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The Man Was No Stranger
When Hope Petersen looks up to see Sinclair Marsh standing in her office doorway, it brings back bittersweet memories. She can't forgive him for the terrible accident that changed both their lives. Now that her girlhood crush is the new pastor of the church she runs, Hope is forced to work with him—and her old feelings resurface. Sinclair seems determined to show her and their Michigan hometown that their minister is a changed man. Is Hope ready to move ...
The Man Was No Stranger
When Hope Petersen looks up to see Sinclair Marsh standing in her office doorway, it brings back bittersweet memories. She can't forgive him for the terrible accident that changed both their lives. Now that her girlhood crush is the new pastor of the church she runs, Hope is forced to work with him—and her old feelings resurface. Sinclair seems determined to show her and their Michigan hometown that their minister is a changed man. Is Hope ready to move beyond the past and risk her future on the man she never stopped loving?
Mondays were Hope Petersen's favorite day. They were quiet days. Mondays helped her forget Sundays, where the family dinner table reminded her of the one person no longer there.
Hope stopped typing to stare out the window of her small office in the lower level of Three Corner Community Church. It'd been almost three years since Sara had died, and she could hear her sister's voice telling her to get over it already. To move on. Stop trying to fix Mom and Dad and get a boyfriend.
"Fat chance," Hope muttered.
Working in a small church consumed her time and kept her anchored to the northern Michigan farm community where she'd grown up. It wasn't easy meeting the right kind of guy.
Hope turned her focus back to updating the church website with the previous Sunday's sermon. Delivered by an elder on the board who was filling in until they hired a permanent minister, the notes were pretty short. And dull, from the looks of them. She was glad she'd missed it.
She knew that deep voice despite not having heard it in years. Hating the shiver that raced through her, Hope balled her hands into fists and looked up.
Sinclair Marsh stood in the doorway of the office, waiting for her response. His mouth lifted into the boyishly crooked smile she remembered well. That smile had always landed him whatever he wanted. That same smile had enticed Sara to follow his reckless, Pied Piper path to her death.
He'd aged. Could be the dark-rimmed glasses he now wore, which made his hazel eyes look like they'd seen too much. It didn't matter. His simple words of greeting turned her inside out.
"What are you doing here?" Hope's thick voice came out in a rough whisper.
"You don't know?"
"Know what?" Her voice grew stronger even though her throat threatened to close up. The church board had been interviewing for months. Surely they hadn't made their decision while she was gone.
"I'm the new pastor."
Hope clenched her teeth to keep from saying something she shouldn't. Too many descriptions came to mind when she thought of Sin Marsh, and pastor wasn't one of them.
He shifted his stance to make room for Judy Graves. Judy was an elder and longtime member of the church board. The backbone of the church, Judy was their financial guru as well as head of the volunteer program. And Judy happened to be best friends with Hope's mom.
Hope looked toward Judy. She wanted answers. "I thought you were going with someone named Smythe."
"I'm plan B." Sinclair stepped forward as if reminding her of his presence.
As if she'd forget. Why hadn't they told her?
Judy stared her down, sending strong messages of her own. "I'm giving Pastor Sinclair the tour. He'll need to see the year-to-date financials, as well as go over day-today stuff. I'm going to show him his office so he can get settled in, but I'll be back."
With a gaping mouth, Hope watched the two of them leave. Well, her Monday was officially shot! Thoughts spinning, she gulped for air, but the June breeze coming in through the open window wasn't enough. Suffocation was eminent if she didn't hightail her way out of there.
Grabbing her purse, Hope headed for her car. She tossed her purse on the passenger seat but didn't climb in. The wind ruffled her short hair and swirled the folds of her long gauzy skirt against her legs.
Of all the men they could have hired, why Sinclair Marsh? Since when had he come home?
She stared at the ripe hayfields across the road until her vision blurred with memories. Not quite three years ago, her dad's hayfield had needed its final cut. Hope could smell the sweetness of freshly cut hay—could almost taste the dust kicked up from the tractor. Sara's laughter rolled through her memory, too. Sara had been so full of laughter.
Hope was supposed to help her sister with that cut, but she'd gone shopping instead for her planned trip to Spain. Hope had landed a job with a worldwide missions organization and could hardly wait to leave.
Besides, Ryan Marsh was Sara's fiance and he and Sinclair had come over to lend a hand. Like always, they'd goofed around. Only this time, their antics had ended with Sara dead—crushed under the tractor after it had flipped. Sinclair had mowed a patch of grass into the letter S on the side of a hill, and he'd dared Sara to do the same .
Hope heard footsteps on the tarmac, but she didn't turn around. If it was Sinclair, she might just let him have it.
"You okay?" Judy touched her shoulder.
She flinched. "I can't work here."
"I had a feeling you might react this way."
