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"Tonight, gentlemen, we talk about sex."
Episcopal priest Tom Christen wasn't surprised when his opening statement brought immediate smiles to the faces of the adolescent males sitting before him.
Keegan Cooper's long legs stretched out from beneath the table as he crossed his arms over his chest. ''So, Father Tom, what was it you wanted to know?''
The resulting guffaws from Keegan's adolescent peers filled the corners of the meeting room in the old stone parish house of Cooper's Corner's historic church.
Tom had been waiting for just such a remark to this night's topic. A lot of inaccurate assumptions were made about a man who wore a white collar. And naivete about sex ranked right up at the top of the list, nor was he surprised that Keegan had been the one to express what all these boys were thinking. Keegan had lived in new York City before coming to this quiet village in the Berkshires, which was why he displayed a little more bravado than the rest.
But Keegan was a good kidthey all were. Tom knew he was lucky to be working with them.
''So, Keegan, got all that sex stuff figured out, do you?'' Tom said baiting him.
''We learned about it in school,'' Bryan Penrose called out. Bryan and Keegan were best buddies. If you challenged one of them, you'd better be ready to take on the other.
''Go on, Father.'' Bryan grinned. ''Ask us anything.''
''Okay,'' Tom said. ''When is it right to have sex?''
The room suddenly became very quiet as the boys looked everywhere but at Tom. He hid his smile. ''Looks like one or two things got left out of your sex education classes.''
''We know all about the biological part,'' Keegan said.
''Which is critical stuff,'' Tom admitted. ''But the emotional and social impact of sex is just as important.''
''That's because sex is a rite of passage,'' an older youth asserted. ''it's what separates the men from the boys.''
''I'd have to disagree with you there,'' Tom said. ''I've found that it's sense, not sex, that separates the men from the boys.''
''So what's the answer, Father?'' Bryan asked. ''When is it right to have sex?''
''That's what we're going to talk about tonight. How you make the right choice.''
''We get to decide?'' Keegan asked.
''You're the only one who can,'' Tom said. ''Your right to choose is the most powerful right you possess. And with every choice you make, you create who you are.''
''How do we know we're making the right choice?'' Keegan asked.
''Always ask yourself two questions. First, what is the consequence of your choice? And, second, what emotion is prompting you to select one choice over another?''
''But wanting sex is the emotion, right?'' another boy asked.
''Wanting sex is a natural urge, but choosing to have sex could be motivated by anything from selfishness to love,'' Tom replied. ''Be clear about which emotion is driving your choice. Which means, gentlemen, listen to your head, not those urges coming from between your legs.''
''Those urges can get pretty strong,'' one of the older boys in the back said.
''Yes, they can,'' Tom agreed. ''But choose to be stronger and you will be stronger.''
The back door buzzer echoed through the parish house. Tom wasn't expecting anyone. Still, the people in the village and surrounding farms knew he was always available to them. They often stopped by unannounced.
''You make it sound easy,'' the older boy commented, a clear note of complaint in his voice.
Tom made his way toward the door. Before opening it, he turned to face the boys.
''It's far from easy. None of the really valuable things in life come easy. But I believe you'll find they're worth your time and effort. Just remember. You can become men who control their urges or men whose urges control them. The choice is up to you.''
Letting his words hang in the air, Tom turned toward the back door and pulled it open, ready to greet the caller. But no one was there.
He peered into the pitch darkness outside. A car's headlights suddenly blinded him as it sped out of the parking lot, tires spewing gravel in its wake.
Tom sensed a sudden movement near his feet. He quickly stepped back and stared down at what lay on the doorstep.
''So, Father,'' Keegan began, ''sounds to me like a guy who chooses sex better be prepared for''
''a baby,'' Tom finished, with a long exhalation.
And the bundle at his feet began to cry.
Anne Vandree sighed in satisfaction as she sat back in the comfortable chintz-covered chair pulled close to the mahogany table at the Twin Oaks Bed and Breakfast. Not a scrap of sweet fresh fruit or fluffy scrambled eggs was left on her plate.
It had been two long years since she'd taken vacation from her job as an associate justice of the Berkshire Probate and Family Court. She really needed these next couple of weeks away from the emotional drain of divorces and deadbeat dads.
It felt great to know that she didn't have a long list of things waiting for her to do. She could just relax and let this peaceful Saturday unfold in the quiet, quaint village.
Tall and graceful, Maureen Cooper glided out of the kitchen carrying a fresh, steaming pot of coffee. She filled Anne's cup.
Anne frowned at the large blue-and-purple bruise on Maureen's exposed arm. ''Hey, what happened?'' she asked, pointing to the marks.
