julia's toes curled at the very thought of spiders.
Lakeisha probably knew all the names and backgrounds that went with all these faces, instead of the safe but not very effective stereotypes Julia tended to slap on people.
"I'm not finished with you, girlfriend," Lakeisha said, interrupting her thoughts. "Because I'm not getting the point of your little plan at all." She waved one hand and slammed the other down on the glass tabletop. "You've gone completely out of your mind, girl, and I'm not following."
"Who's gone crazy around here?" Thomas Martin asked with a laugh as he turned around to face them.
"Me," Evy Martin groaned, rubbing a gentle hand over her burgeoning pregnancy. "Or at least I will be crazy, if this kid doesn't stop using my ribs as monkey bars."
Julia laughed. "Do you feel him move a lot?"
Evy pointed to one spot on her rib. "This bump right here is his heel. He likes to kick the same spot over and over."
Julia ran her hand over her own trim abdomen. She couldn't even imagine how it felt to be kicked from the inside, to have the blessing of a little life inside her.
"It's a boy?"
Evy shook her head and laughed. "Oh, no. We don't know yet. We want it to be a surprise. But we decided early on that it or he or she wasn't working for us. We settled on the generic form of he when we speak about our baby."
She smiled softly at Evy. Someday, maybe, she'd be ready for a baby of her own. At the moment, she was still working on the marriage part of the equation. And that required the ungender-neutral form of a he.
"Let's walk," Thomas suggested, holding out his hand to Evy.
Evy flashed her husband a grateful look, then turned to explain to Julia and Lakeisha. "Sometimes it helps to walk out my cramps. And the rocking motion of walking puts this little fellow to sleep." She patted her stomach once again.
Thomas hovered over her, leaning into her ear to whisper something that made Evy laugh.
Thomas took such good care of Evy, and there was no doubt she and their baby were the center of his world. Deep down, Julia had to admit to being a little jealous of such a close, loving relationship.
"You'll never have that kind of commitment if you keep pushing this Great Scheme of yours," Lakeisha commented wryly, as if reading Julia's mind.
Julia bristled. "It's not like I'm picking a name out of a telephone book, or putting my face on a billboard to advertise my dilemma."
"Oh, no, of course not. Your system is sooo much better. Excuse me, sir. May I see your resume? You've had how much education? Years of experience in ministry?" Lakeisha's high, squeaky tone suggested her cynicism.
Julia laughed. "It isn't as coldhearted as all that. I simply feel that I'm ready to move to the next level, you know? I'm twenty-eight years old, and I don't even feel like a grown-up."
Lakeisha laughed. "And that's bad?"
"Depends on your perspective, I guess. Right now, marrying a decent, godly, professional man is a critical part of my impending equation. What in the world is wrong with that?"
As soon as the question was out, Julia regretted asking. It was like inviting a politician to share her views on the economy.
"Impending equation?" Right on cue, her friend grinned like the Cheshire cat and raised her eyebrows so high they were lost underneath her wiry black bangs. "Okay, first of all, what is wrong with this little scenario of yours is that you can't just choose a man at randomby whatever meansand then expect him to agree to meet you at the altar."
Lakeisha had a point, Julia acknowledged. But that wasn't an insurmountable difficulty. She'd simply get to know Bryan a little better. He'd notice her, and.problem solved.
Okay, a lot better. But it could be done. She could show what a great partner in ministry she would be. She'd just do something to get him to notice her, and that would be that. Wouldn't it?
"You think just because you made a unilateral decision that Bryan meets your marital requirements, that he is going to ask you to marry him?"
"Not right away, of course, but"
"What about sparks and fireworks, Julia? Don't you want to fall in love?"
Julia shrugged. Sparks and fireworks were highly overrated commodities, in her mind. She could live without them, and good riddance.
"Look around you, girlfriend. Right here in this backyard. This place is swarming with young, eligible, handsome Christian men. Bulging biceps and bulging portfolios, my dear."
She gestured toward the jostling group of men surrounding Bryan. "So why settle for Father Bryan? You've been working with the man on a regular basis for months, and I've never heard you say a single word about being attracted to him, or that something was developing between the two of you."
"That's just it, Lakeisha," Julia argued, wishing she could easily explain what she held deep in her heart. It was crystal clear in her mind, but she knew how shallow and stupid it sounded when she talked about it out loud. "The thing is, I'm not attracted to Father Bryan. At least not in the way you mean."
"Then why in the world would you.?"
"Marry him? Because he's a man with a future. Bryan knows exactly where he's going and how he's going to get there."
Lakeisha took a deep swig of her iced tea before answering. "Charisma? Under normal circumstances, I would expect you to be telling me how handsome he is. How kind and generous. How he makes your heart flip over when he looks at you."
"What, and major on the trivial?"
"Trivial?" Lakeisha gave her a long, pointed look, then shook her head as if conceding. Or more accurately, giving up on her hopeless roommate.
"I'm not like you, Lakeisha," Julia said softly, a catch in her voice. "I'm not a romantic. I just want stability, security and ministry."
"Hogwash!" Lakeisha exclaimed. "Not a romantic? What if there's someone special out there you've yet to meet, someone God made just for you? What if you're too busy with your own plans to see God's plan?"
Julia raised an eyebrow. "Oh, right. Mr. Perfect, stamped Made for Julia Marie Evans. Bring him on, Lakeisha."
"Well " Lakeisha paused just as a large shadow passed over them. Seeing the source of the shadow, she grinned impishly. "How about Zeke Taylor?"
"Paul Bunyan?" Julia spouted a laugh that she quickly covered with her palm. "I always picture that man in the company of a big, snorting blue ox."
"Well, I do."
Zeke Taylor was a local carpenter who volunteered his time to the shelter. Well over six feet tall, he was blond, bearded and always wore flannel shirts and steel-toed boots. A lumberjack wasn't such a big stretch.
"Zeke!" Lakeisha called, to Julia's immediate distress.
The big man turned and strode back to where they sat, then crouched beside them with a smile. Julia had to admit he had the biggest, bluest eyes she'd ever seen.
His kind, friendly gaze looked directly at her, and she felt as if he were really seeing her, not merely giving her a polite perusal. She swallowed dryly and struggled to erase the imprint of his smile in her mind.
"What can I do for you ladies?" His voice was the low, rich bass she expected it to be. Julia had the uncomfortable notion the question was directed at her. He was looking at her, even though Lakeisha had been the one to call him over.
"Julia and I have just been discussing true love," Lakeisha began, despite Julia's stricken look in her direction. "We were wondering your opinion on the topic."
Zeke laughed, and she was struck again by how genuinely friendly he appeared. "That's an awfully big topic."
Julia just barely restrained herself from saying that he was an awfully big man. But Lakeisha clearly captured her train of thought, and they shared an amused, meaning-filled glance.