Hope whirled around and slammed her car door. "But you hired him anyway!"
"It wasn't my decision alone. We interviewed him last week, and the board unanimously approved Sinclair after Reverend Smythe took a position downstate."
Hope reveled in the satisfaction that for once, Sinclair had come in second place. But the smug feeling was shortlived. "Why didn't you call me?"
"You were on vacation. I love your new hairstyle, by the way."
Hope shrugged off the compliment. She would have liked to have known about Sinclair. She'd have had time to prepare instead of seeing him out of the blue like this.
Even though she'd grown up with Sinclair and they'd hung around like pals, Hope had never felt comfortable around guys. Growing up with a mouth full of braces and a chest a tad too big made her want to hide. And hide she did—under clothes, hair even her eyeglasses gave her a sense of protection.
Not anymore. She'd long since gotten rid of the baggy clothes and glasses, and thanks to the prodding of a girlfriend from college, Hope had finally cut her mop of hair. The two of them had spent last week in Toronto shopping and taking in shows.
Hope shifted her stance, wishing she could find a way to hide again. "I'm not going back in there. You're going to have to find somebody else."
Judy's eyes narrowed. "What about the school?"
For years the church had raised money to build an addition for a couple of real classrooms. The extra space would accommodate Sunday school classes and enable them to start a small preschool during the week. Hope also wanted to include a summer program. Too many single moms in the church had too few options during the summer months.
Hope had a dual degree in early education and Spanish. She'd been dreaming about running the educational interests of the church for as long as she could remember. As part of the building project committee, she'd researched state licensing requirements, commercial financing and local builders. The church had been poised to accept bids for construction once the pledges were paid. And then their previous minister had retired early due to health concerns and moved away.
Interim pastors and a wavering church body had stalled the plan. They needed the right man leading the charge to get the project back on track. Sinclair Marsh could not be that man.
"Without you, that school doesn't stand a chance."
Hope lifted her chin. "The groundwork's all there."
Judy scanned the surrounding fields before focusing back on her. "Sinclair has a new idea that's less costly. Some of the board members like it. A lot."
"What kind of new idea?" Hope could only imagine the irresponsible suggestions Sinclair might have.
"A youth center, Hope. He'd like to propose a place for teens to hang out and stay away from trouble."
"Out here?" Hope sputtered. Had they been in town, she could see the need for something like that. But they were a few miles out. Fruit farms dotted the hills and valleys between older homes, and new subdivisions had been halted because of the downturn in the economy. "That's a stupid idea."
"Well, it's an idea that struck a chord with the board, especially Chuck. We need you here, Hope. I need you."
She looked into Judy's earnest gaze, knowing she was sunk. Hope had promised her friend Dorrie that she'd never give up on the preschool, and yet here she was, ready to quit. All because of Sinclair Marsh.
Swallowing hard, Hope thought about another issue.
"What about Mom and Dad?"
"I believe with all my heart that God wants Sinclair to lead our church. I can't say I know why, but it feels right. Maybe in time we'll figure that out, but right now I pray your parents will give him a chance. I want you to do that, too."
"I can't." Her eyes blurred again. "Not after what happened."
Judy pulled her into a warm embrace. "No matter the influence, your sister was an adult who made her own choice to do something foolish. I know you miss her, Hope, but harboring unforgiveness toward Sinclair isn't good for you. It isn't good for anyone."
She shook her head against Judy's strong shoulder. As far as Hope was concerned, Sinclair was the reason she no longer had a sister.
"You've got to let it go."
Hope pulled out of the older woman's embrace. "How? There isn't a day that goes by that feels right. Dad misses Sara. I can see it in his eyes. It's like I'm left with clouds and can't make the sun shine again."
"It's not up to you to make the sun shine for them. They have to find that sunshine on their own." Judy squeezed her shoulder. "You think about that school. You have a calling for it. Can you really walk away?"
Hope sucked in her bottom lip. Judy knew the right buttons to push. God could work it all out, but what if quitting messed up His plan?
A youth center? Hope had talked Sinclair out of his set course several times when they were kids. Could she do it again?
Judy gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Come back when you're ready."
Hope watched her mother's lifelong friend walk away, knowing Judy was right. If she quit now, what chance did Hope have for getting the preschool project back on track? It'd fizzle and die—another dream gone.
An image of the completed addition blazed through her mind. Dorrie and her two girls were part of that image. They needed supervision over the summer break. Lots of kids did. Hope knew the community and its needs. Unfortunately, so did Sinclair. After all, he was a local boy returned home.
Tipping her head back with a groan, Hope stared at the blue sky above. Like it or not, people depended on her and she needed to get back to work.