''Fell into an old well I was trying to board up,'' Maureen said. ''The bruise still hasn't faded.''
Anne shook her head. ''First you get buried beneath a bunch of logs. Now you're falling into old wells. And I thought you B and B owners lived such sedate lives.''
''Ah, the stories I could tell,'' Maureen said lightheartedly as she glanced around. ''Where's that nice couple from Canada?''
''They just left to explore the village,'' Anne said.
''Our only other guests this morning are on their honeymoon,'' Maureen told her. ''I served them breakfast in bed about thirty minutes ago.'' She paused to send Anne a wink. ''Doubt they'll be down anytime soon.''
Maureen slipped onto the chair across from Anne and poured herself a cup of coffee. Anne loved the informality of a B and B. It always felt more like staying at a friend's place than renting a room.
When Warren Cooper, Maureen's great uncle, died and left his 1875 farmhouse to Maureen and her brother, Clint, Anne had handled the probate. The lovely bed-and-breakfast the brother and sister team had created had fast become Anne's favorite. And the warmhearted Maureen had fast become a friend.
Anne raised her coffee cup to her lips, savoring the rich aroma of the homemade brew before taking a sip. It was superb, as always.
''Since Clint's in the kitchen watching the twins, we have time for some girl talk,'' Maureen said, a conspiratorial smile on her lips. ''Tell me, how are things going with that tax attorney?''
''Turns out he was sleeping with one of his married clients at the same time he was trying to get me into the sack.'' ''Oh, Anne. I'm so sorry.''
''Don't be. We only dated a couple of times. And I have a firm rule. No emotional involvement or sex until I'm sure a guy meets my criteria.''
''What criteria?'' Maureen asked curiously.
Anne ticked them off on her fingers. ''He has to be honest, open, have no other women in his life, no desire to get serious, some brains in his head and something that resembles a heart in his chest.''
''I think most women would agree with what you're looking for in a man,'' Maureen said, ''except that they'd want a serious relationship that included love.''
Anne shook her head as she set down her coffee cup. ''That love stuff and happily ever after nonsense is nothing but a fairy taleas the constant stream of divorces passing through my court proves to me every day.''
''You never think of getting married again?'' Maureen asked.
''Absolutely not,'' Anne assured her. ''The only place a woman can find a committed man these days is in a mental hospital.''
Maureen chuckled. ''So, how did you find out about the other woman in the tax attorney's life?''
''Her husband suspected something and hired a private investigator. The P.I. surreptitiously took pictures of the wife and tax attorney together. I got to see the eight-by-ten color photos when the divorce case came to my court.''
''Must've been a shock,'' Maureen said.
''I'll say,'' Anne agreed. ''When that tax attorney got naked, I found out he was short on a lot more than just ethics.''
Anne winked and Maureen burst out laughing.
Keegan Cooper charged into the dining room and made a beeline for the buffet. He sent a wave in Anne's direction. ''Hey, what's so funny?''
Maureen got herself under control as Anne answered, ''Oh, I was just sharing a teeny tiny tidbit from court life with your aunt.''
The ''teeny tiny tidbit'' remark had Maureen doubling over again.
Keegan looked questioningly at Anne. ''Sorry, this story's rated F, for female funny bone only,'' she explained.
Keegan grinned good-naturedly, turned back to the buffet and packed his plate. He was a handsome young man with the Cooper family's tallness genes.
At a petite five foot two, Anne was quite envious. Her short stature had been a sore point with her all her life. So many people associated being small with being childlike, and made the mistake of not taking her seriously.
It was a mistake she quickly corrected.
Anne had worked hard to earn her reputation for being tough. She was well aware that the Berkshire court clerks and bailiffs called her the ''bad-ass munchkin'' behind her back. As far as she was concerned, it was a compliment.
Maureen got her laughter under control and wiped her eyes with a tissue. ''And I thought you judges lived such sedate lives.''
''Ah, the stories I could tell,'' Anne said, repeating Maureen's earlier comment with a grin.
''If you guys want a good story, you should hear what happened last night at Father Tom's class,'' Keegan said as he hunkered down on the chair next to his aunt, his plate piled high with his dad's specialtywalnut griddle cakes.
''Well, why don't you tell us guys," Maureen said with an affectionate bump against her nephew's shoulder.
Keegan drenched his griddle cakes in maple syrup. ''Father Tom was talking to us about sex and stuff, and suddenly there it was. Just like that.''
''There was what?'' his aunt asked.