Sinclair took in the small space of his barren office. He had a desk, a couple chairs and a bookshelf. He could easily see Hope's empty desk from his. The church offices had been situated along the side of the basement opposite the kitchen and an open area used for Sunday school and probably fellowship dinners. He had a nice-sized window with a view of hayfields, and beyond the parking lot, cherry orchards covered the hills and more fields.
He spotted Hope pacing. She'd changed since the last time he'd seen her. A family member's death did that to a person on some level, but he also detected a confidence in her that he didn't remember. Her outward appearance was different, too—so different, it had taken him a couple minutes to recognize her.
Hope had slimmed down, losing her college freshman fifteen and then some. With her bushy long hair cut into a short cap of dusky waves, she looked good. Maybe too good. And they'd be working together.
He'd searched online for ministry positions in northern Michigan for months. There were three churches in his hometown of LeNaro, but the only pastoral staff opening had been here—a community church three miles north of town and smack in the middle of cherry farm country.
He should have known that Hope might still work in this office. She'd worked here through college, but she'd been planning to go to Spain the summer he'd left. He never thought to ask about her during his interview.
He stepped away from the window. Knowing Hope ran the office wouldn't have made a lick of difference in his decision. He'd come home to make amends for his past. If he faced an uphill battle, it was no less than he deserved.
His brother Ryan barely spoke to him, and Hope still blamed him for Sara's death. He could see it in her eyes. Her pretty gray eyes that were no longer hidden behind Coke-bottle glasses.
Judy stuck her head into his office. "You okay?"
He nodded, even though it felt like he'd been hit in the gut by a ground ball that had taken a bad hop. "I take it Jim and Teresa Petersen attend here, as well. Maybe I should call and let them know."
It was his first position as a pastor, and he'd walked into a personal beehive. He could take getting stung, but for how long?
"I'll talk to them tonight and let you know how it goes." Judy's eyes softened.
Three years ago, Judy Graves had encouraged him to work through Sara's accident by sticking around to face his part in it. Judy had been firmly in his corner during the short police investigation. It looked like she was still there.
"You're here for a reason, Sinclair. Don't forget that."
"It's why I came home."
Judy gave him a thatta-boy nod and left.
Sinclair glanced back at the window, where sunlight streamed into the room. He stood and opened it, letting in a cool breeze despite the uncommonly hot weather for mid-June in northern Michigan. He'd never grown accustomed to the oppressive heat he'd experienced in the years he spent in Haiti, but he'd managed. He'd worked through it. He'd do the same with Hope, if she'd let him.
Hope wiped her face with fast-food napkins that she had stashed in her car's glove compartment before stepping out of her Jetta. After a therapeutic cry and some soft music, she felt halfway ready to go back to work.
She spotted Sinclair reaching into an ancient candy-apple-red Camaro. He still drove that target for speeding tickets. He hadn't changed.
"Nice image for a minister."
He whirled around and smiled. "What?"
It was a cruel joke that a guy nicknamed Sin had such a tempting smile. She'd always called him by his full name. Not only did she like it better, but she believed using his full name shielded her from the temptation to follow his antics into trouble.
Sometimes it had worked. Sometimes it hadn't.
She pointed at his vehicle. "That car."
His smile only grew wider. "I'm not about an image."
Hope gave a snort and lifted one eyebrow.
Who was he trying to kid? He reeked with the same reckless charm he'd always had. All show and no substance, like the ridiculously fast car he'd driven since high school.
"That car will do you no good come winter, you know."
Hope sounded like somebody's mother. No, worse, someone's grandmother.
Sinclair's smile widened. "I know. I'll figure it out."
He was good at doing that. He constantly lived with a no worries now, figure it out later mentality. She remembered a youth rally they'd attended, and Sinclair had confided in her that he'd been called to the ministry. He'd bragged to her that he'd pastor a church someday, but she'd laughed at the idea. Hope hadn't believed he'd follow through. Yet here he was, her new pastor.
He walked toward her. "I'm worried you might quit."
"Why?" Hope enjoyed watching him squirm for an answer.
Then he looked at her with intense eyes and said, "Because I need you."
How many years had she dreamed of hearing those words come from him? Hope swallowed hard and looked away. Sinclair Marsh never needed anyone.
"That bothers you." His voice was laced with empathy.
"You bother me." Hope didn't want his understanding. She didn't want anything from him anymore.
"I'm sorry to hear that." His voice softened.
Was that regret she read in his eyes? She quickly looked away again. "How 'bout you do your job, and I'll do mine."
"Our jobs cross. We're going to end up in the middle of that intersection quite a bit. What then?"
He made a good point. How in the world were they going to go about their day-to-day duties without crashing into each other? "We'll just have to deal with it."
His gaze softened further. "Hope—"
She held her hand up to stop him from talking about Sara. "Don't go there."
"We have to. Eventually."
"Maybe, but not today." Hope turned and headed for the church office.
Posted August 28, 2013