''A baby,'' Keegan said after he wolfed down a syrup-laden mouthful in one enormous gulp. ''Somebody dumped it on the doorstep.''
Anne's relaxed attitude vanished. She came forward in her chair. ''Who?''
Keegan shrugged. ''Whoever went squealing their tires out in the parking lot, I guess. The baby started screaming its head off, so Father Tom picked it up. That's when he found a note pinned to its blanket.''
''What did the note say?'' Anne asked.
''Father Tom didn't tell us.''
Anne reached into the shoulder bag hanging over the back of her chair and rooted around for her cell phone. ''I'd best call in to the trooper's station to find out what was in the note.''
''Hey, you're on vacation, remember?'' Maureen said from across the table.
''In my job there are no vacations from abandoned babies,'' Anne replied as she pulled the phone out of her bag.
''I doubt Father Tom called the state police,'' Keegan said, before Anne had a chance to punch in the number.
''Who else would he get to pick up the baby on a Friday night?'' Anne asked.
Keegan forked up more griddle cake. ''Don't think he got anybody. He's the kind of guy who likes to handle things himself.''
''Are you saying he still has the baby?'' Anne asked.
''He was trying to figure out how to change its diaper when we left,'' Keegan said, before shoveling the food into his mouth.
Anne stood up, swung the strap of her bag over her shoulder and headed for the door.
''Where are you going?'' Maureen asked.
''To see Father Tom Christen, of course,'' Anne called over her shoulder. She paused at the door, turned around and faced Maureen and Keegan. ''I've no doubt he means well, but the law is the law. I'd best remind him of that unofficially before he gets officially into trouble.''
Anne waved, turned and walked out.
Maureen stared at the empty doorway, her fingers tapping on her coffee cup. ''Maybe you shouldn't have said anything, Keegan.''
''I'm sure Father Tom is doing what's right,'' Keegan said as he picked up a big glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. ''He always does.''
''Oh, I'm not worried about Father Tom.''
''You're worried about Anne?'' Keegan asked, his voice rising in surprise.
Maureen smiled. ''Last fall I made a passing remark to Tom Christen that a couple of the cushions on the church pews were frayed. Before I knew what hit me, he had me recovering all of them. And I still don't know how he did it. The man's not a force to be taken lightly.''
''But Anne's a judge. He's not going to have her sewing cushions.''
''Maybe not,'' Maureen said. ''But if she's not careful around our Father Tom, she might just discover that her vacation has come to an abrupt end.''
Anne pulled her silver Camry into the parking lot of the Church of the Good Shepherd. It was a beautiful April morning, sunny and unseasonably warm. She could have walked the relatively short distance from the B and B, but accustomed to taking care of business in the most expeditious manner as she was, it just hadn't occurred to her.
The historic Episcopal church was constructed of white clapboard and featured a tall steeple with a graceful spire. The original building had been erected in the 1880s and a rectory and parish house were added a few decades later. Altogether, the weather-worn structures emitted a serenity perfectly in keeping with the sleepy village.
A woodchuck scampered into a hidden burrow under the old stone wall as Anne approached the church's thick, carved wooden door. She tried the bell.
A couple of minutes passed, but there was no answer. Someone had to be around. She could swear the sound of drumbeats was coming from nearby. She decided to check the back.
With every step Anne took, the drumbeats grew louder. By the time she rounded the far corner of the church, it wasn't hard to locate the boom box perched on the rectory porch. Or the man marching in time to the drumbeats as he pushed a lime spreader over the newly turned, acidic New England soil.
Anne had first seen Father Thomas Christen one Sunday a few weeks back, when she'd attended service at the church with Maureen. She'd heard that the priest who'd come to Cooper's Corner the year before was a man of unusual contrasts, but nothing had prepared her for meeting him.
Tom Christen had a strong chin and cheekbones, ready complements to his light-bronze skin. But he had hair like thick, warm sunshine and eyes as blue as a summer sky. And when he talked about living a good life, he had quoted not just the Bible, but Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau.
Anne would never forget how the deep richness of his voice carried to every corner of the old church. Or how he had smiled when his eyes had looked into hers. Or how that smile had made her acutely aware of every red-blooded corpuscle beating through her body.
Tom Christen was definitely not your average Episcopal priest.
Anne had left before the services were over, despite Maureen's urging that she stay and meet the eligible Father Tom. Anne knew better than to shake hands with that much temptation.
Episcopal priests only had serious relationships, and that was the last thing she wanted.
She didn't think Tom could possibly look any sexier than he had that Sunday in his formal black suit with white collar. But now, as she looked at his bare back retreating from her, she knew she had been wrong.